In search of education’s ‘sweet spot’

Are education professionals engaged in soul-searching or navel-gazing? National Journal Online’s Education Experts looks for a “sweet spot” of “common knowledge that facilitates consensus but also allows for honest differences of opinion.”

1) Washington insiders consistently underestimate current spending on K-12 education and overestimate average class size, according to a National Journal education poll conducted in association with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

2) A Fordham Institute survey found mixed responses from professors of education, with 83 percent saying it is “absolutely essential” for public school teachers to teach 21st-century skills but only 36 percent saying the same about teaching math facts.

If only 36 percent of education professors think it’s essential to teach math facts, then there’s no sweet spot, writes Bob Schaffer, a former congressman who chairs the Colorado Board of Education.

In five years, today’s 21st-century skills – whatever that really means – will already be obsolete. Math facts won’t.

Students used to be taught part of America’s greatness was its phenomenal ability to accommodate varied approaches to such fundamental and profound questions as, for example, what children should be taught. That was back in the embryonic dark ages of public education before Washington insiders knew best how to teach young citizens.

In those days, the only laboratories of democracy were referred to as “These United States.” Today, these pesky states – conceived by the 18th-century minds of men like Jefferson, Madison and Franklin – are treated as mere impediments to the kind of advanced learning necessary to sustain a great Republic.

Watch out for either/or questions, writes Steve Peha of Teaching That Makes Sense. “And” is often the right answer.

Education profs don’t teach tradecraft

Education professors see themselves as “philosophers and agents of social change, not as master craftsmen sharing tradecraft,” concludes a Fordham study, Cracks in the Ivory Tower,  released today.

More than eighty percent of the nation’s education professors think it’s “absolutely essential” that teachers be lifelong learners, but far fewer believe it’s as necessary for teachers to understand how to work with state standards, tests, and accountability systems (24 percent), maintain discipline and order in the classroom (37 percent), or work in high?need schools (39 percent).

“Too many education professors still cling to outmoded, romantic views of what education is about and what teachers need,” said Fordham Institute President Chester E. Finn, Jr.

Education professors, for example, are far likelier to believe that the proper role of a teacher is to be a “facilitator of learning” (84 percent) not a “conveyor of knowledge” (11 percent). When asked to choose between two competing philosophies of teacher education, 68 percent believe they should be preparing tomorrow’s class instructors to be “change agents” versus 26 percent who believe they should prepare teachers to “work effectively within the realities of today’s public schools.” And while 83 percent of professors believe it’s “absolutely essential” to teach 21st Century skills, just 36 percent say that about teaching math facts and 44 percent about teaching phonics in the younger grades.

However, compared to the 1997 survey, professors are less likely to say struggling with questions is more important than finding the right answer. “Only 37 percent of today’s professors believe that early use of calculators will improve children’s problem?solving skills, a 20 percent drop from 1997.”

While most education professors support pay increases for teachers who work in challenging schools, they strongly reject linking teacher pay to student test scores. Professors split on measuring teacher effectiveness by analyzing students’ academic gains.

Twelve percent of professors surveyed are reformers who oppose the current teacher education system, while 13 percent are defenders of the system, the study concluded.

Teach for America and similar programs are a good idea, according to 63 percent of education professors.

Seventy?eight percent support a core curriculum with knowledge
and skill standards specified at each grade level, but only 49 percent believe state governments should adopt the “same set of standards and give the same tests in math, science, and reading nationwide.”

3 Rs, 4 Cs and the arts

P21 (Partnership for 21st Century Skills) has released a skills map for the arts, which shows “how the three Rs and four Cs (critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration and creativity and innovation) can be fused within arts curriculum.”

. . . at the fourth-grade level, students could be asked to perform and record the same story three times; once with words only, once with physical movement only, and once with both. They then review the different performances and reflect in group discussions and individual writing about how the presentations and story changed and whether or not one version communicated more effectively than another and why.

