State assessments and testing are often catalysts for discussions that can lead to bashing public education. In addition to privacy issues in some states and the regionalized opt-out movement in others, state testing will once again become an issue as states are now wrestling with their new approaches to their assessment program mandated by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).
Our prediction is that the new assessments will either sink or swim in the court of parent and public opinion depending on whether authentic communication and collaboration are effectively completed with staff, parents, and students.
If we want to see how implementing ESSA can fail, just take a whiff of the Common Core implementation where little attention and spotty consideration were paid to early communication and engagement with these same key audiences.
Today, graduate-level prep courses for aspiring superintendents should dissect the entire Common Core movement from inception to today’s testing and tomorrow’s reporting of those results. In those courses, what will surface are the glaring gaps in communication, collaboration, and engagement with educators at all levels, parents, students, and political leaders from all state and local government bodies.
Many years ago we sounded an alarm that Common Core will falter unless we commit to communication and engagement throughout the process. Most of the literature on organizational change clearly indicates that without two-way communication, effective change normally fails In the communication business, we can now add another example of Common Core to the PR maxim, Create a communication void, and your critics will be more than happy to fill it.
And Fill It They Did
The critics’ proactive approaches led to all kinds of dysfunction at state and local levels. Often the critics approach to defining Common Core had little to do with the original intent of the Common Core movement. By creating the communication void, critics had ample opportunities to drive their own brand of Common Core messages that resulted in making Common Core a toxic phrase that by political candidates at all levels echoed. Those critics may or may not have known what the Common Core movement was all about, but they knew it was not a phrase that will help them get elected, so naturally they trashed the initiative — seemingly the only position they ever offered on education.
Will Lessons Learned from Common Core Teach Us About Our Next Steps for ESSA?
Let’s hope so.
Unfortunately, early indications are not promising.
In early May, a new Gallup report (Make Assessment Work for All Students) — published in partnership with the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) — revealed that educators, parents, and students want a balanced approach to K-12 testing, using a variety of academic assessments with a strong preference for those that improve teaching and learning.
In that report, parents and students noted that “the assessments don’t have anything to do with us.” They said it was just used by their state to measure the schools and did not focus on student learning.
Additional communication key findings from Make Assessment Work for All Students include:
- More than 6 in 10 parents, or 61%, say they rarely or never have conversations with their child’s teacher about assessment results.
- Parents need more information about assessments.
- Gaps in understanding of the purpose of assessments remain.
The report makes a number of recommendations and also touches on the opt-out movement and the need for more time to communicate, collaborate, and train staff at all levels.
Making the commitment up front to engage, collaborate with, and train all the relevant players will be key to making the new ESSA roll out successful. Otherwise we are headed for a Common Core Redux and another documented failure for public education.
We know that the fiscally strained state departments of education do not now have the capacity to commit to the communication, collaboration, and training needed to fully implement ESSA to make it a helpful force in their states.
By collaborating with local leaders and their selected staff members, much great work can be accomplished to pave the way for effectively implementing ESSA. In addition to staff, engaging parents also must be a priority early in the process so they are not left to fill in the blanks themselves when it comes to their state’s assessment program.
And finally, each state’s collaborative teams must honestly map a realistic timeline for the implementation. Rushing into the implementation without training and communication at all levels is a path leading to failure.
We urge states to hold their ground and seek waivers in developing their approved timelines for implementation. Having an effective implementation one year later than originally planned is so much better than watching the “dysfunctional dance” we saw with the Common Core.
Local educators also must get aggressive with their state departments of education and “shake some trees” to learn more about their approaches and commitment to collaboration and communication.
The time is needed to Get It Right so that education leaders can prove that we learned some lessons with the bumpy and pot-holed roll-out of the Common Core policies of a few years ago.
Rich Bagin, APR
NSPRA Executive Director
Photo by Jim Cummings, APR, Glendale Elementary School District