You’re Not Really Breaking the Rules

In the late 1990s teachers were trained to teach based (in a large part) on pedagogical research. At the time there were no regulated ‘student standards’ and while some students took part in standardized tests (like the Iowa Test of Basic Skills), teacher training largely focused on content area teaching and other elements. But at the time change was on the horizon.

In 2001, the No Child Left Behind Act took the place of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and it changed everything. Why? Because it changed our focus from “strengthening and improving educational quality and educational opportunities in the Nation’s elementary and secondary schools.” to a focus on closing the achievement gap “with accountability, flexibility, and choice, so that no child is left behind.” Unfortunately a lot of people stopped reading at the word accountability and allowed that to drive our focus for the past two decades.

Suddenly every teacher was thrust into a world where accountability grew, and grew, and grew. Until in some moment all of those teachers who were trained on how to teach were forced to reframe their teaching based on student achievement as seen through standardized measures only.

In the time from 2002–2018 teachers lived under new rules. Some of which were locally created as a result of fear, stress, worry, and a gauntlet of policy that had little to do with “how” and a lot to do with “for what outcome.”

It has been a stressful, nonstop train that has reshaped our classrooms, and the lives of our students. While part of the intention of accountability was about making sure students didn’t live in educational systems where getting a great teacher was a crapshoot; our current systems of accountability have failed.

Why? Because it’s still a crapshoot of good/bad, and now our communities, property values, teacher evaluations, and more are reliant on one score to demonstrate ‘value.’

But here’s the thing. There is no rule saying that we have to teach to the test, our fear drives that. There is no rule saying that we have to ‘drill and skill’ our students to death, our misunderstanding of what gets results drives that.

I get the complexity and fear and awful conclusions this entire system of accountability has drawn for everyone in education.

But guess what? We aren’t breaking any rules if we create districts, schools, and classrooms that focus on learning.

Learning measured not through outputs but learning inputs. Outputs being test scores and standard measures; inputs being facilitated learning experiences.

Facilitated learning experiences that are developmentally appropriate were probably best described in the book The Best Schools. Because the book breaks down what we know works FOR KIDS. Not shocking what works for kids gets the results we strive for in accountability.

You are not breaking any rules if you use proven practices that promote student engagement, interest, and curiosity. You are not breaking any rules if you use what we know about how people learn to release yourself from the self and/or system imposed chains. You are not breaking any rules if you help students to derive solutions to their own big questions. You are not breaking any rules if you free yourself from the chains that hold your passionate pedagogy at bay.

For far too long we have given more credence to “teach to the test to pass it” than the more factual position, “create learning experiences that engage students in deep, purposeful learning to pass the test.” Systems of accountability have spiraled out of control and brought out the worst practices (drill, kill, skill) and disavowed the best (student driven, authentic, deep).

The best thing we can do (while we wait for policy makers to come to their senses) is to run fast towards best practice, lead fiercely, and break our own rules quickly in the name of our kids.

We all deserve a little break.