Sunday, September 21, 2008

Where Should Education Go Next?

The September 17, 2008 issue of Education Week contains two articles that caught my attention. I'm increasingly interested in education policy, especially as I begin to better understand how policy becomes practice. As a historian, even though I am not formally trained in the history of education, it is intriguing to discover how recommendations get translated into real world practice. For example, I've been on the front lines of experiencing how NCLB put necessary pressure on schools of education to ramp up their teacher training programs. The formal education establishment passed along the pressure to other constituency groups, which is a normal human thing to do. But, ultimately, we still are not weeding out the bad teachers and, in my particular situation, our hands are often tied by the fear of lawsuits if we tell potential teacher candidates (our undergraduates) that they just might not be suited for a career in front of the classroom. Liking a subject area like history is simply not enough and neither is liking kids. Even if you possess both of these stated traits, good teachers are still born and not made. I see too many students choose teaching as the 'easy route' and am continually thankful when I have students who truly see teaching as a calling. I know they will succeed in the long-term.

James Paul Gee, now of Arizona State and formerly of U of Wisconsin-Madison, co-authored the Commentary article, "Let's Get Over the Slump", on the back page of this EdWeek issue. he and his co-author, Michael H. Levine of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center in New York, make the following recommendations:

1. Establish a "Digital Teacher Corps".

2. Design and test alternative assessments and new standards.

3. Create "a place in every community".

4. Establish digital-partnership schools.

5. Modernize public broadcasting.

These are laudable goals but I actually see them as attainable. Let me explain why point-by-point.

1. Teachers do need this type of assistance. They are so overwhelmed with meeting the standards that they just simply don't have time to self-acquire new skills - especially those beyond their comfort zone such as technology. In Kansas, our standards are quite prescriptive and while they give a clear path for teachers to follow, there is little opportunity to take the meandering journeys just beyond the strict fences setting the boundaries of the standards path. There is so much breadth and depth in our state's standards that teachers are constantly forced into a state of panic about whether or not they can cover it all. Providing mentoring assistance in technology would certainly be helpful if we really want teachers to acquire an incorporate enhanced technology skills not only into their teaching but into student learning.

2. We keep talking about this but it won't change as long as state tests are paper and pencil and test companies continue to rake in the dough.

3. Students need a place to feel comfortable in order to learn. That doesn't mean we get rid of the competition to earn an good grade but, instead, provide a strong foundation to do so. Children and young adults have already created a safe space surrounding their cell phone and we should build on that existing experience to support enhanced learning opportunities. Students have to feel like they own their learning in order for it to happen.

4. Yes, we certainly need models with real teachers not just those who rise to the top on their own - that example isn't replicable in the real world in any circumstance. And models that are accessible to urban, suburban, and rural schools.

5. I actually think private sector sponsorships are the answer here - especially if we want to connect with what business and industry says that they need from their community schools at all levels.

Augmenting the above recommendations, a teacher and board member argues in an unrelated Commentary essays that there are common-sense ways to improve education without a tax increase:

1. Control benefits and pensions.

Here are the facts and figures according to the author: 85% of each education dollar goes to staff salaries and benefits on top of which many can retire in their early 50s if they started teaching right after the traditional four-year-college experience.

2. Pay to play.

Pay for extras with waivers for families needing financial assistance. I remember how much cheerleading uniforms costs almost 20 years ago . . . .

3. Corporate and university partnerships.

Yes! Yes! Yes! - the ultimate community buy-in

4. Create a K-11 graduation option.

I'd like to see more on this option first - there's also the social experiences that go with this plus the additional maturity many students need to have under their belt if they actually want to succeed in college - especially during their freshman year.

5. Stop reinventing the wheel.

Quit changing the curriculum constantly. I agree - especially when it comes to state standards. Tweak them occasionally but don't overhaul them every few years - it costs both time and money that is better spent focusing more directly on student learning and treating teachers like professional who know what to teach. (And if they don't, they shouldn't be in a classroom.)

6. Use the technology we bought.

This is a good place for business and industry partnerships to help schools keep up-to-date and prepare students for the actual workplace they will enter.

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