Secretary of Education Discussion 1: The Most Important Issue

Carol Broos is one of twelve teachers who have been invited to participate in a round table discussion concerning the direction of education with the new Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on Jan 21. She was sent five questions in preparation for the meeting. This is the first one:

What is the one most important education issue you wish Secretary Duncan to focus on during his tenure and why?

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I guess we are lucky here in NY, we already have computers and smart boards for the teachers. We even have Computer Labs in many schools. I still think we are behind in meeting the students' needs. We still have a teacher-centered classes. A Smart Board is not very different from a blackboard, it doesn't switch the center from the teacher unless each student uses a computer every time he or she needs and has an output to the Smart Board.
Answers to a thorough overhaul of ESEA/NCLB - the number one priority - can be found in the work of the Forum on Educational Accountability: the Joint Organizational Statement on NCLB (now signed by 149 national organizations), the FEA reports Redefining Accountability and by its Expert Panel on Assessment, and detailed legislative proposals. A new, supplemental statement will be issued soon, again with many organizational signers. These proposals would replace NCLB with a law that reduces testing, builds better assessment systems, scraps the 'all proficient by 2014 requirement, creates systems of support to replace automatically triggered punishments, and more. All at www.edaccountability.org.
Monty... It is good to hear about an effort to change the way schools are assessed towards more holistic criteria. Thanks for sharing that... I hope it is successful.

Cooper Zale
Los Angeles
www.leftyparent.com
I think it is important to for us to step back and redefine what "success" means in education. Currently, a "successful" school or district has a high number of students performing at or above "grade level" based on a set of standardized tests. For high schools, the graduation rate is another metric being applied (come 2011) and it assumes that a successful student is one that completes his or her high school career in exactly 4 years. All of this precludes the field of education from truly meeting the needs of students - we have become a system-centric culture, not a student-centric one.

The single most powerful thing Mr. Duncan can do is to provide opportunities for schools and districts to define success differently for the population they serve, and to encourage true reform: reform of assumptions, systems and measures.
Decrease class size.
Fund education.
Stop using "The Test" as the sole measure of students' success, teachers' effectiveness, and schools' viability.
Decrease class size.

Absolutely.
This is how we will get time to do everything and how the kids will get one-to-one attention.
This is how we'll completely switch to project-based learning and individualized instructions.
Smaller classes means more teachers.

More teachers means...that we've got to change the public perception of teaching as a profession, so more people want to be teachers, and so politicians want to fund education more appropriately. There's been a long campaign, either intentional or not, to decrease public respect for schools and teachers. Why not? An uneducated public is easier to manipulate.

Secretary Duncan and President Obama can, and should, wax poetic about how important schools are, and how dedicated teachers are. If they can somehow, magically, get funding to hire more teachers, then there's a possibility that a pro-education PR campaign can begin to turn things around. The Kinsley report notes that the nations with the best school systems have the highest overall public perception of teaching as a profession. Public opinion makes a huge difference, and education hasn't had a real champion for some time. Maybe, there's now room for optimism.
What can I say :) You are right :) My daughter once said that we will not have problems with the next generation only when half of the population decides to devote their lives to upbringing the children.
How long will it take? :):):)
Broadband access for all schools and in the homes or all students and staff.
During my 34 year tenure in local school districts and at the state department of education helping students and teachers use online, local and other information resources, I always believed that "your zip code should not discount the quality of your education." The new Secretary of Education must develop effective stragegies that will equalize the quality of teacher practice, instructional and information resources, teacher training and, last but certainly not least, teacher, administrator, district, family AND community accountibility for student learning.

Our youth are our most important. We need to identify what is wrong with our local schools (without placing blame), identify alternative strategies for fixing the problems and pick the best solution for the students.
Professional development is essential--not only for in-service teachers, but for pre-service teachers. Speaking as a university science geek with a long history of working with my K-12 colleagues, it's clear that a great majority of teachers want better access to ongoing PD. From the PD literature, it's also clear that PD works, and advanced degrees work, when they are in the teachers' disciplines.

And yet, it is very hard to convince university administrators that it's actually OK for research faculty to participate in teacher PD. Case in point: our previous dean hired me to set up the Office of Science Outreach. The new dean eliminated it, declaring that "we don't work with teachers." He also declared that he didn't want to try to collaborate with the School of Education, either. What kind of nuttiness is this?

