UTD President Ingram: Focus on testing not the best path to reform

As students begin a new school year in Miami, a new book, Closing the Opportunity Gap, edited by University of Colorado Professor Kevin Welner and Stanford Professor Prudence Carter, is turning education reform on its head.

The book makes a convincing case that we should weigh inputs as heavily as we do outcomes to measure student success. The book’s editors, joined by 20 top education thinkers, describe today’s schools as places of great disparity between students. Some students with broad educational opportunities move on the equivalent of express elevators, they say; students who have some support are moving on escalators; and students lacking these inputs are climbing slippery and broken staircases.

Inputs can be defined as the availability of public pre-school, tutoring support, special assistance for dual-language learners, the presence of highly skilled classroom teachers and paraprofessionals, as well as access to summer enrichment programs, among other factors. Finding and keeping highly skilled teachers is critical.

Here in Florida, dating back to the time that Jeb Bush was governor and President George W. Bush launched No Child Left Behind, education reform meant closing “the achievement gap” by focusing almost single-mindedly on outcomes (test scores) and blaming teachers if students didn’t reach certain goals. This form of “gotcha” test-centric education reform has been around for so long it can no longer be considered reform. Today, it’s the status quo and increasingly the problem.

Without question, aligning tests to standards and creating incentives and consequences boosted some student scores. However, our students can go only so far with this approach. When some students are climbing the rickety staircase and others are in express elevators we can’t expect them to get to the same place at the same time. Measuring achievement is not the same thing as raising achievement.

Miami-Dade County Public Schools and its teachers have done a superb job boosting student achievement with limited resources. Our school system has been recognized for solid results on the National Assessment of Educational Performance (NAEP) exam, and our schools were last year’s recipients of the prestigious Broad Prize.

We need to continue to reform our schools, but we’re fooling ourselves if we think test-centric reform is the best answer. The Tony Bennett scandal during which the books were cooked to show gains in Indiana students’ performance; the Atlanta testing scandal, in which widespread cheating driven by administrators will likely lead to prison terms for the culprits; and the Michelle Rhee controversy in Washington, D.C., in which student test scores were changed, are all signs of a warped and, at times, corrupt high-stakes testing system. Here in Miami and elsewhere in the country we need to return the focus to student learning. An important step in that process is to ensure that every student has a highly motivated, experienced teacher in the classroom.

We have a rare opportunity in Miami-Dade right now to raise wages for teachers and provide extra funds for student programs. After a decade of belt-tightening and a funding system that froze salaries for local teachers and furloughed thousands of others in surrounding counties, the Legislature has approved $62.8 million in new money for Miami-Dade teacher salaries and additional funding for each Miami-Dade student.

We can boost teacher morale, make the teaching profession more attractive to high quality candidates and retain our best and brightest by granting across-the-board raises to this county’s public school teachers — not wages linked to test scores. There is no reason for the School Board to delay and every reason for it to act swiftly. This is an opportunity that shouldn’t be missed.

Fedrick Ingram is a high school teacher in the Miami-Dade public schools and a former Miami-Dade County Teacher of the Year. He was recently elected president of the United Teachers of Dade.

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