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Answering Tough Questions about Education Reform (10/18/14)

At no time in its prior history has public schooling in the United States experienced such dramatic reform as it has in the past 15 years. Much of this reform has been fueled by the push for increased accountability in our nation’s schools in an effort to bolster student achievement. While some would argue that the discrete detailed results of this effort have been mixed, at best, there is no denying its broad scale impact. Assisted by the accountability efforts of the past 15 years, including the laser like focus placed on student achievement data by No Child Left Behind (2001), our nation’s schools, particularly its lowest performing schools, are measurably better than they ever would have been without the current efforts that are in place.

While recognizing the progress that has been made in public schools in the United States over the past 15 years, educators will continue to face tough questions from those who challenge for evidence of the fruit of our labor. In a recent Education Week article titled Ten Reform Claims That Teachers Should Know How to Challenge Jack Schneider details 10 provocative assertions that teachers need to be able to respond to regarding education reform. While a detailed discussion of the 10 claims that Schneider made is certainly worth consideration, such a discussion could extend for volumes. However, I will address four of the claims that Schneider believes are out there and provide perspective using a lens from practice in the field.

• Reform Claim: Schools need disruptive innovation. The status quo is

Response: Nothing is more disruptive than disruption. However, this does not mean that schools should not seek ways to innovate and refine their organizational and instructional practices. In fact, this is the work that schools should be doing. Those who would argue that reform should be dismissed wholesale because it is perceived as disruptive are not viewing the issue from the balcony . . .

• Reform Claim: The Public Schools are in crisis.

Response: There is no denying that the accountability movement of the past 15 years has placed student achievement at the front of the discussion on education in the United States, as it should be. Unless we are educating all of our students to high standards that result in college and/or career readiness when they graduate from high school, we are doing a disservice to the students as well as to our communities. Regarding the use of the word crisis, it’s not that public schools are in crisis but rather they are in transition. As we focus on best practices, and deal with student achievement in honest and straightforward ways, we may show some “warts” but ultimately our schools are improving in the process.

• Reform Claim: Schools need to teach more technology.

Response: It is not so much that schools need discrete curricula on technology, for indeed the touch screen, twitter, facebook, e-mail, snap chat, and the countless other interfaces that we now have with technology are the way of the world. Children grow up with technology and use it intuitively. They are able to do this because even though platforms upgrade every year many of the same basic principles of operation remain the same. Because of the current context in which technology is used in our society, the teacher’s challenge is to find ways to integrate the use of today’s technology into the curriculum. This allows students to connect with the content in the formats that they are adept in processing information from, because they use them naturally. Technology also allows students to access and process larger amounts of information at faster rates. Used in tandem these two factors result in improved student learning. This is why technology must be used as a regular tool in every teacher’s classroom.

• Reform Claim: Teacher preparation is a sham.

Response: Teaching is one of the few professions where “everyone who practices in the office” has at least a four year college degree. In addition, all states have procedures in place to ensure that all certified teachers have appropriate knowledge of the content for the courses that they are teaching. Regarding actual work in the field, teaching is just like any other practice based profession, for example, law or medicine. It is an art and a science. The science is the content, which all preparation programs address. The art is the pedagogy, which is also addressed in the teacher’s preparation program. However, a teacher’s strength in pedagogy increases with time and collaboration with peers. Preparation programs ensure that candidates have the strong foundation needed to effectively move forward in the field as they begin their practice. Teachers, just like lawyers and doctors, hone their craft through practice in the field, over multiple school years.

To close, as educators we must be proud of the progress we have made over the past 15 years while clearly recognizing the challenges on the horizon. Tough questions about our practice, force us to reflect and improve. In the end, students benefit from these challenges. In this spirit, we should not be anti-reform but rather “pro-student-achievement” and take every action we can to ensure that it occurs.

Shawn McCollough
President & CEO

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