Revolution vs. reform

I haven’t had time to think deep thoughts about the new report (pdf) from the New Commission on the Study of Skills in the Workforce. Too much sugar in my system. But I confess to considerable skepticism about making the difficult and useful parts happen. I don’t see how the politics are going to work.

Here’s the Eduwonk-recommended Christian Science Monitor: summary:

What if the solution to American students’ stagnant performance levels and the wide achievement gap between white and minority students wasn’t more money, smaller schools, or any of the reforms proposed in recent years, but rather a new education system altogether?

That’s the conclusion of a bipartisan group of scholars and business leaders, school chancellors and education commissioners, and former cabinet secretaries and governors. They declare that America’s public education system, designed to meet the needs of 100 years ago when the workplace revolved around an assembly line, is unsuited to today’s global marketplace. Already, they warn, many Americans are in danger of falling behind and seeing their standard of living plummet.

In its place, the group proposes a series of controversial reforms:

• Offer universal pre-kindergarten programs and opportunities for continuing education for adults without high school diplomas.

• Create state board exams that students could pass at age 16 to move either on to community college or to a university-level high school curriculum.

• Improve school salaries in exchange for reducing secure pension benefits, and pay teachers more to work with at-risk kids, for longer hours, or for high performance.

• Create curriculums that emphasize creativity and abstract concepts over rote learning or mastery of facts.

Letting more 10th graders move directly to college would save money that could be spent elsewhere — perhaps on funding lifelong adult education to help workers update their skills as they go along.

Another proposal: Scrap local school funding for a state-funded system that offers more to the needy districts but doesn’t diminish the resources of wealthy districts. The report then calls for giving schools far more autonomy – making them, in essence, contract schools run by teachers or others who are monitored by districts but not owned by them.

The U.S. spends more on education than most other industrialized nations but performs worse, the report says. Remarkably, it doesn’t call for spending more money on education. It calls for spending it differently. This is a sign of seriousness, writes Eduwonk.

This is the first really seminal (report) that I can think of that lays out the hard truth that a lot of this is going to have to be financed on resources already in the system. That’s a big signal shift and for a country that has more than doubled its education spending in a generation, it’s a sign of new seriousness about policymaking.

The Fordham Foundation’s Education Gadfly gives an honors grade to the report.

It’s no simple laundry list; the recommendations are tightly linked and closely integrated. They include developing standards, assessments, and curricula that reflect today’s needs and tomorrow’s requirements, and they span and amalgamate several different reform strategies, drawing the essence from each. They’re big and bold. No single faction in American education will like all of them — a universal level of unhappiness is one definition of consensus — and that’s why implementation is going to prove a huge challenge. But this report could turn out to be a fit successor to A Nation at Risk.

By contrast, D-Ed Reckoning’s Ken DeRosa is unimpressed.

A rogue’s gallery of know-nothings who don’t know how to educate children funded by a foundation that has taken nothing but missteps in its short history

Sherman Dorn points out that for all it’s call for new thinking, the commission hasn’t put the entire report online, just the executive summary. You have to pay to read the whole thing. How many people will? Not the best way to start a national debate

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Comments

  1. “designed to meet the needs of 100 years ago when the workplace revolved around an assembly line”…the assembly line had not even been introduced 100 years ago, so it’s hard to see how the workplace revolved around it.

    “Educators” seem to have a strong urge to disparage the knowledge possessed by people of past generations. See my post on temporal bigotry.

  2. Frankly, I can’t see what the excitement is all about. The crucial questions of curriculum and instruction as well as the question of elementary teacher expertise don’t appear to be addressed, except for this item:

    “Create curriculums that emphasize creativity and abstract concepts over rote learning or mastery of facts.”

    Red flags should go up when educationists invoke “rote learning”. It’s the caricature they use to create a false dichotomy between knowing content and their prescriptions for “creativity”.

  3. I second Instructionist’s warning buzzer on the words “rote learning”. Any sensible system will define a large percentage of things that must be known by rote. Spelling is largely rote learning in English. And it’s important. Mathematics is largely rote. But you can’t get to higher level abstractions unless you understand the lower levels at a mastery that makes it “rote”.

    Just because it’s boring for the teacher doesn’t mean that important stuff isn’t occurring.

