Some thoughts on Thom Powell’s points relating to school reform and Bill Gates’ call to revamp high schools. 

Ian Jukes has a posting on his blog this week responding to the comments Bill Gates made at the National Education Summit on High Schools in February. I agree with the basic point of Thom Powell’s article: kids and society as a whole need supportive families who emphasize the importance of education and expect success in the classroom and in life.

But I disagree with what seems to be Thom’s overall thesis regarding school reform: blame parents not schools, and just give schools more money.

No doubt public schools need more money. The national movement to open the public education coffers to private and charter schools is troubling for many reasons, but the most fundamental reason is that public schools are not experiencing a budget surplus. Quite to the contrary, as always public school dollars are in short supply. Opening up this limited barrel of dollars to other interests (particularly outside commercial entities) is a bad idea. The students who stand to lose the most and be hurt the most are those in the poorest schools, which are likely to be even poorer and shorter on resources as a result of school finance reform that lets public dollars go to privates and charters.

But school finance and private/charter school voucher programs are not the focus of this posting. School reform is. And this is where I differ with Thom Powell, and agree in part with Bill Gates.

Our schools need reform, and legislators (and many educators) have been trying for years to bring it about in two basic ways:
1) By creating vast lists of curriculum standards and expectations for teachers & students
2) By using standardized testing to bludgeon schools and teachers into making curricular and instructional changes

These are the present predominant instruments for school reform, and they have been only marginally effective, in my opinion. But what are the goals of these school reforms?

I would offer the following as basic, needed goals for the school reform movement in the United States in the early twenty-first century:
1) Raise teacher expectations of student achievement
2) Adopt a flexible curriculum emphasizing depth rather than breadth of learning
3) Regularly engage students in authentic tasks involving problem solving, teamwork and communication, on topics of interest to students about which they have a basic level of experience/schema and the opportunity to gain more in the course of their study.

If we do these things, I think we will succeed in broadly raising levels of student achievement. But what are the instruments and policies that can effectively achieve those goals? That is the million dollar public policy question in education today.

Schools need to be places where teachers and students love to be. I thoroughly agree with Paulo Freire, who argued (along with John Dewey previously) that education is an enterprise for the passionate. Learners of all ages should be encouraged to play with ideas, to stretch their creative imaginations and abilities, to express themselves in multiple ways in authentic contexts.

I am not talking about some theoretical fantasy world or fantasy school here. Thom and many others seem to regard the reform movement supporting constructivist teaching and learning as well as “process skills” over content based learning as hogwash. His suggestion is that we need to give schools and students more money (and lower the cost of higher education, which I do agree with) and then we’ll have the reform we need. I know many people who are acting and speaking out on this issue by home schooling. That is fine, I understand that choice, but I also understand that home schooling is not a viable option for many, many children and families. Where do you want your children and/or your grandchildren to go to school? At a school where everyone (teachers and students alike) are so stressed out over testing and accountability, that there is little to no room in the day for open, creative explorations of ideas and theories– much less any time for recess? My answer is unequivocal: Absolutely not! I want my children in classrooms with loving, passionate teachers who have the freedom to creatively to teach their subjects, and have the expectation of successful learning for every student. And unfortunately, this vision is not the reality in many classrooms across America today.

Public schools DO need our money, but they also need the incentive and the power to change. Many people in education oppose change and reform in any form, and as teachers we are often the biggest obstacles that stand in the way. It is quite easy to “armchair quarterback” the problems in our culture and society and say, “the problem is the parents.” Yes, we do have problems with parents. We do have problems with fathers not being active in the lives of their children, as Thom also points out in his reflection– the National Center for Fathering has plenty of statistics on this. But we cannot leave our analysis at that: blaming others and crying for more money.

We DO need solutions that can promote school reform, Thom is right about that. Here are two specific ideas that would take us in the right direction:

1) Start putting our faith in PEOPLE (the teachers and administrators in our classrooms and schools) rather than the TESTING and TECHNOLOGY with which we continue to inundate our school systems.

2) Enable teachers in the system who are “dead wood,” who have no passion, who are not teaching to make a difference but just to make another dollar– to be shown the door.

On the first suggestion, I am not saying we should stop spending dollars on educational technology. But I do contend (PDF file) we should stop expecting educational technology to produce instructional transformation and corresponding increases in student achievement levels, when we are largely employing technology to serve the traditional goals of American education.

On the second suggestion, The Common Good has dramatically illustrated (via a graphic organizer) the ridiculous amount of bureaucracy and steps involved in firing an inept teacher. This is a universal problem, not limited to New York state or the inner city. We don’t have a teacher recruitment problem, we have a teacher retention problem– and part of that retention problem is that we are (in some cases) retaining the wrong people. There are MANY, MANY fantastic and dedicated teachers and principals in our school systems today. My intent is not to bash educators, in whose company I count myself– but rather to say something everyone in the profession knows well: there are people who should not be in the classroom, who remain there and will likely not leave until they retire. And that reality should change. Our kids deserve more, and our collective future requires more.

Let’s empower capable administrators to clear out the “dead wood” teachers in our classrooms, and let’s pay the teachers who ARE there ably serving the children and families in their communities the higher wages they deserve. And let’s look to innovative uses of instructional technology, particularly the successful one-to-one technology immersion / laptop initiatives across the nation, to serve as models for how we can prepare the children for whom we are educational stewards today– for the twenty-first century environment of dynamic change and growth which we can barely imagine– yet we must move into together. 

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