At one time or another, we’ve all incorrectly used common phrases in the English language. It doesn’t matter if we’re educators with years of teaching under our belts, we each have our own “for all intensive purposes” and “irregardless” missteps.

In K-12, one phrase misused time and time again is “a complete 360.” When legislators and policymakers propose new education reforms, the 360-degree promise is that they’ll shift learning in a completely new and positive direction. In reality, educators and students are dropped into a cycle of futility that ends them right back where they started.

While the world is evolving, innovation in education remains stagnant despite the integration of technology, diversity, and wellness initiatives. To improve education, we need to develop new systems and tools that bring us to a 180-degree solution that drives true, long-lasting change for our students.

Traditional reform isn’t working. Here’s what does.

K-12 is in a constant state of restructuring. Even when policies are designed with good intentions, frequent change can actually inhibit growth. Decades of ineffective federal and state education reforms, from No Child Left Behind to the Every Student Succeeds Act, have done little to change the narrative of failing schools.

On the positive side, reform efforts have yielded clear transparency on student achievement. Unfortunately, they have also narrowed school curricula, fueled race-centric achievement gaps, and resulted in few student outcome improvements. Over time, they also opened the doors to transform bipartisan policies into political battles.

As an educator gearing up to undergo another statewide reform effort, my hope is that all stakeholders consider three ways to revamp their policy ideas and stop the ever-changing waves of reform we’ve subjected our students to for decades.

Bring teachers and students to the table.

Today is the “era of voice” in K-12, one in which we strive to elevate the voices of those teaching curricula and those impacted by it. However, when I look at politicians proposing legislation at the state level, many lack a professional background in education. They haven’t worked in the trenches alongside educators who have first-hand experience to say if a policy change is realistic and achievable.

Research finds that when reform allows for teacher self-determination in the design process, educators can use pre-existing practices as a driver for ambitious pedagogy solutions, garner greater buy-in from their professional peers, and customize solutions to support their students’ needs. In addition, Gen Z students, who have embraced their role as activists for their own education, should be immersed in the planning process to incorporate their lived experiences into policy making decisions to ensure equitable and culturally responsive reform.

Reimagine the rollout.

Here in Illinois, we’re getting ready for the next big reform push. To combat the decline in reading scores, SB 2243 requires the state education board to develop a literacy plan by January 2024, create a rubric for school districts to evaluate their reading plans by June 2024, and begin training for educators in 2025.

This two-year fast track is understandable when addressing the immediate literacy needs of our students. Still, without proper investment in planning and implementation, we’re going to be right back where we are now by 2026.

A successful reform policy requires stakeholders’ willingness to adhere to a grade-by-grade rollout and provide teachers with proper instruction and guidance on educational standards beyond the virtual workshops and videos that have been our training base for years. Even more important, educators must be afforded a trial-and-error window that allows them to ease into new guidelines while sticking with their current teaching methods. It can feel overwhelming, if not impossible, to adhere to an inflexible process that thrusts them into an immediate overhaul.

Adapt new accountability guidelines.

Up until now, accountability measures have been centered on high-stakes standardized testing, which has been proven to be an inaccurate and inequitable way to assess student performance. Even worse, low achievement scores are often inconsistently and sometimes unfairly correlated with an educator’s ability to teach effectively, instead of addressing underlying issues impacting education.

Rather than relying on antiquated practices to identify learning deficiencies after the fact, accountability must revolve around progress monitoring. By focusing on both data and first-hand feedback, stakeholders can uncover concerns on a teacher-by-teacher basis and proactively address them in the moment with solutions tailored to their students’ needs. In addition, we have to take the time to speak with teachers and students who successfully implemented reform in the classroom to discover the catalysts behind their success and share those practices with other school districts in the state.

The unintended outcomes of failed federal and state education policies have left districts in a perpetual state of clean-up that impacts our ability to move forward with new student-centered innovations. After years of modifying our teaching practices and curriculum to meet legislators’ ideas of accountability, districts remain stuck in the same place, or worse, forced to take a few steps back. It’s time we take a unified approach – educators, students, administrators, and legislators alike – to create attainable solutions customized for each and every classroom.

About the author

Jeff Dase is the Assistant Superintendent of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Decatur Public Schools in Decatur, IL. He is a member of the Institute for Education Innovation, a national school superintendent think tank driving change in education.