Thursday, January 28, 2010

State of the Union's Education

Of course I am biased.  In last night's State of the Union address, I was hoping for more than a paragraph on education:

Now, this year, we've broken through the stalemate between left and right by launching a national competition to improve our schools. And the idea here is simple: Instead of rewarding failure, we only reward success. Instead of funding the status quo, we only invest in reform -- reform that raises student achievement; inspires students to excel in math and science; and turns around failing schools that steal the future of too many young Americans, from rural communities to the inner city. In the 21st century, the best anti-poverty program around is a world-class education. And in this country, the success of our children cannot depend more on where they live than on their potential. When we renew the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, we will work with Congress to expand these reforms to all 50 states.

That paragraph was followed by one about the importance of college, and then one on the cost of college, providing a rapid transition to home-ownership. So basically the State of K-12 Education is Race to the Top.

In fairness to the President, the State of the Union is not the place for a detailed explanation of his administration's educational policies. For that we should look to Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. Yesterday afternoon, before the SOTU, Secretary Duncan said, “We are building bipartisan and grass-roots support for reauthorizing the federal education law to boost standards, promote a well-rounded education, foster competition, and give states and district as much flexibility as possible.  As I often say, our role is to provide a common definition of success, not a prescription for success,”

This last line is something I appreciate and an approach friendly to the one we take at QISA. In practice there is a challenge in that approach.  On the one hand, those working in schools are educational professionals.  Expert practitioners of teaching their students and administering their buildings. Most, indeed, need no new prescriptions to swallow.  On the other hand, we have noticed that many schools and districts have become addicted to the prescriptive approach.  School change expert, Michael Fullan refers to this as "projectitis" (The New Meaning of Educational Change, p. 21).  In a sense, schools, having been force-fed a steady diet of program binders by states and central offices for the past 20 years, have become hooked on them. We have found success in providing schools with a framework for success that allows them to use their expertise to diagnose their issues and then write their own script for improvement.

Finally, my hope is that the "common definition of success" put forward includes students' own aspirations.  My fear is that the common definition will be a metric, or be reduced to one.  Some standard number on an achievement yardstick that loses sight of the living, growing, dreaming, striving student we are supposed to be measuring with that yard stick.  Let's work not to be distracted by the measuring instrument and to keep our eyes on the target: the student.

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