By "pre-service PD" I refer to teacher-training programs. Like ours, too many separate what to teach from how to teach. In my experience, these are inseparable; different topics require different methods, even within a single field. And yet, science faculty and Education faculty do not communicate well. Long-standing separation of the fields has led to fundamentally different types of training for scientists and Educators, fundamentally different understandings of what teaching and subject matter are, and -- most surprisingly, for me -- fundamentally different conceptions of what science itself is.

Consider Constructivist Teaching. It should be clear that this means each of us must make sense of information ourselves. No one but me can run the neurons in my brain that cause "learning." A good teacher can point me in the right direction to use the right thought processes, and thus learn; but I have to do the learning myself. I suspect that this is pretty obvious to teachers. It's not at all obvious to the general public, which includes students, their parents, and a goodly number of politicians.

And yet, in the educational literature, and specifically in the textbook used to teach Elementary Science Methods, constructivism is not spoken of as "constructing knowledge." It is spoken of as "constructing reality." The activity through which it is demonstrated that science is a personal construction of reality teaches, as near as I can tell, that scientists take a little bit of information, and then guess. Scientific knowledge is tentative, they say, because scientists usually guess wrong.

Where I come from, the process of "doing science" is quite different. You collect a whole lot of data, and then make sense of it. The explanatory models that come out of this are refined as more data is uncovered. But one of the critical rules is that one not build models for which there are no data. Guesses would be such models.

So science faculty teach pre-service teachers one way (not necessarily with the best pedagogy), and Ed faculty teach how to teach science in a very different way. It's got to be unbelievably confusing to pre-service teachers, particularly elementary teachers. I would hope that Secretary Duncan would knock some heads together and say "come on you guys! Talk to each other. Get this straightened out so we can teach science."

On my website, I have been compiling lesson plans, most of which come out of my consultations with teachers. I've tried to make them authentic science, but accessible to students at the appropriate levels. They are what I, as a scientist, consider to be Inquiry. They are not, however, what Education considers to be Inquiry. As evidence, I point to a research paper I co-authored with an Education graduate student, describing a summer program in which teachers came into research labs and participated in cutting edge science. The reviewers of the manuscript didn't like it--they said this was not Inquiry.

Teaching should not be the presentation of "facts" to memorize, and it should not be "open inquiry" in which kids do whatever they want and then report what they did. In every field, teaching should be a Cognitive Apprenticeship. Teachers should be helping students learn how to think -- and how to think differently in different subject areas.

I suspect, based mostly on anecdotal evidence, that changing our teaching strategies so that they give students guidance and practice in authentic disciplinary thinking, largely eliminates the problems we experience with student apathy, boredom, and therefore discipline. When applied to the teaching of evolution, it has been reported to me that parents don't complain to the teacher; rather, they occasionally call and ask if they can sit in on the class, and see "if this evolution stuff really is true."

In an economic atmosphere of austerity, it may not be easy to obtain vast sums of money for full-scale professional development that helps teachers conceptualize how to blend the pedagogy with the disciplines more fully. But it should not be difficult to build effective lesson plans (or better, "learning experiences") that can be archived online and made accessible to everyone. Get rid of the soporific textbooks. Get the information online. Enlist historians to build interesting history learning experiences; enlist scientists to build interesting science learning experiences; ...and do something with math.

I'm not at all sure what to do with math. Our math faculty and our Math Ed faculty are equally puzzled about what to do. My mom was a mathematician, and she was puzzled. My guess is that math should be incorporated into everything that has even a hint of mathishness to it. It's so essential to so many things, we should teach it in the context of many things.

I started this by stating that Professional Development is the critical thing. I also stated that I can't easily separate how to teach from what to teach. I think I've illustrated that here -- my understanding of how effective PD works leads me to see it in the context of how to teach specific topics. PD is most effective when it's oriented at teaching specific things, rather than generic "information;" pre-service training needs to be oriented at teaching specific things, rather than generic "information." But...the only way I see this being brought about is through serious re-thinking the relationship between Educators and discipline-specific college faculty, and re-thinking the role of universities in K-12 education, and re-thinking the role of administrators in making things work.

--Jose
Such a great discussion going here--wow--it's so uplifting to read all these thoughtful comments.

I want to add in cultivation of leadership within the school settings, a new, distributed sort of leadership. Here's a link to one of the discussions on CR2.0 about changing the "structure of management" in education.

"Leadership: where is it to be found in the schools?"

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