5 Things We Don’t Agree On

One of the frustrations with the current conversation in public education is that we’re not all talking about the same thing. We’re all experts in education, because we’ve all spent thousands of hours in school. But when it comes to some of the fundamental questions surrounding education, we’re not all on the same page. Here are five things we don’t agree on:

7632212948_5a2ca26f59_n[1]What’s the purpose of education?
Some make the argument that education is all about providing a basic level of literacy to the populace. We should teach our kids to read and write and do basic math. We should give our children the basic skills they need to function in daily life. Others point to career readiness. The point of education is to prepare learners to succeed in real jobs that will give them enough income to live without being a burden on society. Others point to higher education. K-12 education prepares students for college or technical school, which in turn prepares students to get good jobs.  A few idealists point to lofty goals like passing along our culture — our civilization — to the next generation, or to creating an informed, functional citizenry. But your view of education, including the degree to which the U.S. system is successful, will depend on which lens you’re using.

What do we mean by “learning”?
When I was a kid, we were told that knowledge is power. If you have the information, and you control access to information, you’re more powerful than those who don’t. That may still be true to a degree, but for the most part, everyone has the information now. If school is all about disseminating content to children, we’re wasting our time. They already have the content. Now, what can we do with that content?

We’re moving further up the Bloom’s pyramid than we give ourselves credit for. But if we want to measure this kind of learning, we have to ask better questions. We have to challenge students to think in new ways, to combine ideas from different areas, and to create something new. If you want to measure whether students have developed their problem solving skills, you have to give them problems that they haven’t seen the solution to. I’m not sure our high-stakes testing and assessment system will let that happen.

What’s the right balance between local and centralized control of education?
Whenever we don’t like something we’re being told to do, we drag out the old “local control” argument. Traditionally, education has been a local responsibility. We decide what to teach our kids, and how to do it. The government stays out of it. At the same time, though, we seem to welcome centralized standardization when we agree with it. If you have too much local control, then you find creationism showing up in the science curriculum, global warming being taught as a debateable theory, and any novel that encourages students to think and speak for themselves being labeled as subversive trash. The common core is not a bad thing, and most people who object to it actually object to the way it’s measured more than the standards themselves. If we do have standards, we ought to be able to leverage collaboration to make implementation easier for all of us. Part of the friction here comes from fundamental disagreements on some of the questions I’ve already mentioned.

Whose responsibility is education?
This is different from the last question. In the 19th century, American communities decided that it was the responsibility of the community to create and support local schools for the education of their children. Education was entirely local and community-driven. As time has gone on, the community has assumed a smaller role. Education is the government’s responsibility. Education is the parent’s responsibility. Now we end up in all of these convoluted strategies to try to make education relevant to the community as a whole. “Why should I vote for the school levy? My children are grown. I’m on a fixed income. I can’t afford higher taxes.” We need to invest in education because it’s the right thing to do. We need to invest in education because it will benefit our society and our country in the long term. There’s no short term return on investment. Support schools for the same reason that you still plant trees, even though you may not live to see them fully grown. Whether you’re a teacher, parent, grandparent, child, or community member, education is YOUR responsibility.

How does the U.S. stack up against other countries?
Education in the United States is better now than it has ever been. That’s not news. It doesn’t generate the same response as the reports claiming our kids don’t know basic math or that Finland provides a better education at a fraction of the price. But if our schools are changing — if we really are re-examining what we mean by “education” — then the scores our students earn on traditional knowledge-based tests are not going to improve. If we look at the tests that we’re using to measure students around the world, I don’t think we’ll find that our students are doing worse than other countries on the things we actually care about. Which takes us back to the questions on purpose and learning.

We skip these questions. Even in conversations about Next Generation schools. Even in discussions about appropriate professional development programs to transform learning. Even in deep, thoughtful reflections on what we’re doing in public education. We can spin our wheels around these things for hours without getting anywhere. But until we start agreeing on the basic parameters of what we’re talking about, we’re not going to get anywhere.

Photo credit: NikitaY on Flickr.

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A Common Purpose

It’s 8:30 on a Saturday morning, and I’m sitting in a rapidly filling high school cafeteria in Philadelphia. As I look around, a see a few familiar faces, and even more familiar names. But for the most part, these are strangers.

They’re not part of my world. They’re from urban schools. Charter schools. Parochial schools. Private schools. They’re teachers. Integration specialists. School leaders. Professors. Students. They represent 40 states and five countries.  Zoe Strauss’s opening comment from the previous night’s panel discussion leaps to mind:

Chris, what the hell am I doing here?

The panel had included some pretty heavy hitters. Strauss, a photographer and artist, was joined by Dan Barcay, the lead software engineer for Google Earth. Alex Gilliam founded Public Workshop, an opportunity for teens to take an active role in shaping the designs of their communities. C. J. Taylor is a computer science professor in the GRASP Robotics Lab at U. Penn. Phoenix Wang founded Startl to help get new media learning projects into students’ hands. These people know a thing or two about innovation, and they were discussing how to sustain innovation in schools.

