A Case for School Reform

There is an old “joke” about Rip Van Winkle waking up in today’s society, walking around town and feeling out of place, until he finally enters a school and he feels like he’s home.  Sadly, there is some truth to that story. Here in New Hampshire, and across New England, we are very fortunate to have the benefit of a rather progressive educational mindset. Our schools, with all their “faults”, still out pace many schools across the country.  By and large, our communities support what we do and value the social benefits of public education. However, despite our successes, public education still needs to continue to grow at a deliberate pace, in step with what we as a society discover about learning, and as we create new tools to educate and work within our state, country, and world.  

I am fond of quoting Jamie Vollmer, the author of the “Blueberry Story”, not only for that anecdote, but for his list of what public education has become over the past century.  In “The Increasing Burden Placed on America’s Public Schools”(2012) he informs us of what our educational system has taken on over the years. From a once simple, “reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic” responsibility to now tackling so many of society’s academic, social, and medical needs.  It appears that public schools in America are looked at as the answer to all of our country’s problems, but in reality they are an imperfect panacea.

Even so, educators, parents, and students embrace that role, but how do we grow to meet those challenges and at what pace?  How do we ensure learning and prepare our students for the next set of issues we will face as a country, as a world? There is an incredible amount of books, websites, videos, blogs, etc. on educational reform.  Some written by educators, some by college professors, business leaders, students and parents. In education, it seems that everyone considers themselves an authority on schooling, many, simply because they have gone through it.  While that is somewhat of an absurd notion, listening to all those who have a stake in our education system is not. As we look to improve public education, we must actively listen to the voices of all those involved. Parents, students, educators, business leaders, and more all have a stake in our educational system and must be engaged in any change process.

It is not a question of if change is needed; change is necessary.  I would not want my orthopedic surgeon to use techniques from 15-20 years ago to repair my child’s torn ACL when such improved modern techniques and tools exist around Arthroscopic surgery.  However, in order to manage complex change and make it last, certain steps need to be in place (vision, skills, motivation, resources, action plan). If any one of those steps are missing the change you are trying to implement will fail.  While there are several versions of Knoster’s work (1991) this graphic outlines the steps I am referring to and what occurs when any one of them is missing.

Our world is changing, exponentially.  What was an oddity or unheard of years ago is now common practice.  George Couros (2015) an educator and author, illustrates this when he explains that when we were kids we were told not to talk to strangers and never to get into a stranger’s car.  Now, using a hand held device, from anywhere in the country, we summon strangers in cars to come and give us rides! Society is changing and education must change with it. Education has to graduate students with the skills to be able to come up with solutions to problems that don’t yet exist.  So how do we do it?

Currently, Proficiency Based Education or Competency Based Education, is a popular reform effort.  In part, this concept grew out of the private sector asking for graduates to have basic proficiency in skills they saw as lacking in high school graduates.  In their words, “many high school and college graduates – as well as some adult workers – lack foundational skills needed in the 21st century workplace” (Business Roundtable, 2019).  The shift to ensure that students graduate K-12 education with specific skills is important and one that most educators embrace.  However, it is a shift away from the traditional Carnegie-based system of awarding students a diploma for getting “through” school, to having them earn it, not by effort or seat-time, but by demonstrating evidence that they have learned those enduring concepts and skills needed to move on in their course of studies.  In these schools, online tools, extended learning opportunities, internships, and more “non-traditional” means of educating students are being utilized. Time is no longer the constant in these programs and learning the variable – they have switched the equation and made learning the constant and time the variable.  While many Competency Based Education advocates and consultants have manipulated this notion into sweeping reform programs for sale, this is not a new educational concept. Vocational Centers have been doing this for years, and if you think of your driving test, it is competency based. Your driving test doesn’t care how much effort you put into answering questions at home or how many hours you drove around the block.  If you can’t parallel park, you can’t have a driver’s license.

