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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IMHO, the most important educational issue is bringing our entire system out of the industrial age and into the knowledge economy. This is a huge issue on the surface, but it can be broken down into a few more concrete and measurable tasks:

- figure out how 21st century students learn, work, and play (we have a pretty good idea already)
- figure out what we want them to know (or really, what skills we want them to have) when they leave school and design backwards - with direct input from learners (the 21st century skills are a great starting point)
- design methods of assessment that are participatory, transparent, and wholistic (perhaps more 360-degree digital portfolios?)
- come up with a plan to transform what we have now into what we need (yeah, this is the tough part - it will take time, money, and tolerance for change)

and a few stretch goals / issues:
- allow plenty of room for alternatives to comprehensive schools; don't be afraid to support innovation and experimentation
- explore cross-generational learning, cross-cultural learning, goals other than higher education, lifelong learning, distance learning, private efforts, and hybrid approaches (in other words, create a flexible learning economy that allows parents and students to create personal learning ecologies)

if i had to pick one starting point, i'd probably round up all of the innovations and experiments and studies we have that offer different approaches from traditional public schools and do a massive awareness campaign, targeted at the general public, to show that there *are* better ways that already exist, so that we can build grassroots demand for change. of course, if you already have the ear of arne duncan, maybe it's better to just jump right in!

It seems like you've identified a fundamental impasse: a desire for innovation vs. a belief in standardization. It's very hard for me to see dramatic change coming from the top down because of this.
I do not believe that impasse needs to be the status quo. Change is possible. Look at the last 18 months: there has been change for the better and change for the worse.

I believe that we can start a grass-roots change toward innovation and movement from cookie-cutter education to real learning. Using the tools of today makes this possible. Networks like this are a great start. We are ready for change and for the first time, I believe that the nation as a whole is also ready. Simply adding more dollars and standards will not get us to our ultimate goals. There are better ways. Look at the educators participating on this topic, collaborating and working on the most important and difficult question facing our country - and it is a Saturday morning for many of us!
I think Sharon has a great point--there are so many interested and engaged teachers--that laced-up school marm who just wants to torture kids into repeating their multiplication tables is a stereotype that haunts us--as is the drowsy history teacher that drones on using the same yellowed overheads (or powerpoint slides). In a certain way, discussions and groups like these help those outside the field that we are truly 'professionals' which, for some reason no eludes us independent of the number of degrees or certifications we have. Part of the issue is the way our nation as a whole thinks about schools and education and the people who work in this field. We have a mythology surrounding education that is counterproductive and all of this talk of "accountability" doesn't help that.
No one talks about doctors or dentists being held accountable for their patients blood pressure or cavities, right? Culturally we need to address the way that students in all socio-economic levels view education--as long as they do not view it as important to their success (and their parents don't recognize the teachers and administration as partners) we could put in all the money and fancy technology we want with very little results.

Ok, so I ramble a bit when I get excited, but my point is that the most important thing we need to look at isn't in the nuts and bolts...its about the way that our country views the educational system and why.

Hope everyone is having a good Saturday morning! :)
I agree with both of you, Sharon and Michelle. There are plenty of good, dedicated people already working on this issue. There are plenty of good examples of innovation out there. But (we / they) stay on the fringes because:

- we have a do-no-harm policy w/r/t kids that limits the resources and pace of change
- there's no general demand for real change, so legislators don't support real change (they do seem to support incremental, safe, low-risk change)

Innovation comes in two forms: incremental and disruptive. If we stick with incremental, we'll never have a system that meets the needs of future learners.
I couldn't agree more with you when you commented on dentists and doctors being held accountable for blood pressure and cavities. The way children and their families view education is important and we need them to be able to answer the question: "What's in it for me?" If that question cannot be answered I think it is very difficult to get anyone to pass any test, let alone be active in their own education.

When it comes to state assessments, are we really assessing what we say we are? What are our assessments proving? I think performance based assessments would be more telling of what our children are able to do. Let's make a comparison to the medical field again. I wouldn't want a doctor to perform open heart surgery on me if he has only had to take a paper and pencil test on it and has never applied his skills before....

I guess I ramble a bit as well.
Indeed, public opinion is the key.

I hate to be cynical, but it is true that an uneducated public is easier to manipulate. It's easier to get us to buy dietary supplements if we don't have the knowledge to look at the Dietary Supplements Health and Education Act of 1994, and see that Congress officially forbade the FDA from regulating them. It's easier to get us to want to buy a supplement if we just listen to some random person's testimony about how great it is -- and it works even when we know the testimony and the product are fictitious (the study has been done). It's easier to get us to vote with our gut rather than our head if we don't use our head.

Note how well the PR campaign worked for the tobacco companies, for which there is ample data. We knew in 1953 that cigarettes cause cancer. The PR machine managed to prevent the surgeon general's report from coming out until 1964. The PR machine continues to make most Americans think smoking is pretty much OK, and that it's un-American to "take away our rights" by calling nicotine an addictive poison. And to think that only tobacco and strychnine are on the list of natural products that cannot be sprayed onto produce and still call it "organic." Other natural poisons are OK, just not the really bad ones. PR is magic, and we need to use it for education, not against it.

