Last Wednesday marked the 68th anniversary of the allied landings in France. The date of many landings in Europe and the Pacific was referred to as a d-day but today – with good reason – the word connotes one D-Day – Normandy. We honor the landings because they were a turning point not only in World War II, but in the 20th-Century itself. But success was not a foregone conclusion. General Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe even prepared a note to be released if the landings failed. That note, thankfully not needed, read simply:
“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Harve area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”
Now imagine for a moment that same note, written in the tone of much of our education conversation today. It might read like this:
“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Harve area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. You have to remember everything that was going on this morning. For starters there were cliffs there, really tall ones that were awfully hard to climb. There were also the tides, the beach got narrow and the sea was rough. And the obstacles! Did you know there were huge pieces of metal all over the beach so it was hard to move around? And then there were the Germans. They were no help. They were shooting at us the entire time – with machine guns! They were also constantly blowing our things up. And so many languages being spoken! How can anyone be expected get anything done in an environment like that?
At one level the point is obvious: Ike understood what accountability looks like in practice. And the education field spends too much time obsessing about what it can’t do rather than what it can. But Ike’s note offers a second lesson, too, for our policymakers and state and federal education policymakers as we transition to Common Core.
First the sense of accountability. As another school year comes to a close much of American education is still debating how much poverty matters to educational achievement – or more specifically, how much our schools can’t do. Yet it’s a debate as phony as it is contentious because no one argues that poverty doesn’t matter to children’s lives. Rather, the real disagreement is about how education policy should account for the challenges poverty presents. Some argue that it’s unfair if not impossible to hold schools and teachers accountable for student learning absent dramatic reductions in poverty. For others as soon as you start building poverty-based crutches into expectations for students it starts down a slippery slope toward different expectations for different students. And many take positions in between the poles.
In practice we know that different teachers and different schools can have dramatically different impacts on similar students. It makes sense for our education policies to reflect that and to reflect ambitious but attainable expectations as a result. And does anyone really want to argue that all else equal we can’t expect a lot more than today’s dismal outcomes for low-income and minority students?
But our policymakers miss a second lesson if they only focus on the lack of perceived efficacy. Ike’s note clearly credits the soldiers, sailors, and airmen and ascribes any blame to their leader – him. To improve educational performance we have dramatically increased expectations for our teachers and schools over the past few decades. Not long ago the implicit deal for students was don’t make trouble and you’ll be passed along. Schools and teachers were expected to educate a minority of students very well and move the rest through. The idea of accountability for every student’s performance was as alien as a picnicker on Omaha Beach that morning in 1944.
Yet the important shift to demanding more has not been accompanied by a commensurate shift in supporting more. Although dollars get the headlines, and the dollars have increased – in some cases dramatically – the real problem is how they are spent. Our policymakers did a poor job making sure teachers had the tools they need to succeed through better methods of selecting them, training them and giving them tools to do their job such as high-quality curriculum, useful professional development, and technology to become more productive in their work. That’s the subtext to many of the noisy debates going on now.
In France it was clear within days that Ike had his beachhead. In education we’re on the cusp of another pivot that will take years to play out and be judged a failure or success – the transition to the new Common Core standards. They are more demanding for students and teachers. There are some emerging efforts to help teachers more and give them better tools. But so far it’s unclear, will we learn from history or repeat it?