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]

18 Responses to “How NOT to reform American education”

  1. It’s very academic to feel like you’re pushing the envelope and pushing for positive change when you criticize your own educational system.

    To hear others (from Canada) rightly criticize education reform in the United States, sent shivers down my spine.

    It made me understand that what is viewed by many as progressive for our schools is, in fact, essential.

  2. David,

    “It made me understand that what is viewed by many as progressive for our schools is, in fact, essential.”

    Well said!

  3. So, by what measure(s) are we falling behind? PISA I suppose?

    You can’t have it both ways – use standardized tests to pick winners and then claim that we should emulate the winners while at the same time say that standardized tests aren’t a good measure of success.

  4. Hey Pal,

    I guess what I’m struggling with is how in the world do we change #edpolicy ?

    I mean we’ve been pushing back — with the support of tons and tons of evidence and experts beyond education — for the better part of a decade and yet the people making important choices are still driving our education system straight into the ground.

    That makes me super pessimistic — both about our ability to actually drive change and about my choices to stay in a profession that is governed by idiots.

    Any of this make sense?

  5. For the last 6 weeks I have been participating in an online course to develop an online collaborative forum (Blog) for elementary students. Educators know the importance of increasing student technology skills, as noted in the Partnership for21st Century Skills and the ISTE NETS for students. After spending the last 6 weeks reading material, interacting online with other participants, and watching videos that promote this thinking, it was mind altering to watch this video from MSNBC on the Waldorf School, which provides the exact opposite of what we as educators are currently doing in our classrooms, as directed by our administration, state and national education reform. If executives of Google and other Silicon Valley technology leaders are sending their children to this school, it makes me wonder if we may be pushing too much technology into our elementary schools for the wrong reasons. These thoughts, coupled with the many news reports and blogs noting nations surpassing the US in education don’t seem to mention technology as being a reason for success or failure. Although in my opinion the technology piece is important, but at what grade level? I think there has to continue to be a focus on curriculum, while pursuing why these countries are having success and to what degree the technology is a factor.

    • Glad to see that you have seen the light, though it’s too bad it takes the opinions of Google execs to convince people.

      There is nothing wrong with technology, per se, but it isn’t our raison d’etre. Nor are self-contained classrooms, or chemical equations or factoring polynomials or analyzing sonnets.

      Adults need to behave in a less self-important manner and create an environment in which students have the _opportunity_ to become aware of all the interesting things the the world and pursue those that most interest them.

      As long as success is measured by something other than the happiness and engagement of students, we’re barking up the wrong tree.

      • “As long as success is measured by something other than the happiness and engagement of students, we’re barking up the wrong tree.” And that wrong tree is a government created school grading system that publicly praises or humiliates the teachers and students – using this same school grading system to offer monetary rewards in the form of grants for administrator and teacher achievement. Disgusting.

    • Unfortunately technology is often used in our schools to consume content. I believe technology can be powerful for our students at all ages when they use it to communicate, collaborate and create content. In fact, when we allow our students to use technology tools in much the same way that adults do to socialize intelligence it can be quite powerful, and help students construct their own knowledge and understanding.

  6. A book that details educational reform and philosophy from Emerson to Holt and offers a new approach for applying educational history to schools today.

  7. Don’t forget to include South Korea on that list. Those students are also consistently out-performing the students in the USA.

  8. Yes, technology alone will not solve the learning issues. What are we doing to engage?

    • Don’t you think that teachers are using the technology to engage? The thought is that the “land of technology” is where we have to go to meet the students and their needs.

      • Cassandra,
        I think it very much depends from teacher to teacher, and certainly from school to school and district to district. I *hope* I’m using technology to engage, and my students mostly seem to feel that I am. But technology can also be used for other purposes, such as:
        “for its own sake” rather than to help students
        “for the teacher’s convenience” rather than to meet students’ needs
        “because the principal said so,” i.e., in superficial ways, or only when the teacher expects to be observed
        “not at all” — I have personally seen a classroom where the teacher used a SmartBoard as a projection screen for her overhead projector. Yes, the kind with Vis-A-Vis markers and transparencies. The SmartBoard was there, but it wasn’t connected to a computer … and she had no desire to connect it, either.

        So I would say that *some* teachers are using technology to engage their students, but others are using it for a variety of other purposes.

      • Too many people and too many schools still see education as a process for delivering information. I am scared to think that people would use new technology to deliver old style messages.

        Yes, technology will help but this alone is not sufficient.

  9. @Dads Do Good,

    Sad, but true! Yes, there are a lot of teachers out there using (or misusing) new technology as a more efficient means to deliver information. And then there are the ones who *have* the technology but are afraid to use it — probably because, on some level, they fear how the new tools might force them to change their comfortable, old, knowledge-transmitting ways.

  10. I think teachers need real examples of successful implementations (watch videos, visit other schools / virtually collaborate with other educators in other districts, share things that work, etc.).

    Especially for E. Organizing a curriculum around problem-solving and critical thinking skill.

    What resources are available for parents and the general public to better understand these issues, with pointers to DO something about it?

  11. Schools are a microcosm of our society. The failures in our school system directly result from failures that exist in society. American society is driven by capitalism and students are educated accordingly. American society doesn’t emphasize education to the same extent as some other cultures do. Most youth look to upcoming music artists, movie actors, and models as icons rather then politicians, doctors, and scientists. Society has to change before our school systems can evolve any further.

  12. I agree with you. Teachers are also criticized because they have 3 months of summer vacation. Those that believe this are those same parents that can’t wait for school to start so they can get their kids out of their hair. let’s just dump these kids off on the teacher but not allow them to have any form of discipline.

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