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Archive for March, 2010

Jaime Escalante, one of the best known and most accomplished classroom teachers in the U.S. has died.  What lessons can we learn from his life in pushing forward with educational reform?  I think there are three — at least two of which will likely require a major restructuring of U.S. education to achieve on a mass scale.

1. Combining High Expectations and Culturally-Sensitive Teaching

Educational reformers have been divided between their emphasis on communitarianism (fostering greater respect for and among learners by addressing student needs, empowering students, creating a positive collaborative atmosphere, and teaching in a culturally sensitive and relevant way) and academic press (ensuring high academic standards through a challenging curriculum, high teacher expectations, and assignment of homework).  Escalante showed that both of these are important and was a master at combining them. We need to have the highest expectations and most rigorous standards, but we also have to teach to those standards in a way that reaches out to diverse students, understands and respects where they are coming from, and makes them feel meaningfully involved.

2. Highly Skilled/Well-Trained Teachers with Pedagogical Content Expertise

Similarly, there has been a divide between those who demand that educators have content knowledge and pedagogical knowledge.  Escalante, with a strong background in math and a teaching credential, demonstrated how both types of knowledge are required, and, what’s more, that they need to be combined in what Shulman called Pedagogical Content knowledge — that is, pedagogical expertise in a particular content area. (Or, in today’s world, what Mishra and Koehler call Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge).

3. Lengthening the School Day and Year

Escalante was able to achieve his goals only through immense personal effort, which involved teaching extra sessions for students before school, after school, and on weekends.  This was accomplished at great personal cost to him, as he suffered a heart attack in his early 50s during one of his busiest years.

How then an we scale up what Escalante achieved at one school to improve education nationally.  Of course we need to emphasize rigorous standards, high expectations, culturally sensitive teaching, and the development of pedagogical content expertise.  However, we will not be able to lengthen the school day or year without massive infusion of new funds for education, as we cannot rely on the personal sacrifices of individual heros on a national basis.  Nor will we likely be able to attract highly skilled teachers on a mass scale without improving their compensation.  Charter schools, such as those run by KIPP, claim that they can recruit talented teachers and extend the school day and week without adding to costs, but their ability to do so is shaped by their particular context (they are small in number, and they are not required to accept all students with special needs, English learning needs, or behavioral problems).  Such solutions are not feasible on a mass scale.

In summary, we need to improve our approach to educational reform, but also give public education a much higher priority.  Jaime Escalante’s lessons require not only new approaches, but also infusion of new funding.

For further information on these topics:

Mishra, P., & Koehler, M. J. (2006). Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge: A framework for teacher knowledge. Teachers College Record, 108(6), 1017-1054.

Phillips, M. (1997). What makes schools effective? A comparison of the relationships of communitarian climate and academic climate to mathematics achievement and attendance during middle school. American Educational Research Journal, 34(4), u. doi:10.3102/00028312034004633

Shouse, R. C. (1996). Academic press and sense of community: Conflict, congruence, and implications for student achievement. Social psychology of education, 1, 47-68. doi:10.1007/BF02333405

Shulman,  L.  (1986).  Those who understand: Knowledge growth in teaching. Educational Researcher, 15 (2), 4-14.

Warschauer, M. (2000). Technology and school reform: A view from both sides of the track. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 8(4). Retrieved from http://epaa.asu.edu/epaa/v8n4.html

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Thank heaven there are adults in the White House.  The draft National Educational Technology Plan made available this week represents a highly informed, sophisticated, bold, and thoughtful approach toward improving U.S. education with new media.  In that it reflects the tremendous amount of talent, expertise, and experience of the plan developers, as well as the insight of the Department of Education leaders who recruited and advised them.

The report has many strengths.  It places educational technology within the proper context of reforming  education and better preparing our youth to lead productive and successful lives in the 21st century.  The report takes some important steps to moving beyond the skills/knowledge debate by putting forth the notion of 21st century expertise rather than merely 21st century skills.  It addresses the critical issue of assessment head on and at length, nicely tying together issues of measuring complex forms of learning, conducting more formative rather than only summative assessments, and using technology to provide more at-the-point-of-need assessment data to teachers and educational leaders.

The report also focuses nicely on the infrastructure that will be needed to accomplish all of this, including what it calls individual “access devices” for students and teachers (with suggestions about how family- and school-funding can be combined to make this possible), greatly expanded broadband in and out of schools, cloud computing, and Open Educational Resources.  Much attention is also put to better pre-service and inservice preparation of teachers to promote 21st century learning, and the ways that technology can assist this preparation.  A broad perspective is evident  throughout the report, with suitable reference to what has been learned from fields as diverse as neuroscience and business.

While this is a superb blueprint for improving education with technology, I believe it can be improved in a number of small ways.

