James Meredith asks 21 tough questions about school reform

I am delighted to publish the following original piece by civil rights icon James Meredith, who offers 21 questions every American should ask of their politicians, educators and school reformers.

In August 1963, Meredith graduated from the University of Mississippi as its first black graduate after engineering an epic civil rights victory involving the Supreme Court, the president of the United States, the state government of Mississippi, and 30,000 U.S. combat troops. In 1966, he was shot while leading the March Against Fear, which helped open the gates of voter registration to thousands of black citizens in the South. Two years later, he earned a law degree from Columbia University. Last month, he was awarded the Medal for Educational Impact from the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, the school’s highest honor.

Meredith’s latest book is “A Mission from God: A Memoir and a Challenge for America,” written with William Doyle, who wrote this piece with him.

By James Meredith with William Doyle
In my recent book “A Mission from God,” I asked a panel of over 100 leading figures in education for their opinions on how to improve our nation’s public education system, especially our K-8 schools.

Last month, I addressed the graduating students of the Harvard Graduate School of Education at their convocation, and challenged them to help improve our public schools.

Now I am challenging all American parents and taxpayers to ask hard questions of our politicians, candidates, educators, school boards, teachers unions and education reformers, so we as a nation can debate and adopt the best evidence-based practices to improve public education for all our children.

I do not endorse specific policy proposals. I have no ties to any education venture, teachers union, advocacy group, or school, other than being the grandfather of three girls who attend the public schools in Jackson, Mississippi, and being a proud alumni of the University of Mississippi and the Columbia University Law School.

What I do endorse is a vigorous, evidence-based discussion by all Americans on how we can improve our public schools, and I challenge all Americans to help the public schools in their neighborhoods, especially those with disadvantaged students.

Here is a list of questions I am asking of educators and education experts around the United States, questions I have gathered and synthesized from teachers, parents, experts and a wide range of citizens.

My co-author William Doyle will post excerpts of their responses on my Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/jamesmeredithusa

I urge all Americans to ask these 21 questions, and many more of their own questions, of our local and national political, educational and opinion leaders, and to also post the best answers they get on my Facebook page:

1.)  Children’s Rights:  Do you believe that every child in the United States has the right to an excellent public education delivered by the most qualified professional teachers; an education aggressively supported by the family and the community, and an education based on the best research and evidence?

2.)  Parent Responsibilities:  Would you support the idea of public schools strongly encouraging and helping parents to: be directly involved in their children’s education; support their children with healthy eating and daily physical activity; disconnect their children from TV and video games; and read books to and with them on a daily basis from birth through childhood?

3.)  Educational Equity:  Do you believe that America should strive to deliver educational equity of resources to all students of all backgrounds and income groups?

4.)  Testing Reforms:  Much of current education reform policy is built on the idea that the U.S. must catch up to nations that achieve high scores in the international PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) tests, like Finland, South Korea and Singapore. But since these nations rely on few if any of the reform strategies being promoted in the United States, like cyber-charters, frequent high-stakes standardized tests linked to teacher evaluation, teacher bonus pay, vouchers, and hiring teachers with no experience and no advanced degrees in education – – why would the U.S. implement these strategies without first field-testing them thoroughly?

5.)  Teacher Qualifications:  If a critical factor in the success of the highest-performing education nations like Finland, South Korea and Singapore, and of high-performing American private and parochial schools, is a highly professionalized, highly experienced and highly respected teacher force, why is the United States pursuing policies to de-professionalize the public school teacher force, including sending recent college graduates into our highest-needs, highest-poverty schools with five weeks of training, no education degree and no experience? What is the hard evidence that such policies improve student outcomes, versus teachers with at least 2 to 5 years of experience and advanced degrees in education?

6.)  Evidence for Classroom Products:  What rigorous, independent evidence supports the use of computer products to deliver academic benefit to K-8 students as support to, or replacements for, flesh-and-blood teachers? Specifically, what computer products have such evidence of improving student outcomes, when fully tested versus classrooms without such products, and versus classrooms without such products but with more experienced teachers?

7.)  Taxpayer Spending on Products:  Would you support requiring computer software and hardware companies to fund rigorous independent research to validate the delivery of academic benefit to K-8 students by their products, before billions of dollars of taxpayer money is spent on buying such products?

8.)  Taxpayer Spending on Testing:  According to one estimate, American taxpayers spend about $20,000,000,000 annually on standardized tests like multiple-choice “bubble tests”  but many teachers and students are saying they are hijacking huge amounts of school time that should be used for authentic learning, and thereby seriously damaging our children’s education. What evidence is there that the money and time being spent on high-stakes standardized tests is improving student outcomes and delivering academic benefit to students?

