Thoughts on Education Reform

Thanks to Twitter, I had the opportunity to read an excerpt from Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: An American Agenda for Education Reform.  The Iowa Department of Education Director, Jason Glass, tweeted  about the paper and was interested in hearing thoughts on the subject.

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants, is an outline of what the most successful countries (in education) are doing.  The author, Marc Tucker, answers the following question: “What would the education policies and practices of the United States be if they were based on the policies and practices of the countries that now lead the world in student performance?” (Tucker, 1)  If the reader of this article has a stake in education, this is a compelling question. As Ken Burns says (and I’m paraphrasing), we are all invested in our own education.  If this is true, then why do we not see a more ardent push toward education reform?  You can read the entire excerpt here: Standing-on-the-Shoulders-of-Giants-An-American-Agenda-for-Education-Reform.  I would recommend reading the excerpt; however, pages 40-43 are a summary of Tucker’s findings.

Benchmark the Education Systems of the Top-Performing Countries

– Make sure you know what the leaders are trying to achieve, the extent to which they achieve it and how they do on common measures

– Conduct careful research on the policies and practices of the best- performing nations to understand how they get the results they get  (40).

Tucker suggests something that seems to be obvious: find successful education systems and emulate their practices.  We do this as teachers, coaches, parents, etc.  We find what works and we repeat it.  In fact, we really can learn important truths about education in both successful and failing schools in America, but we need a systemic example of education. This is where observing successful countries can help the U.S.

Design for Quality

– Get your goals clear, and get public and professional consensus on them 

• Define a limited number of gateways [exit exams] — not more than the end of basic education, end of lower secondary and end of upper secondary (matched up to college entrance and work-ready requirements)

• Create logically ordered curriculum frameworks (topics for each year for each subject) for the basic education sequence

• Create curriculum (broad guidelines, not lesson plans) for each school level leading up to the gateway exams (the level of detail at which this is done should be inversely related to the quality of your teachers)

• Create exams for each gateway, based on standards and curricula

• Train teachers to teach those curricula well to students from many different backgrounds (40-41).

Again, the ideas presented seem obvious: clear goals, logical and universal curriculum, training teachers to differentiate, etc, yet this is not what we are doing.  The common core standards will help give teachers a sequenced set of guidelines for what students should know at a particular grade-level.  We also know that we must differentiate but this doesn’t always happen.  There are two major reasons for this: unclear vision set by the state education departments and local district leadership and a lack of accountability/coaching by leadership. Tucker lists clear goals as an important part of education.  All educators would agree with this; however, I can honestly say I don’t know what the vision for Iowa education is.  I know what I want/expect, but do we have a message as a state? If this message is clear, we must do a better job.

Tucker’s point about gateway tests is intriguing to me.  We test students every year to compare their scores to the previous class.  We then determine annual yearly progress on this.  Does this make sense?  Do these tests reflect our common core standards? Do they reflect what we feel will measure a students ability to enter college or the workforce? The gateways Tucker discusses do.  Students take high-stakes test that attempt to measure if they are prepared for university studies or the workforce.  How they create the tests is a novel idea: the tests for the work-force are created by the state in collaboration with the people that will employ the students or if the student is going to a university; the university helps create the test based on the schools curriculum.  Hmmm… that’s weird, why would the test align with the schools curriculum and the skills needed for certain jobs.  This makes too much sense.  One caveat, the countries that use this method basically use the gateway as the determining factor for acceptance.  I do believe that we need to have multiple data points for learning, but the gateway tests surpass our yearly testing, comparing different students to outdated questions (how many students use an atlas? They have Google Maps).

