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Commentary: Let's Take a Break from School Reform

Earlier this month I attended “The Governor’s K-12 Education Reform Summit,” the second such event put on by the McDonnell administration in as many years. Every governor seems to seek the title of “Education Governor,” and Governor McDonnell has used these meetings as a way to burnish his credentials in this regard. Last year’s summit had a broad range of speakers on a variety of school reforms, and it was difficult to understand what the agenda would be for reforming the schools. It was only after the summit that the governor announced his education agenda that included some of the changes that had been the subject of presentations at the summit. At this year’s summit we were told how the discussion at last year’s meeting had set the agenda. As a participant at both, I was not able to see the connection. Nor did I leave this year’s conference with any idea as to what the legislature would be asked to approve.

The audience of 200 at this year’s summit came from many backgrounds. There were relatively few teachers, school administrators or school board members. There were many representatives of the new private industry of school reform. The vice-chair of the summit for both years is a lobbyist for a company that sells education reform programs and services to states and school divisions.

For the various think-tank representatives who specialize in school reform as well as the academics who were on many of the panels, Virginia presents a challenge because Virginia schools are relatively good. On some of the national assessments of educational programs Virginia is fourth in the country. It has been a lot easier to talk school reform in Florida, Louisiana, Tennessee and other states that have awful schools. But even with good measures we need to continue to improve in the commonwealth rather than fall behind. While our top line scores are good, a close look at the data reveals that minorities are not doing as well as other students. Even with the performance grades we are about to assign to each school, most will admit that the grade tells us as much about the economics of the neighborhood in which the school is located as it does about what goes on in the classroom.

Too bad these summits did not bring in more Virginia classroom teachers and listen to them. The few references that were made to the SOL testing brought applause when the suggestion was made that there be less testing. One superintendent in the audience reported that his son who is a junior in high school will be taking his 33rd and 34th SOL tests this year. While the test companies are making a handsome profit in formulating the tests and scoring them, the universal opinion is that they take up entirely too much time, create a needless amount of angst and the preparation for the tests cuts into valuable instructional time.

Too many good teachers are leaving the profession because reforms on top of reforms to satisfy political promises and legacies are shifting schools from their main mission. It is time to end summits, the increased privatization of instructional functions and reforms.

Let teachers do the job they were trained to do in the classroom. Let governors find another legacy!