Executive Perspective

Being Mindful What You Wish For

by PAUL D. HOUSTON


Have you ever thought about the fact that zero-tolerance policies, high-stakes assessment and the ending of social promotion are all branches from the same tree? All three premises have their roots in the idea that the best way to develop a child is by destroying him.

Now that statement seems harsh, but the fact is that when a child is removed from school, his future is destroyed. When he is held back to repeat a grade, his future is imperiled. So why are we doing this?

Two reasons leap to mind. The first is that politicians have required it. But the second is that we wish to look decisive and unafraid of setting high standards. Let me remind you that school leaders need to be careful of what we wish for because we might get it.

Plenty of Attention
We wished that people would pay more attention to education. We got A Nation at Risk and dozens of studies that followed. Sadly, their sole purpose seemed to be to demonstrate to the public how badly we were performing. We hoped politicians would pay more attention to education so that we would get more resources. We got the President's Summit and the national goals. I'm still waiting for them to show me the money. We wanted the public to believe we could take their concerns seriously, so we jumped on the standards and accountability bandwagon and rode along. If we are not careful, that bandwagon is headed for the ditch.

Today it is difficult for a school leader to oppose standards and accountability. These watchwords are the apple pie and motherhood of education. If you oppose them, you are painted as a "contrarian" or an "apologist " who doesn't want to change or improve. It seems good politics to get ahead of the mob and make it look like a parade. And even though zero-tolerance policies and high-stakes assessment were created by politicians outside the educational community, school leaders are pushing for higher test scores, tougher discipline codes and greater accountability. Many now have incentives built into their contracts for increases in student performance.

Please consider this a warning sign. Our eagerness to go along and get along with those who are pushing these movements will rebound back on our heads. When these efforts fail, scapegoats will be sought and educators will take the fall for it, not those who created the movement.

Wayward Assumptions
The assumption driving the high-stakes testing movement is that for America to be competitive we must raise our standards. Aren't we already the dominant country in the world? Certainly we know many of our children are not achieving the American dream and to the extent that our expectations are too low for them, we should raise them and demand better.

But we must recognize that in many cases success will require more resources. A multiple-choice test isn't enough. Just as NASA may have to rethink its policy of "faster, cheaper, better" in the wake of some recent failures, we must understand that just because norm-referenced tests are faster and cheaper, they may not be better than providing the support needed to prepare children for better performance.

The assumption driving the zero-tolerance movement is that schools need to be safer and that the way to make them safe is to get rid of the troublemakers. We do need to make schools safer. The problem is that zero tolerance is also zero judgment. Not every kid who breaks a rule is a troublemaker. Not every rule that is broken should be treated in the same way. We have no problem seeing the inherent unfairness in mandatory sentences for prisoners. Isn't a zero-tolerance policy fraught with the same narrow vision?

As the results of these policies pile up in schools, as we see the children who fail the tests being retained in grade and dropping out and as we witness the human tragedy that entails, we need to remember where the blame will be placed. As we see children excluded from school for momentary lapses of judgment or for violating rules in a silly way (the expulsion of students for bringing Midol or a fingernail file to school leap to mind), we must remember who will be blamed for doing these stupid things. It will not be the politicians who passed the zero-tolerance laws or the legislatures who created statewide testing systems. It will be the local school administrators who are implementing the policies.

When we take on the role of school leader, we inherit the responsibility for acting as a leader. Leaders don't blindly follow silly mandates or rules without questioning them. They don't embrace laws that relieve them of acting responsibly on behalf of children. And leaders don't jump on bandwagons so they can keep their jobs. Leaders get in front of the wagon to make sure it stays on the road. If we don't do that, we can rest assured we will get zeroed out when someone turns on the fan.

Paul Houston is executive director of AASA. E-mail: phouston@aasa.org