U.S. schools face need for far-reaching change


President Barack Obama watches a robot with Robert Knight III, Morgan Ard and Titus Walker, eighth-grade students who won high honors at the South BEST robotics competition. Obama was touring White House Science Fair projects. (Pool/GETTY IMAGES)

If there is one thing on which most people in the education world agree — and, in fact, there may only be this one thing — it is that American schools must modernize for this high-tech, globally competitive century. Schools designed to educate millions of Americans in the 1900s remain stuck in 20th-century design, curriculum and assessment.

As the world changes at ever-increasing speed, too many Americans are unprepared to function well in a knowledge-based economy that requires of its workers complex ways of thinking as well as strong collaboration and communications skills. Vocational education, long devalued, is only now gaining new traction amid shortages in skilled employees. By one estimate, there are 600,000 openings in manufacturing alone because of a dearth of skilled workers.

This is why President Obama called on Congress this month to support a plan in his newly released 2013 budget to create an $8 billion fund to train 2 million community college students for jobs in high-growth industries such as health care, transportation and advanced manufacturing.

“This should be an engine of job growth all across the country, these community colleges, and that’s why we’ve got to support them,” Obama said during a visit to Northern Virginia Community College.

The Obama administration has also increased federal investment in the STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and math — to help draw more young Americans into these fields, some of which now depend on educated and trained foreigners.

And Obama has set a goal that by 2020, all adult Americans will have committed to at least one year of higher education or career training and America will have reclaimed its position as having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.

A ‘Civic Marshall Plan’

The goal remains aspirational. The United States is unlikely to reach it because the high school graduation rate is not rising fast enough, moving from 72 percent in 2002 to 75 percent in 2008, according to a 2010 report, “Building a Grad Nation,” issued by Civic Enterprises, the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University and the America’s Promise Alliance.

The report calls for a “Civic Marshall Plan” as ambitious as the one Secretary of State George C. Marshall set in motion to rebuild Europe after World War II.

There are fierce debates around the country about what such a plan would look like.

But it is clear that the following capabilities are necessary to change the dynamic in K-12 classrooms, which still look remarkably like they did 100 years ago:

●Global literacy. Students need a better understanding of the complex world in which they live and a more sophisticated awareness of the traditions, thinking, religions, languages of cultures around the world. In Iowa, school districts are now required to incorporate global education into all areas and levels of educational programs. Wisconsin recommends not only that all students, teachers and administrators learn a second language but also that all school districts establish education partnerships with schools abroad. They are also encouraging school districts to work with business leaders to create international learning opportunities for every student.

●Financial literacy. The U.S. economic meltdown was a reflection not just of bad behavior on Wall Street but also of the lack of financial understanding on the part of millions of Americans. Polls show that most teens ages 13 to 18 say they don’t know how to budget their money and pay bills; nor do they know how credit card fees work or what a 401(k) retirement plan is. While most states include in their instructional standards some reference to financial literacy, most don’t require a course in financial literacy as a high school graduation requirement. Virginia recently added the requirement. At John Marshall High School in Richmond, for example, a branch of the New Generations Federal Credit Union now operates, with students running it.

●Civic literacy. The American democratic experiment requires informed, educated citizens to participate in the civic life of the country. With the political landscape becoming ever more polarized, many experts say more should be done to enable students to analyze political and social issues and to participate effectively in society.

●Smart technology. A greater use of cutting-edge technology is needed in schools, in part to help individualize learning. Such a “blended” learning experience — part online and part up close and personal — is viewed by some as the future of education.

●Early education. Research has shown that early education is one of the pillars of effective school reform, especially in high-poverty areas where children often start school far behind more fortunate peers who have grown up in language-rich environments. According to the National Center on Education Statistics, 64 percent of 3- to 5-year-olds were enrolled in pre-primary education — nursery school through kindergarten — in 2000. Nearly a decade later, in 2009, the latest year for which such data are available, the percentage was 63.5. Along with getting more children into these programs, there is a growing emphasis on ensuring that programs have sufficient resources and well-trained teachers.

●Teacher training. Those teaching our students must be better educated and trained, and the best teachers should be placed in the neediest schools. Teachers, too, must be given more flexibility in their own classrooms to teach and be given a bigger role in education policy and educator evaluation. Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach, a former classroom teacher and administrator and well-known speaker on the use of interactive technology, has said this about teaching students: “Instead of me having all these preconceived ideas of what they should doing, saying and producing, I have to be open to what I find in each student. I have to discover — and help each student discover — their talents and interests and create a learning environment where they can use those gifts and passions.”

The recruitment and training of teachers has become perhaps the most visible and controversial aspect in school reform today, with many calling for a major shift in the profession. About 3.6 million teachers work in elementary and secondary schools. But almost half of teachers quit the profession after five years. According to the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, school districts have to spend more than $2 billion a year to recruit and train new ones. The reasons for the turnover vary, though teachers often cite burnout and increasing pressure to teach to standardized tests.

Watershed for teaching corps

A historic shift in the teaching corps is believed to be coming, with perhaps 1 million veteran teachers expected to retire in the next decade. There are big differences between the way teachers are recruited in the United States and in high-performing countries, such as Finland, which has been hailed as a model in recent years because its students are usually at the top of international assessments. In Finland, teachers come from near the top of their classes — only one in 10, or even fewer, are accepted into teacher preparation programs at the end of high school. They are given enormous autonomy to design their tests and create lessons around a nonprescriptive national curriculum. Finnish teachers, unlike in the United States, are given a lot of time to collaborate to solve problems and create lessons, and they are highly paid and respected. Teachers unions are powerful but do not have an adversarial relationship with policymakers, and teachers are not assessed on the basis of student test scores.

Modern school reform in the decade-long era of No Child Left Behind has focused on standardized test-based assessment designs aimed — so far unsuccessfully — at closing the achievement gap.

Indeed, while many anguish over international test scores that show that American public school children generally score on average among industrialized nations, a closer look at the results tells a somewhat different story.

Poverty drags down scores

Students in K-12 schools that have few students living in poverty score as high on these assessments as any country or district in the world. It is students who attend high-poverty schools — new Census Bureau figures show that 22 percent of American children now live at or below the poverty line — who bring down the U.S. score average.

This is part of the reason that some educators, including Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford University professor and former Obama education adviser, believe that the most important educational issue affecting America’s competitiveness is equitable access to high-quality public education.

Darling-Hammond, the founding director of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, said in her recent book, “The Flat World and Education: How America’s Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future,” that students are leaving schools without the skills they need because of the “failure of many states to invest adequately in the education of low-income children and new immigrants, to provide them with effective teachers and the necessary curriculum and learning materials.”

There should be more emphasis on critical thinking, the ability to solve problems and how to collaborate effectively, and less on standardized tests, she said.

The gap between rich and poor school districts is so wide in the United States that while some schools have tablets, document cameras, electronic whiteboards and the latest computer for every single student, other schools lack even enough electrical outlets to plug in aging computers.

Too many Americans are unprepared to function well in a knowledge-based economy that requires of its workers complex ways of thinking as well as strong collaboration and communications skills.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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