One of the themes running through 2010’s Waiting for “Superman” and many branches of education reform rhetoric is the notion of a “sense of urgency.” It’s the idea that the issues in our school system (whatever the speaker may have diagnosed them as being) are so pressing and so immediately hurting kids that we must change them dramatically and as quickly as possible. But can that be counterproductive? Is it true, as Matt DiCarlo of the Shanker Institute has written, that “kids can wait for good policy making”?
DiCarlo wrote that as part of a longer piece in mid-2013, arguing that good policy making often takes longer than the politics and rhetoric of school improvement can tolerate. It’s an idea he revisited recently when he diagnosed one of the major political problems of testing-and-markets oriented reformers. In his analysis, reformers often overpromise on both how significant the results of their proposals will be and how quickly those results can be achieved.
In some ways, it’s a variation on a theme discussed by longtime educator and reformer Larry Cuban, who devoted a blog post in late August to discussing the “School Reformers’ Pledge of Good Conduct” first described in Charles Payne’s book, So Much Reform, So Little Change. Some of the key parts of that pledge are, “I will not overpromise,” “I will not expect change overnight,” and “I will not try to scale up prematurely.”
How can we reconcile these arguments—informed as they are by a detailed understanding of the real history of various reform attempts in this country—with the sense of urgency that so many of us across the ideological spectrum feel? Not easily, that’s for sure. When we can see individual children struggling, it’s natural to ask, “How long will this take?”
Maybe the answer lies not in the particular policies we settle on, but how we get there and who is part of the process. A more inclusive decision-making process that welcomes teachers and families as valued voices in the long work of improving schools will be long and messy. It will also, however, put more hands on deck since more people will have been involved in considering options and selecting a direction in which to proceed. This also allows change to happen school by school and district by district, on the terms set by each community. It’s a form of empowerment we need more of in today’s attempts to address educational inequity.
Context, we’ve been told, is everything, and that’s certainly true when exploring options for improving education.
Yesterday’s article discussed psychological approaches to improving student engagement and learning that emphasize growth mindsets and students’ sense of belonging in school. These are important shifts in how students perceive their schools and their teachers, and one aspect I didn’t have space to discuss was how they might look different in “alternative” pedagogical models like student-driven, project-based learning.
It’s been a while since I’ve written about project-based learning in the student-driven context. As a short recap, it’s a much more student-directed model for learning than the traditional teacher-led classroom. Students initiate their own projects in consultation with teachers, agreeing on the standards and measurements the project will apply. As one might imagine, the way teachers communicate high expectations, growth mindsets, and a sense of belonging in this system will look different.
In fact, one could argue that teachers using this model are already required to be more attuned to these factors than teachers in the traditional model. The project design process requires regular and explicit communication about expectations, rigor, and assessment. Teachers are more often going to be co-learners with students, especially when the student is exploring a topic that’s less familiar to the teacher (while still being in the discipline). The most effective ways to keep students motivated as they execute their plans for their projects will tend to reinforce growth mindsets, and knowing that everyone else is experiencing something similar will hopefully build that sense of belonging.
In many ways, the systems used in “alternative” schools may already be addressing some of the under-utilized but important routes to learning and student engagement. We would do well to think more seriously about moving these pedagogical models into the mainstream more often, in consultation with the teachers who will be carrying them out (many of whom would already love to do this, but who find themselves constrained by narrow, test-obsessed requirements).
If not test scores, then what?
Ron Berger, one of the leaders in the Expeditionary Learning model, recently wrote a post for Education Week’s “Deeper Learning” blog in which he criticized the one-dimensional definition of educational quality that he sees reigning today. While he acknowledged the importance of basic skills, he also argued that tests of those skills are only one aspect of what we should focus on. He went on to discuss the importance of two other areas: quality of work.and strength of character.
Early in the post, Berger writes, “[C]onsider this: to get passing grades, students must behave (at least much of the time) and turn in acceptable work (at least much of the time). This is a far cry from instilling in students an ethic of excellence for who they are and what they do.” It’s another way of saying that settling for behavioral compliance and good test scores is actually setting the bar too low. Unfortunately, the attention to those narrower definitions has shrunk our view, leaving too many schools scrambling to address those pieces at all costs while neglecting other aspects of education that also make a big difference for kids.