(1) The very positive and needed attention to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education in the report matched by sufficient attention to literacy and writing.  This unfortunate given the critical role that writing plays in a knowledge economy.  Writing is not just a means of communication but a window to learners’ thinking processes, and an emphasis on expository writing has been shown to improve learning across the curriculum for diverse students.  And while the report claims that technology’s effects are most profound in STEM subjects (p. 22), studies suggest that the use of technology has the greatest impact on English language arts and especially on the teaching of writing.

A lack of sufficient emphasis on writing is perhaps tied to the report’s call for students to have “access devices,” rather than computing or communication devices.  I would suggest that, since writing is critical for learning, and keyboards are valuable for writing, it matters a great deal what kinds of Internet access devices students have, with netbooks, for example, having great advantages over cell phones.

(2) While the report has admirably emphasized the needs of reaching all learners, it could be improved in its discussion of ways to do so.  Again I believe the issue of literacy here is key.  The report emphasizes ways that students’ limited language or literacy skills can be compensated for, for example, by providing content in multimedia form.  However, Universal Design for Learning (UDL), which is suitably emphasized in the report, focuses not only on increasing students’ immediate access to content, but also in improving their long-term ability to successfully master academic discourse.  This, in turn, requires improved use of technology to extend students’ language and literacy proficiency, not merely to compensate for limited language or literacy.  Strategies for accomplishing this are not adequately discussed.

Also related to UDL, and to the above point about writing–learners with disabilities especially benefit from computer-based writing, since they often lack the hand-eye coordination for extensive writing by hand; yet this crucial use of technology was ignored in the section on learning disabilities.

(3) The report is a bit overly optimistic about the potential of online learning, especially with at-risk learners.  Though there is reference on p. 47 and p. 71 to the value of blended learning opportunities, in other places the report seems to downplay the challenges of online learning, emphasizing, for example, that the school day can be extended through online learning. Yet it is the most skilled and motivated learners function best in online environments, and this is especially true in home environments where learners from low-income families may lack the social support for effective learning with technology. An emphasis on increased online learning could thus magnify rather than overcome divides.

(4) There seems to be a bit too much undifferentiated discussion of engagement in the report.  The report is absolutely correct that fostering engagement is important, but differences between affective, behavioral, and cognitive engagement are not discussed.  As Michael Porter of Littleton Public Schools pointed out in a recent presentation, it is precisely because working with media engages students so much that we might be lured into thinking they are carrying out valuable learning tasks even if they are not.

There are a number of other very small ways the report could be improved throughout.  The mention of the goal that “all students…graduate from high school” (my emphasis, p. 2) by 2020 repeats some of the absurdly unrealistic language of No Child Left Behind (can “all students” be expected to do anything?).  The point that we expect students to be “skillful and strategic learners”  “rather than being content experts” unfortunately reinforces the skills vs. knowledge dichotomy that the report otherwise challenges; it would be much better to say “in addition to being content experts.” A Ready to Learn program for pre-schoolers  is mentioned without being explained, the excellent attention to Open Educational Resources and Cloud Computing is not accompanied by even a mention of open source software, and the main figure illustrating the report’s Model of Learning (p. 11) is  difficult to decipher. And finally, the important call to expand broadband computing lacks suggestions about how this might be accomplished.

I offer these suggestions in part because the document is circulating in draft form, thus implying that feedback is requested.  In fact, though, all of these suggestions for improvement taken together are relatively minor details in what is an exciting and important plan for improving education with technology in the 21st century.  If the reports’ recommendations are followed and backed up by funding, this could prove to be a historic document in transforming U.S. schooling.

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Every movement has its true believers, and the Bush-initiated educational reform movement — which led to No Child Left Behind and a huge emphasis on state standards, testing, school choice, and market-oriented reforms — is no different.  Nobody lent more weight to these policies than Diane Ravitch, considered by many the leading educational historian in the U.S. and the former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education in the Bush Administration.

Ravitch’s conversion away from these positions came slowly, but gathered steam in recent years until it exploded in her just-released book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education.

Ravitch’s critique of the testing and choice regime launched by the Bush administration and largely continued by the Obama administration is fierce and biting. It is based on her own thorough review about the failure of these policies.  She now critiques not only NCLB, but also the entire direction of the educational reform movement, including its emphasis on competition and charter schools.  In contrast to these failed policies, she looks around the world and notes what actually works in educational reform.  As quoted in the New York Times,

“Nations like Finland and Japan seek out the best college graduates for teaching positions, prepare them well, pay them well and treat them with respect,” she said. “They make sure that all their students study the arts, history, literature, geography, civics, foreign languages, the sciences and other subjects. They do this because this is the way to ensure good education. We’re on the wrong track.”

What this will mean for the school reform debate is as yet unclear.  But the entire intellectual basis of the No Child Left Behind movement has been critically weakened by the brutal attacks of one of its chief architects.

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I’ve started to post most of my short notices, including links to my own new papers and other new things I come across, over on Twitter instead of here.  Follow me there.

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