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Who is going to hire young people skilled at regurgitation?

Most classrooms and schools are outmoded ‘answer factories,’ and regurgitation is not a skill that is marketable. Kids today are growing up in a sea of information, 24/7, and schools must be helping them formulate questions, encouraging them to dig deep, to prepare them for a world which values the ability to formulate questions and then find answers to those questions. Who is going to hire young people skilled at regurgitation?

Of course, blended learning can turn out better workers for those answer factories, but what a waste that would be. But if its advocates limit their vision to merely producing kids who do well on standardized tests, blended learning will end up being yet another disappointment, and we will all lose.

John Merrow via http://takingnote.learningmatters.tv/?p=5908

We need to foster a diversity of talents

First, much research has shown that what makes a nation or a community prosperous is a diversity of talents (Florida 2002; Chua 2007). Even honeybee colonies with more genetic diversity are more productive (Mattila and Seeley 2007). A society cannot rely only on one type of talent to meet the challenges of the sophisticated, complex, and ever-changing economy, which constantly needs innovations and new industries (Kane 2010). If America had produced just one kind of talent wherein all individuals possess the same skills and knowledge, we would not have Apple® or Google™ or Facebook, or the Internet for that matter.

Second, because of globalization and advancement in technology, today’s society has such diverse needs for different talents that any individual, no matter how unique he or she is, can make a contribution and be successful. While a Lady Gaga may have been of little use in the agricultural society when most people were worried about feeding themselves, today talents like hers are in great demand. Just look at the size of the entertainment industry. Hence, an individual does not have to be one of many and compete by becoming better than millions of others in a narrow spectrum of abilities.

Finally, by necessity, globalization compels us to be unique and different because of the entry of billions of individuals who may have the same abilities and demand less. In other words, if one American wants to compete with a Chinese or Indian person, he has to offer something qualitatively different to global employers (Pink 2005; National Center on Education and the Economy 2007).

Therefore a decentralized system with strong local control and professional autonomy is an effective way to cultivate the diversity of talents that will help keep a nation, a community, and an individual competitive. In contrast, a national common curriculum, enforced through high-stakes common assessment, is just the poison that kills creativity, homogenizes talents, and reduces individuality through an exclusive focus on the prescribed content and teaching-to-the-test by schools and teachers, as we have already seen with NCLB. There is no question that education should help develop some common basics for the purpose of citizenship, but that is the extent to which government can mandate. And for hundreds of years, despite the lack of a national curriculum, the decentralized education system has performed that function well.

Yong Zhao via http://zhaolearning.com/2012/04/24/mass-localism-for-improving-america%E2%80%99s-education

The percentage of low-skilled manufacturing jobs continues to decline

As McKinsey & Co. pointed out last month in its study on the global demand for high-skilled labor, the percentage of labor-intensive, or low-skilled assembly and factory line jobs declined by half since the 1970s;  low-skilled jobs as a percentage of all manufacturing positions declined by 29 percent, while the percentage of manufacturing jobs in capital- and knowledge-intensive areas – those requiring strong math, science, and computer language skills – have and will continue to increase.

RiShawn Biddle via http://dropoutnation.net/2012/07/30/why-algebra-matters-and-why-those-who-think-it-doesnt-are-wrong

Does the fate of America rest on how well our children bubble in answer sheets?

does the fate of the nation rest on how well 9- and 13-year-olds bubble in answer sheets? I don’t think so. Neither does British economist, S. J. Prais. We look at the test scores and worry about the nation’s economic performance. Prais looks at the economic performance and worries about the validity of the test scores: “That the United States, the world’s top economic performing country, was found to have school attainments that are only middling casts fundamental doubts about the value and approach of these [international assessments].”

Gerald Bracey via http://voices.washingtonpost.com/answer-sheet/standardized-tests/so-what-if-the-us-is-not-no-1.html

Teach students higher order or critical thinking skills? Not if the Texas Republicans have their way.

Republican Party of Texas Logo

The Republican Party of Texas states in its official 2012 political platform:

We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based  Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.

