These posts are the opinions of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of A+ Colorado.

Tilting toward Dystopia

Colorado’s 20-year record of steady (if slow) improvement may be dashed in coming weeks if political leaders do not stand up for accountability. We’re one of many states in the midst of a series of critical education policy battles that could send us back to a time when there was little information about the quality of your local school except for the cost of local real estate.

There are loud calls from a few Colorado legislators and state board members to get rid of standards, tests, and any accountability for educators, schools, or districts. One of the new Republican state board of Education members even claimed in a recent forum that all of this is “a manufactured crisis.” If that phrase sounds familiar, it should because it’s the title of the book The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, And The Attack On America’s Public Schools by the far left critic of education reform, David Berliner. And while the far left and right come at education reform from very different vantage points they seem to have found a very scary place to work together.

And yet, accountability has led to progress. In 2000, there were no schools (at least none that I know of) where most low-income students graduated ready for college or work. Accountability systems (testing, reporting, and consequences) gave districts political muscle to close chronically failing schools or open different kinds of schools. For middle-income kids, this has meant more specialized options. For low-income kids, it has often meant changing their life outcomes radically, for the better. Averaged out over the state, this looks like a very slow but steady progress.A couple of examples come to mind.  For one, schools gained financial and cultural independence from central admin as long as they could show academic results. We now have hundreds of schools – both charter and non-charter – that are defining “school” in very different ways. Choice is now for almost anyone, not just those who could afford specialized private schooling. And two, we have dozens of proof points that show achievement does not have to be stifled by poverty. In a dramatic reversal from the early 2000s, there are now over 100,000 more low-income students in Colorado on track to graduate high school prepared for college (we still have a long way to go, but it is significantly better). This would never have been possible if we’d continued to pretend poor students were doing just fine…not even daring to test them on college readiness, because hey, “not everyone is cut out for college.”

Two things are threatening to roll back progress: anger over tests and worry that common core amounts to a federal takeover of curriculum. These claims are unsubstantiated or overblown, and proposed solutions are dismantling the full accountability system, rather than building on our learning to streamline and improve the system. At the least, compromises are tenable.

Yet, political leaders are keeping their heads down.

The timing could not be worse. We talk all the time about our education challenge, but without understanding how bad it is. The US has fallen from #1 to #14 in sending students to college according to the OECD. We rank 17th in reading proficiency and 27th in math literacy. And we have the 4th largest performance gap between high- and low-SES students. We were once the country where children had the greatest chance to do better than their parents; now children here are less likely than those in Australia, France, Netherlands, Poland, Finland – even Russia – to have better economic outcomes than their parents. The US is at a critical turning point.

While we have been fighting in school districts and state legislatures, Korea, Finland and a number of others have been retooling their systems by re-writing standards, paying more for higher education, redesigning assessments to match current education needs, and making substantive efforts to redirect their nation’s smartest into education.Colorado has been a national leader when it comes to setting standards, increasing choice, charters and accountability, and making strides toward competency based graduation. We have had strong governors pushing an education agenda. Leaders on both sides of the aisle have realized that Colorado cannot continue to thrive if half of our students are writing at grade level and fewer than 10% of low-income students are succeeding in college.

Politically, we are in a quagmire. The far left seems to think things are fine and will only get better by abolishing tests and infusing more cash. Meanwhile, the far right believe removing regulation will surely raise achievement. We are operating based on anecdote and opinion, denying or ignoring evidence, rejecting the international reality that we’re far behind, and are blind to what successful countries do and have done. We must all wake up to reality and be willing to make bold changes even if they are unpopular or difficult.

There is a Yiddish proverb that states that if you live in an onion you’d think it’s sweet. Most of us have only our own educational experiences and those of our kids (if we have them) to form opinions on the ‘education system.’ Most of us don’t spend serious time visiting other schools in the city, state, or district to see how schools really stacked up – let alone other schools in the world.

Sure, we test too much. We can certainly streamline tests and accountability. We can certainly figure out better and fewer tests. But what we should not do is to pretend that this onion is sweet.