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Five Good Assumptions about School Change

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Education Week founder and former editor Ron Wolk did us all a big service a month ago when he wrote this op-ed criticizing what he termed “Five Faulty Assumptions” of the pivotal report, “A Nation at Risk.” Wolk pointed out the flaws in each assumption, and his piece should be read and re-read, especially by those empowered to make education policy.

Here in my little corner, I want to build on his critique, and offer some alternative assumptions. So let’s see if we can take these five faulty assumptions, and replace them with sound ones.

(Faulty) Assumption One: The best way to improve student performance and close achievement gaps is to establish rigorous content standards and a core curriculum for all schools—preferably on a national basis.

New Assumption One: The best way to improve student performance and close the achievement gap is to turn each school into a powerful community of learners, where a stable core of teachers model collaboration and creative problem-solving as they improve instruction as a team. This school community extends beyond the walls to include the parents, families, and businesses in the area, so that education is supported by everyone, and learning is connected to the aspirations of the community.

We need to replace the rhetoric about preparing every child for college with a reality that gives more of them a chance to attend and succeed there. There needs to be greater access to scholarships, and an elimination of financial barriers that currently keep most working class students out of the best schools.

(Faulty) Assumption Two: Standardized-test scores are an accurate measure of student learning and should be used to determine promotion and graduation.

New Assumption Two:
The most powerful assessment is that which is done in the context of learning, within the classroom. There is a valid role for standardized tests, to provide an external yardstick, providing all of us with a reality check on how our students compare. But classroom-based formative assessment, connected to ambitious authentic learning, can provide students and teachers with valuable information needed to grow. Schools should be challenged to create projects and assignments that demonstrate this learning to the public, and open the school’s walls so learning is visible.

(Faulty) Assumption Three:
We need to put highly qualified teachers in every classroom to assure educational excellence.

New Assumption Three:
We need to retain and develop the capacity of the best teachers, and transform them into leaders of strong collaborative communities, where the best practices are developed and shared. The schools in our most troubled districts have huge turnover rates, and programs that emphasize recruiting smart people into these schools miss the point. Smart people figure out very quickly that these are incredibly tough places to feel effective – and they leave. We need to boost pay, and honor the expertise of those who are successful in these settings. They will show us the way.

(Faulty) Assumption Four: The United States should require all students to take algebra in the 8th grade and higher-order math in high school in order to increase the number of scientists and engineers in this country and thus make us more competitive in the global economy.

New Assumption Four:
More mathematicians and scientists will serve our nation well. But so will more historians, more artists, more writers, more carpenters, more auto mechanics and more musicians. Our schools should offer students opportunities to develop in the areas where they are gifted, and encourage the pursuit of needed occupations through scholarships for advanced study. Forcing all students into Algebra whether they are ready or not will lead to another generation of kids who associate math with difficulty and failure.

(Faulty)Assumption Five: The student-dropout rate can be reduced by ending social promotion, funding dropout-prevention programs, and raising the mandatory attendance age.

New Assumption Five:
Students are voting with their feet, and in our toughest schools far too many are leaving. Teachers at schools with high dropout rates should be empowered to collaborate with one another, and with student leaders, to develop innovative programs to transform the schools into places more strongly connected to students’ lives. Students need to feel a direct connection between their education and their future, and that needs to begin before middle school and continue through graduation. Mentors, role models and community connections can bring students an awareness of how a solid education can help their families in the future. Students should be aware of the many pathways to success, from community college and four-year universities, to on-the-job training and entrepreneurship.

What do you think? Any faulty assumptions you would like to challenge? Any new assumptions you would like to offer?

4 Comments

I think you've said it all. These people (Arne Duncan) who are promoting merit pay and test scores just don't get it. Our children need a variety of opportunities to discover what they excel at and our current education system does not give any opportunities at all. Our children need art, music, hands-on science, physical education and they are getting none of it (or very little of it). What a tragedy and a shame.

Keep saying what you have been. Hopefully someone in power will hear what is truly needed to help our children succeed.

I think that you have explained all so well. The governmental solutions for what ails education is only making it worse. All the pertinent topics, from merit pay to NCLB are really missing the mark. I firmly believe that all my students, and the teachers I work with, have their own strengths and talents. Teaching all of our students in the same way and expecting them all to reach the same milestones is hurtful, wasteful and counterproductive. There is a really big push in education for differentiated instruction, which I completely support, but NCLB and the disease of the State/ National tests and standards run contrary to that. Not everyone is college bound, not everyone excels at the same things - this is obvious. Why should they all be forced to jump through all of the same hoops? Some basics are imperative for all of us so that we can function well in our democratic republic, but not everyone is college bound and not every teacher reaches and motivates her students the same way. Creativity and vision should be encouraged, developed, fostered and praised, not squelched and suppressed.

Just wanted to applaud Anthony Cody's remarks. However, sometimes the choices when it comes to reform are not as clear as we may like to think. I agree with all of his alternative assumptions but this vision should not exclude a need for some measure of country-wide standardisation.

Having taught in the UK for 34 years before becoming an education consultant I was totally against the reform that introduced our 'National Curriculum' 15 years ago with its standardised tests and the impact that I thought it would have on teacher autonomy. However, with the benefit of hindsight I now see that it was a necessary first step in the raising of standards.

Research shows that teachers are by and large a conservative lot when it comes to what they do in the classroom. Experience says that left to our own devices we will not close the achievement gap and that if we can, we'll keep on doing the same things over and over again. There needs to be a recognition that there are standards of professionalism we all have to work to and some means of comparing our performance as educators. The focus has to be placed firmly on the needs of the students; if they are all to have a fair chance there must be a guarantee of a minimum standard.

In the UK we know that we still have some way to go to ensure complete equality of opportunity in education but the government have now realised that standards of delivery are sound enough for some of the methods of standardisation to be relaxed - they were becoming too unwieldy and were starting to dominate content too much but having established the profession as a credible voice was an important first step.
I would urge teachers and their leaders in the USA to learn from our experience in the UK and find a manageable way to embrace change that will have a posiitive impact on all students.

I thank Alan for the invitation to learn from the experience of educators in the UK. I agree that we tend to be a bit conservative, and that may be part of the reason we find ourselves in this situation. I wonder about the process in the UK, and how teachers were involved, and how the profession responded. I would love to learn more, and will look for more information to understand the lessons better.

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