I was recently asked for my top three recommendations for policy and "non-policy" strategies for improving education, particularly with an eye towards increasing equity and advancing deeper learning (the development of student competencies like ill-structured problem solving, communication, and new media literacy in the context of academic content learning).
One might expect me to recommend things related to the use of technologies in schools. But what I think of as high-quality, technology-rich education for all students in schools depends upon fundamental changes in our national system of schooling and national ecology of learning. Education technology needs education reform much more than education reform needs education technology. (I stole that line from Barry Fishman; I've never asked him if he stole it from someone else.)
So here are my top three domains that I think state and federal policymakers could address to improve education. (In my next post, I'll share three things that policymakers probably have little control over, but are even more important.)
Start Before School. Compelling research from Sean Reardon and many others demonstrates that educational inequalities begin long before children begin attending schools. The best way to ensure that systems of K-12 schooling are capable of providing rich, equitable opportunities for learning is to ensure that all children enter kindergarten prepared for school. In his New York Times opinion piece, Reardon advocates several policy initiatives that would advance this goal: universal, paid maternity and paternity leave; nurse-family partnerships for early interventions in resource-poor environments; resources for parental education; universal early childhood education; and greater resources and training for early childhood educators.
These initiatives are all outside my area of expertise. I'm called in my own career to explore the mysteries of adolescents. But every day that I work with schools, and as I raise my own 2 year old daughter, it becomes increasingly clear that those working in early education and parent education are doing, by far, the most important work in our national system of education. Achieving equitable outcomes related to deeper learning depends upon addressing the woeful state of early education and parental support structures in the U.S. As Reardon writes, we need to rethink "our still-persistent notion that educational problems should be solved by schools alone."
Assess Less Frequently and More Effectively. Testing all students, every year, from 3rd to 8th grade, is not an efficient use of resources. We need a much more variegated assessment strategy, where assessments are designed for their intended function, rather than using one annual test to evaluate students, teachers, schools, districts, teacher training universities, and systems, in complete contra-indication of psychometric guidelines. While baseline assessments of computational skills and reading comprehension are well and good, unless we can develop assessments that evaluate the full range of competencies embodied in deeper learning, these deeper competencies will only be developed in students in affluent schools where students can reliably pass these baseline tests.
At key milestones, students should produce rich, portfolio-based performance assessments (leveraging new technologies to address reliability issues from previous efforts) that demonstrate ill-structured problem solving, complex communication, and new media literacy skills in the context of rigorous investigations of carefully-selected academic content. These performances should be supplemented by assessments designed to evaluate teachers, schools, or systems, administered using well-designed sampling methodologies. Better assessment is critical to better policy, curriculum, and pedagogy.
Support Continuous Learning and Innovation
Teachers improve when they work in community to continuously improve their pedagogy and curriculum. This work is especially effective when teacher communities evaluate the quality of their teaching by looking closely at student work and at the teaching practices in their community and in their own classrooms. Developing this capacity--one school at a time, in 15,000 school districts and 130,000 schools--is essential to improving student learning in schools. I have little confidence in any reform strategy that seeks to improve student learning without accounting for the need to work, individually, with each of these 130,000 faculties.
In my own practice, I find that emerging technologies are a particularly useful vehicle for stimulating new thinking among faculty around curriculum and pedagogy. The physical presence of new devices symbolizes the changing demands of the civic sphere and labor market and gives teachers permission to re-examine their practice. Technology is a kind of Trojan Mouse, where you can start a conversation by talking about devices and then shift quickly to addressing fundamental questions of teaching and learning.