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The Fake Revolution

If you spent any time in front of the TV last week, you may believe a revolution is underway in America’s classrooms. NBC dedicated a week of its programming to seed in-depth conversations about how to improve our schools. A new documentary about public education opened across the country to sold-out audiences. And a young billionaire – Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg – pledged $100 million of his own money (on Oprah no less!) to help the city of Newark transform its public schools.

I wish I could participate fully in the optimism, yet I keep thinking of the old adage that says there are three types of reform efforts:  traditional, transitional, or transformational. And despite the high-powered pomp and circumstance of last week, two moments in particular convinced me that our current path is likely, at best, to yield cosmetic changes to a system in dire need of an extreme makeover.

Continue reading . . .


Education Nation & Finland

I’m playing catch up with all the programming NBC is producing this week as part of its Education Nation series, but I want to highly recommend one of those videos, an interview with NBC’s Andrea Mitchell and Finland’s Minister of Education, Pasi Sahlberg.

See for yourself on the video below, but here are a few highlights worth underscoring:

  • Finland’s focus has always been on “building a system which is attractive to young people, and morally purposeful.”
  • In Finland, teachers “enjoy a certain prestige.”
  • In Finland, “poor performance is not punished,” and teachers are entrusted with the authority — and provided with the training and support — to administer all assessments locally.

In short, Finland recognized a generation ago that if it wanted to create a world-class education system, it needed to invest deeply in the long-term creation of a highly competitive and well-trained teaching profession, not the short-term acceptance of a highly-volatile and rapidly-trained teaching force. As Linda Darling-Hammond writes in her newest book, The Flat World & Education, “Finland shifted from a highly centralized system emphasizing external testing to a more localized system in which highly trained teachers design curriculum around very lean national standards. The logic of the system is that investments in the capacity of local teachers and schools to meet the needs of all students, coupled with thoughtful guidance about goals, can unleash the benefits of local creativity in the cause of common, equitable outcomes.”

Couldn’t have said it any better myself . . .

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Are National Standards a Good or a Bad Idea?

Today, a Washington Post story reported that the push for common national standards in reading and math is gaining ground. Twenty-eight states and the District of Columbia have now agreed to adopt the standards as their own.

This is notable progress when one considers how all prior efforts to promote a common set of academic standards in the United States have failed. But as the Post’s Nick Anderson reports, the Obama administration, working in concert with the National Governors Association, has been effective where others have failed by “encouraging the movement and dangling potential financial incentives for states to join.” The administration has also opted not to fund the actual work of the groups that drafted the standards, relying instead on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other private donors.

As with many other major issues, the question of standards has become a polarizing issue with starkly divided camps. On one side are advocates like Massachusetts state education commissioner Mitch Chester, who believe the proposed standards would provide “clearer signals to K-12 students about their readiness for success at the next level, including readiness for college or careers.” On the other side are folks like the Cato Institute’s Neal McCluskey, who worry that the push for common standards “is opening the door to federal control. It is the most alarming centralization of power in education you can come up with.”

Who’s right?

Well, as is usually the case, I think you can quickly dismiss the folks who inhabit the extreme poles of each camp. Clearly, standards by themselves will achieve nothing but, well, a new set of standards. Just as clearly, a set of common standards need not mean the end of local control and teacher autonomy, or the arrival of full-scale standardization.

Looking around the world is instructive here. Finland, the country with the best education system in the world, has national standards (in all subjects), but it uses them to provide guidance, clarity and quality control, not to enforce a strict set of restrictions that prescribe the actions of local educators. Furthermore, standards are viewed as indicators of wisdom that students will need to be successful in college and the workplace, not shards of knowledge that make it easier to devise uniform tests and mandate standardized modes of instruction. In fact, Finland has no national exams, and student assessments are devised and implemented locally, thanks to the deep investments that country has made in its teachers.

This is a good model for how national standards should be used, says Andreas Schleicher, who heads the OECD’s Education Indicators and Analysis Division in Paris. “The question for the U.S. is not just how many charter schools it establishes,” he said, “but how to build the capacity for all schools to assume charter-like autonomy, as happens in some of the best-performing education systems.” Schleicher also points out how the U.S. relies disproportionately on “external accountability, ” or tests and consequences for poor performance, to improve schools.  By contrast, other countries do more to build their schools’ overall capacities for success, and rely on a variety of measures to gauge their progress.

Viewed in this way, national standards become helpful guideposts that contribute to a greater sense of shared clarity about what children should generally know and be able to do, not hurtful hitching posts that circumscribe local creativity, personalization, and autonomy.

Is this the path the Obama administration and the National Governors Association seek as well? I’m not sure, but I can see why some people feel nervous.  We are, after all, still a culture intent on overvaluing the illusory certainty that basic-skills test scores provide us. We still seek linear progress in the most nonlinear of professions and experiences. And we still operate in a society where powerful forces driven by the bottom line have the capacity to steer policy decisions to their liking. (Just look at the recent financial reform bill, and the last-minute changes made to it that will continue to allow banks to engage in the sorts of activities that led to the global economic crisis in the first place!)

Princeton economist Allan Blinder echoes a similar note of caution. “It is clear that the U.S. and other rich nations will have to transform their educational systems so as to produce workers for the jobs that will actually exist in their societies. Simply providing more education is probably a good thing on balance, especially if a more educated labor force is a more flexible labor force that can cope more readily with non-routine tasks and occupational change. But it is far from a panacea. In the future, how we educate our children may prove to be more important than how much we educate them.”