At the eighth-grade level, students could be asked to examine how composers, artists, choreographers, and playwrights use the arts to communicate particular ideas, themes, or concepts and to evoke particular emotions or feelings. They then would develop multimedia presentations illustrating how such communication occurs through each of the arts disciplines.

In twelfth grade, students could be asked to view and discuss single or multiple works of art created by themselves and their peers. Students would be required to use mutually agreed upon criteria (elements and principals of art and design, subject matter, technique, style, etc.) to describe, analyze, interpret, and make informed judgments about the art works.

This seems a little 22nd century to me.

The failure of U.S. higher education

Higher education is failing almost as badly as K-12, writes Robert D. Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.

Over the years, he’s interviewed many recent college graduates for jobs at this think tank.

Because the quality of so many of the graduates was so poor, ITIF has taken to giving the small share of the most promising applicants (based on their resumes and cover letters) a short test that we email them to complete at home in one hour. The questions are pretty simple: “Go to this person’s bio online and write a three- or four-sentence version of their bio for us to include in a conference packet,” or, “Enter these eight items in a spreadsheet and tell us the average for the ones that end in an odd number.”

. . . In our current hiring process (for an office manager/research assistant) we have so far given the test to approximately 20 college grads. Only one did well enough to merit an interview.

Most of the 19 were graduated from  top-ranked institutions. A recent Princeton graduate  “submitted a test that was full of spelling and grammar mistakes.”

“Why can’t colleges turn out graduates who can write basic sentences and do basic math?” Atkinson asks. He blames professors who want to teach their favorite subject, but don’t teach logic, debate, writing, research or other workplace skills.

One of the best college grads I ever hired (a graduate of Dartmouth) majored in history. In his job . . .  he didn’t need to know history. What he needed to know was how to think, how to write, how to speak intelligently, how to find information and make sense out of it, how to argue coherently, and how to do basic math. Fortunately, he had acquired these skills. But other graduates of colleges such as Kenyan, Bowdoin, Bates, or the University of Pennsylvania, whom I have hired over the years, clearly had not, or at least not nearly as well.

Science and engineering graduates need to know their subjects, he writes. Liberal arts and social sciences majors need practical skills, which they may or may not pick up by accident while studying French literature or the history of the comic book.

Atkinson wants a national test for college graduates of logic, reasoning, basic writing and math skills.

Next, he calls for a national employer survey to determine “what are the specific skills employers are looking for in recent graduates.” The survey also should ask which colleges and universities have provided the best employees.

Finally, we need radical experimentation in college design. It’s time for a foundation or wealthy individual to endow an entirely new college founded on teaching 21st century skills, not 20th century subjects.

I can’t imagine teaching these skills without teaching subject matter as well. Of course, I can’t imagine a Princeton grad who hasn’t mastered grammar and spelling — or, at least, spellchecker.

Many colleges do try to teach writing to students; most professors require research papers. K-12 students do lots of oral presentations. Are college graduates really that hopeless?

21st-century smarts

What are 21st-century skills? Finally, there’s a coherent answer, writes Jay Mathews. Craig Jerald defines a 21st-century education in a report for the Center for Public Education.

“Traditional knowledge and skills in school subjects like math, language arts, and science is not being displaced by a new set of skills,” Jerald writes. However, students will have to learn how to apply what they learn to meet “real world challenges.”  The most successful students will develop “the ability to think critically about information, solve novel problems, communicate and collaborate, create new products and processes, and adapt to change.”

Applied skills and competencies can best be taught in the context of the academic curriculum, not as a replacement for it or “add on” to it; in fact, cognitive research suggests that some competencies like critical thinking and problem solving are highly dependent on deep content knowledge and cannot be taught in isolation.

Jerald warns school districts not to neglect factual knowledge, the ability to follow directions or “knowing how to find a right answer when there is one.”

