Ferdi Serim
The Quiet Power of Relentless Growth
by Ferdi Serim • Editor, MultiMedia Schools
Volume 9, Number 4 • September 2002

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No Child Left Behind has left No School District Unconfused. The new requirements to tie funding with accountability, to tie classroom practice with scientifically based research, to use assessment to guide improvement hold equal measures of promise and peril. Such a time provides the ring of truth to the ancient Chinese symbol for Change, which means both danger and opportunity.

The danger, of course, is that those who have little understanding of what is required to move every child ahead will claim public mind-set and fill that space with slogans, sound bites, and other barely thought out mandates which are as likely to aggravate the situation as they are to improve it. The hyperfocus on standardized testing to measure achievement of standards is the most glaring error. (The letters s-t-a-n-d-a-r-d are all that these two words have in common, as one refers to the bell-curve distribution of performance on any test, and the other has to do with what ought to be learned, which is often not what is being tested.) Accountability and assessment ought not to be punitive in nature, and when testing is not designed to improve performance, it is easy to see the sham.

At the Northwest Evaluation Association's national membership meeting, I heard Jim Colye relate a story from a visit to the U.K., where he asked a headmaster there how they were dealing with high-stakes testing. Reacting to the puzzled response he got, Jim described the current state of controversy in the U.S. The headmaster paused a moment, then replied, "My dear fellow, when we see children who are starving, we feed them, we don't weigh them."

Such common-sense treatment of the challenges represents an opportunity for all of us. We must reclaim the public discussion of what it means and what it takes to make good on the promise for learning for every child. It makes no sense to trade growth for grades. In a state that I'll leave unnamed, a political candidate recently campaigned on a promise to raise all students above the 50th percentile. Clearly, outside Lake Woebegon, anyone making such a claim didn't do very well in statistics! Yet similarly qualified leaders are working without the benefit of our insights about what it takes for every kid to learn. These leaders deserve both our help, as well as the reactions of what will surely be an irate public once they find out how their taxes are being misdirected!

Another bit of common sense places some perspective on the influence of federal funding, which is what has school districts in a state of chaos since No Child Left Behind was announced. I'm no longer worried about the fate of the federal mandates, and I'll tell you why: The total amount of federal funding is less than you'd leave on the table in a restaurant where you'd had bad service. At 6 percent, you'd be insulting the waiter, and arguing over the 6 percent adds injury to the insult so many of our schools face. When political leaders say, "There is no research that having better-prepared teachers results in improved student achievement" we must wonder what planet serves as their knowledge base. Our opportunity is to shape the public discussion over the fate of the other 94 percent of funding that comes under control of state and local sources. This is the money that is most subject to the power of common sense, especially when it is supported by actual research.

At the NWEA meeting, I had the privilege of hearing Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust, share research about the achievement gaps, the myths surrounding them, and what has been learned from successes thus far. The Education Trust's mission is simply expressed: "Making the system work, for all children, from all families, in all communities."

Kati shared with us the results of two surveys. In one, adults (teachers, administrators, parents, community members) were asked about the barriers that students who perform at low academic levels face. The resulting litany is familiar: broken homes, drugs, crime, declining moral values, poor nutrition, etc. The common thread was causes that portrayed the children as somehow inadequate to perform at high levels. When Kati asked the kids themselves, the difference was dramatic. "Many of our teachers don't know their subjects," as well as, "Our guidance counselors advise us to take easy courses," and, "We never get challenging work" were top scorers. On this basis, Kati researched the characteristics of high-achieving students in minority schools around the nation.

The Education Trust works for the high academic achievement of all students at all levels, kindergarten through college, and forever closing the achievement gaps that separate low-income students and students of color from other youth. Their basic tenet is this—All children will learn at high levels when they are taught at high levels.

The most alarming statistics Kati presented formed an overlay of graphs. The lines for African American and Latino students matched exactly those for white students. Only the performance levels were for different grades. The performance levels for 17-year-old African American and Latino students were identical to that for 13-year-old whites.

This is a sobering reality and shows just how far we have to go. It requires having the best teachers and the best resources where currently we have the least concentration of each. I encourage you to visit www.edtrust.org to explore the data, as well as the solutions this incredible group is providing in communities across our nation!

The Ed Trust identifies six essential elements needed for systemic K-16 improvement:

As the members of the IT team in each school, we form more than the hub of information. We represent the heart that will be required (along with substantial brains and courage) to awaken our colleagues as well as our communities to what is at stake, what is possible, and what is required.

With education at the top of the public's priorities, we begin this school year with the perfect opportunity to let our quiet voices of common sense be heard at the deepest levels of the national psyche.

The entire year's worth of content for MMS will be dedicated to providing you with the ideas, the strategies, the resources, and the wisdom to do so. Here's to our journey!

Communications to the Editor may be addressed to: Ferdi Serim, MultiMedia Schools, 11 Palacio Road, Santa Fe, NM 87505; 505/466-1901; fax: 505/466-1901; ferdi@infotoday.com.

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