Develop a world-class teaching force

• Raise standards for entry into teacher education to internationally benchmarked levels, including standards for general intelligence, level of mastery of subject matter content and ability to relate to young people, with rigorous selection processes

• Move teacher education out of second and third tier institutions and into the major research universities

• Insist that teachers of all subjects at all levels have a depth and breadth of mastery of the subjects they will teach comparable at the bachelors degree level to that of the people who will go on to graduate education in those fields

• Design the teacher preparation program on a clinical model, with plenty of clinical experience under the constant supervision of master teachers in real settings

• Raise the criteria for teacher licensure to internationally benchmarked levels and never, under any circumstances, waive the licensure standards in the face of a teacher shortage

• Make sure compensation for beginning teachers is and remains comparable to compensation for the other non-feminized professions; add the amounts necessary to attract capable teachers to hardship locations, and specialties in shortage; tie amounts to steps on the career ladders (see below)

• Provide for an induction period for new teachers of at least a year in which they are supervised by master teachers who are released from full time teaching for this purpose

– Explore the development of approaches to instruction that would enable the state to get world-class results with larger class sizes. Class size is important because it is the fundamental driver of teacher cost and teacher cost is the fundamental driver of the cost of the entire system. Japan has shown how it is possible to increase class size and increase student performance at the same time. Perhaps that method would work in the United States, perhaps not. It is important to find out and, if it does not work or work as well, to make as much progress on this front as possible.

I do agree with his point about class size.  If instruction is poor then a small class will still receive poor instruction.  In other words, instruction practices are more important than class size.  Though I agreed with this point, I have points of contention with his view on teachers, especially the second bullet:  Move teacher education out of second and third tier institutions and into the major research universities.  Tucker discusses the lack of talented educators in America.  What bothers me about this idea, is not that he is wrong.  We do have educators that might be in education for the wrong reasons, but I believe that most educators are what Peter Senge says about cynics: “Scratch the surface of most cynics and you find a frustrated idealist — someone who made the mistake of converting his ideals into expectations.” Teachers can easily be worn down by our current system: lack of mentoring, instructional strategies, etc.

We need to accept that we do have teachers on every point on the spectrum and that we need to help them in instruction, coach them, and if they don’t improve then it is time to move on. But to simply say that only certain universities (second bullet) will  and should be able to produce educators seems counter to what America values.  A great parallel to this is our students, what if only certain high schools were capable of developing college ready students?  What if some of the students didn’t have the skills?  Could we simply ignore them and move on?  This is what we are doing to our teachers.

A summary of my thoughts on On the Shoulders of Giants:

– The state education departments must create a clear vision for education.  They then must communicate this vision to their school districts.

– If we know collaboration and certain instructional practices work, then why do we have the choice of pursuing different types of professional development.  The state could go one step further and suggest certain types of programs (example: if formative assessment is important, give schools a clear expectation and example of what this looks like. Instead schools spend thousands of dollars on different formative assessment workshops and programs).  In fact, the process for creating  professional development programs for proven instructional strategies should be decided by preschool through grade 12 leaders (teachers and administrators), university leaders, and state leaders.

–  Gateway exams are a better alternative to our yearly standardized tests.  We need multiple tracks for students to demonstrate learning.

– Tucker discusses merit pay.  I remember my first year of teaching.  I thought that all of my students would want to read classic literature because, to me, it was interesting.  The reality was that I had students that were struggling readers.  Looking back, I wasn’t as prepared as I could have been.  I needed more support and instructional strategies to help my students.  Merit pay cannot be tied to standardized testing unless we have a gateway test.  Instead, it must be tied to furthering education.  If I didn’t have the instructional strategies, the incentive for more money would not solve the problem alone.  I would still need the strategies to help my students.  Teachers want to be better, sometimes they just don’t know how.  Educators would be more apt to listen to merit pay ideas if the perception of merit pay wasn’t so closely linked to inadequate testing models.  Instead, merit pay must have ties to furthering education and taking on leadership roles.

– Tucker talks about leverage points, one leverage point we seem to miss is that of parents.  We have a tendency to talk about schools failing, but how about parents failing. Why not have a state-wide program to get parents involved more?  I understand this can easily be used as an excuse, and I am not using it as one.  I also understand that the world is more complex for parents and teachers today.  However, this doesn’t mean that we simply shrug our shoulders about parents.  Instead it needs to be a state and local initiative for parents.  We have many parents that are involved, and I see the profound impact it has on students (the greatest impact possible).  For the parents that take the time to communicate with the school, teachers, and their child, thank you.

Tucker has many great points about education reform.  I recommend doing your own research and commenting on what you think is important.



About afichter

Husband, Father, and Educator. I am a Language Arts teacher and School Improvement Director for Pleasantville Community Schools in Iowa.
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