NSBA’s Anne Bryant: Districts need more freedom

Guest blogger Anne L. Bryant is the executive director of the National School Boards Association.

The National School Boards Association (NSBA) held its 72nd Annual Conference in Boston, April 21-23, and more than 5,000 school board members and superintendents enjoyed inspiring remarks by CNN Anchor Soledad O’Brien, Khan Academy Founder Sal Khan, and President of Harlem Children’s Zone Geoffrey Canada. We also held more than 200 sessions and workshops on topics such as the common core standards, new trends in educational technology, community engagement, and strategies to turn around low-performing schools.

But perhaps the biggest star was our 2011-12 president, Mary Broderick, of East Lyme, Conn. In her term as president, Broderick has passionately articulated the need to allow teachers and students the freedom to think, teach, and learn. She’s fascinated by motivation research and for years has studied the impact of federal and state policies, particularly the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), on classrooms.

She began writing a letter to President Barack Obama during her travels as NSBA president, soliciting comments and advice from her colleagues along the way. (Broderick not only saw the need for change as a veteran school board member, she also spends a great deal of time in schools and working with communities in her day jobs as an educational consultant with the William Caspar Graustein Memorial Fund and also with Community Conversations.) This became the basis for her speech at NSBA’s Conference.

When Broderick started the letter, she wasn’t quite sure how it would evolve. It became a call for a national dialogue for a new direction in federal policy—she notes that “though well-intentioned, the current federal direction is ignoring and working against much of what we know about student motivation and achievement.”

“We have significant challenges in many of our communities, especially those that are underserved, yet we continue to boast some of the best schools in the world,” Broderick wrote. “Our vision should be to empower excellence — to draw out the best in each and every individual in our schools. We should recognize that our children’s brains are our most important resource.”

We are currently too focused on testing and teaching rote memorization rather than inspiring creativity.

During her speech, Broderick hit a home run—or a hole in one—with the crowd when she held up a golf ball and talked about the need for certain products to be built to be consistent shapes and sizes, and perform to specific standards for consistency. On the other hand, children have different inclinations and talents and gifts—“children are not golf balls!”

That’s not to say we don’t want accountability—there is a need for testing and a need to hold teachers and schools accountable for student progress. But we’ve gone too far—we are currently too focused on testing and teaching rote memorization rather than inspiring creativity. Broderick also pointed out that our country “will never be top-ranked in the world on standardized tests—nor should we aspire to be.”

“We simply are not a compliant people willing to absorb facts without challenge,” Broderick noted. “But we have had the most innovative workforce in the world (and now vie with Finland for that top position). Though intended to encourage equity, our current policy is, in fact, driving us toward mediocrity. Our students may be becoming better regurgitators, but what we need is excellent thinkers.”

While editor Peter Meyer is taking a brief sabbatical from his biweekly blog, Board's Eye View is hosting a series of guest blog posts from a range of experts and stakeholders answering The BIG Question: What's the most important governance issue? Meyer encourages readers to interact with our TBQ contributors or contact him directly at pmeyer@edexcellence.net if they would like to submit their own TBQ essay.

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