When it comes to getting more students to complete college, the education community is eager for ideas. Three thought leaders in public education offered their perspectives at the annual meeting of the College Board in Washington, D.C., on Thursday.
Each headliner talked about what ails public education and how to fix it. Here's some of what they had to say:
Michelle Rhee, the District of Columbia's outgoing schools chancellor:
"We have a public school system that for a number of decades has been getting worse and worse. We are doing a disservice to many children across the country, and there is no accountability for this," Rhee said.
She explained the situation in Washington in 2007, when 92 percent of 8th grade students were not doing grade-level work in math, yet performance evaluations of teachers rated 95 percent as doing a great job. "That misalignment means that we aren't holding ourselves as the adults in the system accountable for producing academic gains for kids," Rhee said. "It's our responsibility to get real and begin holding ourselves accountable."
More accountability is also needed in higher education, Rhee suggested. "We have teachers across the country who have paid $100,000 to receive a degree and come into the classroom ill prepared for their profession. Then everyone wants to look at the school district and say, "What are you going to do for professional development?' " Rhee said. "I want to look at the schools of education and say, "What did you do for the $100,000 to prepare this teacher?' "
Rhee pointed to the new teacher evaluation system in Washington that identifies effective teachers, tracking the colleges where they were trained. "If you are producing ineffective teachers, we are going to send them back to you," she said. "It should be your responsibility to do the professional development and put the money in to get them to where we need them to be."
An audience member asked Rhee, who is resigning after three and a half years in the job, what lesson she had learned from her experience in Washington.
"I thought, very naively, if we just put our heads down and produced results that people would be so happy with those results that they would want to continue to work on," Rhee responded. "We were absolutely incorrect about that. We realized, after the fact, that not only do you have to produce the results, but a broad group of people have to feel ownership over those results to have what you need to continue."
She added later: "You cannot significantly change these systems and keep everybody happy. It's not possible. ... It's the constant struggle of leaders."
Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County:
"We need to believe that every child can do math. We have to change attitudes," Hrabowski said.
He emphasized the importance of passion and changing the culture of teaching around math, science, and engineering. Colleges should work to offer professional development to strengthen the skills of elementary and middle school math teachers, he suggested. "If you don't have teachers who are comfortable with math in the third grade or fifth grade, how can you expect kids to become excited about math?"
To be successful in college or any career, students need to read, write, and communicate effectively. Kids need to be innovative, creative, and curious. "We need children to develop the skills to work hard —it's not about being naturally smart," and educators play a big role in setting those expectations, Hrabowski said.
Gaston Caperton, president of the College Board:
The United States has slipped from the No. 1 spot in producing college graduates to 12th, in part, because the country was not paying attention, not working hard enough, not setting high enough goals, not getting teachers in the right places, and not having the right leadership, Caperton said.
There should be a stronger partnership between K-12 and higher education. Too often, colleges have stood back and said, "Send me your students and we'll take them and expect them to be at a certain level," Caperton said. If colleges want better performance, there needs to be more collaboration with public schools and higher demands on students in teacher colleges, he said.
Caperton pointed to College Board programs starting in the 6th grade that build students' skills in English and math so they are ready for the PSAT in 9th grade and Advanced Placement courses in high school. Instead of teachers picking who they think are the "best" kids for AP classes, now students are being identified in more scientific ways that has lead to a doubling of the number of AP programs in recent years.
When the talk turned to politics and the challenge of pushing for sustained reform efforts, Caperton said that, as governor of West Virginia, he was willing to be unpopular to pursue education reform.
"You've got to believe in something. I happen to believe that education is the future of this country," he said. "You can't do it to be popular. You got to do it because you think it's right."