One reason for that shrunken focus is the ease with which basic skills and compliance can be assessed relative to the other dimensions Berger is arguing for. As he writes, “Measuring student work and character is not easy. It's messy. We can't quickly rank students and schools in those areas.” It’s also an understandable behavior. Policy operates from the top-down and is prone to a technocratic bent that emphasizes neat systems, clear outcomes, and appropriate incentives. How can we demand accountability when we can’t easily rank and measure what we care about?
That’s one of the key questions we face today, and any answer we generate is likely to leave someone disappointed. Still, if we are to stop confusing the thermometer for the illness, we have to think more broadly. Pursuing community-based accountability, where teachers and families work together to define their goals for students and agree on the tools they’ll use to assess progress towards those goals, should get more attention on this front, as should democratic engagement between schools and communities in general.
While working on the accompanying article linking student debt to slow economic recovery, we turned to friends at Minnesota Housing Partnership to learn what they were finding.
Sarah Strain, research and communications intern at MHP, pulled together research and links that might be helpful for anyone doing similar research going forward. For that reason, we offer the following links from both MHP and Minnesota 2020 as reference points and encourage others to delve more deeply into this rapidly growing economic crisis.
A good starting point is a Washington Post article using Goldman Sachs research about student debt holding back home purchases.
Two Wall Street Journal articles provide similar evidence and analysis. In one, surveys showed about 27 percent of mortgages were denied because of student debt. Another article quotes Harvard and former National Economic Council economist Larry Summers as saying student debt is holding back both housing and broader economic recovery.
Market Watch, meanwhile, deduced graduates with student debts needed one-third more income, or $8,969, than debt-free millennials to own a home.
Good research data gleaned from Federal Reserve studies are offered by Beth Akers and Matthew M. Chingos at Brookings Institution. Among their troubling findings is that one-fourth of increased student debt results from more education—graduate degrees—that are assumed to be important for America to continue progress.
A good summary of above findings was offered by Lisa Prevost in the New York Times in which home buying declines by the 25-34 age group is well below drops for other cohorts after the housing crash.
Bringing all this close to home in Minnesota, the Institute for College Access & Success has solid research on both national and state data findings through 2012. Start here for an overview on Quick Facts About Student Debt. State data are available on the related Project on Student Debt site.
The paradox of teaching is that it’s seen as noble, missionary work when it isn’t the refuge of the lazy and incompetent. We see this in how teachers are portrayed in movies—especially movies about teaching —as well as in the rhetoric pervading all sides of our current reform debates. But has it always been this way?
Well, maybe not always, but certainly for a long time. That’s the conclusion of Dana Goldstein’s new book The Teacher Wars, which provides some historical perspective to the development and treatment of the teaching profession in the U.S. Different reviews have highlighted different aspects of the book, but the running theme is that criticism and (occasionally overwrought) concern about teachers have been with us for decades, if not centuries.
One review extrapolated Goldstein’s description of teachers’ symbolic role in moral panics about education to compare the popular portrayal of teachers (and their unions) with that of “welfare queens” since the 80’s and post-9/11 Muslims. These are groups of people who are made to represent, and sometimes asked to answer for, social problems that are much broader than these groups’ actual impact.
Goldstein’s book also describes the intentional feminization of teaching (one part gendered moral essentialism and one part economics, what with women costing taxpayers 50 percent less at the time) and the destructive removal of many African-American teachers during school integration after Brown v. Board. She also discusses the rise of unions, tenure, and pensions, including the surprising-to-today’s-eyes collaboration between teachers and good government reformers of the time to create those tenure and pension systems.
She also lays out the past attempts to use testing to improve teaching, with their decidedly unimpressive results. As Goldstein put it in one interview, “In the 1920s and 1930s, we saw a huge push to evaluate and judge teachers based on kids’ test scores, and then saw it happen again in the 1960s and again in the 1980s…. And each previous time, it failed.”
Moving past rhetoric and symbolism to empower teachers and to encourage collaboration between excellent teachers and those still in the early stages of growth would serve everyone better than repeating the mistakes of years gone by. Teachers should be trusted allies, not scapegoats.
