Whether California carries out sustainable change in its public schools is still to be determined, but reform advocate Michael Fullan said at an EdSource symposium Wednesday that system change was so close “you can almost taste it.”
Quoting poet Seamus Heaney, Fullan said that the state appears poised for a transformative moment when the “longed-for tidal wave of justice” rises up and “hope and history” become aligned. Growing numbers of superintendents, teachers and parents, he said, are rejecting punitive measures called for under the No Child Left Behind law in favor of what he called more collaborative, humane and effective approaches to supporting teachers and improving student achievement.
“California is the most interesting, provocative laboratory for whole-system change we’ve been working on,” said Fullan, an emeritus professor at the University of Toronto who works with school systems around the world
and has extensive involvement in California education. He is working with the unified districts of Garden Grove, Napa, Alameda, Pittsburg and San Lorenzo, as well as with the seven-district collaboration known as the California Office to Reform Education, or CORE.
The seven CORE unified districts of Los Angeles, Long Beach, Fresno, San Francisco, Santa Ana, Oakland and Sanger collectively received a federal waiver from the No Child Left Behind law. Sacramento City Unified remains a member of CORE but said in April it will not extend its waiver to the No Child Left Behind law.
Fullan, who made his remarks
at the EdSource Symposium 2014 in Los Angeles, titled his talk “Accountability that Sticks.” He noted wryly, “It’s a preposition away from accountability with sticks.”
Firing teachers and closing schools if student test scores and graduation rates do not meet a certain bar is not an effective way to raise achievement across a district or a state, Fullan said.
“Linking student achievement to teacher appraisal, as sensible as it might seem on the surface, is a non-starter,” Fullan said to a smattering of applause in the Los Angeles Convention Center. “It’s a wrong policy. Its days are numbered, the way the days of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top are numbered.”
If the goal is to improve teaching, Fullan asked, what’s the best way to do this?
Teacher evaluation is “the biggest factor that most policies get wrong,” he said, terming the feedback teachers often receive from administrators as “in your face” and punitive. Furthermore, he said, “Teacher appraisal, even if you get it right – which the federal government doesn’t do – is the wrong driver. It will never be intensive enough.”
And professional development, he noted, often “doesn’t find its way into ongoing implementation.”
Instead, a culture of collaboration is the most powerful tool for improving what happens in classrooms and across districts, he said. “A collaborative culture stares you in the face every day,” he said. “This is the foundation. You reinforce it with selective professional development and teacher appraisal.”
Collaboration requires a positive school climate – teachers need to feel respected and listened to, school principals need to step back, and the tone has to be one of growth and improvement, not degradation, he said.
New Local Control and Accountability Plans, created individually by districts, could be used by teachers and parents to push for ways to create collaborative cultures, he said – although he didn’t specify exactly what that would entail.
Without a collegial relationship among administrators, staff, teachers and parents, teachers will choose to stay in their classrooms and try to work out difficulties on their own, Fullan said. “If you are in a bad relationship, you’d rather be alone,” he said. “That’s why teachers have retreated.”
“Talented schools will improve a weak teacher,” he said. “Talented teachers will leave a weak school.”