Is Obama’s Plan for Ed Reform About to Crash?

Yesterday, Robert Plants, one of our editors, shared Anthony Cody’s “This Is How a Tipping Point Feels” (Teacher Magazine, 8.15.10) with all ETCJ writers and editors. Cody bemoans the Obama administration’s heavy-handed approach to education reform. He sees mounting opposition to top-down decision-making and exclusive reliance on “tough standards and high-stakes tests” and wonders if the pendulum is about ready to swing the other way. He asks, “What do you think? Are we approaching a tipping point? How can we make it so?” Two of our editors, Harry Keller in “Time to Push the Ed Reform Pendulum Sideways” and Bonnie Bracey Sutton in “The Teacher’s Voice Is Missing,” have responded. To see Bonnie’s article, click on “Read more” at the bottom of this article. -js

Time to Push the Ed Reform Pendulum Sideways

By Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

Anthony Cody writes in Education Week about education reaching a tipping point. He makes an analogy with a pendulum. The “tipping point” for a pendulum is where it changes direction, the point of maximum acceleration and minimum velocity. He points out that we’ve been moving steadily away from the progressive social approach of the ’70s toward test-driven accountability and “pre-digested curriculum.”

Putting aside the fact that all schools and classrooms have not joined equally in either movement, there’s a real problem with the pendulum analogy. It assumes a linear movement, back and forth repeatedly. If you look carefully, you’ll see that we’ve had previous swings with various names such as “Back to Basics” and “Relevancy.” In my own brief time on the planet, I’ve seen a couple of these swings. You don’t have to read very much to discover that these ideas have been around for a while. As a scientist, I tend to focus on science education. Science in secondary schools has a short history, having begun in the nineteenth century. In the middle of that century, science labs first started to appear. By 1900, quite a large body of literature on teaching science had accumulated. It was also just a bit before this time that biology first began to be taught in secondary schools as a separate discipline.

The rise of science as a core subject created a situation where teachers taught by rote in order to ensure that their students could assimilate all of this new and strange material. The reformers of the 1920s felt that students were being forced to learn material that had no relevance to their daily lives and so began a social approach to teaching science. Students were asked to find bridges between science and the “real world.” Thirty years before, the inquiry method of learning was being promoted by such luminaries as F. W. Westaway (who wrote THE book on scientific method) and Professor E. H. Hall (discoverer of the Hall Effect).

Thirty years later, Sputnik put science education in the spotlight, and we went back to basics again. People felt that science education had become too soft and was causing us to fall behind the Soviet Union. Then, as Cody says, we went back to socially oriented teaching and now are focused once again on teaching for test results, albeit not for the same reasons. Left to our own devices, we’ll probably just continue to swing in the wind indefinitely.

Somehow, we don’t learn from the past. Perhaps, dressing up the old, failed policies with new names fools us into believing that we’re doing something different. Should we focus on the nuts and bolts of the subject or on its social connections? By turning the decision into a dichotomy, we fail our children. Those on either side appear to abhor the policies of those on the other. Surely, we must have both.

But, even if we manage to combine the two extremes into a blend that ensures that certain concepts don’t get lost within the effort for social context and the effort to include every concept doesn’t push out the connection to the world outside of schools, students still will not be learning as they might.

Instead of pushing the same old pendulum back and forth, we should be pushing it sideways. One-dimensional thinking seems always to result in poor planning and poor policies.

We can push sideways in many ways. I advocate for two such ways. One involves challenge; the other focuses on time. Neither addresses social learning or basics, both of which I’ve already pointed out must be part of a complete learning environment.

It happens repeatedly that classes become very strict and require learning lots of material in little time; then, because this approach fails, the same classes relax their approach and seek to engage students with their non-scholastic lives. Standards become lower, then standards get raised. The problem with this back-and-forth is simple. The standards are based on tests that don’t measure real learning.

Students either are challenged to assimilate mounds of materials or are not challenged at all. Both approaches are very boring. When students are challenged to think for themselves, they get excited and engaged. Some of you may contest this thesis, and you’re right to a limited extent. Students unused to thinking object strenuously to the change. They’ve figured out how to game the system, and you’re taking their easy road away from them. Once this minor bump has been overcome, the entire world of education for teacher and student changes. Ask your students to answer questions that have no answer in their textbooks. Challenge them to think. Challenges are like building a brick wall. Don’t challenge them to see how many bricks they can lay. Challenge them to figure out how to make the wall stronger or better looking or more efficient. Engage their minds and not, analogously speaking, their muscles.

