Note: A version of this posting appeared in Colorado Politics on January 22, 2019.
For over three decades, the debate over education policy in our state and nation has been primarily waged on three fronts: accountability, school choice, and funding.
Colorado created an elaborate accountability system of tests and ranking systems in step with federal law. The grand idea was that if we tested students, rated schools (and even teachers), and shamed/punished or celebrated based on those results – then outcomes would rise. The accountability agenda has also been driven by a fervent belief that it would lead to improved outcomes for low-income and minority students.
On the school choice front, Colorado has established a large system of charter schools and facilitated inter and intra-district school choice. Initially put forth as a mechanism to free schools from burdensome state statutes and district policies and spur innovation, this movement has morphed into a highly competitive system, injecting free market principles into education. While not going as far in Colorado as some may have hoped (i.e., using school vouchers to transfer public funds to private schools) the effort succeeded in creating a school choice market in the state.
And then there is school funding and the seemingly never-ending annual knife-fight in the legislature over limited dollars. Colorado’s TABOR amendment looms large in this discussion, limiting the legislature to wicked choices that pit K-12 education, transportation, higher education, health care, and corrections against one another. School funding in Colorado has seen both ups and downs, consisting of mostly small incremental ups and a massive down during the Great Recession. Some progress has been made in closing the gap to pre-recession levels, but the reality is that Colorado lags many other states help is not on the way in terms of a solution at the scale of the problem.
As we consider where to go next in education policy, it would do us well to be honest about where we are as a result of these three policy drivers.
For all the energy and focus put into testing and accountability, achievement results as measured by these tests have not moved significantly and persistent achievement gaps for at-risk students remain. Also, we have to seriously question if these tests are measuring what is really important to future success.
While school choice has certainly brought some innovative new school options, if we are honest, charter schools (and neighborhood schools, for that matter) are a mixed bag. Further, concerns around school and community segregation have only been made worse as a result of these policies.
And, while the debate over school funding has moved some in public perception, the reality is that we are a long way from any sort of meaningful solution. So, schools are relegated to looking at local tax measures that are often Band-Aids and serve to exacerbate inequities between have and have-not communities.
So, now what?
Spending the next years arguing about accountability, school choice, and funding will likely result in little meaningful change. We need a significant paradigm shift and re-visioning of what education in Colorado should be.
The single most important thing we can do is to make real changes to what individual students are experiencing in their learning. Learning needs to be authentic and meaningful to the student – complex, challenging, and requiring real demonstrations of the kinds of interconnected higher order skills necessary to compete in a global economy. We need learning experiences that: develops creative problem solving, impresses responsibilities of citizenship, explores values and moral questions, develops effective communication skills, requires effective teamwork and leadership, and require adaptation to changing conditions and competition. We must create experiences that engage and inspire students and prepare them for a lifetime of learning and changing; that unlocks and develops individual talents and passions.
This deeper learning happens at the student level. It requires an engaged learner, a professional educator, and a supportive community. It is personal, up-close, and individual. It is also unlikely to emerge from a legislative committee room or appear in a state regulatory mandate. However, the state can take some steps to support and foster this reform we need.
First, the state can create systems of support for this kind of deeper learning. The best solutions come from those closest to the work and Colorado already has hundreds of educators leading in this transformation. Connect, empower, and celebrate them.
Second, the state can develop systems to recruit and support our educators. We need some of the most talented people in our society becoming teachers and sticking with it. The state is well positioned to support recruiting efforts, quality teacher preparation, and teacher-retention efforts.
Finally, the state can continue to work on adequately supporting the effort. We should assume there are going to be continued limitations on resources. But education is an intensely personnel-driven and human endeavor and we need to pay our people a professional and livable wage to get and keep the talent we need.
Our children serve as an indelible reminder of our moral responsibility to create an education system that prepares them to meet their future. We will meet that responsibility through focusing our attention and efforts on what matters most: student experience.