Sunday, February 7, 2010

School Improvement and the National Will

We have heard for years about the sad state of America’s schools, including disappointment about the poor performance of students on standardized tests and reports of poor teaching and teacher preparation. You’ve heard the stories – Johnny can’t read, Janey can’t add, Joey thinks New Mexico is a country, Johelen thinks cosmology is about make-up, Jimmy thinks that Barak Hussein Obama is a terrorist, and their teachers read at an 8th grade level

Not long ago (October 22, 2009) the U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, said that colleges of education need to make dramatic changes to prepare children to compete in the global economy ( He argued that teacher-preparation programs should ensure that new teachers master the content of the subjects they will teach; in addition, teacher education programs should have well-supported field-based experiences. Duncan went on to say that the ultimate goal of teacher preparation programs should be to create a generation of teachers who are focused on improving student achievement and ready to deliver on that goal (as if that is not the current goal). Such comments are just as insensitive as Duncan’s offhand remark that Hurricane Katrina was the best thing to happen to the New Orleans’ education system. Duncan later apologized for the Hurricane Katrina comment, but he does not appear to see that his recent comments about pre-service teacher preparation programs and in-service teachers ignore a great deal of evidence and are offensive to the many dedicated teachers working in schools and university professors devoting so many hours and so much effort to prepare new teachers for careers in schools.

There are problems with American schools, no doubt. The American education system is complex. Surely it can be improved. Surely it will not be improved by insulting those already working hard on school improvement. Many states and college programs already embed field experiences throughout the curriculum and require teachers to be competent in a subject domain. Of course more can be done, but doing the right thing and doing it right will require more than offhand remarks made in a short speech. Remaking the world of American education at large – everywhere and instantly – is not possible nor would it be wise were it possible. Basing change on the biases and beliefs of a few persons who happen to be in positions of influence is likely to generate new problems. It would be a good idea to be clear about the fundamental problem and likely causes prior to fixating on a solution.

So, what is the fundamental problem? Is it that students are not performing well on standardized tests? Is it that teachers do not stay with the profession very long? Is it that some university programs admit and pass almost anyone regardless of skills and knowledge? I believe those things belong in the category of symptoms – and any and all of those symptoms should be carefully examined based on the evidence. Those symptoms (assuming that there is adequate supporting data supports) are like the aches and pains one feels when suffering from an unidentified ailment. I worry that what appears to be happening with the health care reform effort will happen to the various school reform efforts. With regard to health care reform, we seem to have lost track of the problem, and the debate and discussion are now focused on various aspects of symptoms and solutions. The problem with American health care is not that insurance companies charge too much nor is it about whether or not health care should be provided by an employer or the government. The problem is that Americans are getting sick and dying – at alarming rates compared with other developed nations. It may be convenient to consider one’s own health and medical insurance and feel satisfied that all is okay. However, that is not a systemic view appropriate for policy formulation and large-scale planning and decision making.

From a systems perspective, all is not well with American health care, nor is all well with American schooling. As should be the case with health care, the first step is to be clear about the problem. Too many people are getting sick and dying. That can be established empirically and investigated rigorously – although that does not appear to be happening. Nevertheless, we ought to take a similar attitude with regard to improving American schools. The first step is to state the problem(s) clearly. It simply is a mistake to fixate on standardized test scores. At best that is a symptom.

What then is the problem? Is it that America is losing its competitive edge in the global marketplace? That was also suggested in Duncan’s remarks, and it appears in many of the education grants sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the Institute of Education Sciences. I wonder if this is an adequate description of the problem. Perhaps it is just another symptom. Regardless, we need to insist that our leaders provide a clear and defensible statement of the problem prior to going forth with solutions, especially those linked to test scores. If one accepts the loss of competitive edge, one could then look at what other countries have done when confronted with a similar situation. The examples might include Ireland, Finland, South Korea, and Japan. In those cases, there was a change in national policy placing a great deal more emphasis on education at all levels. The will of the people was well aligned with increased emphasis and spending on public education, even though people realized it would cost a great deal and would take many years to realize any noticeable gains. Gains were realized, though. In none of those cases was the focus on test scores, although test scores did improve dramatically. The focus of decision making and policy formulation was on providing proper support for education at every level. That required more funds – increased taxes – and a great deal of patience.

I mention these cases because there seems to be no real interest in increasing support for education in this country. We seem all too complacent with high rates of illiteracy, high drop-out rates from our high schools, and high rates of attrition among our teachers. We do not seem to be willing to provide more support. We seem to believe that by simply changing standards that the problem will be fixed. This seems all too unlikely. Too many American children are getting sick of school and dropping out of the competitive marketplace. Too many teaches are leaving the profession. Things are getting worse, and focusing on test scores does not seem at all related to getting at the underlying problem – the lack of national will to take pride in and properly support education in American.

I would recommend that our leaders talk with AECT’s Future Minds group to gain an appreciation for a systems perspective on school reform and improvement. I would like our leaders to look next at what the National Technology Leadership Coalition (NTLC) has to say about effective integration of technology in supporting education. Most of all, I would like our national leaders to show some leadership and tell us how long it will take and how much effort will be required to keep our children from getting sick of school and dying intellectually. It is also about time that we lifted the ban on talking about tax increases and talked about what we want for all Americans and what we are willing to pay to make that happen.

No comments:

Post a Comment