This is astounding since most everyone else in America seems to understand that our educational graduates and our employees need greater, not less, development of critical and higher-order thinking skills in order to be effective citizens, learners, and workers in our hyperconnected, hypercompetitive global information society. This political platform item is an absolutely stunning example of educational and economic cluelessness and is a surefire recipe for complete irrelevance in the 21st century.

In recent years, I don’t believe I’ve heard of any other groups officially opposed to teaching students critical thinking or higher-order thinking. Have you? Other thoughts?

Hat tip: Slate

Taking the ACT a quarter century after high school

Roosevelthighschooldesmoines

[Warning: Long post ahead]

Yesterday I took the ACT college entrance exam for the first time. At age 44.

It all started with Ira Socol’s blog post, which argued that if politicians think that the standardized tests they are espousing are so important, they had better be able to pass those tests themselves. I then sent these tweets:

Neither Iowa Governor Terry Branstad nor any state legislators responded (surprise!) but Dr. Jason Glass, Director of the Iowa Department of Education, said that he would take the ACT if I would too. The good folks at ACT said that they would be happy to administer a retired test. And that’s how I ended up in a small room at Roosevelt High School in Des Moines with Jason and 8 students who took the exam for practice.

How was the experience?

I took the SAT when I was a kid so the ACT was new territory for me. I’ll break out my thoughts by test area…

English. The English test was primarily a test of grammar, sentence formation, and paragraph flow and structure. I was asked many questions about punctuation and phrasing and word choice (e.g., who or whom or whose or who’s). Occasionally I was asked about spelling (e.g., its v. it’s) or whether a particular sentence or paragraph should be inserted, deleted, and/or moved elsewhere in a reading passage. The focus was primarily on writing composition. At times I felt like I do when I’m helping edit one of my students’ doctoral dissertations! With the caveat that I’m not a writing expert, I felt that this test did a fairly decent job of assessing whether students could identify grammar errors, poor wording, stilted sentence flow, and other technical mistakes in written passages.

Testingdonotdisturb

Math. I know how to do a number of advanced statistical procedures, including linear regression and hierarchical linear modeling. However, I still thought that this would be the hardest test for me since I haven’t done any geometry or trigonometry since I took those high school courses almost 30 years ago. Most of the test focused on algebraic and geometric concepts. There were a handful of trigonometry questions, plus I was surprised to see a question on logarithms. I correctly completed more problems than I thought I would but – probably due to lack of day-to-day immersion and practice – was correct about the pacing. I had to pencil in last-minute random guesses for several questions because I simply ran out of time. My biggest concerns about the math test relate to the fact that much of what is assessed is math that – and I think I’m safe saying this – most of us will never use again (how many of you have needed to calculate the cosine of an angle recently? how many of you have needed to determine the formula of a circle on a standard coordinate plane?). This is a curricular issue more than an assessment issue since the ACT draws off of the math courses that most high school students take. Smarter people than I have weighed in on what math courses high schoolers should take and I’ll defer to them before I reveal too much of my ignorance. I know some of the arguments about ‘inculcating habits of mind’ and ‘more students might be turned onto higher-level math and science’ and so on. It just bothers me a great deal that we’re herding many, many students through math classes that are largely irrelevant to their future life success (most high school students don’t get much probability and statistics, for example, even though that’s what I think they’ll need most often beyond foundational numeracy). My other big concern about the math test was that the problems generally were either decontextualized pure math problems (students: who cares?) or pseudocontextual word problems (students: who cares?) of the type that Dan Meyer rails against regularly. There wasn’t much on the math test that I think would be of interest to typical high school students outside of the artificial environments of classes and testing. [Note: I’m happy to be proven wrong on any of these concerns, so have at it in the comment area.]

Reading. 4 multi-paragraph reading passages pulled from 1 fictional novel and 3 non-fiction essays or books; 10 questions per passage. Could I pull out essential details from what I read? Could I infer authors’ intent? Could I decipher meaning and voice? Could I make reasonable conclusions based on the text? A classic test of reading comprehension. Yes, I could do these things. This was the test on which I scored best.