Time presents the other important issue for education. We only have so much of it. As soon as you add more social aspects to your courses, some of the “back to basics” must be sacrificed. My solution to this problem is also simple to say. It’s also hard to do. Employ new technologies to gain more time. Make learning more efficient by using technology.

Unfortunately, technology comes in many forms, not all of which are ready for classrooms. In fact, you may find none that will fulfill the requirements of improving learning in less time and within your school budget. Finding the right technology echoes that NASA slogan: better, faster, cheaper.

If you can find it, the right technology, properly adapted and integrated into the classroom scope and sequence, can make large changes. One science department added online science labs as homework to an already stellar faculty. Before the change, half of the students were failing to pass the state science test. Afterward, two-thirds passed, a 32% increase in the number of passing students at a cost of just a few dollars per student.

I’ve suggested just two ways to push sideways instead of being trapped on the same old linear pendulum. I don’t mean to imply that these are the only ways. I only intend to say that there’s much more to learning than lists of content goals and socially relevant approaches. The tension between those two approaches has blinded many to opportunities for greater enhancement of learning by other means. Let’s drop this old dichotomy, find a reasonable balance between them, and then add in things such as real challenges and learning efficiencies to make a new and really different education for a new century.

Bonnie BraceyThe Teacher’s Voice Is Missing

By Bonnie Bracey Sutton
Editor, Policy Issues

Teachers may want to adopt and adapt their thoughts to these Michael Jackson lyrics:

All I wanna say is that
They don’t really care about us
All I wanna say is that
They don’t really care about us

Tell me what has become of my rights
Am I invisible because you ignore me?

All I wanna say is that
They don’t really care about us
All I wanna say is that
They don’t really care about us

This may be how teachers feel in the US today.

It is late at night and raining. The rain feels like all of the tears that are caused by the latest onslaught of derisive press allegations against teachers in America. We seem to have been weighed in the balance and found wanting by the President of the United States and the Department of Education (DOE).

I protest, but I know I am a little person. I did not go to Harvard, MIT, or Brown. I am not elite enough to have been a member of Ted and Poptech, nor was I invited to Aspen. None of the think tanks were within my economic reach. I do access their ideas using technology. As the Convocation on the Gathering Storm concluded, the finger is being pointed at K-12 for the educational ills of America.

I am also a minority, and I protest.

Who am I to protest? Just an American taxpayer, a person who has invested in teaching for a lifetime to find out that I am being made fun of and my work, my lifetime of dedication to teaching, is being treated as a joke. I have worked and taught in a variety of schools, venues, worked nationally and internationally.

I know a lot about education.What I know is that education has to change. But I never thought that we who dedicated our lives to teaching would be savaged by the press, the pundits, and the President. It hurts.

I have spent the summer in learning. First at the University of Colorado, then at the various conventions, ISTE, Teragrid, and in a new venture in education. Today I was learning at the National Research Council. In the trenches, we know that there are problems in education.

I have an interest in infusing high perfomance computing and computational thinking into curriculum, along with a very special interest in a new way of delivering curriculum, which is probably not so different than that of some of the winners of the Race to the Top. I believe in Cloud Computing. I also have investigated and learned about ways to infuse serious gaming into education. Think Globaloria.

My Facebook friends share lots of information and ideas with me. I volunteer to make a difference. I was a member of the National Information Infrastructure Advisory Council. We created the vision of the use of technology in America. My tears of frustation helped to start us on the idea of E-Rate. Frustration was turned into ideas that worked.

Our vision was to create a common ground for all. Of course, all of our vision was not enacted. We were unable to create a vehicle  for broadband. There are still people on the digital dark road. Not many people have a passion these days for discussing the digital divide. “Boring,” they say. “Don’t tell us the sad stories. We don’t want to hear them. Tell us something that can work.”

The President has the money and power of  government to do that, to enact change that could work. In teaching, we believe in the power of us: our ideas, networks, dedication, and persuasion. We collaborate, contribute, create educational communities of thought. But we don’t have funding.

