Opinion

Magee: For Schools, the Hardest Part of Establishing Higher Standards Is Over

By Mike Magee | September 8, 2016

For the better part of a decade, America’s schools have been immersed in a process of change that’s been stressful, exhausting – and essential. As students and educators now begin yet another school year, after what has felt to many like a wave of changes that have had profound impact on the classroom, they can take satisfaction and relief in the knowledge that the hard part is over.

Lifting standards was the result of a recognition – on the part of educators and policy makers, particularly state education chiefs and governors – that given the state of our education systems, our kids weren’t positioned for the lives they wanted in the years ahead and our nation wasn’t positioned to lead the world economy. The world, and the workplace, had changed, and our schools had to follow suit. 

In our fundamental responsibility as adults – to set our kids on a path to a secure life – we had to do better. And that’s precisely what we’ve done.

What’s different now? So much: Renewed expectations for what students should learn; the belief that a child in Jackson, Mississippi, should be asked to learn just as much as a child in Westchester County, New York; and the understanding that there’s not much out there for students who don’t get a degree or credential after high school.

Now more than ever, K-12 education has to actually prepare kids for the world of post-secondary education and meaningful careers.

It hasn’t been easy.

The discussion over higher learning standards became hotly political. The question of how to assess whether students had learned those ideas and skills became even hotter, amid concerns about the quantity and nature of testing and test prep — which touched on questions of when and how it made sense to tie the evaluation of teachers to students’ progress. At one point, the U.S. president himself made a Facebook video talking about his plan to dial back unnecessary testing – surely a first for the nation’s chief executive.

The people who bore the stress of that change most heavily were teachers and principals, who, in many places, received only a pale shade of the training and support they deserved and needed. Many felt blamed for the system’s shortfalls. In too many cases students and families felt the strain of change without the immediate benefit of school improvement.

In the midst of these massive shifts came the largest change of all: years after its expiration date had passed, Congress took action to do away with the nation’s broadest, and least liked, education law – the No Child Left Behind Act. Congress replaced it with a law that is more open to local innovation and creativity but that, for the first time, enshrines high learning standards as a national priority. To paraphrase former Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the old law offered lots of ways to fail, and few to succeed. The new law does the reverse – while still placing a premium on the expectation of learning for students of all backgrounds and races, an essential civil rights priority.

This is not to suggest that schools don’t need to continue changing and adapting — clearly they do, and state and district leaders have vital roles to play in that process. As one key example, opportunities have never been stronger to find new ways to help personalize learning to the needs of individual students. But the good news is that some big, hard building blocks are now in place. The work of retooling our system for the modern age is only beginning.

And none of this is to say that teaching will be easy now. Teaching and leading schools will remain the enormously inspiring, gratifying and difficult work it has always been. The impact of broader societal ills — including the increasing segregation of our communities, inequities in health care, criminal justice and economic opportunity — will continue to be felt in our classrooms. Learning standards are only one part of that work; teachers know their challenge is to reach the entire child, with all of her individual needs and possibilities.

But a period of extraordinary change has now come to a close, and our schools are better for it. Surveys show teachers gain ever greater enthusiasm for the new higher standards as they master them more deeply – which makes sense, because these new standards create much more room for creativity and critical thinking. And the same factors that will add appeal to teaching will continue to make it more rewarding to lead not just schools but also state and city school systems.

Indeed, there’s a growing recognition throughout this country of the extraordinary leadership potential of our educators – which I believe will redefine the job in wonderful ways in the coming years.

This is a great year to become a teacher.

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