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.”