In addition to the call from businesses and higher education asking for more skillful high school graduates, we now know so much about how children grow and learn.  We have the ability to adjust our teaching practices based on the science of brain research. It is incredible to think that we have mapped the brain of children and adults at multiple stages of development.  As a young teacher, I recall watching Frontline’s series on “Inside the Teenage Brain” in 2002 and being fascinated by how this could change what I do. Eric Jensen, a leading expert in Brain research and learning, states in his book, Brain Based Learning (2008) “Our old way of schooling is fading fast, as our understanding of the brain increases….it’s the most relevant understanding for educators to have right now.”  Armed with this information on how the brain functions, it would be negligence if education did not change its practices to adjust with what we know.

I don’t believe anything has shifted the course of education more than technology has; for that matter, all of society has shifted with the incredible growth of technology.  With the power of a handheld phone, students have access to the sum total of the all of the world’s information! Prior to the exponential growth of technology and the internet, K-12 education was primarily concerned with ensuring that students obtain a large concentration of academic content.  High schools were where students began to apply more abstract concepts and manipulate that content into deeper critical thinking skills. Now, with the use of technology, that paradigm has shifted. We no longer need to focus on the acquisition of facts and figures, but can have students learn at a younger age to manipulate that data, to solve more complex problems, and to raise the complexity of their thinking.  

As a parent and an educator, I find the effects of this shift clearly illustrated in current math curriculum, instruction, and assessments, especially at the elementary level.  Many parents and people outside of education, lampoon the new math programs, mostly because they don’t understand the shift in complexity. Simply put, we no longer are teaching students to plug numbers into the equations and formulas we give them, we are teaching them to design their own equations and formulas, then plug in numbers.  Students are learning complex algorithms at younger ages and are able to manipulate numbers, facts, and data in a way that earlier generations were not. Look at the number of students coding games and developing apps for mobile devices! Technology has also opened avenues for students to reach across the globe and consult with actual scientists, astronauts, business leaders, and other experts in their fields of study.  Technology has shifted how we use and share knowledge. Students are no longer simply consumers of information but creators as well. One of my favorite “Youtubers” is Casey Neistat. He produced a video titled, “Do What You Can’t”. To me, it sums up how young people see the world they live in, and how they believe the world sees them, and has a message that education should be espousing (In my home, our mantra is, “Be the Iceberg”, you can view the video here to understand: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jG7dSXcfVqE).  

So now what?  We must embrace educational reform and we must move quickly enough not to lose the students who are currently in school. However, we must be deliberate in our decisions and slow enough in our pace to ensure we meet each step with sure footing.  Education is changing. Currently in NH House of Representative alone there are 60 Education related bills in Committee. Politics alone keeps our public education system in a constant state of movement, but politics aside, education needs to keep up with the needs of our society combined with all we know about how students learn and use the latest resources and technology available to ensure we are doing the best job we can.  To not, would be educational malpractice.

 

References:

US News and World Reports. Feb 27, 2018 The 10 Best U.S. States for Education https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/slideshows/10-best-states-for-education?onepage

Forbes. July 31, 2018. States With The Best Public School Systems https://www.forbes.com/sites/reneemorad/2018/07/31/states-with-the-best-public-school-systems/#380f11038972

Vollmer, Jaime.  The Blueberry Story. 1.26.19 https://www.jamievollmer.com/blueberry

Vollmer, J. March 16, 2012. The Increasing Burden Placed on America’s Public Schools https://goo.gl/pRmS87

Alper, P. 9.21.2017 What are Business People Saying About Education Today? https://education-reimagined.org/what-are-business-people-saying-about-education-today/

Business Roundtable. 1.26.19. Closing the Skills Gap. https://www.businessroundtable.org/policy-perspectives/education-workforce/closing-the-skills-gap

Couros, G. 10.13.2015. The Innovator’s Mindset: Empower Learning, Unleash Talent, and Lead a Culture of Creativity. Dave Burgess Consulting. San Diego Ca.

Jenson, E. 2008. Brain Based Learning – The New Paradigm of Teaching. Corwin Press, Thousand Oaks, CA.

Frontline. 1.23.2002. Inside the Teenage Brain.  (Video Series) Found on the web 1.26.19. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/teenbrain/etc/synopsis.html

G&D Associates. 11.12.2014. Graphic adapted from Knoster. 1991. Managing Complex Change. Twitter. https://twitter.com/hashtag/knoster

Neistat, C. 3.7.2017. Do What You Can’t (video) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jG7dSXcfVqE

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