Cognitive scientists warn against efforts to teach critical thinking as isolated skills outside of content, and commercial programs that promise they can do so have little to no strong evidence backing them up. Therefore, districts should be especially wary of sales pitches that ask them to spend less time on traditional
subjects in order to fit in stand alone lessons related to 21st century skills.

To teach content and skills, schools may have to narrow the curriculum to cover fewer topics more thoroughly, Jerald advises, suggesting a look at Singapore’s math textbooks as an example.  Some interpersonal skills are best taught not by academic teachers but developed through sports and extracurricular activities, he writes.

As Mathews writes, much talk of 21st-century skills seems like “Star Trek idealism.” Jerald is rooted in the world we actually live in.

Update: David Foster’s Myth of the Knowledge Society argues that there’s nothing new about the need for smart, skilled, expert workers.

The business of '21st-century skills'

As Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21) becomes more influential, critics charge it’s a way for high-tech companies to influence schools, reports Education Week.

“The closer we look, the more P21’s unproven educational program appears to be just another mechanism for selling more stuff to schools,” Lynne Munson, the president and executive director of Common Core, a Washington group that advocates a stronger core curriculum, wrote in a recent blog item.

For Ken Kay, the president of P21, such criticism amounts to a “cheap shot” by those who don’t believe that the education system should be more responsive to business needs. . . . “All we’re trying to do is lay down a thoughtful set of design specs [for education].”

Business members of P21 become part of “a proactive process for creating a new vision of education,” Kay told Ed Week.

They have new networking opportunities and better access to federal policymakers and state leaders. Finally, they can access “early intelligence” about where the education system may be headed in order to help ensure that products and services align with that vision.

Recently, Karen Cator, a P21 board member and former Apple executive, was named head of education technology initiatives in the Education Department. But P21 isn’t pushing technology as the silver bullet, Kay says. It’s much broader.

Education historian Diane Ravitch, a Common Core trustee, thinks that P21 doesn’t know much about curriculum.

She scorns, for instance, its recently released “skill map” for 12th grade English that suggests having students reduce dialogue from Shakespeare to a series of text messages.

Kay says P21 is a catalyst, not a designer of standards, curriculum or tests. However, the group is starting a project to “devise assessment prototypes that measure 21st-century skills.”

My problem with P21 is not the business end of it. I’m dubious about the education part, which often seems fuzzy and faddish.

P21 has poor learning skills, writes Common Core’s Lynne Munson, complaining the group has dismissed sound advice on improving the program.

21st century skills: no substance

Bernie Trilling and Charles Fadel’s book, 21st Century Skills: Learning for Life in Our Times, is a disappointment, writes Jay Mathews on Class Struggle.

Were the 21st century skills people finally going to show us how this idea actually works in the classroom? Would they have data? Would there be lesson plans, and detailed testimony from students and parents and teachers? Were they going to prove wrong those of us who could see nothing in this movement (here is a previous column) but a lot of buzz words and jargon describing principles of teaching and learning that have been with us for many decades?

No.

Mathews thinks the authors are “smart tech guys who just don’t know much about real schools with real kids who have difficulty learning how to read, write and do math.”

They can’t see the scuffed floors and trash-strewn playground of a public middle school in Oakland, but can use their laptops to write nice sentences about how the six emerging principles of the movement are “vision, coordination, official policy, leadership, learning technology and teacher learning.”

The real-world examples weren’t useful either, Mathews writes. One features a fifth-grade teacher with 21st century skills training, who has her students research a leader of their choice and explain how that person succeeded on a Web page available to “students around the world.”

. . . other than the web page. it did not seem any different from the group projects my classmates and I did in the middle of the 20th century, mounting our findings on big cardboard displays and showing them off at a special night for parents and classmates.

The book never mentions how to teach reading, he adds.

I share Jay’s qualms about the 21st century skills movement.

If you want specifics about what works in real life and what doesn’t, read my book, Our School, about a start-up charter school figuring out how to educate underachieving Mexican-American students.

