Challenging Education Policy: A Conversation with Superintendent David Browne

David Browne, superintendent of Randolph Township Schools in Randolph, New Jersey

Educational policy is a big deal today. In the last year or so, debates regarding Common Core, teacher evaluations and student assessments have raged in statehouses across the nation. Politicians and legislators on both sides of the aisle have weighed in, alternately offering solutions and flip-flopping positions in an attempt to satisfy their constituents.

And while the politicians argued, educators scrambled. The 2014-2015 school year saw teachers and administrators working diligently to prepare their students for the looming first full round of Common Core-aligned assessments – while waiting for legislators to decide which test their students would ultimately take. Educational leaders worked to calm community fears, even as they internally questioned the structure and purpose of the assessments.

As superintendent of Randolph Township Schools in Randolph, New Jersey, David Browne had a front-row seat to the chaos and conflict. Browne, a former middle school and high school teacher and principal, has served as Randolph’s superintendent since July 2011. Like many educational leaders, he has felt torn between his responsibility to uphold educational law and his desire to advocate for students’ best interests. Unlike many educational leaders, Browne is publicly sharing his concerns about current educational policy and CCSS-aligned assessments.

“When it comes to improving public education, the legitimate voice should be that of educators, not politicians,” Browne says.

We talked to Browne to learn more about how educational leaders can challenge – and change — educational policies.

One of the challenges today’s educational leaders face is the need to walk the line between upholding education-related laws and expressing educational opinions about what’s best for education. How do you balance those two responsibilities?

I think part of it is not being too polemic one way or the other. People take their cues from the leadership of any organization. So if I’d reacted, the sky is falling, PARCC is terrible, and my daughters are refusing, so yours should too, that would’ve been terribly counterproductive.

So while I wrote articles in educational publications that expressed my concerns with PARCC and the CCSS-aligned assessments, I also wrote something else for our local alternative press online newspaper that basically said, I have two daughters, fourth and sixth grade. They’re both taking the PARCC. It’s not going to do them any harm, and I’m hoping these assessments ultimately do a service to public education by giving us some data on how kids are learning the core curriculum.

What are some ways that educational leaders can advocate for policies, procedures and systems that truly improve education?

I recently wrote an email to our local state assemblyman regarding a hot-button issue here in New Jersey, a bill that would eliminate superintendent salary caps. I let my assemblyman know that we’re losing great superintendents to neighboring states who don’t cap superintendents’ salaries, and I offered to go to his office to sit and have a conversation with him. I don’t necessarily think it will change his vote, but I think it’s important to engage in meaningful conversation with the people who make decisions that affect public education.

Educational leaders are pulled in so many different directions today. How do you make time for advocacy, on top of all of your other responsibilities?

That really is the question, especially given the fact that, even if you make the time, there’s no guarantee that anybody is really listening and paying attention. But I see what happened with the first round of Common Core-aligned assessments as an opportunity, not a liability, because now we have people on both sides of the political spectrum and parents all agreeing that there’s something wrong with how we’re using assessments. We now have a chance to lead conversation regarding the purpose of assessments. Assessments are meant to be used to improve instruction, not punish teachers.

We also need to let people know that discounting the input of administrators and educators is not the way to improve education. Instead, we need to value more tangibly the input of administrators and educators, because we’re the ones who went to school and learned what good teaching and learning looks like and how to assess it and improve it from within.

What things do you think need to happen in order to make public education in the United States better for kids?

My fondest hope is that we readjust our view of and approach to assessment. We need to get back to what teacher evaluations and assessments are intended to do, which is to improve instruction and student learning. Assessments are supposed to be a tool to measure how well kids are learning what we want them to learn. They were never meant to be a tool to punish teachers.

The other thing that I wish would happen is some kind of recognition of the fact that we are one of the only countries in the civilized world that believes public education is for all kids. No matter how able or unable a child may be academically, we will provide that child with the best education that research and our experience can possibly provide.

In nearly any other country in the civilized world, if your child has learning disabilities, he may not get an education at all, much less an effective one. We need to start celebrating the fact that America has long been the one country that does that. We don’t sort kids out and fail to meet the needs of kids who are difficult or expensive to educate. We educate them all.

We also need to help people understand that that’s one of the reasons public ed costs so much in the United States.

Our public education system is a great system that’s taken a black eye because we’ve stopped listening to educators. And for too long, educators – and I’ve been guilty of this myself – have stopped trying to have a voice. No more. I don’t want to stay quiet anymore.

Jennifer L.W. Fink is a freelance writer who frequently writes about education, health and parenting. See her work at www.jenniferlwfink.com and www.buildingboys.net.

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