This week is American Education Week, a 93-year-old observance of what is working in American education. The week focuses on the hard work and commitment of students, educators, and families making up the learning community.
“American Education Week serves as a tribute to the team of people who work with our students – everyone from the classroom teacher and the bus driver to the cafeteria worker and the administration staff — plus countless others,” said National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García. “We honor and thank them for the work they do every day to make sure that our students are safe and ready and able to learn.”
After stops in Nashville, Tenn., and Salt Lake City, Utah, Eskelsen García brought her wave of enthusiasm to San Antonio to celebrate innovation. They spent the day at Southwest Elementary school among bilingual kindergarten programs, trumpet-playing English teachers, and even a school layout designed to get kids thinking long-term. The windows of elementary school classrooms look down the street to the high school they will eventually attend. Teachers and staff use this conversation starter to get kids excited about their future and foster a culture of "when" and not "if" when it comes to college.
"You can go up to the smallest child and say, 'Where do you want to go to college?'" said Eskelsen García.
Eskelsen García is confident that innovation has always existed in our public schools, but went unnoticed for lack of celebration, which is what American Education Week is all about. She does not agree that recent innovation is only a response to the growing presence of the charter school movement, which is sweeping into San Antonio with remarkable volume. Eskelsen García would like to see more charter schools like Milwaukee's Albus School, which exists as an incubator for ideas to improve the public school. This was the original intent of the charter school movement – to function like a lab for public schools to find scalable solutions to their most pressing problems.
The Academia de Lenguaje y Bellas Artes (ALBA) School is actually supported by the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association, the local teachers' union. It is tackling the education of English Language Learners (ELL). The three founding teachers, who all began their education as ELL students, were concerned that ELL status was being treated as a disability. In fact, the potential to become truly bilingual is an asset, and by affirming the students' native language through the arts while they learn in English, the ELL students are fostering a marketable skill. The Milwaukee public schools are looking to the ALBA School to help them educate their growing ELL community across the district.
Eskelsen García feels that the charter movement goes awry when the franchise schools come in with their own formulas and approaches without the intent to share with public schools – a concern shared by many public school advocates.
"They take away from the public system instead of informing it," said Eskelsen García.
Eskelsen García would like to see reforms focused on a shift in power to the people who influence learning most directly: teachers.
Current education reform initiatives tend to be top-down, relying on the simplest measurement available: standardized tests. For Eskelsen García, this reliance is not simple, but simplistic. She compares using test scores to diagnose effective teachers and curriculums to using a thermometer to diagnose cancer. Knowing a patient's temperature does not tell you anything about the root cause of the illness, nor of other issues with different symptoms. Likewise, according to Eskelsen García, test scores don't reveal the cause of low performance, and they may mask other problems that don't affect the scores.
Further demonstrating what Eskelsen García would call our over-reliance on standardized tests, the scores are used punitively against teachers and schools. High-quality teaching is a complicated enterprise, and complications do not make for good politics. So the same standardized test scores are used to rate teachers and schools.
"Test scores do not tell the most important thing that teachers do," said Eskelsen García.
For instance, test scores don't explain that absenteeism, which plagues schools serving low-income areas, accounts for much of the low performance. But then, scores also don't reveal which schools have reached out to parents on nights and weekends to accommodate work schedules. They don't name the administrators who make home visits aimed at engaging parents for the sake of the student. Areas with high absenteeism may have some of the lowest test scores, and at the same time some of the most dedicated teachers and staff.
Some school districts are taking a proactive approach to completing that picture for their communities.
Communities have a legitimate desire to know the quality of their schools. To give a more complete picture of "quality," some districts are producing honest "report cards" that explain the challenges they face, as well as their solutions. They evaluate attendance, homework completion, and other metrics that influence student outcomes. Because these are self-reported, the schools feel free to be honest without fear of sweeping punishment.
Eskelsen García argues that this kind of community engagement, like all innovation, can only happen in a safe environment, where the school feels that its transparency will be rewarded and not punished.
"It happened everywhere that we've seen people stop obsessing about one simple test score," said Eskelsen García.
The pendulum of school reform decision-making, according to Eskelsen García, is swinging toward the front lines. She reported that Democrats and Republicans alike are realizing that the best reforms do not come from the top down.
"When you start making decisions where people are closest to the kids, you get better decisions," said Eskelsen García.
It would also result in more ownership of the reforms. Where teachers and principals are initiating changes with their students in mind, using their knowledge and training to tailor solutions to the particular problems of their classrooms, they are heavily invested. When community feedback does more than simply close a school, but instead energizes new programs and interventions, that community is more likely to rally around its public schools.
Where those dynamics exist, the difference is palpable.
"You feel it when you walk in the door," Eskelsen García said. "You can feel the difference of a community who says, 'Here are the kids who are counting on us, and we're not going to let them down.'"
A student-centered approach to education reform would result in a varied landscape of innovation. From classroom to classroom, school to school, district to district, educators should be free to do what works for their students. Lawmakers would look to teachers for answers, and policy would be liberating and robust instead of constraining and simplistic.
"That would be the revolution we want to see," Eskelsen García said.