Science. This test had 7 passages, each of which contained one or more often-interconnected tables, charts, graphs, maps, or diagrams. Most of the passages described various scientific experiments and most included additional narrative text. This was the hardest test for me, despite having taken numerous advanced science courses in both high school and college. I am comfortable with electrical, genetic, geological, kinetic, chemical, and other scientific terms and concepts and, as a professor, regularly spend time deciphering research studies and policy reports that present information in complex ways. The challenge for me was not understanding the material but rather navigating the sheer amount of information presented and answering the questions within the time given. I easily could have used another 10 to 15 minutes. Like for the math test, I had to hastily pencil in some random guesses and did worst on this test. I am very impressed by any high school students that score well on this test. I’ll also note that ACT admits that the science test doesn’t directly assess scientific knowledge or skills (although some familiarity with scientific concepts and terminology helps for comprehension purposes). Instead, what the test assesses is the ability to decipher various ways of presenting scientific information and to then make appropriate inferences and conclusions. That’s a worthy goal but I wonder if renaming the test to something like ‘Information and Data Analysis’ might be more accurate.

Writing. We didn’t get to take the writing assessment, primarily because of ACT’s desire to do same-day scoring of our results.

Boxoftests

How do I now think about the ACT?

Jason and Governor Branstad have proposed legislation requiring every Iowa high school student to take the ACT. Here are some of my thoughts about the exam and its desirability as a statewide mandate…

The issue of time. Time is an issue for any assessment. Students shouldn’t have unlimited time to finish but neither should they have inadequate time. The ACT is intentionally designed to be an assessment that sorts, sifts, selects, and ranks participants. Having now taken it, I wonder how much of that sorting and ranking function is accomplished by benchmarking time of completion to those students who are quicker at computation or faster readers. This is different than benchmarking to difficulty of task. I have a feeling that many students might be more successful if they simply had more time to navigate the assessment and show their understanding.

Cognitive complexity. I confess that the exam often was more difficult than I thought it would be. Despite being exposed beforehand to some practice questions, the overall experience was more demanding and draining than I expected. I didn’t take any practice exams (which might have helped with my pacing) but did spend a few hours reviewing some math formulas and familiarizing myself with the other tests.

Content of the tests. With the exception of the math concerns that I expressed above, it’s hard for me to contend that the skills tested on the ACT aren’t worth knowing. Students and citizens need to be technically-competent writers. Students and citizens need to have knowledge of at least some more-than-basic mathematical concepts. Students and citizens need to be able to comprehend complex texts and information displays. And so on.

I think we can do better. Despite being more impressed with the ACT than I anticipated, I still left the exam wanting more. Although my overall experience was positive and I learned a lot about the exam, I still have the same disposition toward it that I had before. Unlike many school and university assessments, the ACT doesn’t assess too much factual recall. I think that’s good. The exam does, however, focus heavily on procedural knowledge (and provides a variety of contexts in which students can show that knowledge). Occasionally it assesses – in a fairly-limited bubble test way – some application, synthesis, analytical, or inferential skills. But for the most part, the exam does not get at higher-order thinking skills in any substantive, applied, hands-on, performance-based way. Even the writing assessment (from what I can tell from ACT’s materials and what I’ve read about it) can be successfully completed in fairly rote, formulaic ways. If we’re going to ask every student in the state to take a college- and career-readiness exam, it should be an exam worth taking. Despite its long history and deep roots, I’m not convinced that the ACT is it.

What might be some alternatives? Although I’m fairly statistics-savvy, I’m not a psychometrician. And although I know a lot about incorporating data-informed practices into schools, I’m not an expert in large-scale and/or high-stakes assessments, particularly those used for college admissions. I have a generalized interest in these topics but do not live in this space on a day-to-day basis. All that said, I look at learning environments like those provided by the New Tech Network or the Big Picture Schools or the Expeditionary Learning schools or the Science Leadership Academy and I want to see more of that for our students. Those schools – and states like New Hampshire – are working hard to assess students with performance-based assessments rather than (or at least along with) bubble tests. Students have the chance to be innovative and creative. They have the chance to do inquiry-based, interest-based, hands-on work. They are able to show that they are critical thinkers and problem solvers. And then I hear about tests like PISA, the College and Work Readiness Assessment (CWRA), and those given by other countries - tests that purportedly focus on higher-level cognitive skills and give students opportunities to show not just what they know but what they can do with what they know. And I want that for our students too. As it’s currently designed, does the ACT get us there? Nope. Might the ACT be part of a more holistic, multiple-assessment strategy for getting at college- and career-readiness? Perhaps. But it’s not enough by itself. Many hopes are riding on the PARCC and Smarter Balanced assessments that are being created right now. We’ll see if they can fulfill their promise.

