Editor’s Note: This post is not written by John; it’s written by Sam Chaltain, a DC-based writer and education activist. Check it out and see what you think. Feel free to comment as always. John’s writings should return next week in this space.
It’s official. The President has been re-elected.
When it comes to public education, I suggest that we start by recognizing that Race to the Top was well intentioned — but ultimately out of step with a transformational vision of where American schooling needs to go.
Yes, we need better ways to improve teacher quality and capacity; no, we can’t do it by doubling down on what we currently measure. Yes, we need to find a way to ensure equity across all schools; no, we can’t do it by ignoring the ways in which schools are inequitably funded and resourced. And yes, we need to ensure that every young person is prepared to be successful in life by the time they graduate; and no, we can’t do it by continuing to assume that the goal of schooling is a discrete set of content knowledge just when the new Industrial Revolution is removing all the barriers from knowledge acquisition and accelerating the need for an essential set of life skills and habits.
The definition of leadership I offered in American Schools is the ability to balance often competing concepts: a distant vision (“One day . . .”) and an up-close focus on the immediate mission (“Every day . . .”). Whether it’s a school or a Fortune 500 company, a great organization will see, nurture and respond to both mission and vision in everything it does. Focus only on the latter, and you are solving only practical and immediate problems. Concentrate only on the aspirational goals, and you probably aren’t getting much done. That’s the tension. That’s the art.
In Obama’s first term, the mission and the vision were in synch with each other — but hopelessly out of synch with the reality of the world we live in. The Administration moved forward with education policies that addressed the obvious problems (poor achievement, high dropout rates, high teacher turnover), but — in my view — these were driven by an outmoded vision, how to succeed in an Industrial-era system that no longer serves our interests.
What about the vision and the mission for his second term? I’d suggest three:
1. Vision (“One day, every teacher in America will be a special education teacher.”); Mission (“Every day, every school and teacher preparation program will work to deepen its capacity to prepare teachers for the 21st century classroom and its emphasis on greater personalization and customization.”)
Every child is unique, so why not give every child an Individualized Education Plan (IEP)? We can do that without the current stigma attached to the IEP. Finland is instructive here. By investing deeply in the capacity of its teachers to diagnose and address the individual needs of children, Finland helped ensure that, in effect, every kid ended up in Special Ed. This removed the stigma, so much so that by the time they reach 16, almost every child in Finland will have received some sort of additional learning support. We could do the same. President Obama can’t require traditional and alternative teacher preparation programs from overhauling what they do, but he can certainly put public pressure on them to do so. And individual schools and districts can certainly shape their own professional development calendars with an eye toward that long-term vision, and a step toward the short-term goal of equipping teachers to become more fluent in the full range of student needs.
2. Vision (“One day, every child will be equipped to use his or her mind well and in the service of a more just and harmonious society.”); Mission (“Every day, every school and classroom will identify, and assess, the skills and habits it believes its graduates will need in order to use their minds well and in the service of a more just and harmonious society.”)
It’s time for teachers to stop defining themselves as passive victims of the policies of No Child Left Behind. Instead, let’s copy those teachers who have identified and piloted better, more balanced ways to assess student learning and growth. The New York Performance Standards Consortium has been doing this with great results. Individual schools like The Blue School in New York City or Mission Hill School in Boston have been doing it. And forward-thinking districts like Montgomery County in Maryland are exploring ways to do it more.
What are the rest of us waiting for?
The future of learning is one in which content knowledge stops being seen as the end but is instead understood as the means by which we develop and master essential skills and habits — the real goal — that will help us navigate the challenges and opportunities of work, life and global citizenship. This future will require us to do more than merely give lip service to the skills we value; it will demand that we find ways to concretely track and support each child’s path to mastery, while maintaining our awareness and appreciation for the nonlinearity of learning and of human development. And the good news is the art and science of teaching and learning are not mutually exclusive. We can do this. In fact, many have already begun.
3. Vision (“One day, it will be universally agreed-upon that education in America is a public good, not a private commodity.”); Mission (“Every day, every policymaker and decision-maker will repeat this vow: whatever the most privileged parents want for their children must serve as a minimum standard for what we as a community want for all of our children.”)
In America, we hold two definitions of freedom in creative tension: the first is the capitalistic definition, in which freedom means choice and consumption; the second is the democratic definition, in which freedom means conscience and compassion.
This will never change; our challenge will always be to manage the tension between the two in ways that serve both. But it’s foolish to unleash choice and consumption in American public education and expect that it will deepen our capacity to exercise conscience and compassion. We can either see education as a private commodity or as a public good. And we must choose.
That doesn’t mean we need to get rid of charter schools or choice; in fact, almost every great school I’ve visited has become great in part because it had greater freedom to chart its own path. But investments in school choice need to be proactively made in light of the original vision of charter schools. Let’s stop pretending that schools with smaller class sizes, better-trained teachers, and richer learning options are only appealing or viable for the families of the wealthy or the well located. Simply put, a great learning environment is challenging, relevant, engaging, supportive, and experiential — no matter who the kids are, and no matter where the community is located.
If I were in charge, those would be my marching orders.
What do you think?