Today education leaders and policy makers are meeting at the 2014 National Summit on Education Reform in Washington D.C.. Their goal, to share strategies to improve the quality of education for all children, everywhere, is laudable. The idea that choice and accountability will achieve that goal (the two major themes that run throughout the summit), however, is questionable.
To look more closely at the issue we must first ask what it means to “improve the quality of education.” It is true that there are gross inequities in our education system across the country. As Condoleezza Rice stated, “As long as we can look at a child’s zip code and know what quality of education they are receiving, the full intent of Brown v. Board of Education will not be realized.” But what is the quality education we want for all of our children? To date, the education reform movement has focused on raising standards to develop basic knowledge and skills in core subjects. Is this what a quality education means in America, and are tougher standards really the answer to closing the achievement gap, providing an equitable education, and preparing our children to be successful in the world today?
The Common Core standards are a step in the right direction. If properly implemented, they can lay the foundation for a curriculum that develops “critical-thinking, problem-solving, and analytical skills students will need to be successful.” With the Common Core and the proliferation of new learning technologies, many educators are beginning to re-examine their beliefs about learning and teaching. They are beginning to understand that with the proper implementation of education technology that learning can be personalized with each and every student, with standards that have students thinking more deeply and building a real understanding of the content. The challenge that educators face, however, is that they are being asked to make this bold shift in pedagogy and practice within a policy framework that is antithetical to this shift. “The emphasis on high-stakes teacher evaluation demands immediate, measurable results from teachers, and is highly focused on compliance. Teachers must demonstrate high levels of expertise in codified instructional practices, and students must show significant gains in test scores every year, even when the assessments themselves are not yet fully field tested, validated, or aligned with the standards being taught. (Van Roekel, 2014)
In order for educators to make the shift to personalized and blended learning, as with any innovation, they will need to be allowed to take risks and learn from their mistakes. The learning processes takes time, and needs ongoing systemic support. In our work at the One-to-One Institute, we have seen that it takes 3-5 years for the entire district or building culture to shift. We are guaranteed, though, that in the high-stakes teacher and student evaluation environment that currently exists, with the demand for quick results, that most teachers are not going to be willing to take the risk.
Compliance models, such as we currently have in education, have traditionally failed to even ensure that the basic federal and state laws and regulations are being followed, and usually generate undesirable outcomes. A clear example of this is discussed in Wolf and Hassel’s paper about the compliance model in Special Education. In order to begin truly transforming education we need to move away from the old compliance model, and move toward a cognitive growth model. We need to develop a systemic framework for continuous improvement, and define the learning continuum for students and teachers. In short we need to personalize learning with students, and with teachers, and then build the accountability into the learning continuum.
The second major theme of the D.C. summit is Choice. Choice is incredibly important in the learning process, and is the bedrock of personalized learning. When students, parents and teachers work together to develop each child’s learning path, the child, for the first time, has the ability to maximize his or her own potential. The Choice movement, however, has not been focused on personalizing learning, but rather on providing options to parents to replace their local public school. The policies and funding to support Choice have been successful in sparking innovation in what was a pretty stagnant education system. Some of these innovations have been successful, some of them have not. As in any industry, some new ideas will take off, but many will fail. There are winners and losers. The hope is that by creating an environment that is conducive to innovation, that some new idea will transform the whole industry. The unacceptable situation that we face now is that we can’t afford to have losers, because the losers are our children.
I believe there is another way.
First we must understand that learning is not a place, it is a process, and learning happens everywhere. One could argue that the least meaningful learning happens for most high school students in a lecture at seven in the morning. If you have walked around many high schools during first hour you know that most of the students look like they are half asleep at their desks. To maximize the learning potential of every child, the child must be meaningfully engaged in their learning. I would challenge educators and policy makers to think about choice not as a different building to go to, but as a formal system whereby students, parents and teachers work together to create their own meaningful learning pathway.
Dr. Michael Gielniak