The Surgery Was A Success…But The Patient Died

I know a lot of you probably suspected as much, but I just wanted to officially confirm that according to Einstein, I’m insane.   Or maybe I’m just a fanatic.   The scary possibility (probability?) is that when it comes to the current direction of our nation’s educational accountability systems, I’m both.   Perhaps that’s not what you want to hear from the guy in charge of your child’s education, but in the words of Henry Ward Beecher, “No man is sane who does not know how to be insane on proper occasions.”

So after listening to the discussions regarding the future of Wyoming accountability system at the Senate Education hearings this morning, I find myself sitting here in front of my computer doing the same thing I have for the last three years, mind unchanged.   Years of work and millions of dollars are going to be invested in a comprehensive accountability system for Wyoming schools that will still be asking the wrong questions, will still be implementing school reform principles that don’t work , and will still lack the capacity building structures that have made educational systems like Finland’s successful.

While that may sound hypercritical of many who are working hard to make education in Wyoming better, please don’t take it as such.   The legislators and consultants working to improve the educational outcomes in the United States and Wyoming are good, caring people.  And they know that the United States just isn’t stacking up when it comes to our performance on international comparative benchmarks like the PISA.  The problem however , is that we are using data from international benchmarking and state-level assessment data to support our existing beliefs about good accountability systems rather than using this data as a springboard to true reform.  Andreas Schleicher, Head of Indicators an Analysis at the OECD, likens this to a drunken driver who looks for his lost keys under a street light rather than where he lost them because it was the only place he could see.

It’s time that we start looking for our keys where we left them.  That will require addressing more than just a system that monitors performance.  Currently we care more about keeping score than coaching the players.  Changing our performance will require addressing factors like teacher and principal preparation programs, the nature of teacher tenure, and developing state departments of education that focus on capacity building supports more than they focus compliance.  It will require making a transition to an inquiry based system of instruction rooted in 21st century skills.  Yes, we will have to focus our energy on broad reaching, complex problems and create solutions for these problems rather just watching the scoreboard.

And more than anything else, it will require time, patience, and political support. And let’s be honest, when I say political support, I really mean support from organizations like the Wyoming Business Alliance and other similar organizations nation-wide.  These types of organizations have been adamant that the quality of education improve, and rightly so.  The members of these organizations are the kinds of opinion leaders (and campaign contributors) that can get broad policy changes to the forefront of the political conversation.

But, if you are a member of one of those organizations and you happen to be reading this, I’ve got some bad news for you.  The policy found in HB0091 and HB0072 might look like a great remedy for what ails you, but in the long run, you’re merely treating symptoms, not finding a cure.  I certainly can’t blame you for supporting this legislation, as I’m sure it looks like the only treatment option available.  But I’m here to tell you, while it might very well raise our state-level test scores, IT WON’T RESULT IN A STUDENT BETTER PREPARED FOR COLLEGE OR THE WORKPLACE.

Unless we change the instructional focus of our teachers by changing the types of tests we’re giving, focus on proven school reform research, and build capacity supports for all schools, the accountability systems that you are counting on to improve our educational systems aren’t going to produce the kinds of workers that we want (and the kind of students that WOULD perform well on a test like the PISA).  You can make the accountability systems as elegant and complex as you want.  And you can collect terabytes of data on student performance, and fire as many administrators and teachers as you want.  But in the end, you’ll be just as crazy as me.

I truly believe it’s the financial and political clout of our businesses that can make reform possible.  While our legislators are involved in this process, our businesses have a pig level commitment just like we do.  Why?  It’s your livelihood, just like it’s mine.  And it’s the future of our local and national economies that’s at stake.  So, while there’s still enough time to get a second opinion from…I don’t know, one of the world’s leading researchers on the subject, I guess I’m asking you to do just that.   This is major surgery we’re talking about.  Let’s don’t look back on this process in ten years and say the surgery was a success, but the patient died.

About Jay Harnack

Superintendent of Sublette County School District #1
This entry was posted in 21st Century Skills, Accountability and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Surgery Was A Success…But The Patient Died

  1. Sharron Ziegler says:

    Wow! Great work, Jay!

  2. Dahlia Griffin says:

    Jay – I feel strongly that this is a huge problem across our nation. Like many people out there (I’m guessing), I just don’t know what to do next. I feel like a dog chasing my tail. I am not versed in Department of Education lingo. I’d be happy to petition the Department of Education as a business owner but I’m not sure what to write other than “fix it!!!” Can you possibly email me or post some specific suggestions that would make a difference? This is a topic that I’ve been researching a lot lately in preparation for our Governance and Leadership Strategic Planning meeting tonight but my suggestions are relative to SCSD#1, not statewide.

    • Jay Harnack says:


      I think there are two approaches that need consideration. First is at the local level and your current participation is of great value to our students. At the local level, we need to ensure that we focus on what we know will be best for our students, even if it isn’t congruent with the State’s accountability system. This may result in a high degree of variability in our test scores while we make the transition to a different focus (21st Century skills vs. test scores), but will better prepare our students in the long run. On a state level, I don’t think interaction with the WDE will result in much. I think building relationships with your local legislators is key. Ours do a great job of listening. I would be more than happy to meet with you to help you develop some dialogue for communicating with legislators.

  3. Kris Ewert says:

    The Sublette County School system is fortunate indeed… as I’ve said before… to have you at the helm. We should all applaud you for actually looking into the whole ailment of public education and for being willing to swim upstream on these extremely significant issues. I am sending your comments off to a couple of friends of mine in the hope that they will be persuaded by the validity and rationale of your blog. Never give up!!!

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