We ask teachers for higher student achievement, but we don't trust them with the authority to make meaningful changes.
First, the good news. Over the past 10 years, our country has experienced a sea change in the way we talk about education. We've embraced the need for accountability and high expectations as the true magnitude of educational inequality and its devastating effects have become clear. To close the vast gap in achievement between rich and poor students, political leaders have called for standards, assessments, and holding educators responsible for their students' performance. For all its flaws, No Child Left Behind, which was passed in 2002, shifted the conversation about education to focus on demonstrable student achievement rather than on inputs like class size and spending on technology.
Now the bad news. We've tried to hold educators accountable for student performance without addressing the morass of process requirements that prevents them from doing what it takes to get great results for kids. We're asking educators to deliver better outcomes, but we haven't given them the flexibility and authority they need to meet high standards.
The problem is that we've built an education system based on our distrust of educators, and we didn't rethink it when we embraced accountability. For years, well-intentioned policy makers have attempted to safeguard children by micromanaging principals and teachers through mandates and process requirements. Our education policies are a patchwork of thousands of top-down regulations that tie educators' hands rather than empowering them with the freedom over how they run their schools and classrooms.
Over the past 20 years, hundreds of schools -- and a few school districts -- have shown us that we can achieve dramatic progress if we take a different approach. We can give underprivileged kids the kind of education that puts them on a completely different trajectory. But transformational change for students can't be imposed from outside. It flourishes only in places where principals have personally embraced a mission of high achievement and can build teams that are aligned, that allocate their budgets, and do what it takes to realize their vision.
When you walk into New Orleans' Charter Science and Math Academy, known as Sci Academy, it's clear that teachers and principals are not preoccupied with rules and regulations. Instead, everyone is intently focused on the mission of ensuring that their kids get to and through college. Reaching that goal has required rigorous coursework, an intense culture of character-building, and an all-out effort by teachers who routinely work 12 hours a day, six days a week, and take calls from students until 9:30 every night. The high school is just four years old, but it's already posting some of the highest test scores in the district, even though most of its students start out reading at a fourth grade level or below.
Sci's success depended in no small part on its setting in a city that frees schools from the usual web of constraints. Before Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was run like many other school districts. Teachers were centrally hired and assigned. Principals did not have control over their schools' budgets, the length of the school day, what curriculum was used, or how classroom time was spent. Teachers who wanted to go above and beyond traditional expectations in pursuit of student impact found their creativity stifled and their initiatives discouraged by administrations who did things by the book to comply with mandates.