Moving at the Speed of Creativity by Wesley Fryer

Education leaders propose more useless and counterproductive ideas

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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5 responses to “Education leaders propose more useless and counterproductive ideas”

  1. llary52 Avatar

    I find it a bit disturbing that you post a critque of the Spellings plan wihout apparently having taken the time to actually read the plan. It might help if you visited here: or maybe read through this report which was issued by a commission composed of college presidents, professors, and business leaders:

    So when you say the Spellings plan “misses the mark” one would have to assume that you believe college is affordable, students have all the information they need to evaluate a college, and all students have access to college. I say that because that is what her plan actually addresses. You make the giant leap to say that because she wants colleges to report more information – such as their 4yr graduation rates – that somehow she is imposing NCLB accountability on the system.

  2. Wesley Fryer Avatar

    Good point, I had not read the full plan. After reading the first link you cited, I agree with the following, which are conclusions from the Commission’s report:

    Access to American higher education is unduly limited by… inadequate preparation, lack of information about college opportunities, and persistent financial barriers.

    I also agree with this:

    Too many students are either discouraged from attending college by rising costs, or take on worrisome debt burdens in order to do so.

    I’ve written previously about how we need to address basic problems with how expensive college has become in my post from July, “Rethinking out of state tuition.” I definitely think we need to do more to open doors of opportunity for both young and old to attend college, especially in terms of the costs. I also DO think we need to reform basic things about our educational system, namely our predominant model of “standalone teaching.”

    My main point of disagreement with the Secretary is with the following point, which is bullet 2 of the first link under “The Secretary’s proposal:”

    Work with Congress to expand the successful principles of the No Child Left Behind Act to high schools.

    My position is that NCLB has not been successful, the principles behind the act are flawed, and we do not want to move forward with more educational reforms that are based in part or whole on the same assumptions.

  3. llary52 Avatar

    Ahh… but that’s not what you wrote. What you wrote is, “US Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings’ announcement on Tuesday that US colleges and universities need to face similar accountability to K-12 schools.” That is patently untrue. No where in her speech or in the fact sheet did she call for that. Very difficult for readers to take you seriously when you just rant without actually using any of the 21st century/information literacy skills that you advocate.

  4. Wesley Fryer Avatar

    The Secretary’s announcement IS all about imposing greater accountability on higher education constituents, I think that is clear from the article and the quotations. I agree she is not calling for high stakes testing in the higher education space, but she is calling for proposals that would track students and create a database of students in the hope that such quantitative data tracking will result in improved academic performance and reformed/improved environments for teaching and learning.

    I still stand by my main point in all of this, which is that these proposals officially made (at least in part) to “expand the successful principles of NCLB” are founded on inaccurate assumptions about the effectiveness and desirability of NCLB-like policies.

    I concede that the tone and language of this post is more “rant-like” than my usual posts and admit I have thought a great deal the past few days about using such strong language. I admit that I am overall extremely frustrated by the negative effects of NCLB which I see in the education of my own children as well as the education of other students with whom I work, along with their teachers and parents. It is often less controversial to address issues rather than people, and certainly less confrontational– and I have been thinking quite a bit about that. Let me say that I do appreciate your engagement with my thoughts on this, because I certainly do consider myself “an educational reformer in a constant state of learning” about these issues. I want to listen to all sides, and form opinions based more on reason, logic, research and actual effects rather than just emotion.

    So thank you for your challenges of my thinking on this thread. I am wondering, however, who are you? A google search for the name you’re using to reply here (llary52) shows that someone using that same userid has also made some thoughtful posts on David Warlick’s and Brian Crosby’s blogs. I’m guessing you may be involved in some official capacity with NCLB or the US DOE. I certainly respect your right to remain anonymous and the most important thing here from my perspective is THE IDEAS rather than the sources. I am interested to know who you are, however, if you care to reveal yourself.

    I’ve been ruminating about a follow-up post to this thread that I’ll likely submit during the early part of this week. I’m glad you’re reading some of what I’m writing, and I hope you’ll continue to challenge me and others as we write and reflect about issues relating to school reform and other topics. One of the biggest dangers of our blogosphere era, I think, is the “echo chamber” phenomenon, so I certainly welcome alternative views and different perspectives. We all need to be challenged to support, clarify, and modify if needed the things we write and the positions we take.

    Additionally, I will take time this week to read the full report which you helpfully linked, and reflect on that in greater detail. What I wrote in this post was based on the partial quotations included in the cited USA Today articles, and as you point out it makes sense to read the full proposal and report before reaching conclusions. Good example of the need to read/utilize primary sources rather than just secondary ones.

  5. Brian Crosby Avatar

    Wes I heared Dr. Spellings on NPR the other day – she wasn’t saying we will test college students per NCLB in elementary and high school – but she did say we should do that or use some other method of tracking results of college students.