Common Core challenges P21

Today Common Core released a letter calling on P21 and other advocates of 21st century skills to “reshape their effort by putting knowledge and skills together at the core of their work.” It is signed by an array of educators, advocates, scholars, and policymakers, including E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Chester E. Finn, Jr., Sol Stern, Sandra Stotsky, Diane Ravitch, Daniel Willingham, Randi Weingarten, Jason Griffiths, Lynne Munson, and Mark Bauerlein. I signed it too, so I won’t comment on it; I simply encourage you to read it!

And over at the Core Knowledge blog, Robert Pondiscio makes a compelling argument that the key difference between advocates and critics of the 21st century skills movement is “one of orientation”–and no trivial matter.

Update: The letter inspired the first-ever sing-along on the Core Knowledge blog.

"We do not start the world anew with each generation"

In today’s Boston Globe, Diane Ravitch shows with pith and verve that “the same ideas proposed today by the 21st-Century Skills movement were iterated and reiterated by pedagogues across the 20th century.”

Whether it was “learning by doing,” the “project method,” the “activity method,” the “life adjustment movement,” or “outcome-based education,” pedagogues downplayed the importance of academic knowledge.

For over a century we have numbed the brains of teachers with endless blather about process and abstract thinking skills. We have taught them about graphic organizers and Venn diagrams and accountable talk, data-based decision-making, rubrics, and leveled libraries.

But we have ignored what matters most. We have neglected to teach them that one cannot think critically without quite a lot of knowledge to think about. Thinking critically involves comparing and contrasting and synthesizing what one has learned. And a great deal of knowledge is necessary before one can begin to reflect on its meaning and look for alternative explanations.

Ravitch writes, “we do not start the world anew with each generation.” We need the experience, knowledge, and wisdom of those who came before us.

Such knowledge allows us to practice true critical thinking. Without it we are lost.

(And to P21 people who say they never denied this, I say: then let’s teach literature and history. Enough with the nonsense, enough with the marketing of “21st century flotsam” and “21st century jetsam.”)

Read the entire article.

Update: Read also David Foster’s “Thinking and Memorizing.”

21st century science, geography

Partnership for 21st Century Skills has come out with science and geography road maps that show how to integrate “new” skills into old subjects. Last year’s maps covered English Language Arts and social studies. Math is in the works.

The science and geography maps provide educators with teacher-created models of how 21st century skills can be infused into instruction and highlight the critical connections between science, geography and 21st century skills such as critical thinking, problem solving and communication.

There’s no content, complains Common Core. Instead, P21 explains that learning skills is more important than “acquiring information” and “assessing to learn what students do not know.” 

So, under P21’s plan, students will learn less and their knowledge gaps will go undetected. 

Common Core also wonders how students can learn from the suggested activities if they haven’t acquired any information.

The fourth-grade science activity is light on science:

 Students in the class role-play citizens in a town meeting where members of the community express different points of view about a local issue, such as the location of a new school, building a bypass for traffic, or a re-zoning of downtown to be “pedestrian only” without vehicles, etc.

Eighth-grade science focuses on how a citizen evalutes scientific claims, not how to be a scientist. Most of us will be, at best, informed citizens, but what about the students who want to do science?

Students view video samples from a variety of sources of people speaking about a science-related topic (e.g., news reporters, news interviews of science experts, video podcasts of college lectures, segments from public television documentaries, or student-made videos of parents and professionals in their community). Students rate the videos on the degree to which the person sounded scientific…

A proposed 12th-grade geography activity asks students to conduct a survey to “test the law of retail gravitation (i.e., the number of visits a resident makes to competing shopping centers is inversely proportional to the distances between residence and center and proportional to the size of the center).” That is, people will travel longer distances to visit a large shopping center with many choices than to go to a small shopping center.

Given the percentage of young Americans who can’t find Iraq and Iran on a map — much less tell the difference between them — mastery of retail geography seems a bit esoteric.