In his New York Times column of November 20, 2010, “Teaching for America,” Thomas Friedman both deliberately and unwittingly provides several important insights into our national debate on educational reform. He quotes Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as having said in an interview, “Incremental change isn’t going to get us where we need to go. We’ve got to be much more ambitious. We’ve got to be disruptive. You can’t keep doing the same stuff and expect different results.”
Later on in the article, Friedman affirms, based on the work of education expert Tony Wagner, that “There are three basic skills that students need if they want to thrive in a knowledge economy: the ability to do critical thinking and problem-solving; the ability to communicate effectively; and the ability to collaborate.” Wagner further comments that countries with leading educational systems like Finland and Denmark “have invested massively in how they recruit, train and support teachers, to attract and retain the best.” And Friedman adds that “Duncan disputes the notion that teachers’ unions will always resist such changes.”
I feel the vast majority of teachers would instinctively agree with all of the above statements. So one could argue that the Department of Education and most teachers and their unions have common goals and share a common sense of urgency. Why, then, is there a persistent sense that we have no common ground and in fact are actually working at cross-purposes?
Duncan’s view, says Friedman, is “that challenging teachers to rise to new levels – by using student achievement data in calculating salaries, by increasing competition through innovation and charters – is not anti-teacher. It’s taking the profession more seriously and elevating it to where it should be.” Well, maybe. And I hear Duncan’s good intentions loud and clear. But here’s the rub. It may not be anti-teacher, but it certainly isn’t pro-student either.
What does research tell us about how each of these proposals affects student learning? Student achievement data can be useful for informing a school as a whole about how they are doing and where they need to improve, but we have neither the appropriate tests nor models of comparing results to tell us with any meaningful level of accuracy how a specific teacher is doing. Effectiveness ratings fluctuate wildly from year to year for a given teacher, and require over a decade of data before they become more than 90% accurate. Similarly, I know of no research showing that competition has a positive effect on advanced thinking such as comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation of knowledge. In contrast, I do know of a number of studies that show that effective practices of collaboration do boost student achievement in these areas. And finally, while some charter schools are certainly outstanding, so are some non-charter public schools, and overall, the average charter school performs slightly less well than the average non-charter public school.
To be fair, I should add that research does support competition in one very specific educational context: competition can aid in the process of memorizing basic information. Hold that thought…
Many of my teaching colleagues around the country express a profound frustration with the Department of Education. Secretary Duncan and President Obama seem to share the same goals as us, but are defining reform in very narrow terms that not only have no basis in research but also can in fact be shown to have a negative effect on student learning. How could our paths diverge so completely when we are theoretically heading in the same direction?
The phrase “knowledge economy” was embedded in Friedman’s explanation of Wagner’s work. In a tweet dated November, 21, 2010, noted educational consultant Will Richardson observed, “And can we quit calling this the ‘Knowledge Economy’? How about the ‘Learning Economy’?” I agree, but the current focus in our national debate is very strongly oriented toward knowledge as opposed to learning. Deciding whether the focus of our schools ought to be knowledge or learning has a million implications. And Alfie Kohn, one of the best known education experts in the country, has pointed out in his article "The Pretend Refomers" that the concept of "reform" has been very deliberately redefined to mean intensifying the focus on rote knowledge.
Indeed, our current state and national tests focus far more on knowledge than on learning, on the simple memorization of facts. That makes sense in that knowledge is much, much easier to measure. It also makes sense if your fundamental model of education is transferring knowledge.
So I have come to suspect that the seemingly inexplicable disjunction in national policy between commonly-held goals and the means chosen to reach those goals comes from Secretary Duncan’s fundamental educational focus on knowledge as opposed to learning. This would explain how the D.O.E. can be almost willfully blind to the implications of the policies they are pushing. After all, competition really does help in the memorization of basic facts. But competition, we have seen, does not help student learning in a broader sense, and can even have a negative effect on other stated goals: thinking critically, solving problems, and communicating and collaborating effectively.
If the D.O.E.’s policies have been shown not to work, where does that leave us? Well, actually, better off than we were before. If we face up to reality, that what we have been doing is not working, we are then freed to take a new and more objective look at what actually does work. In my field, middle school teaching, the National Middle School Association has created This We Believe, a research-based document detailing the 16 characteristics of successful middle schools. The National Association of Secondary School Principals has outlined a nearly identical model in Breaking Ranks in the Middle, itself a revision, based on what we know about young adolescents, of the high school-oriented Breaking Ranks. When followed completely and holistically (which happens rather less often than you might think), these models point the way to a success that is both broader and deeper than what currently passes for success in the D.O.E.’s vision for our schools – a success that has been shown to improve skills in critical thinking, problem-solving, communicating and collaborating, among others.
The critical question becomes, then, how to convince the D.O.E. that, well-intentioned as they are, they have us running headlong down the wrong path. Time and time again, I have seen well-intentioned people say, “But I could never be doing that. I’m too (smart, nice, etc.).” Well, simply being smart and nice, simply having good intentions does not automatically mean everything you do is right. Our task, then, is to find a way to convince Secretary Duncan and President Obama that we recognize their good intentions, we share their common goals, but that until they learn to apply educational research more objectively, they will continue to focus their energy on moving our country precisely in the wrong direction. In short, we have to convince them to refocus their attention on student learning, not on transfer of knowledge.