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Once again, I’m about to suggest you read someone else’s writing before mine. Today, we return to The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose recent essay, “Acting French,” mixes introspection with broader analysis and, in doing so, illuminates some of what we should be striving for in our school improvement work.
“They had something over me, and that something was a culture, which is to say a suite of practices so ingrained as to be ritualistic.”
That’s how Coates contrasts himself with his classmates at Middlebury College’s French immersion program this summer. The learned set of behaviors that Coates calls a “culture” is the result of deep immersion in the codes and assumptions that run through our school system. Those codes prove tough for many to crack, especially with our school system’s history of oppression and attempts at forced homogenization.
“There were very few adults around me who’d been great students and were subsequently rewarded for their studiousness.” [Emphasis added]
This observation exemplifies a larger problem: Essentially every level of the system is rigged against people of color. Coates described this in greater detail in his epic “The Case for Reparations,” and a slew of findings about persistent gaps in employment and pay between white and black Americans with the same educational level reinforce it. Those disparities persist throughout the spectrum, constant reminders of how educational equity alone won’t be enough.
“I mostly thought of school as a place one goes so as not to be eventually killed, drugged, or jailed.”
Given the combination of cultural misalignment and a clearly rigged system, perhaps it’s no surprise that a younger Coates felt he would do better pursuing self-directed learning outside the school system, especially since his home life supported “the tradition of Carter G. Woodson, Frederick Douglass, and Malcolm X [which] argues for education not simply as credentialism or certification but as a profound act of auto-liberation.” We must address the underlying mindsets and behaviors of our school system that leave so many people and families feeling like it is one more system of hoops rather than a tool of empowerment.
The striking personal story of “Acting French” highlights why all of us—including in Minnesota—should be encouraging our schools to engage more with families and commit to practicing explicit anti-racism. Without those steps, good intentions alone won’t be enough to keep our schools from unintentionally driving away good people who want to learn.
There’s a certain bias many of us seem prone to when thinking about improving schools, and that’s focusing too much on just a handful of aspects of education to the neglect of everything else that matters. Here’s a story about one of them.
Education Week’s Sarah Sparks has summarized research about the relationship (or lack thereof) between grit and creativity. “Grit”—a combination of passion, motivation, and persistence that keeps people working towards their goals even when challenges arise—has received attention in recent years as a key component of student success. It’s been criticized from multiple directions, but the focus on it does highlight the importance of less “academic” traits and skills for students.
Building grit, however, won’t be enough. That’s the conclusion of the research Sparks cites, which finds that a student’s level of grit is in no way predictive of their ability to create ideas.
This is fine. Some situations require grit, others require creativity. Even the researchers in question note that students may well need grit when turning their creative ideas into reality. What’s important is that we avoid letting attention to grit feed the narrowed view of school and academic success that has been a byproduct of reform efforts in the last several years.
As we’ve pushed towards a heavily test-based definition of success (with graduation rates thrown in for flavor at high schools), we’ve unfortunately seen attention to other definitions fade. I find this particularly ironic when calls for test-based reforms are paired with invocations of “the 21st century economy.” Surely that economy will require students to be able to think creatively and critically beyond what can be measured on tests. The value to students of attributes like creativity and grit goes beyond their effects on test scores or graduation rates.
This is why we should be encouraging schools to support the whole child’s development. For Minnesotans, that means in part repairing the Pawlenty-era damage done to enriching classes beyond the core curriculum. It means paying attention to grit, yes, but also to other skills that will serve students well in school, work, and their lives in general.
My summer fellowship at Minnesota 2020 provided an excellent opportunity to demonstrate the usefulness of geography in analyzing and solving 21st century problems. When I tell people I have a degree in geography, I often get asked questions such as “list all the countries in Africa” or “what are all the capitals of the SE Asian countries.” Honestly, I have no idea because the studying of geography is much deeper and broader than what was taught to many before me.
Geography is the study of place just as history is the study past time and political science is the study of current events. (Historians and political scientists will criticize me for the simple characterization, for which I apologize). Geographers study environmental, political, and economic events and relationships in space. Geographers have been at the forefront of understanding global environmental change and impacts humans have made. They have long studied how the political and economic systems create uneven development across multiple scales.