But this was no ordinary audience. The 500 people packed into the auditorium and adjoining overflow room aren’t observers of this process. They’re participants. The Twitter stream for this session was flying by faster than anyone could read it. If I had been on stage, I could have looked up to see a couple hundred people typing furiously on their mobile devices. But they weren’t being rude. They were engaged in the conversation. They were simultaneously listening to the panelists, asking questions, challenging statements, agreeing, disagreeing, and applying the conversation to their own situations. The panel provided a catalyst for a much larger discussion on innovation, and thanks to the magic of video streaming, the discussion transcended that little auditorium at the Franklin Institute and included educators from all over the world.

The high level of engagement set the stage for the weekend. This isn’t a conference where you sit through an hour of boring, bullet-laden Powerpoint slides. This isn’t an opportunity for experts to tell everyone how things should be done. This is a time for asking questions, for challenging assumptions, and for exploring new ideas and possibilities together. When Chris Lehmann took the podium in the cafeteria on Saturday morning, he described this assembly as a tribe. We are united by a common purpose. We seek to improve learning for our children. Like any tribe, there are differences of opinion. We really can’t even agree on what we mean by “improve” or “learning.” But this community of mutual respect in an environment that invites discourse allows everyone to participate in a conversation that benefits the whole. I feel humbled to be a part of that discussion. I know that I’ve taken away much more than I’ve contributed, and I feel apologetic for not keeping up my end of the discourse bargain.

Near the end of the conference, I sat in the library and reflected on the weekend. I tried to jot down a few notes on the take-aways. There was some validation of things I already believed. There were some contradictions as well. Mostly, though, there was a lack of clarity. We’re in uncharted waters. What is the purpose of education? What do we mean by learning? What is the role of the teacher in a world of information abundance? How do you convince people that schools must change? Is this a top-down revolution, a grass-roots revolution, or not a revolution at all? And how did we have a gathering of technology and social media experts and manage to not talk about the technology?

I’m looking forward to building on the new relationships I’ve made. I can’t wait to engage others in some of the discussions we’ve had. I need to do a lot more reflecting on some of the issues raised, and how they affect my particular school district. But above all, I’m proud to be part of the tribe.

A Community Effort

When I taught middle school, Grease was incredibly popular with the seventh and eighth graders. I remember discussing this with my colleagues. Why would a twenty year old movie, set twenty years before that, be so popular with the Gen-Yers?

The best theory we could come up with was that it was the ideal, pop-culture vision of what high school was “supposed” to be. It was all school dances and crushes and cliques and cars and malt shops. For middle schoolers, it was a vision of high school before the reality of 9th grade set it.

In some ways, everyone is an expert in education. Students spend about 900 hours per year in school. Over the course of a K-12 career, that’s more than 10,000 hours spent in school — enough to make anyone an expert. Our parents and legislators and chamber of commerce members and radio hosts and voters have all been to school. They know what it’s supposed to be like. A little nostalgic piece of them wants school to be like Grease. But a bigger piece wants it to be like it was when there were going to school. As institutions, public schools pass on a set of cultural norms. There’s a heritage embedded in the experience that is schooling. That heritage includes the three R’s, but it also includes football and prom and student council and 45 minutes classes and lockers and homework. Passing on that cultural heritage is a big part of what we do.

Teachers are part of this as well. Many teachers chose their profession because they, as students, had great teachers. They chose to follow in the footsteps of those role models. Back in the dark ages when I was in college, my teaching methods professor saw this as a problem. “Teachers teach the way they were taught,” he would say, “regardless of the way they were taught to teach.”

Public schools need to change. I don’t think there’s much argument on that point. When you take a look at the phenomenal change that has happened in our society over the last generation, it is ridiculous to expect that a traditional education, with a foundation in knowledge transfer from teacher to student, will meet the needs of next generation learners. We are seeing this reflected in the choices our families are making when given the opportunity. If the public school is not meeting MY child’s needs, we’ll go elsewhere.

But we need to recognize that public schools can’t change on their own, because of the cultural tradition tied up in the institution. We need to change the vision of what school is. We have to alter our society’s expectation of what it means to be educated, what it means to be a learner. The schools aren’t going to do that themselves, and they’re certainly not going to do it while facing the constant barrage of criticism about how much teachers are paid, or how many disaggregated subgroups aren’t passing the high stakes tests at sufficient levels, or how if we just looked at schools like businesses, everything would be fine.

We have to start conversations in our communities — in our LOCAL communities — about what education WAS, what education IS, and what education NEEDS TO BE for our children. In the United States, at least, education has always been a local responsibility. We need to have honest, local conversations about what a free, appropriate public education should look like for next generation students. The community needs to push the schools to define the new norm for public education, and it needs to support the schools as they pursue that new vision.

Photo credit: evmaiden on Flickr