Done correctly, I believe a new set of national standards (in all subjects) can help us clarify both how and what we teach our children, just as it has in other countries around the world. But if the end result of this movement is little more than a new set of national exams, we will do little more than fall further behind.


What No One Else Will Say About Teach for America

There’s an interesting debate unfolding on the New York Times web site today around this question: Does Teach for America Improve the Teaching Profession?

Unfortunately, too many of the featured contributors — who have sparked hundreds of readers to offer their own feedback — chose to cast TFA in one of two terms: as either the White Knight of education reform (e.g., Donna Foote’s “A Corps of True Reformers”) or as the down-n-dirty Devil himself (e.g., Margaret Crocco’s “A Threat to Public Schools”).

As I wrote last week, in a piece titled “What Gandhi would think of The Lottery, this sort of polarized rhetoric is the latest iteration of the “I/It” way of seeing public education, and it will get us nowhere. So as someone who neither loves nor hates TFA, let me offer a succinct summary of how I see them, since no one seems to want to acknowledge the fuller picture of what they represent:

First, the good news: TFA is closer to a key recipe for systems improvement than any other entity in either the traditional or alternative teacher certification route — they have figured out how to make their program among the most highly competitive in the country. As the Times reported earlier in the week, 18% of Yale’s most recent crop of seniors applied to TFA — nearly one out of every five graduates — and 46,359 candidates across the country applied for just 4,500 spots.

It may seem odd to praise TFA via the research of Linda Darling-Hammond, but LDH’s most recent book, The Flat World and Education, cites as a key component of the Finnish success story its ability to raise the competitiveness of its teacher preparation programs (which now accept only ~15% of those who apply). So we should all celebrate — and learn from — TFA’s ability to attract so many bright and passionate young people to a profession that still scores low on the prestige scale.

Now, the bad news: One thing TFA does NOT do that has also been essential to Finland’s success is invest deeply in preparing teachers for a research-based professional career. Finland’s teachers don’t drink from a fire hose and then inherit a classroom of high-needs children — their preparation includes both extensive (and excellent) coursework on how to teach, and a full year of clinical experience in a school associated with their university of study.

This is not a foreign concept in the United States — it’s called medical school. Or law school (with its summer internships). Or just about any other graduate degree that’s designed to prepare people for a top profession. Which gets us to the crux of the problem with TFA — on the whole it takes us further from, not closer to, the establishment of teaching as a truly prestigious profession, rather than merely a noble way to gain valuable experience as an individual on the evolving path of twenty-something life. We would never tolerate Doctors for America in our most overused emergency rooms. We would never send Architects for America to Haiti to experiment on earthquake-resistant housing design. Why then do we not only embrace the concept of placing our smartest and least experienced teachers before our neediest children, but go even further and suggest that the TFA model is actually what all teacher preparation should look like?

To be fair, part of the void that was filled by TFA existed because so many of our graduate education programs are, well, sucky. And until they change and get better, we can’t begin to aspire to the sorts of transformations other countries have been able to bring about.

If we really value learning and teaching, as Finland and other countries do, we need to invest deeply in the creation of a true long-term teaching profession, and not just a short-term teaching force. That means both traditional and alternative certification programs need to raise their game. And while TFA has much to teach the field about attracting the best and the brightest to our nation’s classrooms, until it revises its preparation model it will unintentionally perpetuate the illusion that reforming our education system simply means smarter, younger teachers. It’s just not that simple. And we can do better.


How to Build a School System That Nurtures Creativity

In case you missed it, there’s an important new piece in Newsweek about the declining capacity of Americans to think creatively — and what we can do about it.

This is, of course, the primary issue that has driven Sir Ken Robinson’s work (if you’re among the few who haven’t yet seen his hilarious and insightful 2006 TED talk on the subject, check it out). As Ken puts it, the problem is that our current system of education is more apt to “mine our minds” of its most precious materials than it is to plant fertile seeds that can sprout new ideas and ways of seeing the world. The Newsweek piece picks up on this theme, noting that “around the world, other countries are making creativity development a national priority.” Meanwhile, our focus in the U.S. remains on clarifying what exactly we need to put into all children’s minds, rather than how we can best pull out their individual talents and passions.

In addition to what Newsweek outlines as constructive steps to address the creativity crisis (hint: cognitive science and a deeper understanding of how the brain really works), I’d like to remind everyone what Finland did to become the world’s leader in public education: an intensive investment in teacher education (NOT performance pay), and a complete overhaul of the curriculum and assessment system in order to create a true “thinking curriculum” for all students.

More specifically, teachers in Finland receive 2 or 3 years of high-quality training completely at state expense. The program is extremely competitive, and it is followed by a full year of clinical experience and studying under a master teacher. All teachers also engage in critical friends group work throughout their careers, ensuring that they engage in continual self-reflection, evaluation, and proactive efforts to improve the quality of their professional practice.

The result of this deep investment in teaching, and in a curriculum that is focused on inquiry (as opposed to facts)? A learning environment that encourages both students and teachers to try new ideas and methods, learn about and through innovations, and cultivate creativity in schools. As Linda Darling-Hammond says in her excellent new book The Flat World and Education, “Over the past 40 years, Finland has shifted from a highly centralized system emphasizing external testing to a more localized system in which highly trained teachers design curriculum around very lean national standards. . . . The logic of the system is that investments in the capacity of local teachers and schools to meet the needs of all students, coupled with the thoughtful guidance about goals, can unleash the benefits of local creativity in the cause of common, equitable outcomes.”

Why can’t we do this? WHY AREN’T WE DOING THIS?

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