Sunday, January 24, 2010

An important book about educational equity and our national future

What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon it destroys our democracy.

The words were penned by John Dewey for his 1900 work The School and Society. You will encounter them as a epigraph to the 9th and final chapter of an important new work on education. The Flat World and Education: How America's Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future is a comprehensive work by Linda Darling-Hammond that examines a wide range of materials that will help the reader understand the real issues in education in an America that is increasingly diverse in its student population. As James Banks notes in his introduction, we face a crisis, one which Darling-Hammond documents while telling us what will happen if we fail to act and the specific actions we can take to achieve educational equity and create "a more democratic and just society."

This is an extremely comprehensive book, as can be seen by the titles of the 9 chapters (each of which begins with two appropriate epigraphs like that with which the review began):

1. The Flat World, Educational Inequality, and America's Future
2. The Anatomy of Inequality: How the Opportunity Gap is Constructed
3. New Standards and Old Inequalities: How Testing Narrows and expands t5he Opportunity Gap
4. Inequality on Trial: Does Money Make a Difference?
5. A Tale of Three States: What Happens When States Invest Strategically (or Don't)
6. Steady Work: How Countries Build Successful Systems
7. Doing What Matters Most: Developing Competent Teaching
8. Organizing for Success: Form Inequality to Quality
9. Policy for Quality and Equality: Toward Genuine School Reform.

There are not many in America who could hope to address such a wide array of topics competently and tie them together into one thread. Darling-Hammond can, in part because she has studied all of them over a career that includes having taught in inner-city schools, received a doctorate (with distinction) in Urban Education (which is often the focus of our greatest concern about our schools and students); held endowed chairs at Teachers College, Columbia and Stanford; directed the Education and Human Resources Program of Rand Institute (where she also served as a senior social scientist); served as Co-Director of the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching at Teachers College; and served as Executive Director, National Commission on Teaching and America's Future. She is the author of more than 300 publications, many of which are considered exceedingly important. She has worked with several important educational initiatives: The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards; the Interstate New Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium (INTASC); and The Forum for Education and Democracy (of which she is one of the Conveners). As she herself notes in the beginning of her acknowledgments,
This book has, in a manner of speaking, been a lifetime in the making . . .

Some might be put off by the title with its use of Thomas Friedman's image of the Flat World. That inevitably brings up concerns about the international comparisons of schools with which we are constantly bombarded. Yet Darling-Hammond, while she uses the comparisons, does so to make a very different set of points than those who use them to simply bash public schools and unionized teachers. She notes that our schools are still largely structured on the factory model established in the early 20th century, which uses a transmission-oriented curriculum as its primary means of instruction, with
accrual of knowledge to be evaluated with multiple-choice tests that could be scored exclusively by machine, without the involvement of teachers or the complications of asking students to produce and defend their own ideas.
She compares this with nations against whom we fair poorly in many measurements, which are redesigning their schools' curriculum, instruction, training of teachers, and assessment
to support the more complex knowledge and skills needed in the 21st century. Starting in the 1980s, for example, Finland dismantled the rigid tracking system that had allocated differential access to knowledge to its young people and eliminated the state-mandated testing system that was used for this purpose, replacing them with highly trained teachers and curriculum and assessments focused on problem solving, creativity, independent learning, and student reflection. These changes have propelled achievement to the top of the international rankings and closed what was once a large, intractable achievement gap.

No reasonable observer will deny that many of America's schools are in crisis. And our students are suffering as a result. Part of this is our general approach, which - as Darling-Hammond rightly notes - needs radical redesign. There is also a real question of equity. This show ups clearly when scores on international tests are disaggregated by "race" -
Indeed, White and Asian students in the United States score above the OECD average in each subject area, but African American and Hispanic students score so much lower that the national average plummets to the bottom tier of rankings.
One reason for this is obvious to anyone who pays attention:
International studies continue to confirm that the U. S. education system is also one of the most unequal in terms of inputs. In contrast to European and Asian nations that fund schools centrally and equally, the wealthiest school districts in the United States spend nearly 10 times more than the poorest, and spending ratios of 3 to 1 are common within states. These disparities reinforce the wide inequalities in income among families, with the greatest resources being spent on children from the wealthiest communities and the fewest on the children of the poor, especially in high-minority communities. This creates huge inequalities in educational outcomes that ultimately weaken the very fabric of the nation.
If we are concerned with equity, we also need to bear in mind what Banks notes in his preface, that from 1973 to 2004 the percentage of our public school students who were of color increased from 22% to 43 percent, and in states like California, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas they already exceed the number of White students.

When I read that, I could not help but also remark that California has, since Proposition 13, dismantled what was once the best public school system in the United States, Louisiana has been ground zero (in New Orleans since Katrina) for the experiment of gutting public schools and replacing them with charters, and Texas is the source of our failed educational policy known as No Child Left Behind. Issue of equity are certainly issues of class, but we cannot ignore that issues of color also play a significant role.

I have not yet, other than the opening epigraph, gotten beyond part of the first chapter - that is how rich, and thought-provoking, this book is. My review copy is heavily marked up with things I want to pursue in more depth. I cannot in one review explore them all.

Darling-Hammond not only analyzes what is wrong in the U.S., she also looks at examples of successes in individual states that have attempted reform. She also provides useful information about what nations to whom we seem to compare very unfavorably do differently to achieve their success. Thus she will provide examples of a state in trouble - California - as well as two states that have made major commitments to better use of their resources - North Carolina and Connecticut. She provides detailed analyses of three successful national approaches, those of Finland, Singapore, and South Korea. From her explorations of different settings, here and abroad, and also from her deep and extensive knowledge of relevant professional literature, Darling-Hammond offers a series of suggestions of what we can do differently, those things on which we should focus.