With a lot of subtle negative PR about schools, we end up where we are. We need a huge positive PR campaign. There's certainly enough to go on -- like US industry pretty much has the same requirements for the beginning workforce as colleges do for freshmen. The local industry here in Southern Indiana is struggling to find enough entry-level, non-bachelors-degree employees. There are a lot of kids around, but they have to take remedial math and English and science before they can get an entry-level job.

Except at McDonald's of course--another company with a superb PR machine.

I'll also put in a plug for my own direction of work: we can make the lesson plans learning experiences more relevant, and we can make them actually require that students think in the manner appropriate to the discipline. We can create things for them to do in school that aren't deadly dull (to quote a recent school board description of the social studies texts they were required to choose among at textbook adoption). This would go a long way to getting students more engaged. If we could get all of the K-16 faculty to create one really good lesson plan we'd have millions, at essentially no cost. If we could just get a coordinated effort among teachers to test-drive these things, and report the data on student learning, we could find the good ones in only a couple of years. Viola (or is that a stringed instrument?) a new curriculum, tested, distributed, and functional.

It also wouldn't hurt, of course, to do what someone somewhere here suggested, and make advancement dependent on learning, rather than on age. That's what I'd call a do-no-harm policy.
I agree. What Eric said needs to happen, but I don't believe it will without a major restructuring of our educational systems. At this point, state and national oversight on local districts and schools are doing very little to help make schools better, and they are doing a whole lot to hold them back - can anyone say "unfunded mandates"?

With this in mind, I believe that the best thing that the new administration could do is to throw away the current oversight structure at the national and state levels, then concentrate less on evaluating district and school performance using tests, and concentrate more on creating environments around schools that evaluate schools locally and completely. Probably the most recognizable way to do this is go to a direct competition structure - aka a "voucher system" where parents and students can shop for schools like they would for a college. Those schools/districts that don't innovate will go "out of business", and those that do innovate will grow. I believe that parents will likely take more of an interest in their student's education, because they had a choice in where they went from the start. Parents will also likely need to make a choice between their kids going to the local school (convenience, bus rides), and their kids going to the better or best school. Those that choose the better school will likely need to arrange for their kids to get there. Personally, I love this idea, because it would lessen the need for districts to maintain their own bus barns and fleets - one of the most expensive and wasteful things we pay for. Did I mention that kids don't typically learn much on the bus???

Sure, teachers need more training, more pay, and generally need to be taken care of more, but I work with a boat load of teachers every day who are awesome just the way they are. The biggest impact would come if we could strip off the layers of bull crap surrounding them and create more incentives for parents to support and work with them. I think most teachers would agree with me that the biggest problem education faces today is not an educational problem at all. It is the lack of parental interest in their own student's lives. We have largely a cultural problem on our hands. You can throw money at the classroom like crazy, but if a parent doesn't think the classroom matters, why on earth would the student?

I say, create that local competitive atmosphere and put the communities back in control of the schools - not the state or federal governments.

On a side note - can't somebody do a study to find out what the sweet spot for district sizes is? No matter what teachers or school administrators say, districts are absolutely needed to provide support for schools, but incredibly large districts are almost always incredibly dysfunctional. I don't think it would be a bad idea to find that sweet spot using some data analysis, and seek to break down the really large districts into smaller ones that local communities can actually get a handle on. Just my 2 cents.
IMHO, this answer is really quite obvious, he needs to convince President Elect Obama, as quickly as possible, that education is the most important issue . There has been know other time in history, ...that I know of in my short life..., that has provided the "perfect storm" for change. We have unprecedented access to information and tools for communication, and we are at the cusp of one of the most catastrophic episode in modern times. Times such as these are ripe for change. Education is more important than social security, diffusing waring factions, and economic bailout. Actually, the solution, at the root of the majority of our ills, is rebuilding education. As I see it, our government can take the easy way out and make one of the peripheral issues the big deal. Or, it can take the tough fight, the fight that's right, and reform education. Just my 2-cents... :-)
I think funding education is one of the main issues, as well as making education a priority in the public eyes. The other issues that need to be addressed are NCLB and how to meet the needs of special education children, and how to get people to want to become an educators.
Education is the key to all success.
I've been a part of a few projects lately which have had to receive funding from outside sources and one thing I have seen is that funding sources are very eager to pay for materials and field trips, but not for teachers time. We need more funding because we need more teachers--and good people to be convinced to go into teaching. As someone pursuing my doctorate (8 year degree) in the field I teach in, I look at the payoffs for me as someone who intends to stay in the classroom in the K-12 level and I look at the payoffs for my husband who has a 6 year degree in the medical profession and...well, you all know the difference! Why are we so reluctant to pay teachers?
We must remove the whole concept of teaching to the test. We need to move toward assessing students more authentically. NCLB needs to pass away. Let's get our schools back to the agenda of learning and less testing,.


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