Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: An American Agenda for Education Reform, written by Marc Tucker, President of National Center on Education and the Economy, is a report fresh off the press that provides a possible path for education reform in the United States. The reports spells out that our current path towards reform is likely to fail since our society seems oblivious to the realities of our “failing system.” As a companion to this report, look at the series of seven articles that appeared in Education Week over the past two months entitled, The Future of School Reform. In addition, you can check other blog entries (follow the tag School Reform) on the Center for Teaching site that review these seven articles and provide a perspective on their offerings. The last article in the series (Factors Leading to the Success in School) we can see that school reform in the United States is not only about changing our education system, but also addressing non-school factors that prevent students from being successful in school.
Standing on the Shoulders of Giants outlines an agenda for change that is mapped out in the diagram below:
The paper also states that progress on any one of the reform areas alone is unlikely to result in widespread boosts in student learning. All efforts, it says, are interconnected and should be linked to a coherent vision of what students should know and a system for ascertaining whether they achieve those goals.
I think the key words in this quote are INTERCONNECTED and COHERENT. We cannot assume that educational reform will occur if we treat only part of the illness. Like an organism, all parts of our education system are totally interconnected. To accomplish successful and lasting change we have to understand the interconnections and treat the problem in a systematic way. So it does not make sense to treat the curricular problem through Common Core Standards and the assessment problem through more high-stakes tests produced by major corporations without addressing the unemployment problem, funding problems for education, the inequity of resource allocation in the public sector, or the parenting issues that result in many students not being supported at home.
In order to address the problems in a coordinated way, we need leaders with a coherent educational vision. Typically, educational reform happens in a piecemeal fashion because our leaders lack a vision, introducing or supporting “stand-alone” ideas.
If we look at the “agenda for change” diagram above, we need a system of change that recognizes the fallacies of annual, high-stakes, grade-by-grade testing that we subject our students to in the United States. All other high-performing countries use high-stakes testing sparingly. We need rigorous standards of admission into the teaching profession and equally rigorous training programs that give teachers more practice time in the classroom. If you want to be a surgeon, you have to take four years of medical school and years of internships and residencies under the guidance of experts before you are allowed to “go it alone.” Not so in teaching! A new teacher can be handed a class of precious 4th graders with only 3 months of “on the job training” in his or her college program. Finally, the teaching profession has to become more professional. As the report points out,
U.S. teachers must give up blue-collar work rules like seniority rights and recognize difference in performance in exchange for being treated as professional partners, who are given autonomy and trusted to diagnose and solve instructional problems on their own.
Where have we gone astray over the past 20-25 years? I think the United States rested on its laurels. We became complacent and the world passed us by. If we are to retool young people to carry out the work of the 21st Century, both intellectually and practically, we will need a vision for how to accomplish the “agenda for change” in the NCEE report, as well as a vision for reform as outlined in School for the Future. We cannot assume that educational reform that paves a “yellow brick road” to success ONLY through college is going to prepare our young people to inherit the workforce of the 21st Century. We need a robust vocational education system based on valuing all types of work that must be done well in order for a society to function effectively.
To accomplish these tasks, we need strong, visionary, and determined leadership that comes from all sectors, not just politicians. Can we honestly say that we have a team of leaders working in concert on all aspects of the “agenda for change?” I don’t see it. However, I am hopeful we can assemble a team if we pay attention to the work of NCEE and other organizations that see the problem clearly from 35,000 feet and articulate a sensible blueprint for change.