Author Interview: 'Understanding Key Education Issues'
Matthew Lynch, fellow EdWeek blogger at Education Futures and author of the new book Understanding Key Education Issues: How We Got Here And Where We Go From Here (Routledge, 2017) agreed to answer a few questions.
LF: Why did you decide to write this book and how would you describe its purpose?
I decided to write this book because I became disillusioned with the established US education system, mainly because I feel that it is struggling to meet the needs of a hyper-connected society that is in a constant state of evolution. In this age of education innovation and reform, the pre-K through 12 classrooms must evolve to adapt to the times. As a result, practices, and policies are continually being reexamined and adjusted. The problem with many of these policy trends, however, is that they are strong on passionate discourse but weak on practical implementation and ideas. Furthermore, many are not based on evidence.
That is where this book comes in. Its purpose is to offer objective, research-based insights into six key educational trends and issues that are impacting the K-12 learning process: year-round schooling, assessments, educating minorities, anti-intellectualism, multiage classrooms, and the twin issues of social promotion and retention. At the same time, the book addresses controversial but important questions that relate to the future of public K-12 education in America. Also, the book provides educators and administrators with practical strategies on how they should adjust to these new trends and issues, and how they can take advantage of them.
The strategies in this book are deliberately designed to be workable in the educational system. If nothing else, I hope this book provides some discussion surrounding important questions that are often overlooked or under-considered in the current educational policy arena.
LF: You recommend a switch to year-round schooling. Interest in it seems to be growing, but it's implementation still appears pretty limited. What would be three "elevator speeches" you'd give to promote it - one to teachers, another to administrators and one to families?
Parents: For parents with children of different ages and in different schools, I understand that a year-round schedule could present serious scheduling issues. However, this argument assumes that schools would actually adhere to different time off schedules - something that seemingly could be adjusted so that all schools within a particular district or geographic area were on the same schedule. I also know that it would be difficult for working parents to find babysitters for one or two weeks at a time every few months, as opposed to three months straight in the summer. Again though, the market adjusts to demand, and it seems to me that child care centers and camps would offer programs when students needed them. In the end, a year-round setup would benefit your children academically and socially. Doesn't this outweigh the potential drawbacks? I think it does.
Administrators: I know that a long-time thorn in the side of teachers and administrators has been the "summer slide," or the theory that knowledge is lost when students get so much time off (like in the summer months) from academic pursuits. While the overall student numbers show no significant differences in learning for better or worse, at-risk students tend to do better in year-round setups. Studies have found that disadvantaged students lose about 27 percent more of their learning gains in the summer months than their peers. By being in school the same number of days, but with shorter breaks, these students are able to keep their minds on a learning track that may not otherwise be fostered at home in the off-months. This makes it easier for you to close the achievement gap.
Teachers: One of the first issues teachers raise when the idea of year-round schooling arises is getting rid of summers off. I get that, and I empathize. However, theoretically if nothing about the school calendar changed except the timing of the days off, teachers and administrators would still have the same amount of time off, but it would be spread out over 12 months more evenly. I believe that the benefit to teachers of year-round schooling would far outweigh these inconveniences, though. The pressure to have high-performing students is the bane of every teacher's existence, and research shows that too much time off from the school routine can actually undo the hard work teachers put into their students.
LF: Which of the recommendations you make in the book do you think are more likely to become accepted more quickly than others—and why?
In chapter three, we look at standardized exams and other assessments. Many educators view standardized testing as a necessary evil of the improvement process. Proponents of standardized assessments say that without them, there is no adequate way to enforce educator accountability. I think that given the current education policy environment, changing the way we assess students would be accepted more easily than my other recommendations. As a matter of fact, many of the things that I discussed are being implemented presently.
LF: As a teacher in an urban district, I was particularly struck by the points you make about the challenges facing young African-American males in schools. Can you elaborate on them here, including any recommendations you'd make to teachers?
It is true that working with African-American males can be especially challenging for urban teachers. Here are some tips for urban teachers looking for help:
Teacher- Parent Communication
One simple issue to address is teacher-parent communication. Every teacher needs to ensure that this channel is open. It is important to note that, especially in poor communities, not all parents may have email capabilities. If they do, they may not check their emails all that often. Those parents may be best reached by phone or by letter. You may, in fact, choose to send the same information in multiple ways: by phone message, email message, and a note sent home with the child. Make every effort possible to meet with the parents of each child. If they don't show up at a scheduled meeting, try again. And again. It is easy to become frustrated and then noncommittal, placing the blame on the parents. Remember, however, that the boy whose parents don't have the wherewithal to make it to a meeting is often the child who most needs the attention.
In a similar vein, communication about early-intervention services is crucial. Far too often, the child who most needs the early intervention is the one whose parents are not in a position to hear about it. It is absolutely imperative that children who are floundering be given the tools they need to survive in the classroom. Early intervention can assist with that, but if the parents don't know about the services, the children won't be able to take advantage of them.
Especially in lower socioeconomic neighborhoods, disruptive behavior can be a problem in schools. These problems are increasingly being dealt with by calling in law enforcement or by heavy-handed discipline. For a black boy, this response all too often leads, eventually, to prison. However, there is an alternative.
Schools across the nation are turning to restorative justice, with enormous success. Restorative justice places the focus on solutions that benefit all parties involved in the conflict. It steers away from punishment and tries to help the offender to understand how he hurt the victim, encouraging him to make the victim whole again. The result is a much lower rate of repeat offense and a transformed sense of social relations. Restorative justice should become the de facto method of dealing with disruptive behavior in schools across the nation.
Professional Development and Mentorship
Finally, teachers should receive the training and support they need to teach young African-American boys. Especially in the lower grades, teachers are overwhelmingly white and female. In fact, black male teachers comprise less than one percent of the teaching force. This means that most black boys are being taught by teachers who are not intimately familiar with the issues they are going through. Training in racism awareness should be mandatory in schools across the country.
Teachers should also be provided with mentors for the first two years of their service. Ideally, these mentors would have experience and training in working with African-American boys and would be able to pass on advice and provide new teachers with the tools to deal with difficult situations.
LF: In the book, you identify six "key educational trends and issues"—history of our education system, the school calendar, assessments, educating young African-Americans, anti-intellectualism, social promotion and retention, and a redesign of educational structures. I'm assuming it was not easy to narrow down the list of topics to those six. Which are two that didn't "make the cut" and can you share your thoughts on them?
Several trends and issues did not make my list, but here the most salient.
Virtual Reality: As the technology improves, the ability to bring students into a single environment, even if they are from different schools, states, or countries, can help connect students to their larger world. Virtual Reality gives them the opportunity to learn from people they may otherwise never have met. A broader virtual world could expand their horizons and may promote more diverse collaboration in the future. While we are still only scratching the surface of what virtual reality can do in an educational environment, the potential exists for it to change education as we know it.
Makerspaces: Are creative spaces located in communities, schools, and public and academic libraries. These areas are designed to engage participants in hands-on activities that teach twenty-first-century skills. In Makerspaces students are given opportunities to work with technology, bring ideas to life, interact with peers and educators in new ways, and learn to problem solve, as well as, providing an environment in which they can make mistakes and learn from them. With all of the opportunities for learning that they offer, makerspaces may hold the key to unlocking the potential for innovation in our students and our economy.
LF: Thanks, Matthew!