Because I am not a tenured professor, I look to the leaders in education for their ideas. As a beginning teacher, I worked with Chris Dede and learned from Seymour Papert, and later moved on to work with the organizations that empower, embrace, and energize teachers by giving them support, guidance, and the right to innovate and create new ways of learning.

Dr. Paul Resta comes to mind. He talks about the digital divide, the content divide, the economic divide, the technology infrastructure divide, the mobile divide, and so on. We have so many divides and factors that create the divides. All of these factors change the learning experience for students.

Sometimes we do create miracles and we, as teachers, mothers, educational leaders, and community supporters help a student in ways that few others can. But sometimes the task is too big and we fail.

There is a video that speaks to the problems in education at some levels that may be what the President and his DOE are thinking about. We as teachers think about these problems too.

We are now in a participatory culture. But the schools of education have not changed so much. Many people have not noticed this.

The fundamental problem is that we who teach are not part of the conversation. Our ideas, our thoughts, our experience and knowledge have been dismissed. We elected Barack Obama as an agent of change. In doing so, I felt that I, too, was acting as an agent of change. We are disappointed that there is no collaboration, no community of thought that includes teachers.

We, teachers, are not to blame for society’s ills. If you looked at the videos, you probably remembered that poor infrastructure and lack of privileges are a problem. You may have noticed that there was not a great infusion of minorities in the videos. As teachers, we want to be a part of the change sooner rather than later. We have ideas to share, for example, with cloud computing, the government could change the world of education.

There used to be a small group of schools that were not KIPP schools that made strides in the world with little or no funding from the DOE. They were called parochial schools. I went to one of those schools. Not very different than the KIPP schools, but just as effective.  What happened to them? They were bought out and sold to charter schools.

It is interesting to have also had the experience of teaching in a charter school. In Denver, a principal of a charter school lashed out at those of us in a grassroots initiative to share new ideas from ITEST. He made fun of those of us who are still trying to make change. It hurt.

He said that the President and Arne Duncan had the same disdain for regular and ordinary teachers, but that they had to keep it under wraps. Perhaps Race to the Top means that they don’t care about us. Does the President, not care about us?

8 Responses

  1. I have a cuckoo clock in my family room. It has a pendulum, and that pendulum swings constantly. If I were to use it as an analogy, I would say that education is not to be found on the pendulum but in the space a few inches below the pendulum. If that space had any sense of awareness, it might realize that there is a pendulum swinging above it, but that space itself is not affected.

    Forty years ago John Goodlad tried to compare the effectiveness of certain educational programs. He found that he could not make any comparison, because when he observed teachers within the programs, he saw very few who were actually doing what the programs were supposed to do. Most just went on teaching the way they always had.

    Similarly, I once read an article that opined that in the history of eduction, no educational innovation has ever been shown to fail, for none has ever been fully implemented as designed.

    I believe that the following chronology reflects what happens in almost all efforts to change education.

    Step One: People note that things are not going well in the education in their area. Students are not doing as well as they should be. They look into why, and they find what they think is a good solution.

    Step Two: The school district administration studies the proposed solution, or a new administration is hired that wants to usher in this new solution. The administration convinces the school board to go with it, and an implementation plan is devised. That plan will take several years.

    Step Three: Early efforts are met with either hostility or indifference from teachers and school administrators. Some are upset that the innovation is different from what they believe. Others have a “this, too, shall pass” reaction.

    Step Four: The implementation plan is not going as well as hoped. Very little change is actually happening in the school. For the most part, the schools operate as they always have, with little or not change whatsoever. As the years pass, the administration leading the change is frustrated and tries a number of different approaches to no avail.

    Step Five: People note that things are not going well in the education in their area. Students are not doing as well as they should be. This new innovation must be at fault, and it is attacked vigorously. The School Board members who initiated it are voted out. Administrators who supported it either move to a new district, retire, or fade into the background.

    Step Six: Someone finds what they think will be a good solution, and the innovation process begins anew.

    I myself almost cried when a teacher got up at a building meeting I attended and said, “Well, we tried X, and it didn’t work.” As someone who was part of the movement, I know that less than 10% of the teachers tried X, and the one speaking was not one of them.

