Real Ed Reform

22 11 2010

It’s interesting the way non-educators speak about education reform. You hear all the same banal rhetoric about merit pay, Race to the Top, student accountability, charter schools, and corporate investors. These non-solutions completely miss the point, though–it’s the system itself (and the intention behind it), not the structures of the system, that is to blame.

First of all, let’s be real here. Our education system as we know it was built during the Industrial Era 200 years ago. It was designed to do exactly what it still does–categorize students. For the students that are “smart,” there are opportunities for enrichment and higher-level thinking so that “those kids” can be successful in college. For the students that the system deems as “not smart,” there are plenty of intervention classes to teach these kids the basic skills they somehow must learn before they are allowed to do higher-level work. These students are encouraged to simply graduate high school so that they can get a job or, at best, perhaps attend a 2-year college. Of course, in the 1800s, the options were a university or factory work. Not much has changed.

Therein lies the first and major flaw of the system. What other professions or systems have been conducting business as usual for the last 200 years? Kirsten Olson, author of Wounded by School (and Harvard scholar), argues that prisons have been pretty much the same for the past two centuries. Perhaps “the oldest profession in the world” looks pretty similar too. But can you imagine if your doctor didn’t wash his hands before he operated on you? Could you imagine if engineers were still designing buildings according to 19th-Century standards and codes? Seems pretty ridiculous, right? Exactly.

It’s time for a major overhaul, and that begins with determining what we actually want from our education system. Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe in their book Understanding by Design lay out a three-step process for planning instructional units or curriculum plans. Of course, their model makes so much sense that you can pretty much use it for life in general. Let’s look at this idea, step-by-step.

Stage 1: Desired Results

The first step in any sort of planning is determining your desired end results. Do we still want our students to be sorted according to perceived ability or pre-determined role in society, or should all of our students have opportunities to compete in our Twenty-first Century global society? What would a sufficiently competitive student look like? What skills would this person have? What would he or she know? And guess what. Bill Gates doesn’t get to be the only person who decides. And for that matter, neither do Arne Duncan, Cathie Black, or Michael Bloomberg. Everyone needs to be a part of this conversation: educators, parents, students, and yes, even hedge-fund managers, politicians, and CEOs.

Stage 2: Assessment

There is definitely no shortage of assessment rhetoric in today’s educational landscape, but we’re talking about the wrong things. First of all, because we really have no clear picture of what we want from our students when they graduate from an educational system (and simply requiring proficiency in reading and math is way too short-sighted). I would be willing to bet that most people would say that they want students to be able to think critically, problem solve, communicate effectively, ask good questions, and innovate (at least I would hope so). Unfortunately, the assessments we actually use in our system test basic knowledge. Of course, that’s because they’re only given in one format–multiple choice. While this may (or may not) tell us what students know, it give us no insight into how they think, and honestly, that’s what we need to be most worried about in this country.

And it’s not just about the method of assessment; it’s also about having a common definition of mastery. Even right now, states have different definitions of what “proficient” means, and those definitions are kept secret from teachers, parents, and students. Wiggins and McTighe (and most other educators) advocate for the use of rubrics in assessing student mastery. When written well, they are descriptive and objective. When deciding what to do about education, policy makers could probably learn a lot from taking advice from…I don’t know…educators.

Stage 3: Learning Plan

Wiggins and McTighe advocate for creating a plan only after teachers determine their learning goals and assessment evidence. If, as a society, we ever do decide how we might change our system to meet the demands of our world, then there are issues we must consider.

1. Student engagement. Maybe this will come as a shock to some people, but students are different than they were 200, 100, 50, or even 10 years ago. Blame this on whatever you want–the media, social networking, cell phones–but placing blame doesn’t make the fact go away. Technology is here to stay, and it’s only going to become an even bigger part of students’ lives in the future.

Of course, this means that students are engaged in different ways. They are no longer content with sitting quietly in a desk being talked at for six hours of their day (but really, are you?). Students want to interact, create, laugh, discuss. We need to give them opportunities to learn with and from each other, and in doing so, we need to teach them how to do this in an academic context. And, by the way, this really isn’t a new idea either. Just look at the work of George Herbert Mead, Lev Vygotsky, and John Dewey.

2. Grades–both A-F and age-based. If we ever do get our act together and allow students to move through our system based on their mastery of clearly outlined outcomes, then we eliminate the need for academic and age-based grades. The system we currently used is totally flawed anyway. First of all, the A-F grading scale originated in the 1700s, and as an educational system, we haven’t questioned its relevance in 300 years. Second, an A (or an F) definitely doesn’t mean the same from state to state, school to school, or even classroom to classroom. This fact alone makes it an unreliable measure of student success.

And once we get rid of grades and move to mastery-based assessment, it won’t matter whether a student masters a particular outcome in first or fifth grade. Students (and adults, for that matter) learn skills at different rates (for example, I’m 32 and have never learned how to drive a stick). Why are we putting an artificial time clock on students who may need extra time? And why are we holding students back who have already mastered certain content?

Think I’m crazy? Check out Eagle Rock School in Colorado.

3. Teacher Preparation. Our teachers in training are currently learning how to perpetuate a broken system. If true change is to take place, pre-service teachers need to be educated about what real education reform is all about. It isn’t about how to increase test scores. It’s about how to rethink the test. It isn’t about filling kids’ head with content knowledge. It’s about teaching them transferable skills. It isn’t about the teacher’s teaching. It’s about the students’ learning.

It Can Be Reality

For those of you reading this who think this is all a pipe dream, know that it’s not. I’ve been working in a high school for 10 years now, three of which we’ve been engaging in real reform. It’s the hardest job I’ve ever done, and I’ve heard that reforming a school is harder than starting a new one. And if it’s that hard reforming a school, I can’t even imagine how hard it will be to reform a whole system. But we don’t have the option of making excuses anymore. Time is running out.

Let today be the first day of a new era.






3 responses

22 11 2010
You Want Ideas? We Have Ideas! « Cooperative Catalyst

[…] Real Ed Reform […]

27 11 2010
Lynda C.

I love it! Now run it by Arne Duncan and see what he thinks.

27 11 2010

Thanks, Lynda! Yeah, that’s my next plan. I’m trying to figure out a way to get Arne to listen to me. I feel like I could solve a lot of his problems. 🙂

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