People are recognizing its importance; geography is growing fast. The Bureau of Labor (BLS) statistics projects a 29 percent change in employment for 2012-2022. Though the BLS notes it as a small field, they recognize that many other jobs are well-suited for those with a background in geography. Foresters, city officials, real estate investors, and transportation planners can all benefit from a thorough understanding of spatial relationships. The segment of the sector that is growing the fastest, and this is where we get back to Minnesota, is geospatial technology.
All K-12 schools in Minnesota have access to the industry standard online geographic information science (GIS) platform, ESRI. The MN Department of Education, recognizing that technology isn’t helpful without proper training, created GIS workshops for teachers across the state. Students returning this fall will have the chance to learn new emerging geospatial technologies in classrooms throughout the state. Leadership from public education and higher education again demonstrates the miracle that an educated workforce is a strong workforce.
So states have the option of delaying the use of tests for teacher and principal evaluations by a year. That was the news late last week from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
The official rationale—which makes logistical sense—is that it’s a bad idea to evaluate teachers and principals while the Common Core State Standards (and the tests associated with them) are still so new. As Education Week pointed out, though, much of the Secretary’s rhetoric went well beyond this.
Instead of limiting himself purely to announcing the policy change, Duncan went out of his way to criticize over-testing, the amount of time schools feel they have to spend preparing for tests, and the narrow focus of many tests. If you were just listening to the words, you’d think they represented a significant change of heart from the administration’s education policies up to this point. Those policies, after all, are why pretty much every state has a plan to use test scores or other student performance indicators when evaluating teachers.
Then again, we’ve heard this song before, but the dance steps never changed much. I’m not just talking about this spring, when Duncan acknowledged that, “We have lots of places that teach to the test too much.” I’m talking about two summers ago, when Duncan agreed with criticism of focusing too much on a single test and narrowing curriculum. I’m also talking about winter of 2012, when Duncan went on The Daily Show and agreed that no one should be teaching to a test.
In light of that history, I wouldn’t expect to see the administration’s focus on testing diminish in the coming years. It’s best to treat this as the practical concession it is and not a signal of some deeper change in policy, no matter how much we might wish for one. That sort of change will require more action from below forcing top-level policy makers to reconsider their course of action.
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As has been reported time and again, Minnesota’s achievement gap between white students and students of color is one of the highest in the nation. Data from 2013 “shows that districts and charter schools across the state are [relatively] on track to meet an aggressive statewide goal of closing gaps by 50 percent by 2017.” Despite improvements, 53 percent and 74 percent of Minnesota school districts were unable to meet their 2013 goals for improvement goals in reading and mathematics, respectively.
Former Minneapolis Mayor RT Rybak and the organization Generation Next have proposed three specific measures to attempt to combat the achievement gap from the top down, including comprehensive health screening by age 3, reading proficiency by third grade and enhanced mentoring and life planning for high schoolers. However, there are many programs across the country that can and should be utilized to ensure further success.
For example, many pieces of research focus on summer break, when achievement gaps widen the fastest. The Practice Makes Perfect program in New York City focuses on students of all ages and encourages students to teach each other the information with assistance from educators.
The program has been widely successful with their first cohort of 22 students applying and being accepted to more than 120 elite colleges and universities. The strength of this program is that it combines educator expertise with innovative teaching practices. The Practice Makes Perfect program is just one instance of innovation in this field.
Which is necessary, because losing the achievement gap depends on innovative solutions that may include philanthropic endeavors, such as Generation Next, but also communal concern and engagement including parents, students, educators and administrators. To this point, Minnesota shows this is possible through the St. Paul Open World Learning Center, which has proven that innovative community-led investment does produce results for every student, no matter their race. Additionally, teacher-led schools in New Jersey have gleaned national attention with little critical understanding of their positive possibilities.
Where resources should be allocated and focused in this suite of programs is in the schools. Focusing on the actual school will change perspectives on what the public school can actually do for the student. It will empower our educators to be invested in every single Minnesota student and work towards equity.