Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Getting to Excellent

A data-rich, methodical, and transparent report prepared by McKinsey offers the passionate follower of education much to consider. Unlike, say, the Boston Foundation's pamphlet, this 124-page, rigorously detailed study gives serious policy wonks food for thought. The methodology is carefully detailed, not hidden. The data is easy to weigh and follow.

The most fascinating aspect of this report (PDF) is tracing how school systems develop and improve from one stage of performance to another. One of the more interesting findings is that what works for a school system seeking to spread literacy needs something different from a system seeking to prepare students with 21st century thinking skills.

So how does this affect Massachusetts? Well, of the international spectrum of system provided, Boston is mentioned as a much improved system in the nation's pre-eminent public education structure -- Massachusetts. So how does a system such as Boston, that is good, or great, improve?

"Move the locus of improvement from the center to the schools themselves; the focus is on introducing peer-based learning through schoolbased and system-wide interaction, as well as supporting system-sponsored innovation and experimentation."

Decentralize. Experiment. Professionalize and respect teachers. Provide ways for teachers to collaborate for results, not compete for dollars. Further in the guts of the report, the research team mentions the following imperatives:

In the final frontier of school improvement, the journey from great to excellent, systems focus on creating an environment that will unleash the creativity and innovation of its educators and other stakeholder groups. At this point in the improvement journey, system educators are highly skilled and have a body of agreed routines and practices that have become innate to how they work.

The intervention cluster for the journey from great to excellent serves further to enhance the educators’ responsibility for looking after each other’s development; the systems give their teachers the time, resources, and flexibility to reflect upon and try out new ideas to better support student learning.


When teachers achieve a higher level of skill, as is the case in good to great and
great to excellent improvement journey stages, such tight central control becomes counterproductive to system improvement. Rather, school-level flexibility
and teacher collaboration become the drivers of improvement because they lead to innovations in teaching and learning. The center learns from these school-based innovations and then encourages their use in other schools across the system. Higher
skill teachers require flexibility and latitude in how they teach in order to engage in such innovation and to feel motivated and fulfilled as professionals.

In case you were wondering about those systems that are better than good, the report identifies four. Only Finland is rated excellent in this report; Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea are great.

As mentioned in the last post, all systems are decentralizing at the precise moment that the United States is starting to march in lockstep to Washington DC's tune. Obama wants states, districts, even schools and teachers to compete for dollars; this report mandates that collaboration as superior. Obama wants to tighten control over what is taught on a daily basis; this report mandates the contrary. Obama pushes for an unprecedented level of centralization in this country; the data say this will hurt our students.

This report merely confirms what is widely understood:

  • A large and growing body of data indicate how to improve public education in this country.

  • Those responsible for running education in this nation and state insist on doing the exact opposite.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Wrong Way Again

One of the most annoying things that I see in America's approach to education is the oxymoron of claiming we need to "catch up" to other countries...then promptly doing the opposite of what they do.

One can easily question many of the international tests used to compare national education outcomes -- many are entrusted to foreign ministries to be administered and reported fairly. However, I think it's fascinating that just when Obama is using a few pennies to control education in each individual state, our supposed betters are moving in the opposite direction.

Today's object lesson in the United Kingdom. David Cameron's oddly hybrid liberal-conservative government may be the last place on might look for progressive ideas on education. Yet it is there that Education secretary Michael Gove is asserting what people who enter classrooms on a daily basis realize: centralization doesn't work.

Just when Massachusetts turns over its constitutional competences to vague inter-state groups working on shared standardized tests, suborning its achievements to a dumbed-down national curriculum, Michael Gove advocates for the opposite:

While each of these exemplars has their own unique and individual approach to aspects of education, their successful systems all share certain common features. Many have put in place comprehensive plans for school improvement which involve improving teacher quality, granting greater autonomy to the front line, modernising curricula, making schools more accountable to their communities, harnessing detailed performance data and encouraging professional collaboration. It is only through such whole-system reform that education can be transformed to make a nation one of the world’s top performers.

Compare this to Obama's current drive (with Deval's complicity) to take autonomy from the front line, divorce them from their communities and tie them to the state, and poisoning professional collaboration by throwing funding in as a prize of competition rather like the Apple of Discord.

