The Fundamentals of High Achieving Educational Systems

            For the last ten years we have been teaching Johnny how to read and leaving no child behind. Now we are embarking on a race to the top.  All of these initiatives carry with them strong doses of testing, privatization, and public embarrassment of students, teachers, administrators, and parents. Along the way, we do have more tests, we do have more charter schools, and we do have more non-performing schools, fired principals, and alienated communities of all sorts. And, the bottom line: American’s achievement scores on international testing are declining—quite a record for decade of “leaving” and “racing”.

            A confirmation of our race to the bottom appeared in a recent release of international test scores which showed that for students in American schools, the bottom is coming up quickly. The predictable response of national and state educational leaders is to blame teachers, administrators, unions, and educational bureaucracies for our dismal performance on international tests. The conventional solution offered by these same leaders is a one-two punch of accountability-driven reform initiatives: punish non-performers and reward performers. Embedded in this carrot and stick approach to school reform is an array of policies designed to loosen certification requirements, eliminate tenure, establish merit pay schemes, and incentivize privatized approaches to public schooling.

            The continuing failure of sanctions and incentives to make any headway in increasing our international test scores have only emboldened policy makers to do more of the same—only harder. The fundamental error that policy makers continue to make is to look at education from the outside-in, rather than inside out. Without institutional changes to the fundamentals of our American educational system (inside-out), we only end up throwing money and penalties at visible parts of our educational system (outside-in) that appear to be dysfunctional.

            When you study the educational systems of countries that have recently completed “the race to the top” you discover that educational leaders and legislators worked together to craft a comprehensive approach to school reform from the inside-out—the instructional fundamentals that generate the kinds of thinking and doing that fares well on international exams. If our country is going to get back in the “race,” national and state lawmakers must start investing in those fundamentals of high achieving schools systems documented in the research and emulated by nations now at the top of the international race to the top. What are these fundamentals?

            Admit the Best:   Schools of Education in high achieving countries only admit prospective teachers who have academic backgrounds conducive to teaching disciplinary understandings of real world problems. American schools of education accept prospective teachers with academic backgrounds suited for teaching textbook facts and procedures that are recalled on weekly multiple choice tests. The fundamental: Teaching matters; quality teachers possess deep conceptual understandings of their subject matter and the pedagogical know-how to assist all students with understanding how to apply these conceptual understandings to solving novel problems.

            World Class Curriculum:   High achieving countries have brought together content and curricula experts to develop national content standards that require students to understand the relationship between subject matter concepts, sophisticated methods of inquiry, and real world performances. A curriculum built on conceptual understandings of real world problems requires attention to depth over breadth and performance over task completion. Content standards in America continue to be a confused combination of some professional standards, some state standards, and some political ideology. Without a purposeful approach for determining what knowledge is of most worth and how to organize that knowledge, American classrooms are left with the default option: encyclopedic list of facts and procedures (the textbook) and multiple choice tests to check the recall of what is listed in textbooks. The fundamental: Curriculum matters; quality curriculum embeds subjects into frameworks designed for inquiry into complex human and physical problems.

            Performance Assessment:   High achieving countries develop state and local assessments which evaluate authentic performances—what students will be expected to know and do in the real world. The billion dollar testing industry in America is designed to place students on a bell shaped curve. When teachers in high achieving countries sit down to examine assessment results they discuss task performance. When teachers in America sit down to examine achievement scores they discuss test performance. In high achieving countries teachers are expected to redesign curriculum and instruction based on what authentic functions and tasks students must be able to perform. In America teachers are expected to adopt test preparation strategies for moving low performing students over state test cut scores. The fundamental: Assessment matters; quality assessment evaluates the gaps between knowledge of subject matter and real world performances.

            Continuous Training:    In high achieving countries teachers are required to participate in continuous professional development venues focused on developing deep conceptual understandings of subject matter. In America teachers are ushered off to staff development shopping malls where they are free to choose from techniques, recipes, and programs designed to reward or punish students into memorizing encyclopedic collections of information. The fundamental: Staff development matters; quality staff development requires that teachers continually be immersed in a learning process designed to expand their ability to create classroom lessons that apply the power of intellectual systems to complex real world problems.

            Strong Instructional Leadership:   In high achieving countries principals become principals through demonstrated excellence in teaching, curriculum development, and instructional leadership. School leaders in high achieving nations spend most of their day doing what instructional leaders should be doing: observing lessons; teaching lessons, coaching teachers; writing curriculum. In America principals become principals by demonstrating excellence in balancing budgets, maintaining boilers, pleasing boosters, and controlling students. When pressed by mandates to become instructional leaders, principals in America view that role as instructional manager: distributor of materials; employer of consultants, planner of one-day workshops, and caterer of continental breakfasts. The fundamental: Leadership matters; quality instructional leadership requires superintendents and principals with the knowledge base and managerial skills to effectively implement quality teaching, quality curriculum, quality assessment, and quality staff development.

            While each of these fundamentals for high achieving educational systems appears to make sense, they would not travel well in a country governed by 14, 000 different school systems, a culture that is suspicious of intellectual attainment and a social system which underfunds the family support systems conducive to success in school. Schools in high achieving nations are embedded in educational systems where all the fundamentals of the instructional system mesh well, are housed in cultures that prize intellectual attainment, and provide families with the kinds of social supports that ready children for the rigors of academic learning.

            Those of us who work in schools have no control over the cultural and political conditions supporting world class school systems. Nor is there any research to maintain the belief that more tests, more standards, more choice, or more bonus checks for supermen will develop the kinds of thinking rewarded on international achievement tests. What national, state, and local educational leaders do have control over are policies and practices that guide and coordinate talent, subject matter, training, and performance outcomes — these are the fundamentals that will get our country back into the race to the top.

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