9.)  Dangers of Linking Standardized Testing to Teacher Evaluation:  A number of experts assert that students standardized test data should not be linked to teacher pay or evaluation because the data can be highly unstable, volatile, misleading or invalid for such purposes and will incorrectly penalize teachers of both high-achieving and high-needs students; arguments presented, for example, on this fact sheet from the Center for Fair & Open Testing, or FairTest.

What is your point of view on this – are these experts correct or incorrect?

10.)  Advantages for Students:  If the children and grandchildren of people like President Obama and American politicians and business leaders enjoy the benefits of private schools with highly experienced teachers, small class sizes, frequent diagnostic testing and assessments designed by their teachers, rich and full curricula including the arts and physical activity, regular recess, and a minimum of standardized “bubble” tests, should we strive to give the same advantages to all public school students? If not, why not?

11.)  Support for Children and Families:  Would you support the ideas of school systems providing universal pre-K starting at 3; a strong early education based on research fundamentals and educational play, access to a librarian, nurse, social worker and mental health professional in the school; and a free, healthy breakfast and lunch if necessary?

12.)  Firing Ineffective Teachers:  The Montgomery County, Maryland school district evaluates, and when necessary, fires teachers, not through standardized test data but through an aggressive, professional peer review system. Some experts support the system as a more effective strategy for weeding out ineffective teachers, versus unreliable, unstable and volatile standardized test data. What do you think?

13.)  Teacher Qualifications:  Do you believe the United States should sharply elevate the qualifications and experience of the teaching profession, and respect teachers as well as it respects other elite professions?

14.)  Classroom Environment:  Do you believe that every child in the United States has the right to a classroom that is comfortable, exciting, happy and well-disciplined, with proper rest time, quiet time and play time; a rich, full curriculum, full physical education and recess periods, and an atmosphere of low chronic stress and high productive challenge, where young children are free to be children as they learn, and where all children are free to fail in the pursuit of success?

15.)  Rigor, Accountability and No Excuses:  Do you believe that every child in the United States has the right to a public school system that uses rigor, accountability, transparency and no excuses when it comes to education reform; where any major proposed education reforms or alternative educational products, technologies or experiments must be tested first, and based on hard evidence, independently verified, before being widely adopted and funded by taxpayers?

16.)  21st Century Learning:  Do you believe that every child in the United States has the right to a school and a nation where children and teachers are supported, cherished, challenged, and respected; and where teachers are left alone as much as possible by politicians and bureaucrats to do their job, which is to prepare children for college and career with true 21st century skills: not by drilling them to take standardized tests, but by inspiring them, helping them fall in love with learning for the rest of their lives, setting them on fire with joy, fun, passion, diligence, critical thinking and collaboration, new discoveries and excitement, and having the highest academic expectations of them?

17.)  Failure of Attempted Education Reforms:  This paper argues that recent attempted education reforms in New York, Chicago and Washington D.C. have not created education miracles, but have instead resulted in student under-performance:

What do you think of the paper and its findings?

18.)  Global Tests:  American public schools score near the top of the international PISA tests, except for those schools with high concentrations of poor students. What do you think this means?

19.)  Teacher Bonus Pay:  This Vanderbilt University study of teacher bonus pay, among the only rigorous tests of the subject, found little to no impact on student outcomes:

What do you think of the study? Do you think teachers should be paid bonuses, and if so, why?

20.)  Lessons of the World’s #1 Public School System:  The nation of Finland is cited as a model for education reform since its students perform in the top tier of the international PISA tests. An analysis by The Economist and Pearson recently ranked Finland’s school system as No. 1 in the world, ahead of all Asian nations and far ahead of the United States.

Finland requires all teachers to have a masters degree in education from extremely competitive schools that admit only the top 10% academic applicants, stresses equity for all students, gives maximum autonomy and respect to teachers, gives students a rich, full curriculum including the arts, physical education and regular breaks through the school day, and strong special education and vocational training. Finland has very few standardized tests, no vouchers, no teacher bonus pay, limited use of computer products in the classroom, and no linking of teacher evaluations to standardized test data. Finnish students achieve top-tier results in the global PISA tests, and fluency in multiple world languages, with shorter school hours and radically less homework and tutoring than in both the U.S. and high-performing Asian nations.

Finnish experts point to several factors as highly important: the very high quality of teachers hired, the professional respect and autonomy they are given, educator focus on collaboration, the reverence in which teachers are held by society, and the national focus on authentic learning, not on drilling for high-stakes standardized “bubble” tests.

Although Finland has much less poverty and cultural diversity than the United States, the nation has strongly out-performed culturally-similar nations that follow different educational strategies, and Finland’s population size and demographics are similar to a number of American states, which is the level where much U.S. education policy is determined.

Have you looked at Finland as a case history of authentic education reform and efficiency? And what should the United States learn from Finland?

21.)  Best Education Reforms:  What are the most promising education reforms you support, and what is the best evidence for them?

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.

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