Concluding thoughts

I’ll close with a few additional thoughts about the experience of taking the ACT as an adult several decades removed from initial college entry and the proposed participation mandate for all students…

GoingovertheACT

Try it (again). I think it behooves us as adults – particularly those of us involved in education delivery, educator preparation, or educational policy- and decision-making – to be fairly familiar with what we’re asking our youth to do. Many of us still think that schooling and testing and learning and being a child or adolescent are like they were when we were young. They’re not. Despite our general inclinations to believe that our own time in school was the educational golden age worth returning to, we must recognize that the scale, scope, complexity, and demands of course content, curricula, assessments, and culture all have increased dramatically over the years/decades. If you’ve never shadowed a high school student throughout her entire school day, try it. I think you’ll be surprised. Similarly, I encourage you to retake a college entrance exam like Jason and I did. I believe you’ll find it worthwhile and illuminating. And then see if what we’re asking of our youth is what we really want as parents, communities, and citizens.

You’re so brave! I was struck by the sheer number of comments that Jason and I received that expressed disbelief that we would do something like this. Typical statements included variations of ‘You’re so brave! I could never do that!’ and ‘You’re willing to report your score publicly? Really?’ and ‘There’s no way in hell I’d ever take that exam again!’ and so on. I’m still mulling over what it says about us, our schools, and our society when we’re willing and even eager to have our children submit to experiences that we’re not willing to engage in ourselves as adults.

Mandated participation. Like some states, the Des Moines Public Schools has all of its students take the ACT. I asked Roosevelt High School’s principal what that experience was like for lower-achieving students. She said that a great many of them left the exam utterly humiliated. Jason was less concerned about that statement than I was, saying to the press something along the lines of ‘Far worse things will happen in life to those students than sitting through a 4-hour exam for which they’re unprepared.’ I, however, am greatly empathetic toward those adolescents. Do academically-disengaged students really need yet another formal reminder – this one with state and/or national, not just local, weight behind it – that they’re not up to snuff? How is kicking them while they’re down an incentive toward college or career readiness?

Still searching. Jason and I received a very kind offer from the Council for Aid to Education to also take the CWRA. I’m going to take them up on it and am excited about the opportunity. I wonder if I also can take PISA? I’m on an assessment quest. What else should I investigate or take?

The media. Lesson learned: No matter how much you emphasize that you’re focused on learning about and better understanding the substance and process of the college entrance exam that you’re publicly taking, the media and others will inevitably focus on your results. Jason and I both scored better than we anticipated. If you really must know, Google it.

If you’ve read all the way down to here, I appreciate your engagement and will await your comments and feedback. Thanks!

Image credits: Iowa Department of Education

[cross-posted at Education Recoded]

Some Iowa students weigh in on what classes they need for 21st century jobs

Leslie Pralle Keehn, a Social Studies teacher here in Iowa, had her students read The World Is Flat and then asked what ‘classes’ would help prepare them for 21st century jobs. Here are their responses:

Prallekeehnstudentresponses

I love how none of these are disciplinary silos (which, I’m guessing, is how her students experience most of their school days). What do you think about her students’ responses?

High school students know that their learning isn’t relevant

Bored teenage girls in class

As was so aptly said just a few days ago:

It is hard to make an argument that there are many desirable post-secondary educational or career scenarios for current high school students that will not require the use of computer technology on a daily basis. The kids have known this for quite some time now. High school students know that they will almost certainly be using computers in any desirable job that they manage to get after high school. They know that a computer is a requirement for success in today’s higher eduction environments. They know that, in the “real world,” college students don’t write papers in longhand on loose-leaf notebook paper; they know that, in the “real world,” people don’t create business presentations with markers and paste on poster board or tri-fold displays; they know that, “in the real world,” people who engage in any type of research may still occasionally use books, but they conduct the majority of their research using online tools. They know that, “in the real world,” bankers do not keep their accounts in paper ledger books, or do their financial forecasting only with the aid of a calculator. Yet high school students are regularly asked to write in longhand on notebook paper, make presentations using kindergarten tools, research mostly using books, and do their calculations on paper. Why should anyone be surprised that they don’t find their high school experiences “relevant?”

