"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Thursday, July 10, 2008

What George Wood Learned

HT to Monty Neill. From Forum for Education and Democracy:
For one of the few times this year, I am alone at school. It is the weekend after all the reports were due for state accountability, after the final requests for next year’s materials were sent to the treasurer’s office, and after I sent off my final report to the school board. Time to clean up my desk, catch up on some reading, write some notes to faculty members—and think about what I learned in school this year.

Working both in a school and with The Forum provides an opportunity to feel the juxtaposition between the rhetoric of policy debates and the reality of the day-to-day lives of our children, their teachers, and their families. Here are a few things I learned this year working in both worlds:

Parents trust the judgment of their child’s teachers above all other measures of student or school success. I have yet to have a parent enter my office and ask for her child’s test scores to see how s/he is doing in school. I have fielded requests to meet with teachers, to review graded work, to observe a classroom, or to discuss with the teacher how the child can do better. This should not be a surprise, given the recent AP poll that showed nearly 70% of parents (and the general public) think classroom work and homework, as compared to standardized tests, are the best measures of student learning and engagement.

What’s missing from this equation is a policy environment that honors the judgment of teachers, supports that judgment, and engages parents in the process. Instead, policy makers tend to rely on large-scale, standardized measures of achievement in which the public has very little trust. The good news is that, among my friends and colleagues at the state and federal level, there is a growing awareness that something is amiss in how we judge our schools. We are using measures in which the public has little faith, measures that are not serving our students’ developmental learning needs .

The question is this: Can we have standards without standardization? If we pay attention to the performance assessments used in places like Rhode Island and other parts of the world, the answer is yes. (See our report on this here.) So maybe the real question is whether or not the reality on the ground can influence the policy made at the top.

There is much to be learned from educators around the world and the policies that support them. When The Forum released its report, Democracy At Risk, it was with a fair amount of internal discussion around the issue of international comparisons of schools. Many critics have pointed out that international test scores unfairly paint all of our schools as failing and are used to alarm the general population. There is also the question of what types of measures these comparisons rely upon. Fair enough. Our intention is to encourage debate about these things and see what we can learn from examining them.

What I learned from looking at these far-from-perfect numbers is that the nations that do well on these comparisons do things I wish we did, including:
Funding their schools equitably, often nationally, and refusing to allow the disparities we see in this nation;
Taking care of their children by providing national health care, early childhood education, safe neighborhoods, and quality housing;
Supporting a professional teaching corps by providing financial support to become a teacher, ensuring mentoring programs, and investing in ongoing professional development;
Making sure there is a supply of well-prepared and well-supported teachers for every child and every school;
Relying upon performance assessments, and assessments of learning at the school and classroom level, to gauge how schools are doing;
Using assessments that engage students in higher order thinking processes to solve real-world problems; and
Refusing to use standardized assessments for high-stakes decisions.

Every time I mention this list to policy-makers they seem astounded. What I have learned this year is that we have a mythological notion of what is going on in schools around the world. We believe something like this: In other nations kids go to school all the time, study primarily math, take tests almost daily, and are subjected to a great deal of drill and memorization work. In fact, nothing could be further from the case and to pursue a policy agenda based on this mythology will deeply damage our schools.

Education is still not an election issue—and maybe that is a good thing. Again, according to polling, education is not an issue very high on the charts when it comes to national elections. According to the Public Education Network’s survey, education follows well behind gas prices and employment when respondents are asked about crucial issues. And when it comes to a presidential candidate, only 10% of respondents indicate that his/her stand on education is of most importance.

That is not to say there are not significant differences between the two major party candidates when it comes to education. What it does indicate is that local schools are, for the most part, seen as just that—local. The public knows they carry the responsibility for their schools. But they also want the federal government to help carry out this responsibility—as opposed to a ‘scolding nanny’ who seems to do nothing but demand better results on measures of limited value while carrying out the task with fewer and fewer resources.

We know our schools have a national impact; most importantly on the type of citizens we provide our democracy. As such, they should be part of our national policy debates--which takes me back to the two other things learned this year. What we need is a system of national policy supports for schools that insures every child, regardless of condition, has equal access to a good school, with good teachers, where what they learn is judged by what they can do on complex tasks.

That may be too much to wish for by the time I get back to this desk in August. But what I have learned is that we know how and what to do—I do not yet know if we have the will to do it.

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