Gary Stager always challenges me with my thinking whenever I have an opportunity to visit with him or read his work. This evening prior to the kick-off panel discussion for the Learning 2.0 conference in Shanghai, Gary shared the idea that NCLB is really a symptom of bigger problems we have in education, rather than the sole problem we need to “fix” and address.

I think he is correct. In talking with some other international school teachers here in Shanghai, one of them told my wife and I how many of the students she teaches are relieved to come back to school because their parents have made them drill and practice all summer with test-prep materials. In some schools, they cannot announce the textbook for the next year before the summer or many of the parents will go out and buy it, and then require their students to work through the textbook during the summer PRIOR to the start of the next school year.

I realize that sort of focus is certainly not everyone’s context, but the point it makes me think about is that our ideas about what learning looks like and how we should engage in the learning process really is the issue. At the other end of the spectrum of parental expectations for student learning, we have parents that don’t get actively involved with the education of their children, or are satisfied to simply see a regular stream of completed worksheets come home showing that their kids have been “doing school” in a compliant fashion. All of these perceptions of what learning should look like at School and at home are skewed and in need of realignment.

I’m personally sad and frustrated that many of our Oklahoma public schools (the one our kids attend does) continue to put a relatively high level of emphasis on traditional spelling tests. Yes students need to learn how to spell, but the research indicates the best way to help students not only learn to spell but also learn to write well is to provide them with robust access to multiple texts and time to read! It also helps if they have frequent opportunities to write, and their motivation to write can be REALLY magnified if they are able to safely write for global audience which provides feedback!

We hear rhetoric about using “scientifically supported” instructional methods in schools, yet much of what we do (and we see other teachers do) in schools has more to do with TRADITION, our past experiences in school, the past experiences of parents in school which in turn shape their own expectations for school, than they do with RESEARCH or what is actually good for literacy development.

Will NCLB get reauthorized this year? I’m afraid it will. Where is the constituency of educational and community leaders articulating an alternative vision to NCLB for schools, students and teachers? Certainly there are many in the edublogosphere community and even at professional conferences like Learning 2.0 here in Shanghai who are advocating for change, but has this vision been spelled out (pun intended) and articulated in a way that it can be embraced as a counter-vision to NCLB? I don’t think so.

Ed in ’08 touts itself as wanting “strong schools.” The about page of the site says their constiuents want “to make education a top priority in the 2008 presidential election.” They hope:

…that candidates will offer genuine leadership rather than empty rhetoric and tell voters how they intend to strengthen America’s schools so all students receive the education they deserve.

With funding from several foundations, the main “issue” the group seems to want addressed is excessively high dropout rates.

I definitely want to see “the dropoout rate issue” addressed as well, but what we need is different, creative thinking about LEARNING and “School” rather than more rhetorical support for rigor, standards, punitive testing, etc. I AM interested in a pragmatic political agenda for educational reform, and I do NOT think we are wise to hope the “candidates will offer genuine leadership” on this issue. I don’t think the candidates have the expertise they need, or that the vision they need has yet been articulated well so that it can be understood and embraced by a significant number of voters as well as the candidates themselves.

We’re here in Shanghai discussing “learning 2.0,” the present and future of not just “Schooling” but LEARNING itself. I’m thrilled to be an active participant in this conversation, but I want to see a specific change agenda outlined which the U.S. public can both understand and support. Politicians, think-tank academics and others have been telling us for a LONG time that our schools are in crisis. (Remember 1983 and “A Nation at Risk?”) The medicine offered by that fear-encouraging report was more standards and more rigor. That is NOT the direction we need to go.

Where is the vision for the future of learning 2.0, articulated in pragmatic ways that local, state, and national leaders (as well as their constituents) can both understand and embrace? If it exists, I haven’t seen it. A blog is a great communication tool, but it is not the appropriate communication modality for a well-constructed and comprehensive reform agenda like I (and I think many others) want to see. This needs to be a paperback book and a downloadable PDF file.

Is it too late to draft such a vision for the NCLB reauthorization debates going on now? Probably. A single report, book, or PDF document isn’t going to broadly change the perceptions of voters on education in time anyway, however. I may be wrong, but I’m increasingly convinced it is CONVERSATIONS which have more potential to change us than anything else. What is the VISION for educational change about which we need to be talking and our leaders need to be supporting? Who is articulating this in a cogent and comprehensive way?

I’m sure some people are, certainly many of the voices in the edublogosphere regularly share elements of that vision. I’m frustrated not only that I don’t hear any of our political leaders articulating that vision: I’m frustrated that others (or “we”) have not articulated it yet or well enough so it can stand as an alternative vision to NCLB and it’s root problems which focus on what citizens think teaching and learning in Schools is and should be all about.

Yes, NCLB is a problem, but no, it is not THE problem. It is a symptom of a bigger problem. The good news is, that “bigger problem” is certainly one that we CAN and must address, both in the edublogosphere but also in the mainstream press as well as the conversations of everyday voters across our nation and planet. Are you cynical and pessimistic “the ship of education” can’t change course? Many people are, and many have been in the past. What’s different? Several things, but fundamentally the fact that we are connected to each other via the read/write web is BIG. What are we going to do with those connections?

At a basic, classroom level, we need to be connecting our students more with each other. One of the questions from the audience in tonight’s panel discussion at the Learning 2.0 conference was, “How should we as educators be SHIFTING?” I think there are multiple ways, but I shared 3 specific suggestions:

  1. Shift by blending the learning opportunities you provide for students with both digital asynchronous, digital synchronous, as well as face to face interactive communication modalities.
  2. Shift by inviting students to demonstrate their mastery, knowledge and understanding of knowledge and skills in different modalities, including media. (Differentiate both learning opportunities as well as your menu of assessment choices for learners with digital tools and options.)
  3. Shift by continuing to view yourself as a teacher more as a CONNECTOR and a FACILITATOR than merely a conduit for the transmission of information and ideas. As Tim Tyson said at BLC 07, “meaningfulness comes from connectedness.” Strive to connect your learners to others, and a wealth of meaningful learning can be connected to those rails of connectedness.

We need large scale change, but the change we are most able to make today is in our own classrooms with our own students. Whether or not NCLB is reauthorized in the United States, that is the moral choice which needs to be made by educators everywhere.

The digital tools arrayed before us for communication, interaction and learning are more powerful than our wildest dreams. What are we going to do with these protean tools? Let’s make stuff together and invite our kids to make stuff. Let’s have digital show and tell on a regular basis with learners separated from us in both time and space. And let’s keep working on this “vision thing.” If we don’t articulate it, who will?

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2 Responses to NCLB is a symptom and not a root problem

  1. Bill Decker says:

    My daughter started 3rd grade this year. Over the summer break, we had her memorize multiplication tables through 12 x 12 and write a 500 word essay. That was in addition to letting her read, spend a day in a laboratory, travel, etc. She was quite ready to go back to school and is better off for her summer “break.”

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