Do we have the will to integrate digital technologies into students’ learning in regular, frequent, and meaningful ways? Are we brave enough to cast a critical eye at the learning tasks that we assign students and ask difficult but necessary questions about their relevance in a technology-suffused, globally-interconnected society? Are we willing to look at what passes for ‘learning’ and ‘teaching’ and ‘schooling’ on a day-to-day basis in this country and acknowledge that the vast majority of it is mind-numbingly boring and disengaging? Can we recognize that we’re infantilizing our young adults instead of enabling them to be empowered learners, thinkers, and doers?

Robert Fried noted that:

We have opted not to create schools as places where children’s curiosity, sensory awareness, power, and communication can flourish, but rather to erect temples of knowledge where we sit them down, tell them a lot of stuff we think is important, try to control their restless curiosity, and test them to see how well they’ve listened to us. (pp. 58-59)

He also stated that:

[M]ost of what [our students] experience during school hours passes over them like the shadow of a cloud, or through them like an undigested seed. They may be present in the classroom, but they are not really there. Their pencils may be chugging away on the worksheets or the writing prompts or math problems laid out for them, but their intelligence is running on two cylinders at best. They pay some attention to what their teacher happens to be telling them, but their imagination has moved elsewhere. (p. 1)

We could have learning spaces that emphasize hands-on inquiry, critical thinking, collaboration, and authentic, “real world” problem solving instead of teacher lecture, rote practice, and fact regurgitation. We could have learning spaces that spark students’ imaginations and enable them to be interested, engaged learners instead of dulling them into bored compliance. We could have learning spaces that students would choose rather than classrooms that we force students to attend. Shame on us that we don’t.

[cross-posted at Education Recoded]

How NOT to reform American education

evaluation = bad

Alberta, Canada is widely recognized as having one of the best schooling systems in the world. A recent article in Alberta Views highlighted the differences between its system and America’s, noting that the United States is an ‘anti-model’ for how to do school reform:

By contrast we can also learn what not to do from reform in the US, whose education system is in decline. Its elements, implemented over the past two decades, are largely ideological: “market-based” reforms (the application of “business insights” to the running of schools); an emphasis on standardization and narrowing of curriculum; extensive use of external standardized assessment; fostering choice and competition among schools, often with school vouchers; making judgements based on test data and closing “failing schools”; encouraging the growth of charter schools (which don’t have teacher unions); “merit pay” and other incentives; faith that “technologically mediated instruction” will reduce costs; an overwhelming “top-down” approach which tells everyone what to do and holds them accountable for doing it.

This state of affairs is both depressing and harmful, particularly since it’s pretty clear what we should be doing instead. As a recent book, Surpassing Shanghai, notes, school systems around the world (like Japan, Finland, Singapore, and Shanghai) that consistently outperform the U.S. on international assessments do things very differently:

  1. Funding schools equitably, with additional resources for those serving needy students
  2. Paying teachers competitively and comparably
  3. Investing in high-quality preparation, mentoring and professional development for teachers and leaders, completely at government expense
  4. Providing time in the school schedule for collaborative planning and ongoing professional learning to continually improve instruction
  5. Organizing a curriculum around problem-solving and critical thinking skill
  6. Testing students rarely but carefully — with measures that require analysis, communication, and defense of ideas

Schools in the U.S. are failing miserably to prepare most students for a complex, technology-suffused world and a hyperconnected, hypercompetitive global economy. What will it take for Americans to stand up and fight not just against our schooling systems but also against educational reform efforts that take those systems in wrong directions?

Hat tip: Joe Bower (for both the quote and the post title)

[cross-posted at Education Recoded]

Iowa wants to fail 3rd graders (and other thoughts on the Governor’s Education Blueprint)

Over the past month I’ve been reading and thinking about the new Education Blueprint proposed by the Iowa Governor and the Iowa Department of Education (DE) as well as various reactions to that document. If you haven’t yet read Trace Pickering’s insightful (and also lengthy) response to the Blueprint, be sure to do so. Another important read is school change guru Michael Fullan’s recent paper, Choosing the Wrong Drivers for Whole System Reform.