For example, in Chapter 8 she explores the kinds of changes necessary in a major redesign of our approach to education. On p. 239 she tells us about 820 schools studied in the National Longitudinal Study, which
found that schools that had restructured to personalize education and develop collaborative learning structures produced significantly higher achievement canes that were also more equitably distributed.
Darling-Hammond then gives a summary list of some of the practices:

.. Creating small units within schools
.. Keeping students together over multiple years
.. Forming teaching teams that share students and plan together
.. Ensuring common planning time for teachers
.. Involving staff in schoolwide problem solving
.. Involving parents in their children's education
.. Fostering cooperative learning

This is but one example of how, after analyzing the data and providing a clear understand of some aspect of the subject at hand, Darling-Hammond provides a useful summary of the key points.

As a teacher I would be remiss were I to end this review without examining what is key to success in educational reform, and that is the most important education resource - access to quality and professional teachers. It is a key with many dimensions, among which are selection of teachers, training, induction, support, retention, ongoing professional development, working conditions and the economics of teaching. Darling-Hammond explores all of these, both by examining how nations like Finland produce and retain a high-quality teaching staff, and what we do wrong.

Let's focus on the economics. We often hear about teacher salaries. As Darling-Hammond shows, there are other economic issues of greater importance. Most teachers in the United States pay for their own training, often incurring substantial debts that are difficult to retire on a teacher's salary. At the same time we have a very high turnover among our early career teachers. Bringing in those with less training and mentoring does little to solve the problem, because there is a strong correlation between leaving teaching quickly and lack of training. Without even considering the instructional impact of such turnover - which is quite severe - it is very expensive: it can cost well in excess of $20,000 to replace one teacher, and that is money that is not going to improving instruction.

Finland, as Darling-Hammond notes, takes a very different approach to providing and retaining teachers than does the US. It starts with recruitment:
Prospective teachers are competitively selected from the pool of college graduates - only 15% of those who apply are admitted - and receive a 3-year graduate-level teacher preparation program, entirely free of charge and with a living stipend.
They not only get extensive course work, but "at least a full year of clinical experience in a school associated with the university." They are provided time for regular collaboration with other teachers.

But salaries can make a difference as well. In Korea, to cite another high scoring nation, teachers' salaries
rank right behind those of Korean doctors and above those of engineers, and which yield purchasing power within the local economy nearly 250% higher than those of U. S. teachers.
The pay is higher because teachers are more highly respected, the work is more professional, and the country has made a more meaningful - and effective - commitment to education.

In the United States, up to 80% of teachers' time is spent in instruction, and we do almost all our planning and grading outside of the school day. That is not true in high-scoring nations such as those examined by Darling-Hammond. I teach in a typical American high school. We have 8 45-minute periods per day. The state requires 180 "instructional" days, which of course includes mandatory testing,assemblies, and administrative time. Sometimes days are shortened because of inclement weather or for other non-academic reasons. Let's presume the equivalent of 160 instructional days. At 6 hours per day, that is 960 instructional hours. That puts us in the middle of the 900-1,080 range common in the US. Korea currently requires 1,202 but is transitioning from a 6 day week to a 5-day week, and lowering to 963. That puts them at the top of high scoring nations: Japan and Finland have students in their seats for only a bit more than 700 hours. Yet many in the U.S. think the solution to our educational problems is more seat time, even as nations who are more successful have taken exactly the opposite approach. And by allowing more time for collaboration among teachers, and not shifting much of the teacher workload to uncompensated time outside the school day, they avoid burning out teachers the way we do in the US: many of the better teachers in my building work in excess of 60 hours a week when all time for planning, grading, and the like are included.

I hope I have given you some sense of the richness of this book. I realize this review is lengthy, but I have barely scratched the surface of what you can derive from reading it. This is a work I wish would be read and absorbed by all who are attempting to "reform" our schools, in the hope that the misguided and ultimately destructive choices they seem to be making can be avoided, that they can learn the current lessons from our failures and the successes of other nations.

Let me end as does Linda Darling-Hammond, with her final two paragraphs. These will encapsulate much of the value we could gain - economically and otherwise - from considering better ways of redesigning our educational system for the needs of the present and the future.

Now more than ever, high-quality education for all is a public good that is essential for the good of the public. Smart, equitable investments will, in the long run, save far more than they cost. The savings will include the more than $200 billion we now lose in wages, taxes, and social costs annually due to dropouts; the $50 billion we pay for lost wages and prison costs for incarceration tied to illiteracy and school failure; and the many tens of billions wasted each year on reforms that fail, fads that don't stick, unnecessary teacher turnover, avoidable special education placements, remedial education, grade retention, summer school, lost productivity, and jobs that move overseas.
As the fate of individuals and nations is increasingly interdependent, the quest for access to an equitable, empowering education for all people has become a critical issue for the American nation as a whole. As a country,we can and must enter a new era. No society can thrive in a technological, knowledge-based economy by depriving large segments of its population of learning. The path to our mutual well-being is built on educational opportunity. Central to our collective future is the recognition that our capacity to survive and thrive ultimately depends on ensuring to all of our people what should be an unquestionable entitlement - a rich and unalienable right to learn.


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