Just reading this White Paper is enough to make any American teacher look at visa requirements. Here are some choice lines:

"We envisage schools and teachers taking greater control over what is taught in schools, innovating in how they teach and developing new approaches to learning"

"The guidance on the National Curriculum is weighing teachers down and squeezing out room for innovation, creativity, deep learning and intellectual exploration."

"Government cannot determine the priorities of every school, and the attempt to secure compliance with its priorities reduces the capacity of the system to improve itself."

"Reform initial teacher training so that more training is on the job."

There are some baffling name-checks on the most destructive practices in America in this document, which contradict pretty much everything else contained therein. However, combined with a McKinsey international study that demonstrates the direct relationship between international achievement and school/teacher autonomy due for release tomorrow, it is clear in which direction the UK is moving.

The same direction prescribed in Germany (PDF) Japan, or South Korea. The same direction embraced by the industrialized world -- except for the United States.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Education: "Thank God for Massachusetts"

On education, the The Atlantic Monthly is an interesting magazine. It's honest enough to be honest about the facts in its education reports and articles. An article some time ago on No Child Left Behind made clear that the target that every single American must possess adult-level math and English literacy skills by 2014 was a political decision. Politicians simply didn't have the courage to admit that somebody learning English, or with severe learning disabilities, wasn't going to get there. In the current issue, the Atlantic gives some notice to Diane Ravitch, who has reversed her stand for the test-and-punish system for something that matches up with research. She has gone back on previous policies based on the copious research that speaks in another direction.

Of course, while admitting the facts -- something the Boston Globe generally doesn't do -- it still pushes the common viewpoint of an elite thoroughly unfamiliar with public education. Of course, the Atlantic sees that nothing in education can't be fixed by the judicious firing of many people. Hence, a worshipful article on what "Teach for America" can tell us (hint, it's common sense to anyone familiar with public education, and epiphanic for the ignorant). This issue's profile of Diane Ravitch is knee-capped by a harrumphing parenthetical that the editor disagrees with her, and a coda for "balance" that praises the superintendent in Rhode Island who arbitrarily fired every teacher in her high school.

So, much like the Wall Street Journal on economics, the Atlantic gives every sign of strong fact-based reporting on education that is utterly ignored by the editorial staff. Hence an article online that includes the following:

One cannot help but thank God for Massachusetts, which offers the United States some shred of national dignity—a result echoed in other international tests. "If all American fourth- and eighth-grade kids did as well in math and science as they do in Massachusetts," writes the veteran education author Karin Chenoweth in her 2009 book, How It’s Being Done, "we still wouldn’t be in Singapore’s league but we’d be giving Japan and Chinese Taipei a run for their money."

I can't see why we'd want to emulate that gerontocracy. They do well on test scores and horrible on democracy. I also highlight this author's kowtowing to the Chinese-mandated name for Taiwan.

What did Massachusetts do? Well, nothing that many countries (and industries) didn’t do a long time ago. For example, Massachusetts made it harder to become a teacher, requiring newcomers to pass a basic literacy test before entering the classroom. (In the first year, more than a third of the new teachers failed the test.) The state also required students to pass a test before graduating from high school—a notion so heretical that it led to protests in which students burned state superintendent David Driscoll in effigy. To help tutor the kids who failed, the state moved money around to the places where it was needed most. "We had a system of standards and held people to it—adults and students," Driscoll says.

Does the article mention how the standards were arbitrarily set when not enough teachers and students weren't failing? No. Does it even attempt to find a reason for Massachusetts' success beyond the preset viewpoints of the editors of the Atlantic? Of course not. But it does admit the truth -- the Bay State was once the national leader on education. We may still be, but not for long.

I say "was" advisedly. Obama's people plow ahead with Bush's failed policies on education. One innovation is to dangle a fractional percentage boost in federal funding for Massachusetts if we dumb down our standards, double the amount of testing in the classroom, short-circuit local democracy, and change laws to fit the model of an education secretary whose own reputation is built on cheap tricks, articles like this need to be cherished. Because I doubt they'll be written five years from now.

Monday, November 8, 2010

From time to time

This blog went dark as personal life got more complicated, aside from a very few occasional posts. Honestly, I figured that what little I felt a need to say I could say on BMG.

That was before my recent post on BMG suggesting Menino for Senate was picked up by the Globe, who asked the mayor's office for a reaction. Meanwhile, the Herald is pushing Brown for Prez. Imagine that -- a ticket where Sarah Palin is the experienced candidate.

Crazy Commonwealth we live in. I may need to resume blogging.