Here are some additional thoughts of my own. These are not all-encompassing – I have additional questions and concerns – but they do constitute a few important issues that caught my attention. I’m also intentionally not commenting on topics for which I’m fairly ambivalent (e.g., charter schools) or don’t know enough (e.g., teacher salary schedules and compensation tiers) and instead will leave those to others who care or know more than I do.

Failing 3rd graders fails our 3rd graders

I’ll pick the low-hanging fruit first. Failing 3rd graders who can’t pass some reading assessment is a really, really bad idea. It doesn’t matter how many safeguards and second chances there are and I understand why the policy is being proposed (both educationally and politically). The bottom line is that, regardless of the ‘social promotion’ rhetoric and whatever gut intuition parents or policymakers may have, the research evidence is overwhelmingly unidirectional that in-grade retention does far more harm than good. Desired test score increases often never materialize and, even if they do, they usually don’t persist past a few years. One of the stronger and consistent findings in educational research is that, in the long run, in-grade retention is at best a long-term wash score-wise and the resultant negative impact on students’ psyches and their likelihood to graduate is horrific. The Governor and DE don’t get to advocate for research-driven practices in other parts of the Blueprint but ignore that requirement here.

Input-Process-Output

We can visualize a box that represents the day-to-day occurrences within a classroom or other learning environment. That box is the most important aspect of schooling: if what students and teachers do on a daily basis in their learning-teaching interactions doesn’t change substantially, all hope of achieving ‘world class schools’ in Iowa vanishes. WE LEARN WHAT WE DO. There are a variety of inputs (e.g., standards, curricula, teacher quality, funding and resources, school structures, technology infrastructure, laws and policies) that hopefully impact what occurs inside the box. We also look at what comes out of the box (e.g., student knowledge, skills, and dispositions) to see if what we wanted to happen actually did happen. This is a classic Input-Process-Output systems model (that hopefully is accompanied by a recursive feedback loop that informs the system).

IowaBluePrintSystem

There are 85 main bullet points, or action ideas, in the Blueprint. As you can see in my annotated version of the Blueprint, I tried to place each action idea into one of three categories: Input, Process, or Output (coded I, P, & O in the document). You are welcome to disagree with my categorizations (and I admit I struggled with some of them), but the evidence is quite stark that the Blueprint is overwhelmingly focused on inputs and outputs and gives very little attention to the day-to-day learning and teaching processes that occur between students and teachers.

IowaBluePrintPieChart

This is unsurprising. This is traditional school reform stuff:

We’ll change some inputs; let’s try better teachers and higher standards. Oh, and we’ll also change some structures around. How about reallocating some monies, reorganizing traditional schools a bit, and allowing for charter and online schools? On the back end, we’ll assess like crazy by changing our tests or using new and/or additional ones.

In the end, we change only a little and, if we’re lucky, we see a little change in results. This is the way most states do it, but it’s neither the only way nor the required way. Where in the Blueprint is the recognition that we need to do something DIFFERENT in our classrooms? Where’s the acknowledgment, for example, that we need to invest heavily in teachers’ ability to facilitate learning environments that foster higher-order thinking skills (an increasing necessity these days)? Where’s extensive language about better facilitating student engagement in their courses? There’s virtually nothing about students’ interest in what they’re supposedly learning. There’s nary a bullet point about student hands-on or applied or problem-based learning or authentic intellectual work (a great program already being piloted by DE, by the way). To the extent that PBL and AIW and similar issues are addressed at all, the Blueprint does so indirectly; all hopes lie with effective implementation of the Iowa/Common Core and the Smarter Balanced assessments. Instead of just holding educators ‘accountable’ on the front and back ends of the process, how about directly investing in them so that they actually can be successful? The overwhelming emphasis of the Blueprint is on accountability rather than capacity-building. Go ahead and do a search in the Blueprint for the terms training or professional development or capacity; you won’t find anything. If DE and the Governor are truly serious about ‘world class schooling’ in Iowa, they should be focusing heavily on the Process box – the day-to-day learning and teaching processes occurring in classrooms all across the state – and right now they’re not.

