The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) has just published a report of its findings from an 18-month study of education systems known for high PISA performance. The focus of the study was to identify areas of commonality in those programs, compare them to current practice in the United States, and make recommendations for how real change can be implemented.
The report is available at the NCSL website (28 pages, PDF).
The report spotlights the following four common elements of world-class education systems.
1. “Children come to school ready to learn, and extra support is given to struggling students so that all have the opportunity to achieve high standards.” – Early identification is not enough. An important set of cognitive and non-cognitive skills is fostered in children before they reach school age, without necessarily immersing them in a school environment at earlier and earlier ages. What educators commonly refer to as an “achievement gap” would be more accurately called a “support gap”. When students are given the necessary tools and supports to achieve high standards, they consistently meet those expectations.
Tech application: This isn’t about making sure kids know how to use a certain device before they reach school age. The state-of-the-art device when a child is born will be obsolete before they start school. Providing opportunity and access, however, go a long way toward developing skills that effective instructional methods rely on in 21st Century learners.
2. “A world-class teaching profession supports a world-class instructional system, where every student has access to highly effective teachers and is expected to succeed.” – There are two complementary ideals here: 1) high expectations for teachers, and 2) high expectations for students. These would seem to be intrinsically aligned goals, but we sometimes find them to be in conflict. No teacher wants to see their students’ efforts end in failure. Sometimes, this results in backing off of high expectations and setting an artificially low bar, especially for students we desperately want to feel some sense of accomplishment. When this becomes a pattern or a habit, the student’s performance lags further and further behind, but their academic evaluations may still say “straight-A’s.” Every student deserves a system of educators who help them genuinely succeed, in a system that does not lower performance expectations for certain students. Great teachers have students who sometimes fall short. Great teachers find new ways to help those students keep trying and find a new path to success.
Tech application: Every student should have the opportunity, with classroom technology available right now, to learn from people in their school building, their community, their state, across the nation, and around the globe. Highly effective teachers are not the ones who know (and give) all the answers, but the ones who ask the right questions to help students along the path of discovery. Today’s best teachers are not gatekeepers of information, they are facilitators of learning processes that go beyond the textbook curriculum and the four walls of the classroom, for every student – not just the ones who are easy to reach.
3. “A highly effective, intellectually rigorous system of career and technical education is available to those preferring an applied education.” – Why do we perpetuate the idea that K-12 education is preparing kids for college or a career? Surely, we expect those who are going to college to find themselves in a career eventually, right? High-quality career and technical education is in no way inferior to high-quality traditional academic instruction. Advantages like instilling useful workplace skills, fostering collaboration and problem-solving skills, and increased student engagement with real-world projects and situations make career and technical education a great and equal option, not an “alternative pathway” for kids who don’t fit traditional approaches.
Tech application: While “Technology” may be a separate class for some students, that class should not be the only place where technology is explored. Skills learned in project-based learning, problem solving, global collaboration, and content creation, go beyond individual subject areas and develop a sense of efficacy and persistence in students.
4. “Individual reforms are connected and aligned as parts of a clearly planned and carefully designed comprehensive system.” – Everything we do, every policy we put in place, every practice we promote, every procedure we require, should be measured against the core purpose of the education system. And that core purpose cannot be simply to perpetuate the existence of the system. I believe every student can learn to define and achieve what the highest level of success means for them. Any “rule” that we put in place that prevents a student from receiving the kind of education they deserve is a rule that needs to disappear. Education, like life, must be about one thing (YouTube video, strong language).
Tech application: We have to stop teaching kids to use a word processor. We have to stop teaching kids to create multimedia slideshows. We even have to stop teaching kids to produce Hollywood-quality videos. Those are tools to be used in accomplishing a higher end. In order to publish a book of original poetry, a student might learn to use a word processor. In order to make a persuasive presentation to a board or council, a student might learn to use a presentation program. In order to document findings of an investigation, a student might learn how to shoot, edit, and publish video artifacts. It’s not about the tool, it’s about the end product.
So, what can schools do with this information? As I see it, schools have two options: 1) sit back and wait to see whether their state or federal government implements any of the recommendations of this report, or 2) examine the parts of the report that are wholly within the school’s realm of influence and start making the changes now that result in improved results for all students.