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What’s wrong with education today?

Recently, a great deal of attention has been focused on teacher shortages across the country. In addition, the national outrage with what many see as an excessive student assessment approach to school reform continues to be the focus of discussions among educators and parents concerned that we are heading in the wrong direction.

The intersection of what has caused both conditions—and why they are inexorably connected—is worth examining.

Education Evolved with Societal Shifts

American public education has traditionally been a reactive enterprise, and when our country consisted of somewhat tightly bound communities with (basically) common values and expectations, this made sense. Over time, those conditions changed, based largely on a positive effort to educate all children and provide equitable opportunities to each child who entered the schoolhouse door. While this national thrust for social justice was challenging, teachers and administrators embraced the vision because it was the right thing to do.

But in the latter part of the 20th century, another seemingly innocuous and rational demand was placed on schools—namely, the reauthorization of ESEA, popularly called No Child Left Behind. Educators could hardly argue with the fundamental principle that we cannot mask individual student failure behind collective results. But a collective outcry arose that the responsibility for ensuring that all students demonstrate proficiency in basic subjects should fall directly on the shoulders of teachers who were viewed—based on past performance—as lacking the skills to do so.

The question of how to measure school and teacher effectiveness moved in the direction of how most things were measured outside of education—and test scores that measured how students did at a particular point in time seemed both sensible and expedient, especially to politicians who, it should be noted, were driving the change. Comparisons could be made and judgments would be easy. While no one wanted to vilify teachers (except when it came to teachers’ unions, which have been viewed as protecting mediocrity), it was clear that more should be expected, and additional compensation for doing the job that should have been done all along was unnecessary. At the same time, with the declining economies at the state and national levels, decreasing educational funding became tied to performance—resulting in a perfect storm.

Who Is Responsible When the System Fails?

Today, the responsibility for preventing student failure falls more on the shoulders of educators than the students they serve, and the penalty for failure is so severe that both continued employment and certification depends on success. It makes perfect sense that quality educators feel under siege and the potential candidate pool is declining.

The shifts in control are real in terms of teacher shortages and performance-based accountability of students. When there is more penalty for the educational institution if a candidate says “no” or if a student fails than on the candidate or the student, public education itself is at risk.

Something is very wrong when—because of the risk of negative professional evaluations based on assessment measures insensitive to the rigors of addressing such populations—the most dedicated professionals question whether it is worth serving the most fragile students. And when the profession becomes devalued to the point where in many states—including Arizona—a teacher with a family qualifies for state and federal subsidies, is it surprising that there is an increase in the number of veteran educators choosing to leave the profession and students making career choices away from teaching?

John J. Pedicone, Ph.D., was superintendent of Tucson Unified School District until his retirement in 2013. For 22 years, he was a Flowing Wells School District administrator, during which time, among many other roles, he served as a high school principal (in his tenure, the school was named No. 1 in the State of Arizona’s A+ program and received the U.S. Department of Education’s Blue Ribbon School award). His numerous awards and recognitions include Arizona Superintendent of the Year (2002), the University of Arizona College of Education Outstanding Faculty Service Outreach (2009) and University Council for Educational Administration Excellence in Educational Leadership (2011).

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