  4. Yup, agreed with the above about the “rote”. You can’t be creative or abstract until you’ve got a base to work from. This is recognized in music and athletics, so why it’s so difficult when it comes to history, math, science, literature, and grammar is beyond me. Having taught gifted kids at various ages, I’ve noticed that abstract analysis is something that comes very late – like, high school age, if at all – and that it’s best to spend the time with very repetitive exercises until the “rote” stuff is mastered at the unconscious level (i.e., you don’t have to think through the little steps – you don’t have to sit down and figure out 4 times 8, for example.)

  5. Who needs “national debates”? Let’s hope a single state, or even a large district or two adopt these recommendations. Let’s track how well they work for them and then begin debating whether to scale up the proposals. There’s an article in the Washington Post this morning touting the IB Promary Years Program and its “areas of inquiry” over “rote learning” of facts. Let’s see college acceptance rates before we anoint ANY program a national solution.

  6. • Offer universal pre-kindergarten programs and opportunities for continuing education for adults without high school diplomas.

    As I recall, the value of pre-school is vastly oversold and its primary value lies in destroying the livelihoods and businesses of private-sector pre-schools. Controversial, yes. Worthwhile? No.

    • Create state board exams that students could pass at age 16 to move either on to community college or to a university-level high school curriculum.

    I guess Harry Potter is willing to loan out his wand or, the political tug-of-war that state board exams would devolve into is a good thing.

    • Improve school salaries in exchange for reducing secure pension benefits, and pay teachers more to work with at-risk kids, for longer hours, or for high performance.

    Now that’s controversial, expecting to get something in return for a salary increase. Almost as bad though is the implication of differential pay. Pay is not related to skill, only to tenure and “education”.

    • Create curricula that emphasize creativity and abstract concepts over rote learning or mastery of facts.

    This should be a breeze after those state board exams are created but I’m worried that Harry Potter’s wand will break under the strain. You can only expect so much from magic.

    Letting more 10th graders move directly to college would save money that could be spent elsewhere

    Yeah, it could be spent in colleges, running remedial classes to cover material that wasn’t taught in high school. Like now.

    Maybe we need a Truth in Education law? That way when the phrase “10th graders” is used it doesn’t refer to the amount of time the kid’s spent in the education system but to how much the kid has learned.

    Another proposal: Scrap local school funding for a state-funded system that offers more to the needy districts but doesn’t diminish the resources of wealthy districts.

    Wasn’t there something in this report about not increasing funding? If you give “A” more funding and it doesn’t come out of “B”s budget then probably “C” ought to hang onto his wallet because that’s a funding increase.

    The report then calls for giving schools far more autonomy – making them, in essence, contract schools run by teachers or others who are monitored by districts but not owned by them.

    Oh, just barely outside the base line but still a foul ball.

    Unless the amount, and price, of monitoring is pretty carefully spelled out it’s just changing the letterhead.

    More autonomy would balance the odds a trifle in the power struggle between school and district but why not go all the way? The experience with charters makes clear the superfluous nature of school districts. Why not get rid of the districts? Then there’d probably be enough money to fund those pre-schools with a bunch left over.

  7. Barry Garelick says:

    Create curricula that emphasize creativity and abstract concepts over rote learning or mastery of facts.

    Everybody’s favorite false dichotomy. My favorite variant of this is when in the face of Asian countries constantly receiving higher math and science scores than the U.S in tests like TIMSS, people say “Yeah, but they’re not as good at solving problems that require creativity.”

    Reminds me of the rumor I used to hear when I was a freshman at college; the one about saltpetre being in the dorm food.

  8. “Another proposal: Scrap local school funding for a state-funded system that offers more to the needy districts but doesn’t diminish the resources of wealthy districts.

    Wasn’t there something in this report about not increasing funding? If you give “A” more funding and it doesn’t come out of “B”s budget then probably “C” ought to hang onto his wallet because that’s a funding increase.”

    This could be a breakthrough in algebra. Call it cutting-edge fuzzy algebra.

    a + b = 100

    a = 60

    b = 40

    60 + 40 = 100

    New proposal

    60 + (40 + 20) = 100

  9. “There’s an article in the Washington Post this morning touting the IB Promary Years Program and its “areas of inquiry” over “rote learning” of facts.”

    I read the article. The inquiry method sounds like the standard-fare KWL method we were taught in ed school.

    Then there is this:

    “Unlike the high school diploma program, there are no year-end exams, but fifth-graders complete a culminating “exhibition” that can be a performance, a community service project or another endeavor in which portfolios are turned in periodically. Students also must study a foreign language.”