Low-level testing

Much of the Governor’s education concerns appear to be driven by NAEP scores and proficiency levels, despite the fact that most of the items are predominantly factual recall and low-level procedural knowledge AND despite the fact that the designers of NAEP freely admit that the level designations are arbitrary AND despite the fact that the American Institutes of Research notes that most of the nations to which we are comparing Iowa also wouldn’t score well on NAEP. If we want our students to be gaining higher- rather than lower-order thinking skills, end-of-course assessments appear to offer us nothing better. So there’s a lot of new and/or additional testing in the Blueprint that’s focused on stuff you can easily find using Google – or that can be done cheaper by people elsewhere in the world – instead of on the skills and capacities necessary to really foster a world-class citizenry and workforce. We’re not talking about assessments like the College and Work Readiness Assessment or what they do in Singapore. Again, when it comes to higher-order thinking skills, there’s virtually no proposed investment in the Blueprint for the instructional side and all of our hopes rest on the Smarter Balanced assessments, for which right now we have no idea what they will look like and no idea how they will operate. The Blueprint essentially validates and tweaks and expands current testing schemes, despite significant warnings to the contrary from our very own National Research Council.

Digital, global world. Analog, local schools.

It’s a globally-connected world out there, but the Blueprint primarily focuses on globalization as an economic force to which we must respond, not a societal / learning / citizenship issue to which we should attend for mutual benefit and empowerment. The Blueprint also says that Iowa students and graduates need to be internationally competitive but most of what it proposes is vastly different from what other countries are doing to achieve better results. The Blueprint contains no significant investment in teacher capacity-building, no emphasis on early childhood education, no amelioration of the impacts of family and neighborhood poverty on learning, and no recognition of the importance of strategic foreign language learning (particularly at younger ages), just to name a few.

It’s also a digital world out there, but you wouldn’t know it given the lack of emphasis placed on technology in the Blueprint. For example, only nominal attention is paid to online learning, despite the fact that it’s booming nationwide and despite Iowa’s meager offerings compared to other states. Even though Iowa ranks abysmally low when it comes to Internet speed and access, there’s nothing regarding the importance of universal statewide broadband Internet access for both educational and economic development purposes. Most damning, there’s absolutely no recognition of the power and potential of digital technologies to transform learning, teaching, and schooling, despite the rapid and radical reshaping of every other information-oriented societal sector by digital tools and the Web. In the world of the Blueprint, it’s as if computers and the Internet essentially didn’t exist. Go ahead and do a search in the Blueprint for the terms Internet or digital or technology; the omissions are quite alarming, actually. There’s one meager shout-out to the rapid growth in 1:1 laptop initiatives across the state, but no support for giving every Iowa child a powerful digital learning device, for providing technology integration assistance for educators, for upgrading woeful infrastructures, for rethinking policies, or for anything else of substance when it comes to educational technology. It’s 2011. Personal computers have been around for three decades and the Internet has been around for at least a dozen years for most of us. Digital technologies are transforming how Iowans and the world connect, collaborate, and LEARN; this omission is both sad and shameful.

A lost opportunity

There are a few things that I’m glad the Blueprint included. Although there is only a single bullet point referencing competency-based (rather than age-based) student progression, if done well that one thing alone has the potential to significantly and positively reshape much of how we do education in Iowa. I also like the willingness to invest in district-level innovation and to give districts some flexibility. The proof of most of this, like everything else, will depend on the legislative language and the resources committed.

As I think about the Blueprint as a whole (and we are encouraged by the document to treat it as ‘a set of changes designed to work together’), it feels like a lost opportunity. The Governor and DE had the chance to dream big and swing for the fences. They had the chance to propose impactful, sweeping changes to the current system. They had the chance to create learning and teaching environments that prepare students for the next 50 years rather than the last 50 and to educate the public as to why those changes are necessary. The Blueprint rhetoric is right but the action items fall far short. I don’t know if it’s a lack of knowledge or vision or courage that’s holding them back, and of course there are political considerations with all of this. But the result is a a tweak of the current system, a tinkering at the edges rather than a rethinking of the core. Perhaps it’s foolish of me to wish for more.

I welcome all feedback. Thanks.