SFNY's Anna Hall: Reforms are Helping Us Measure and Accelerate Progress

StudentsFirstNY Director of Education Anna Hall responds to the New York Times Sunday Dialogue, noting that key education reforms are helping us measure and accelerate progress.

In this past weekend's New York Times Sunday Dialogue, readers responded to a letter to the editor from Nikhil Goyal, a high school senior from Syosset, NY, that critiqued major education reforms advanced by the Bush and Obama Administrations. Excerpts of Goyal's letter are below:

"When President George W. Bush signed No Child Left Behind into law, few would have predicted that the next decade of education policy would unfold into a disaster of epic proportions. The law was based on a flawed concept of a “good education” — high scores on standardized tests…


When President Obama came into office, he enacted Race to the Top, a $4.35 billion competition that dished out money to states that adopted the president’s policies. In effect, it was No Child Left Behind on steroids. The pressure to garner high test scores has gone haywire, the number of cheating scandals has mushroomed and the teaching profession has been dehumanized. Enough is enough.

In this election cycle, both Mitt Romney and President Obama have largely ducked the issue. Instead of proposing a bold, game-changing plan to transform schools for the 21st century, they remain stubbornly fixed on the status quo. We cannot afford to lose yet another decade of precious time and resources. Reforms are not enough; only a revolution will suffice."

Read the full Letter to the Editor.

StudentsFirstNY's Director of Education Anna Hall's offered the response below, discussing the accelerated progress of reforms stimulated by RTTT and the work that still needs to be done, which has been revealed through NCLB assessments and accountability measures:

The driving idea behind both No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top is that every student, regardless of race, income, or geography, deserves the best possible teachers and schools - not that testing produces a “good education.” As we assess the outcomes of both measures, we have to acknowledge the fact that for decades students in far too many schools have struggled to acquire basic literacy and numeracy skills – and that before the reforms of the last decade took hold, policymakers, bureaucrats and unions largely ignored this crisis.

What shifted with NCLB was our understanding that the persistent failure of low-performing schools is not inevitable – it is an issue that communities can and must address. Race to the Top provided states with a powerful incentive to accelerate their efforts to transform struggling schools and districts. Insisting on accountability in the service of such goals is neither “ruthless” nor manipulative – it’s essential, and urgent. To deliver on the promise of high-quality educational opportunities for all of our kids, we must have a clear understanding of where and how our schools succeed and fail.

New York City, which embraced these ideas, has seen some of the most profound shifts in educational outcomes in our history. After a decade of stagnation, the City’s graduation rate jumped from just over 46% (as measured by the state) to 65%. More students than ever before are attending college. Teacher attrition has been cut nearly in half. And across the city, small successful schools are thriving that didn’t exist before the advent of NCLB. To the extent that the law, despite its critical weaknesses, created the space for education reform to flourish – both here and across the country - it’s hard to characterize it as a miserable failure.

And while I share some concern about the impact of testing, I think it’s important to note that tests are, above all else, instructional tools: they tell teachers and kids what they’ve mastered and where they need to focus their energy. Truly robust assessment portfolios should include a range of measurement tools, both teacher-generated and standardized. There is, certainly, plenty of room to improve our standardized tests – work to align them with the Common Core, in particular, is promising. But in the debate about what stakes we attach to tests, how we prepare students for them, and how they affect schools and communities, we have to also acknowledge how indispensable they are. Trying to teach or learn without assessment and feedback would be like attempting to navigate the subway blindfolded. Tests don’t strip humanity and professionalism from teaching and learning – to the contrary, managed well, they help us to celebrate and sharpen both.

We remain woefully far from closing the achievement gaps NCLB helped us highlight and quantify. And measures of college and career readiness for all of our graduates tell us that we are not adequately preparing our kids for success. If we are to continue to build on the gains our students have made in the last ten years, we must do more to unravel these knotty challenges. We must maintain our commitment to transparency and accountability. We must demand that our kids have access to great teachers, and support policies that help recruit, develop, and retain them. We must insist that all families have access to great schools, and provide choices for those who don’t. To do less would not only cost us the hard-won progress of the past decade – to do less would betray the ideals of our democracy – justice, liberty, equality. Mr. Goyal is right that a revolution is called for, but what we need is one that builds on innovation, success, and reform – not one that rewinds the clock.

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