    Yeah that’ll do it. Community service projects will show how well the kiddies learned math, science, etc.

  10. wayne martin says:

    I looked on the WEB-site of the Skill Commission for the report, only to find that they have decided to make the work available in book format.

    There is an executive summary on-line:

    http://www.skillscommission.org/pdf/exec_sum/ToughChoices_EXECSUM.pdf

    At least a couple blogers have pointed out that it was unlikely that many outside the Beltway will actually read the book, since it is not on-line. There are a number of other topic-related papers that can be downloaded from this site, however.

    The work doesn’t seem to be highly received, so far, by many folks reviewing the press releases.

  11. Tenth graders shooting directly into college? Oh dear. I thought school had to do with brain and social development rather than the mere aquisition of a given, measurable body of knowledge (rote learning?). While I know a small percentage of kids in a given student body who might be able to deal with the intellectual rigors of college, damned few would be able to deal with the social aspects. Maturity does matter, and it is attained, with the exception of some few exceptional individuals, through long, hard won experience.

    Don’t even get me started on the rest of this report…

  12. mike from oregon says:

    “… another endeavor in which portfolios are turned in periodically.”

    Boy is this idea a loser. In Oregon, in an effort to turn out “world class students” the educational system came up with a similar idea that they labeled CIM (certificate of initial mastery) and CAM (certificate of advanced mastery), they were suppose to be awarded to students who did specific work that was put into portfolios to show the mastery of … well, we never really did figure out what it was suppose to show. A student could do over 50 essays (or redo and refine one over 50 times) until it shows that they have mastered the … idea, concept, principal, or … something. It was to be voluntary and eventually the high school diploma was to be eliminated and the CIM and CAM replace it. After 15 years, our state is finally going to abandon this stupid idea. It didn’t show anything outside the fact the student had spent tons of time on useless projects. Thankfully the diploma was never done away with, they couldn’t show how the ‘portfolios’ were ANY advantage over the diplomas. They never went beyond being voluntary and they provided no advantage to the student if they did acquire one.

    A HUGE waste of dollars and time – so why not move it to a national level, that’s what I always say.

  13. “Create curriculums that emphasize creativity and abstract concepts over rote learning or mastery of facts.”

    HA HA HA HA HA HA HA!!!!!!

    They want real change? How about breaking the monopoly? How about giving the customer direct input (control of the money) into the system? Parents are smart enough to see right through all of this BS.

    “Create state board exams that students could pass at age 16 to move either on to community college or to a university-level high school curriculum.”

    Community college, university, they have equal entrance requirements? Right. They can’t get basic K-12 education right, but they want to allow kids to go to college at 16. This is part of a K-16 education power grab by state boards of education. They want control over it all. Hear them gripe about “tough” state university entrance requirements. They want guaranteed acceptance if kids pass some minimal state board exams at age 16.

    A group in our state just proposed a charter high school that is tied in with the state community college. This will allow high school kids to start taking college courses. There is no indication how they will get the kids ready to take these courses. If the kids are so good that they can take college courses in high school, they’re not headed for community college. This is just the sort of weird “charter” that is even close to being acceptable by our state board of education, which has control over the approval of charters. You want to start a Core Knowledge school? Forget it. You don’t have a chance. You can’t have a charter school that attracts the best students. They won’t allow it. It all doesn’t matter, because our state has a moratorium on charter schools until mid 2008.

  14. Barry Garelick says:

    These are good comments but you’re all preaching to the choir. Start spreading the gospel where it counts, over at Gerald Bracey’s blog (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gerald-bracey/believing-the-worst-about_b_36562.html) where he’s written a post berating this same study, but for far different reasons than stated in these pages.

  15. You’re right Barry, but I won’t register for a blog that requires that much information.

    He talks about the

    “the High Skills Hoax”

    One may not like the fuzzy talk of “High Skills” or “21st Century Skills” to justify massive changes, but that doesn’t mean that everything is just fine. There are lots of things to dislike about the report, but he doesn’t do much more than complain.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Joanne Jacobs writes about the New Commission on the Study of Skills in the Workforce in “Revolution vs. Reform.” She writes: The U.S. spends more on education than most other industrialized nations but performs worse, the report says. Remarkably, it doesn’t call for spending more money on education. It calls for spending it differently. […]