Student Voice vs Adult Excuses

Student Voices vs Adult Excuses

Dr. Bill Conrad

Commentary Submitted to Education Week

February 22nd, 2018

It is truly a breath of fresh air to hear the voices of the students who were impacted by the horrific massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Their words are clear, truthful, eloquent, and passionate!  They are a wonderful antidote to the toxic cloud of lies and mistrust that currently envelops our nation.  Our students will no longer accept adult excuses for intolerable situations.

Yet I am not surprised.  Over the past several years, I have had the privilege to engage students in focus group meetings in school districts across the country.  Students had the opportunity to share what they want from their schools as part of a strategic planning process.  The students expressed their ideas in clear and elegant ways. They want their teachers and peers to treat them with respect, listen to them, and encourage them to have voice within the classroom and school.  They want their teachers to know their content, teach them well, and prepare them for college and career.

The student ideas became the springboard for a diverse core planning team in generating overall strategic plans.  Often, though, the Core Planning Team would veer from the course and enter the fog of education where they would meander lost in the pursuit of the latest educational fads such as personalized learning, blended learning, student grit, and so on.  In one school district, in the suburbs of Seattle, the students had seen and heard enough of the educational blather and formed an ad hoc committee that generated a draft strategic plan that hewed closely to the students’ core principles and ideas. Their plan would have become a reality if it did not have to go through the meat grinder of the Teachers’ Union and a sycophant superintendent.

There continues to be a great gulf between what students, parents, and the community want from their schools and what the District and school administrators want.  Our educational hedgehog is to make sure that every student is on track for college and career when they graduate. We have the Common Core State Standards and the SBAC and PARCC Assessments to measure student success, but we continue to wander the desert establishing a myriad of goals not only for students but for parents as well!

The State Education Department in California developed a new color-coded Dashboard that attempts to keep track of student performance associated with a myriad of student goals.  Unfortunately, the state is moving away from reporting student Meets or Exceeds Standards for their Academic Indicator.  It is a gambit of arithmetic machinations that produce values that are misleading and mask the performance of subgroups of students.  The Indicator also does not include the academic performance of 11th graders.  It moves us backward in terms of accountability.

School districts in California, however, love the new system of pretty colors and they cherry pick the results to justify their Local Control Accountability Plans (LCAPs).  In response, I have attempted to produce a repository of data reports that more fully and accurately visualize 3 years of student performance in Math and ELA across subgroups and years for Silicon Valley school districts. I have even tried to inject a degree of joie de vivre into the effort by hosting an online Academic Olympics where District teams can compete.  You can find these results at

Needless to say, I have not gotten a great deal of support from District and County leaders who would prefer to hide behind the multi-colored skirt of Mother State. They also are not too keen on the idea of academic competition as it conflicts with the collaborative zeitgeist!  Some claim that I am just so 2000 and late – sharing Meets or Exceeds percentages is so yesterday. I should get with the new system of color-coding.  Actually, I feel so 5th century like a monk from the Dark Ages who attempts to preserve some of the wisdom of the ancients by producing data visualizations that are complete, open, transparent, and easy to interpret in hopes of a Renaissance of Accountability.

It is not appropriate for school districts, like my home district of San Jose Unified, to claim that they are a “green” or high achieving school district when fewer than half of their grade 3-8 students Meet or Exceed Standards and only about one-third of their 11th grade students are on track to be successful in college and career. The reality is that San Jose Unified School District is a mediocre to poor school District in terms of academic achievement. It is clear that their LCAP plan is not getting satisfactory results for their students yet.  Their LCAP is a nebulous bureaucratic document that fails to identify specific and aligned curriculum and professional practices that will produce improved student outcomes. There is no real detailed and aligned plan for implementation and there is no disciplined effort to monitor and report the degree and quality of implementation.

Until school districts get serious about the identification of student goals that align with the preparation of all students for success in college and career, the development of an accountability system with complete and comprehensive data visualization of both student outcomes and professional practices, and a detailed implementation plan that is explicit and monitored, we will continue to get poor student academic outcomes even as the results are masked by misleading State Accountability Dashboards.

We can and must do better for our children, families, and communities. We need to honor our student voices. The children have eloquently told us what they want.  We must stop making excuses and obfuscate reality. We must begin to act in disciplined, aligned, and accountable ways to ensure that all of our students are college and career ready when they graduate. No more adult excuses. The children are not going to wait much longer. They are empowered and they will move on with or without us.


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