  2. John is telling you what happens on the ground in the world of reality. All of the reforms and “new” ideas take place a mile above that place. Nevertheless, they impact us. More than a few students were affected by the “New Math” initiative. Back to basics and corporate-style classrooms fill many schools today.

    Not every one of these ideas fails simply because of poor implementation or execution. Some deserve to fail (see New Math above). How can we tell the difference?

    Note two very important aspects of John’s six-step analysis. The administration takes years to implement a new idea. Few teachers use it well enough or often enough, it at all, for anyone to know whether it works.

    We who would have changes made must ask, “Why?” And ask it for both aspects. Next, we must find solutions to these two problems.

    Our education system defends the status quo. For such a critical part of our society, that’s a good thing — until it’s broken. Then, it becomes a bad thing. We build the system to change slowly; we supported features that reinforce that concept. Now, we wish it weren’t so.

    We cannot blame teachers. How much power do they have over a country-wide system or even a school district? To my mind, it seems that blame, or, more accurately, responsibility for fixing our problems, should be assigned to the top of each educational body first and, in diminishing weight, on down the command chain.

    By that simple logic, we must look to the school boards first, then to the superintendents, and next to the principals. These are the people who can make change happen sooner and see that methods for ensuring implementation are in place.

    Note that I said “simple logic.” Nothing is so simple as the scenario I just sketched. However, we must start somewhere. So, how do we reform the school board system to make it more agile and flexible? Putting mayors in charge doesn’t seem to work so well.

    Any ideas?

    • In the first place God made idiots. This was for practice. Then he made School Boards.

      -Mark Twain in Following the Equator; Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar

  3. One of the things few of us realize is that our educational system was founded on the notion of local control. The theory is that the people of a specific locality can decide how their children are educated.

    Different states have kept that notion to different degrees. It was especially strong in Colorado when the standards movement began, and the concept of state education standards was squarely in conflict with state laws regarding educational content,. Those standards met a lot of resistance because of that. I still think some of the steps taken violated the state constitution, although no one made such a challenge.

    Take that up a notch to the federal level, and you have an even greater challenge. The U.S. constitution gives the states the power to make laws not covered in the U.S. constitution. That was a big part of the problem with the Civil War. People are often critical of the fact that it took Abraham Lincoln two years to abolish slavery in the south, but he probably didn’t have the constitutional authority to do it even when he did.

    In recent decades the federal government has gotten around this by threatening to withhold tax funds if states do not have particular laws. That is how we got a national minimum drinking age. States are free to lower the drinking age if they wish, but if they do so, they will lose certain funds distributed by the federal government.

    That is one of the reasons there is so much tap dancing when it comes to federal education initiatives. The power to control education is, in theory, supposed to lie with those local school boards.

    And, as Mark Twain said,….

  4. […] to Bonnie Bracey Sutton for sharing this in her article, "The Teacher’s Voice Is Missing," included with Harry Keller's must-read article, "Time to Push the Ed Reform Pendulum Sideways." […]

  5. […] to Bonnie Bracey Sutton for sharing this in her article, “The Teacher’s Voice Is Missing,” included with Harry Keller’s must-read article, “Time to Push the Ed Reform […]

  6. […] Teacher’s Voice Is Missing,” included with Harry Keller’s must-read article, “Time to Push the Ed Reform Pendulum Sideways.” Via Mark Ahlness‘ share on […]

  7. I have one additional comment on the concern that the teacher’s voice is not heard. I have heard that complaint many times. the question I have is this–who is speaking for the teachers, and what is it the teacher’s believe?

    If someone came to America and asked, :What do Americans believe about God?”, what would you say? I think the same thing is true about what teacher’s say about education.

    I remember at a meeting where a teacher was making an eloquent stand for listening to the teachers. The problem I had was this: I was a teacher , too, a the time, and I disagreed with her 100%. The last thing I wanted was to have someone listening to her.

    Ont he other hand, I am quite sure she believed she was indeed speaking for all teachers. Birds of a feather do indeed flock together, and in her case, I knew well that all her teacher friends, the ones she ate lunch with and went to FACs with, all believed the same as she. My friends had different ideas.

    If people are to listen to the teachers, to which teachers should they listen?

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