Opinion
Education Opinion

Transforming Schools

By LeaderTalk Contributor — February 14, 2009 7 min read

There has been a great deal of effort throughout history focussed on transforming America’s schools. There have been many attempts to bring schools up-to-date with the latest technologies. Sadly, most schools throughout history have been good at preparing students for a work environment which is already in the past. Good schools may be preparing students for the present, but few schools are preparing students for their futures. There have been significant changes in which the focus of education has shifted. Early on, the focus was on skills and basic literacy, in the not so distant past, the focus was on the quick recall of specific information. These were both economically adventageous in their time. We have now entered a new economic age which, coupled with rapid advancements in technology, has a made creativity and ingenuity necessary. Not that being creative has ever been a bad thing. We know that it has always allowed organizations to be successful, but there were so many other factors which also contributed to organizational success. Organizations who were dependable and produced quality were often able to out compete those who were creative.
Individuals like Seth Godin, Daniel Pink, and Thomas Friedman all point to a new global economy where creativity, ingenuity, and effective uses of communication technology will be the most marketable traits of successful individuals and organizations.
Schools, however, still focus students on content rather than on concepts and skills. Why is this the case?
Teaching the way we were taught
Teachers in schools today are doing what they were taught to do. Teachers are teaching with techniques which have been modeled for them in every aspect of their education. How do we expect our teachers to practice any differently, unless they are taught to do so. Even many of what are considered to be some of the best teacher preparation programs do not model what they propose are effective teaching strategies. Instead, they may expose students to techniques which will be far more effective, but they do so in a lecture format, using often what appear to me as poorly designed summative assessments to determine their students’ levle of understanding.
Professional development in schools is no better. As educational leaders we are aware of the research regarding quality professional development, but most districts still bring large groups of teachers together to a “sit and get” experience where a one-size-fits-all program is delivered. This is normally done in a large uncomfortable room and quiet often there are not even attempts made to relay to teachers how one professional development topic is related to another. This often leaves the idea of professional development as less than appealing to teachers and they often adopt the “one more thing on my plate” mentality towards any new idea or initiative.
Underfunding
Legislators, in their infinite wisdon, have continued in their belief that they can legislate quality. The attempt to do so through constantly proposing additional requirements to be placed on schools. Rarely, however, doe they allocate funds to support these new requirements. An example of this, in Iowa in just the last two years our Legislators have added requirements for counselors and teacher-librarians in every school. Many districts had reduced these positions as budgets became tighter. Now, there is ample research to demonstrate that these two positions in a school can make a significant impact, but with many schools having reduced positions outside of regular classroom teachers due to a need to continually increases teacher salaries (much needed increases), increases in the cost of benefits for employees, and increases in the costs of many of our classroom supplies. These have all been ignored when our politicians consider the allowable growth in budgets for schools. To require the addition of staff in specific areas when most of the school resources are already spoken for, without an increase in funding, was not a great move. It required schools to cut other necessary positions in order to meet these new requirements. The impact is higher class sizes, and a reduction in funds available for supplies and technology updates.
Past Practices
We focus all school reform on “improving” the existing system rather than transforming it. Any contractor will tell you that remodeling is messy and expensive. New construction is so much more efficient. “New construction” is taking place in countries like China and India. They are not bound by many of the traditional practices that we must first tear down prior to putting new practices in place. We continue to teach courses in isolation and seldomly look at merging subjects or addressing knowledge in themes rather than disciplines. We know that there are natural connections between disciplines yet rarely provide students with opportunities to see them. We make very few connections for students even within the same discipline. Our focus is still on content and the teacher is expected to be the expert. We assess facts and often deem students with good short term memories as being proficient despite their lacking a true understanding of the concepts. Highly qualified teacher legislation judges a teacher by the number of college credit hours they have in a very specific area. Teacher preparation thus involves very focussed instruction particularly in secondary education programs. Today’s world is not in need of students who are able to quickly recall vasts amounts of information in a specific content area. Most can get that through the use of technology. Today’s world requires individuals who are indeed specialists, but their specialty is learning. The ability to learn and solve problems creatively will be necessary for the students we currently have in school to be successful in the jobs which will remain in this country. Most of the jobs we are currently seeing leave the U.S. to less developed countries do not require these skills.
The loss of confidence
A move away from the use of grades to sort and select, and towards a method of reporting a students’ mastery of concepts and skills, will be necessary if we are to hope to regain confidence in schools and a focus on learning.
We have established a culture in schools where the grade is the target and not the learning it represents. The grade, which has lost its ability to communicate anything, and the certification or diploma is seen as the passport to success. Unfortunately, this belief has led to a loss of confidence in public education. We have a growing number of people with a degree, but without the higher order thinking skills and depth of understanding they are supposed to represent. Parental pressure for the grade and our desire to provide all students with success has caused a lowering of expectations in the classroom. Standards based report cards, which truly communicate a student’s current level of performance, are possible, but not widely accepted by parents and teachers. This is despite the fact that the process of assigning a single letter grade is quite different for every teacher in a school. This includes that same class within the same school but taught by different teachers. Some give a great deal of the “points possible” to homework, while others to tests. Some deduct credit for behavior or late work while still others give extra points for things like bringing a box of facial tissue to class. So what does that grade really communicate to anyone? There are teachers who provide students passing grades due to effort, while fail others who have demonstrated competency on assessments but refuse to do the abundance of homework often assigned as a classroom management strategy. I know I don’t want to be asked to do 40 practice problems if I am able to obtain the skill by doing only 10.
At some point we have to break the single letter grade into the actual components it represents.
Schools need to be honest about a student’s level of performance by reporting exactly what areas are strengths and where deficiencies still exist. Those looking at a report card or transcript should be informed about about exactly what skills a student has and what other desirable characteristics (soft skills) they possess.
Community of Learners
Schools need to change from being a building full of administrators, teachers and students to a community of learners. They need to become a place where teachers are no longer seen as the experts but rather as experienced learners who intern are facilitating the learning and learning beside others. It must also seen as a community that extends beyond the walls of a building. Learning within this greater community would involve learners being presented or actually establishing their own authentic tasks and made to use resources not currently sought out by our existing system.
I look forward to seeing this transformation take place and to be a part of moving our schools and our country into the 21st century.
Dave Keane

The opinions expressed in LeaderTalk are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.