The recently released National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results were clear. We need to improve student achievement ASAP! What is astonishing is that this revelation came as a surprise to educational leaders in the field. Equally as shocking is our failure to improve student achievement over the last decade and to recognize that this challenge is education’s #1 priority.
Often considered the nation’s barometer of student achievement, NAEP scores have consistently illustrated our country’s lagging proficiency scores and our lack of proficiency in key areas such as reading and math. With COVID’s documented impact on the instructional process, it is no surprise that the U.S. Department of Education announced declines in reading and math scores as the sharpest since 1990. Of equal concern is how to address these deficiencies and how to make them a priority when there is an endless list of competing interests for the same funding, resources, and focus.
Recognizing the significance of an issue and assigning it a sense of urgency requires leadership that is proactive and courageous. Prioritization involves risk because hard choices which eliminate peripheral agendas that compete with the core mission of student achievement can alienate stakeholders that are more aligned with making a social or political statement.
All too often it is more convenient for school leaders to bestow platitudes on schools and school districts that are woefully deficient or ineffective. School leaders at annual conferences often tout the exemplary nature of their schools despite failing to meet minimum proficiency levels. Feeling good is always easier than confronting the reality of underachievement. Slogans, gimmicks, and motivational terminology such as identifying each student as a scholar are short-lived and certainly not transformational.
Even when the federal government recently allocated $20 billion for learning loss in K-12 public schools, the funding was not immediately utilized. It was unclear if this lack of action was due to bureaucratic “red tape” or the lack of a definitive plan for utilizing it. Both excuses indicate either a lack of urgency or a blatant failure to recognize a challenge that has existed for years. When school leaders utilized the funding, they expedited the implementation of traditional programs such as summer school and tutorials that yielded little growth.
As an alternative approach, school leaders need to invest in data-driven resources which have proven outcomes. Through the utilization of assessments, diagnostic prescriptive teaching, and creative flexible grouping techniques, the talented and tech-savvy students who were able to circumvent the instructional obstacles associated with COVID and the “at-risk” students who struggled with online learning can reach pre-Covid achievement levels. The implementation of a structured integrated learning process has the potential to eliminate unintentional learning gaps resulting from haphazard interventions.
Turning the corner on Covid necessitates a more substantive response from our educational leaders. Rather than the emotional drama displayed in the public theater of the media or school board meetings, we need leaders that can implement proven solutions that are both cost-efficient and effective.
COVID impacted not only instruction but shook the foundation of educational institutions as evidenced by the thousands of students that have failed to return to public schools when they reopened. Restoring the trust in our public schools will only occur when we can demonstrate improved student achievement, consistent higher performance, and accountability for student outcomes. When the goal of excellence for ALL children is our priority, then the subsets of our democracy which include social mobility, equal opportunity, and merit become realistic outcomes. Without this vision education risks repeating the mistakes of the past which will only weaken our collective futures.
Dr. Vincent F. Cotter
Dr. Vincent F. Cotter, as Superintendent of Schools, was the primary innovator of a unique school improvement program, “Reaching Above and Beyond,” which dramatically improved student performance. For his efforts, he was awarded the prestigious Juran Medal (2011) for sustained systemic improvement by the American Society for Quality in the field of education. Dr. Cotter also co-founded the Exemplary Schools Organization which was created to improve school performance and leadership capacity.
Based on his over forty years of success in the field of education as a teacher, principal, superintendent, professor, and consultant, three leadership books that focus on school improvement, performance, and leadership were released by Rowman and Littlefield publishers, “Leaning into the Future: Building Beyond the Post Covid-19 New Normal” (2022). “Igniting School Performance: A Pathway from Academic Paralysis to Excellence” (2019) and “Performance is Key: Connecting the Links to Leadership and Excellence” (2018).