Teaching Opinion

Will We Do What It Takes to Improve Public Education?

By Sam Chaltain — June 26, 2009 5 min read
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Want to imagine a different path to improving public education in this country? Take my 15-minute challenge.

First, find a partner. Then, take four minutes to reflect and write silently on your most meaningful personal experience in a learning community. It could be a club, a church group, a school, a course, or something else. The only criteria are that it was a transformative experience, and that real learning occurred.

Next, you and your partner take four additional minutes to share your stories with each other. While one person is speaking, the other will be listening actively and taking notes, in hopes of identifying what attributes made the experience being described such a successful one. After both of you have shared your stories, take a minute or two to identify the parts and qualities of your experiences that were the most resonant across your memories.

Over the last 10 years, I have done this exercise with hundreds of parents, educators, and young people across the country. What I’ve discovered is that, while the phrasing may change slightly from person to person, the bedrock principles of their transformational learning environments—relationship-driven, supportive, personally challenging, fun, deeply relevant, experiential—are always the same.

If this is true—if we know more than we think we do about the essential ingredients of a high-functioning learning community—why is our public education system being aligned to create cultures of testing, as opposed to cultures of learning?

These similar-sounding goals do not produce similar actions. A system focused on testing owes fidelity to things like 3rd and 8th grade reading and math scores, merit-pay plans for teachers, and “adequate yearly progress” reports. In such a system, what results is an increased dependence on testing as a form of measurement, more “drill and kill” instruction, and less emphasis on skills (other than reading and math) that are integral to a well-rounded education.

By contrast, a system focused squarely on learning requires educators to create environments that help people discover who they are, what they value, and, as the small-schools pioneer Deborah Meier puts it, how to use their minds well. What results in this system is a reliance on multiple measures of student learning, the development of more-challenging and intellectually diverse curricula, and an emphasis on finding the best teachers and principals in the field.

A culture of testing may or may not lead to real student learning. A culture of learning will always inspire its students to achieve.

So how can federal, state, and local officials empower schools and educators to create the latter type of learning environment? If we use “15-minute challenge” lists as a guide—compilations of the memorable elements common to teachers questioned about their own learning—there are four areas that could provide a more balanced assessment scorecard to use in evaluating a school’s overall health and effectiveness:

Establishing Priorities for Student Learning. To ensure that every child has the same opportunity to receive a high-quality public education, our system must measure not just basic skills, but also each student’s capacity to apply his or her learning to complex, novel problems; to communicate and collaborate effectively; and to find, manage, and analyze new information. In addition to traditional measures like grades, schools must give young people opportunities to demonstrate publicly what they’ve learned. Educators must track the extent to which students are given opportunities to discover the power and uniqueness of their own voices, and to learn how to use them effectively and with integrity. And they must demand that their success as professionals be gauged by how well they create challenging, supportive, and experiential learning opportunities for their students.

Investing in Teachers. If we are to achieve much higher standards of learning for all students, we must launch a purposeful agenda to place well-prepared teachers and leaders in every classroom and every school. That means investing in programs that not only help educators develop expertise in subject matter, but that also teach them about culturally sensitive pedagogies, child and adolescent development, and individual learning styles. It means eliminating the financial barriers that discourage low-income students from joining the profession. It means creating school cultures that welcome and honor the professional judgment and decisionmaking capacities of educators. And it means strengthening teacher-preparation programs by encouraging a “race to the top” in teaching quality.

Equalizing Resources. The United States tolerates a 3-to-1 spending disparity between its high- and low-wealth schools. It’s time to pay off that shameful education debt. Just as questionable fiscal policies have saddled our young people with an enormous monetary debt, the nation faces a huge educational debt resulting from hundreds of years of unequal educational and economic opportunity.

More than 50 years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, it’s time we all acknowledged that a high-quality public education is a civil right that must be made available to all children on equal terms. The federal government has a vital role to play in achieving this, by funding programs for high-needs students, linking future funding to states’ progress toward more-equitable opportunities to learn, and targeting extra resources to the poorest children, those most hindered by the current system. Otherwise, the opportunity for children to learn will remain what it has been—a privilege for some, instead of a right for all.

Aligning Community Supports. To create the conditions that best support transformational learning experiences, communities must see their schools as strategic hubs of student support. And they must recognize that educators can’t do the work of teaching and preparing young people alone. After-school programs, community health clinics, internship opportunities, and early-childhood-education programs are all pieces of the puzzle. So, too, is our communitywide need to hold schools and elected officials accountable for providing adequate resources and demonstrating academic improvement over time.

America’s public schools have historically been the backbone of our democracy. It is therefore vital, in this moment of hopeful energy, to identify some core principles that can guide our collective efforts toward ensuring that all schools become thriving cultures of learning, and that all young people receive the same opportunity to participate in the American Dream.

A version of this article appeared in the July 15, 2009 edition of Education Week as Will We Do What It Takes to Improve Public Education?


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