Overcoming the Assessment Culture to Achieve Real Education Reform

Overcoming the Assessment Culture to Achieve Real Education Reform

Overcoming the Assessment Culture to Achieve Real Education Reform

By: Dr. Richard Elmore
Generation Ready Advisory Board Member; Gregory R. Anrig Professor of Educational Leadership, Administration, Planning and Social Policy, Harvard Graduate School of Education

March 3, 2014

Professional development for educators is a fundamental key to large-scale improvement of learning for children. Yet building the capacity of adults charged with preparing students for the future is the weakest part of our nation’s reform strategy.

This is not because we don’t know what to do. We understand that professional development must be sustained over time. We know it must be structured and focused, and include direct observation and support in the classroom. We know that teachers and school leaders must understand the importance of children’s cognitive and emotional development and embrace it with a sense of urgency.

Our nation’s record in professional development isn’t weak because we don’t have the knowledge or the tools to do it right. It’s weak because it is difficult to do and because policymakers tend to gravitate toward what is easier. Professional development is an investment of dollars and time. And, it often demands profound culture change.

Culture change is particularly difficult in an environment with schools that have been redesigned around assessments, which measure school performance. And we have not figured out how to make this accountability system support the development of human beings. I would argue that this assessment culture is the single biggest challenge facing professional development and school improvement.

If you visit most American schools today, you’ll observe instructional practices that are not designed to develop students’ competencies and engagement in learning, but to teach simple recall tasks that can be transferred to test scores. Most schools know they are stuck in this territory and don’t like it. They know they can get students to a certain level of performance by doing these things; however, they know these are not the right things.

We can begin to move away from this accountability environment by placing professional development experts in the classroom who are knowledgeable about instruction, who understand and are inquisitive about how students think, and who will work with teachers as learning partners. However, even that will not work if we fail to embrace a true learning culture.

Instead of fixing teachers, we need to release the energy that’s already in the classroom and put strong resources in place that support teachers. These added resources will enable them to make the necessary shifts — shifts that challenge students to struggle for, and ultimately find, meaningful answers to real problems.

If I could make one wish, it would be to create a generation of teachers who walk into the classroom every morning expecting to be surprised by what kids can do. This is not the job of professional development alone, but also our schools of education.

Can we make these cultural shifts? In working with more than 300 schools that have made a commitment to professional development, I know it can be done.

The role of national, state and local policymakers must be to ensure that every struggling school, and every struggling teacher, has the same opportunity.