Instructional Leadership in Action

Reflections on National Developments in Education

by Stephen Fink on May 22, 2010

Stephen_FinkAs I reflect on important national developments in education over the course of this current school year I have conflicting pictures in my mind.  I see these important developments with a picture of hope on the one hand and worry on the other.  In this message I will tackle two particularly important developments.

The first development is an unprecedented influx of federal funding provided for by the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA).  The amount of this funding is staggering – something in the neighborhood of 4 billion dollars.  As you know this money is being allocated through a variety of channels associated with the “Race to the Top.”  In addition to money for statewide coordinated efforts and district level innovation grants, many individual schools that have been labeled as being in the bottom five percent as chronically underperforming are receiving substantial funding for the next three years.

Given this new funding I am hopeful that we will see some truly ground-breaking programs and practices spring up from the innovation grants in particular.  This may in fact serve as a kind of venture capital fund for new promising practices.  In addition I am hopeful that three years of heavy investment in chronically underperforming schools may be just the catalyst to improve teaching and learning for students who have, for too long, been underserved by our public schools.  However with hope in my heart, I am filled with worry that this new funding comes with some built in land mines.

First let’s make no mistake that much of the first round of ARRA funding did little more than backfill the dramatic loss of state and local revenue so that school districts did not need to lay off even more staff.  Of course in this regard the ARRA funding accomplished its goal of protecting current jobs if not stimulating new job growth.  However one should not assume that this was new funding.  In most cases it was merely replacement funding.  The funding for targeted intervention of chronically underperforming schools is new, however here again, this revenue is coming into school districts that have already suffered historical cuts in state and local funding. In addition there is a powerful argument to be made that three years of additional funding for schools that have been under-supported for so many years is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of how much long-term support these schools really need.

While I do not want to minimize the important and timely federal investment in public education, I worry that those cynics of public education – many of whom occupy powerful political positions – are just waiting in the wings to declare this investment a failure. If we cannot turn around our lowest performing schools and show dramatic results I’m afraid that we will hear even greater calls for the privatization of schooling in America through the use of market forces to increase competition. Of course, we know all too well that in the process it will be as always – the poorest and most marginalized children among us will suffer the consequences.

The second important national development is the creation of common core standards in mathematics and literacy. As of this writing 48 out of 50 states have formally indicated their support of these standards.  For those of us at CEL who have worked in school districts in many different states, we are all too familiar with the variability of state standards. We have observed time and again where in an effort to meet Adequate Yearly Progress under No Child Left Behind requirements, states have watered down standards and school districts have taken a narrow “teach to the test” view of curricular implementation. The adoption of high-level standards for all is truly an unprecedented achievement which gives me great hope.

At the same time let’s not fool ourselves that rigorous national standards alone will be the impetus to improve the quality of teaching. As you will see in one of the related stories in this newsletter, we have been measuring the level of instructional expertise among school and district leaders across the country using our 5 Dimensions of Teaching and Learning assessment. We have found that standards, which represents one of thirteen sub-dimensions, is one of the lowest scoring sub-dimensions. Specifically we have found that despite years of work to become “standards based,” our teachers continue to struggle with the challenge of linking their teaching point, i.e. learning target or objective, with a larger standard that is transferrable over time. And we have found that school and district leaders in their classroom observations often do not notice the critical connection between standards and teaching point.  The fact is that right now in too many classrooms across our country there is very little relationship between the established standards and what is actually taught. So while I remain hopeful that national common core standards is an important step in the right direction, I worry that little will change if we do not find a way to develop instructional expertise among our teachers and school leaders.

Naturally, what gives me the greatest hope as always is observing the tireless work our school and district leaders do every day on behalf of students in their care. You will see several examples of this work in related stories in this newsletter edition.  We will bring you more of these stories over time and I encourage you to send us your stories as well. In the mean time I extend my deepest admiration and respect to every teacher, school and district leader who is working harder than ever to ensure that all students are successful!

Topics: District Leadership, Common Core

About the author: Stephen Fink

Dr. Stephen Fink is affiliate professor of educational leadership and policy studies in the University of Washington College of Education. He served as the founding executive director of the University of Washington Center for Educational Leadership (CEL) from 2001 to 2018. Dr. Fink is co-author of Leading for Instructional Improvement: How Successful Leaders Develop Teaching and Learning Expertise.

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