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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Enough talking about how important education is and make it as important as the military or the financial system. To do this Secretary Duncan needs to shift the view from education as a fiscal liability to the community/country to education is a fiscal assets to the community/country. Education should be like having clean water or air. We all believe that a well maintained highway system can be an asset, communities spend millions on new sport stadiums, we need to think the same way about education.
Restructuring the funding of education will help with this. Nathan mentioned this in his post. To have a 21st century education system we need to stop funding schools as if this were 18th century. Property taxes create inequality and resentment. Every child in a state should have the same expenditure for education.
I have two things I need to be a better teacher. I need release from all the rules imposed on me because of district fear of liability issues. Many things I used to do are no longer possible because of the restrictive environment.
Also, I have learned fewer students in the room helps me help them better. I find 15 students per room are enough to indiviualize and still have interaction of ideas. I favor hands-on education as much as possible but we are rural and poor. That means few resources for projects, no business partners, no museums, classes of 31, little leeway for activity.
This all costs more money. Not to pay teachers more, but to pay more teachers and pay for hands-on experiences whether that means bussing kids to nearby towns or bringing in people and supplies. Our IT department consists of two young men trying to keep old computers up to date and functional with little time or money. Computers could be our way to the outside world but ours are either incapacitated or blocked for fear of litigation.
More monery for more teachers and more supplies. Freedom to use my professional judgement rather than being tied up by restrictive policy.
I am a woodturner, past computer professional, grandfather, with recent experience in teaching woodturning and furniture design and construction to two home-schooled teen age boys. So these comments may not be worth much in the larger scheme of things. But I do care deeply about the issue discussed on this site. SFWIW here are some comments:

It can be useful to see what can be learned from other professions, as the comment above suggests w/r to the medical profession. To the point, I believe Doctor's and dentists (and their teachers!) are held accountable for clinical results. At several levels: They are at core scientists who are disciplined to deal with facts, hypotheses, research and theories that hold up. Data today is gathered and reported on outcomes by treatment, medical facility, and even individual doctors. But as with airplane safety and some other professions it is part of the lifelong professional development culture of learning, not blame. Why might this be important to teachers? Some thoughts:

- Accountability in teaching today may seem to be equated to fault finding, not improved educational outcomes?
- Perhaps each teacher should think of themselves as in part social scientist, not just a conscientious practitioner. I know, just what each teacher needs, another hat to wear!
- Certainly "administration" and teachers continually developing a culture of collegiality based on professional principles of research into best practices and outcomes and professional advancement is of value. Not a rote practice of teaching to test. Not blame. Not defense of work rules. In many districts that might be a big shift!
- Is there any evidence that the uniquely USA institution of very granular local school boards add to educational outcomes? I think not. That implies a radical political change but might it need to be addressed? A hot potato indeed.
- Previous comments here on collecting best practices, outcomes, and making the information available to the public to develop support for change could be a great tool for moving forward. A big difference I see between medicine and education is that the public is a much more active, and passionate, player in education; but not to the good in broad cases.
- What is the evidence on the seeming revolving door and short tenure of superintendents and it's impact on progress. How could this be changed structurally, politically to the good,
- Tenure has a strong historical argument in it's favor, but history as I read it suggests that tenure is not founded in achieving job security, but freedom of academic inquiry and debate. How relevent is the latter to K-12 education? The urgency of massive improvement in education outcomes is an imperative for our society. I don't know realistically the extent that these values are in conflict and out of balance. But to the degree they are it is a 500 pound gorilla that must be adressed, quickly.
- I read somewhere that Chicago provided feedback to parents, a report card of sorts, on the qualities of the parents academic support for their kids. And offered well received parenting workshops with an emphasis on how they could help their kids be successful students. Seemed like a very positive shift to me. But maybe I have it wrong. My point is that engaging diverse families in successful education of their kids has to move past parent-teacher conferences and PTA. To what degree are new models of engaging parents being done? But again outcomes need to be measured. Certainly the internet revolution provides huge opportunities, that I know are being explored. How about parenting self study courses, with followup/support by a school professional?

So, my love and compassion to all of you who take on the profession of teaching. I honor your commitment and have great respect for each of you. It is a superior calling, in the face of great odds, rapid change, and a very diverse environment, with each new generation off kids almost requiring reinvention of much of the process. I know that your belief in your students is the largest factor of all in their success. If anyone got this far thanks for reading!

Jerry Hall, Woodturner,
Innovation will come about when:
We get rid of the 9 month school calendar, learning should be available 24/7 worldwide, not dependent on where you happen to be on the globe.
We need unrestricted wireless access for schools, homes communities.
We need affordable hand held computers for all.
We should focus on 21st Century Skills to solve problems, hopefully hands on collaborative solutions.

