I definitely think our educational system needs important reforms, but I continue to be disappointed and saddened by the lack of national leadership we have for the sorts of education reforms we need. US Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings’ announcement on Tuesday that US colleges and universities need to face similar accountability to K-12 schools is based on a fundamentally flawed assumption: That educational “accountability” as it has been promulgated by the Bush administration’s NCLB legislation has contributed constructively to the education of children and their preparation for the future. In fact, NCLB has done more harm than good in the education space. It has been advanced by interest groups and legislators less interested in the education of children and more interested in finger pointing, getting re-elected, and discrediting public schools to open the coffers of public education dollars to commercial interests. Their policies have been supported by false claims about the “literacy crisis” and have served to corrupt the teaching profession across the nation. In many places, teachers and administrators are far more concerned (than should be morally permissible) with preparing students to take multiple-choice tests and canned writing exams rather than educating the whole child, helping them become digitally literate and critical thinkers, and working hard to create classroom learning environments where students LOVE school rather than despise it.
In education usually feel “we have no time to lose”– and of course TIME is the most pressing issue for everyone. To the extent our children are in school NOW and need great teachers and great learning environments TODAY, and can’t wait several years for the politics of this to get worked out, this perception is accurate. It is NOT accurate that we need teachers and students so stressed-out and time-pressured that they don’t have time for project-based learning, free voluntary reading, and authentic dialog about the challenges and opportunities in their own lives, however. Instruction DOES need to change, but high-stakes accountability has taken us backwards rather than forwards.
We need educational policies which encourage teachers and students to take time for the educational work that matters– and sadly the environment of accountability and high-stakes testing takes us in the opposite direction. What we need in the education space is deregulation, rather than further regulation, which will provide GREATER INSTRUCTIONAL AUTONOMY for teachers rather than less. More testing and more databases of information about our students, whether they are K-12 or college-age, will not save us. Only great teachers can and will, who are well supported by administrators, parents, and their communities.
In the USA Today article, “College overhaul called ‘overdue’” Spellings says in the context of higher education reform:
This is the beginning of a process of long-overdue reform. Over the years, we’ve invested tens of billions of dollars in taxpayer money and just hoped for the best. We deserve better.
Does the honorable US Secretary of Education realize that the United States HAS the best university system in the world? Reading her comments, one might falsely conclude that high quality students from around the world were flocking to a university in another country rather than those in the United States for a world-class education. Don’t misunderstand me, I am NOT putting down the educational systems in other nations. I do want to observe that many US colleges and universities have outstanding and top-notch international reputations, and this is not an accident. Our college and university systems do need some changes– and certainly the issue of cost needs to be addressed, but this idea of creating a national database of students to improve teaching and learning is not the approach we need.
In addition to de-regulating education to provide greater instructional autonomy for teachers, I agree with Tom Carroll and others like him calling for an end to the “standalone teaching model” which still predominates in our educational system. REAL learning and work in the 21st century is all about collaboration and teamwork, yet much if not most of the teaching we see taking place in K-12 as well as university settings is still entrenched in a “stand-alone” model. This must change.
Sadly, the proposals Spellings is outlining miss the mark with false assumptions and a basic misunderstanding of the type of advocacy we really need at national, state, and local levels. We don’t need more calls for stricter and more rigorous accountability. In fact, we need to entirely reject “rigor” and instead embrace differentiation, flexibility, and high expectations. As the US Secretary of Education, Spellings needs to go “back to school herself” and listen to the students, teachers, and administrators who are having to suffer with and through the consequences of NCLB every day. Good places for her to start (and everyone else wanting to further refine their visions for what it should mean to teach and learn in the 21st century, and what sorts of educational reforms we need) are The National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future and The Schlechty Center for Leadership in School Reform. These are just two of the organizations that “get it” when it comes to the types of school reform initiatives we need today. If Margaret Spellings doesn’t and won’t embrace these sorts of perspectives on education reform, hopefully our next US Secretary of Education will.
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