Fighting for Neutral Ground in the School Testing Wars

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The war pitting school reformers confident of the virtues of standardized testing and test-based accountability systems against educators who have rallied against them has obscured a small but significant third-way movement. Instead of waging battles for or against increasingly rigid state and local mandates, some school districts have found ways to pursue their own paths to self-improvement.

Among the most interesting of these is the central Texas district of Leander, near Austin, which embraced the ideas of the business-management guru W. Edwards Deming in the 1980s, then built and sustained a school improvement strategy that is as rare as it has been successful.

The approach relies on waivers granted by the state to jettison punitive teacher evaluations pegged to standardized test scores in favor of a system more consistent with Deming’s distinctive philosophy. Despite its success, the future of Leander’s novel approach is far from assured. After more than two decades, Leander is grappling with both senior leadership changes and new state mandates that jeopardize its Deming-inspired strategy. 

Deming, a statistician who died in 1993, based his quality management philosophy on two seemingly disparate ideas: The use of statistical tools to measure and improve systems and the conviction that those closest to any given process are best equipped to identify problems and opportunities for improvement. What made Deming’s ideas controversial was his insistence that meaningful employee input only works if it is based on trust. Deming opposed punitive employee evaluations and individual bonus systems on the grounds that they foster fear and undermine teamwork.

Deming’s ideas about process measurement were embraced throughout industry, but his exhortations on the importance of building a culture of trust were not.

That’s what makes Leander special. The school district adopted Deming’s ideas about using statistical analysis and teamwork to improve classroom pedagogy and school design, and even to jumpstart a student-led anti-bullying campaign. But to sustain its strategy and build a trust-based culture of the kind Deming advocated, Leander won a waiver from the state’s teacher-evaluation system.

Instead of top-down control, explained Monta Akin, who retired as assistant superintendent for instruction in 2016, administrators challenged principals and teachers to blaze their own reformist trails.

When Akin wanted to foster “more ownership” of learning among elementary school children, she discussed the idea with one of her principals who, in turn, let teachers run with the idea. The curriculum they developed, Akin said, was widely embraced because it was developed by a team of teachers.

And when Leander wanted to improve the physical design of its schools, it put building custodians and teachers on the design team alongside the architects. A 2014 report by the Texas controller praised Leander’s “well-designed” innovative buildings, with costs that came in “well below average.”

Now, as Leander undergoes its second major leadership change in three years — the longtime superintendent, Brett Champion, left in 2016, the same year Akin retired — new management will determine whether the district’s culture survives. At a time of distrust and teacher revolts, Leander and a few other districts demonstrate how state waivers that make space for local innovation can help districts buck that trend.

For Leander, a turning point came in the early 1990s when a new education chancellor under Governor Ann Richards had issued a challenge: If there was anything the state was doing to “get in the way” of district improvement, he would consider issuing waivers from state regulations. Leander won a waiver from the state’s teacher evaluations on the condition that the district develop an alternative evaluation system. The waiver was extended year after year for at least two decades, even as George W. Bush, first as governor, then as president, launched an accountability movement tied to test scores.

Under Leander’s evaluation process, teachers were judged not by their students’ test scores but by presenting a portfolio of goals with an explanation of what they had done to achieve them and what remained to be done. Years later, when the state offered to finance merit pay for teachers, Leander turned down the money, fearing bonuses would undermine teamwork.

The evaluation system was key to cementing Leander’s continuous improvement strategy, even as the booming economy of nearby Austin and the reputation of the school system itself pushed enrollments up to 40,000 from 2,500 in the early 1980s.

Akin focused on hiring and promoting educators who were receptive to collegial leadership. Leander also hosted an annual conference featuring teacher- and student-led improvement projects. It sponsored numerous training sessions each year that were not mandatory but, because they were led by teachers and other local educators, were well attended. New recruits spent their first day on the job at Culture Day, which was led by Akin and Champion. As part of an introduction to the district’s philosophy, new hires watched an “I Love Lucy” episode in which Lucy and Ethel go to work in a chocolate factory under a stern supervisor — a lesson designed to illustrate how fear undermines progress.

In 2015, at a time when many districts around the country suffered from teacher shortages, six teachers applied for every opening in Leander. Teacher turnover that same year was 2 percent.

Exemptions from state regulations have been a catalyst for innovation elsewhere, as well. In New York State, a hard-fought exemption from state-mandated testing, also secured in the early 1990s, has allowed about 40 high schools in the New York State Performance Standards Consortium to avoid all standardized tests except English Language Arts. Instead, students complete in-depth research and writing projects.

In response to widespread unhappiness with the quality and quantity of standardized tests, the 2015 federal Every Student Succeeds Act included a provision to allow up to seven states to try new kinds of assessments. The pilot was modeled on a New Hampshire education experiment that requires students to develop projects to demonstrate their knowledge. One math project, for example, required students to design a water tower that could hold 45,000 cubic feet of water using certain geometric shapes. However, developing such high quality assessments is time-consuming and costly. And the federal pilot provides no extra funding to develop new assessments.

Leander’s faith in the principles articulated by Deming exemplifies both the promise and limitations of such waivers. As the district searches for a new superintendent, the school board, which includes several new members, will have to decide how much it values its longtime strategy by selecting a leader who understands the philosophy behind it and is willing to fend off relentless efforts to strengthen statewide testing requirements. The district already had to grapple with a new mandatory evaluation system requiring it to rewrite its appraisal system. So far, it has resisted one key requirement: that teachers receive a single numerical rating.

Waivers are an important way to balance state and federal education mandates against the kind of innovation that can only happen at the local level. States and the federal government should find ways to support such waivers and help protect the most innovative districts. That in turn might foster more fruitful experimentation.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andrea Gabor, a former editor at Business Week and U.S. News & World Report, is the Bloomberg chair of business journalism at Baruch College of the City University of New York and the author of "After the Education Wars: How Smart Schools Upend the Business of Reform."

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