I want to add to what you stated about the 9 month school calendar... Not only should "school" be available 24/7, but it should also be in a modular format so that students can proceed at their own pace.

Some students may be able to complete 12 years worth of education by the time they are 14 while others may not be able to complete that amount of learning until they are 20 or older due to their learning styles or abilities. We need to be okay with an individualized pace that is NOT based on age. We need to do away with age-based grade levels and grade-based standardized tests. Standardized assessments can be linked to specific bodies of content as long as students would be able to take those assessments when they are ready - after they have learned that material at their own pace.

I also agree with your other ideas regarding unrestricted wireless access (and it needs to FREE or very low cost for low-income neighborhoods), affordable computers, and a focus on 21st Century Skills with hands-on collaboration of problem-solving. As I read your last statement, I can't help but envision a community where students - as part of their formal education - spend time in internships across a wide-spectrum of career areas working side-by-side with adults doing real work.

I guess in summary, the big issue for me is that we should wipe the slate clean and completely reinvent our education system form the ground-up. I know that sounds ambitious, but our current system has so many faults that we spend to much time chasing one reform after another at the expense of other problems. Example: In our pursuit of higher test scores, we have disengaged students and increased the dropout and failure rates. When we try to address engagement, dropouts, and failures, we usually see a drop in test scores (because the reform methods to address all of those issues are conflicting).

We have a lot of work to do.
Stephanie, I agree very much with your prescription. I am writing this on a 10" Asus "Netbook" that is very capable, and cost me $368 with all open source application software. Video cam, good sound, 160gb harddrive, wireless. So the potential for low cost computers is nearby, if not here. My homeschool grandkids work at their own pace using, in part, on-line classrooms, most recently a Greek language class. They have had no trouble getting accepted to good colleges. Maybe like our medical system we are spending close to enough money per capita, but not well enough?

Also THIS 2006 Scientific American article on "Mastery" includes this quote that seems worth considering:
"The preponderance of psychological evidence indicates that experts are made, not born. What is more, the demonstrated ability to turn a child quickly into an expert--in chess, music and a host of other subjects--sets a clear challenge before the schools. Can educators find ways to encourage students to engage in the kind of effortful study that will improve their reading and math skills? Roland G. Fryer, Jr., an economist at Harvard University, has experimented with offering monetary rewards to motivate students in underperforming schools in New York City and Dallas. In one ongoing program in New York, for example, teachers test the students every three weeks and award small amounts--on the order of $10 or $20--to those who score well. The early results have been promising. Instead of perpetually pondering the question, "Why can't Johnny read?" perhaps educators should ask, "Why should there be anything in the world he can't learn to do?""

I work with some really bright students and some really slow students and some students who are average or have specific challenges. Expecting every one of them to be on the same page at the same time results in incredible frustration and incredible boredom, with nowhere near enough learning tucked in.
Stephanie... Good point. The state currently controls the who (mandatory attendance), what (standardized curriculum), when (grade level learning milestones), where (one-size-fits-all school building) and how ("open court" type required teaching methodologies). If they would at least back off on the when part it might open some latitude on all the other parameters.
Improving reading comprehension and writing skills.
"Accountability"has to mean something besides low level multiple choice tests given once a year. How about a national forum for students to exhibit projects and papers? I envision this as a place where creativity and high level thinking are recognized. The reason for this is clear. Both schools and students need to cultivate this kind of activity if the United States is to remain at the forefront of economic, academic, inventive and creative activity. No one ever made a new scientific discovery by taking a standardized test. It allows a very low floor of minimal memorization to pass as progress.
Digital media would be a great way to showcase this sort of forum.
We need to increase the number of REMARKABLE teachers. Highly Qualified (HQ) will not suffice as long as the requirements for HQ do not include the ability to engage and motivate learners, design learning across networks, or the ability to care for and believe in each student to become remarkable in her/his own way. We all know those "purple cows" (as Seth Godin would describe them) who provoke, inspire, challenge and empower learners of all ages. They tell the truth and expect their students to do the same - in school, at home, throughout life. They live with us in our memories and character for a lifetime. If we are to truly identify and cultivate remarkable teachers for all learners, we must make it a priority. Just as college scouts attend high school football games, prospective teachers must be recruited early and given strong reason to follow this road. Tuition waivers, school residency (like the DePaul Clinical Model Program) requirements, and a starting salary that promotes a long-term commitment are a start. National recognition and ongoing professional development through a collaborative network and annual gatherings would also serve to distinguish those who will continually prove themselves remarkable in this service.


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