Thursday, January 11, 2007

A Blueprint For Colorado?

According to an article in last Sunday's Denver Post, our new state legislature is proposing "radical education reform" in Colorado based on the Tough Choices or Tough Times report.
A massive overhaul like the one described in the "Tough Choices, Tough Times" report probably would take 15 years and would require legislative and constitutional changes, education experts and lawmakers say. Romanoff and Groff, both Denver Democrats, intend to lay the groundwork this session, which starts Wednesday.
This is the same report that was the basis for the TIME Magazine cover article that I blogged about previously. I really liked what the TIME article had to say, but I said that I was sure there was probably going to be some things in the report I really liked, and some things I really disagreed with. I've now read the executive summary of the report and I have to say that I probably disagree with more than I agree with.

As usual, I have more questions than answers. Now, I've only read the executive summary so I haven't seen the entire report, but that's part of the problem. For some reason, they've only made the executive summary available online. To get the full report, you have to buy it (only $13.57 at Amazon - with free super saver shipping if you spend $25!). Now I think it's a great idea to make it available as a book you can buy, I don't have a problem with that at all. But why wouldn't you also make it available as a free download? If you really want to spread your message and start a conversation, I would think that's a logical step. And if they've gotten such an obvious 21st century "skill" wrong, then it's not a good sign for the rest of the report.

Even the executive summary bothered me, as it starts with two pages of "praise" from distinguished reviewers. I know that's pretty standard for commercial books and movies, but for a report that proposes to change K-12 education as we know it? Why did they feel the need to preface their report with endorsements from other people? Wouldn't you rather people get right to your thoughts and ideas, instead of reading what other people thought about your thoughts and ideas? It's almost as if they feel they have to convince you to read it. Another bad sign.

But enough about how the information was delivered, what does the report actually say? I'm glad you asked. You should read it (it's only about 20 pages), but here are some highlights.

Step 1 (pages 9 - 12): Assume that we will do the job right the first time
[A]ssume for the moment that we want to send everyone, or almost everyone, to college.
I'm not ready to assume that. I've seen estimates on the web that somewhere between 25 and 30% of those 25 or older in the U.S. hold a bachelor's degree or higher. So my first question would be, "Where are you going to put all of them?" My second question would be, "Where are all the jobs these college graduates are going to be prepared for?" (Facetious answer - staffing all the new colleges that would be necessary to house all the folks in my first question.) My third question has been talked about a lot in the edublogosphere, "Is college even necessary for everyone to get a good higher education in the 21st century?" If they are basing their recommendations on this "assumption," then we really need to spend some time examining this assumption. Because I'm not so sure college - at least in its current form - is going to be the best learning place for my daughter when she leaves high school in 2018. For a report that professes to be looking toward and wanting to prepare our students for the future, they seem to do a remarkable job of ignoring the present learning opportunities our students already have.
Our first step is creating a set of Board Examinations. States will have their own Board Examinations, and some national and even international organizations will offer their own. A Board Exam is an exam in a set of core subjects that is based on a syllabus provided by the Board.
I'll set aside the issue that the curriculum is being determined by these "Boards." I know there is furious debate about whether "teaching to the test" is a good thing if the test is considered a good one. But I'm still hung up on the idea that a test - no matter how good it is - can really measure student learning in the way we want it to. And in a rapidly changing world, can a single test at the end of eleven years of education (they propose that most students take this test at the end of 10th grade - which then determines what type of schooling - if any - they can continue with) really provide the basis for the learning we want our students to do? They may exist, but I've yet to see a test that can do that - especially one that the grading of it can be automated to the extent that this would have to be for the numbers of students that would be taking it.

Step 3 (pages 12-14): Recruit from the top third of the high school graduates going on to college for the next generation of school teachers.

The basic idea of this one is that in order to recruit from the top third, we have to pay teachers more. They propose to do that, but get the money by slashing teacher's retirement packages. Teachers would also be employed by the state, not by local districts, and be paid on a statewide scale.

Like many current teachers with a few years of experience, this doesn't particularly appeal to me at a personal level, but putting personal considerations aside I'm also not sure that it would accomplish its intended purpose. First, the teacher salaries they are talking about are not that much higher than existing salaries (at least not enough higher that - when combined with the slash in retirement benefits - that it would entice folks to enter teaching). Second, and many folks will disagree with me on this, I don't think it's about the money. Yes, we'd all like to make more money. And, yes, some people probably do decide not to become teachers because of the low salaries. But I'd be curious to see the research that backs up the proposition that by raising beginning teacher salaries to about the median for all college graduates that you are suddenly going to attract the "top third" of high school graduates into the profession.

And I really don't think the main reason people don't become teachers is the money (it's a factor, but not the main factor). I know lots and lots of teachers that discourage their own children from becoming teachers, and the reasons they give are rarely about money. It's about stress, and lack of time, and lack of respect, and reading daily in the paper or hearing on the news what a horrible job you're doing. It's about the fact that it's really, really hard work, which might not be so bad except that everyone else thinks it's so easy. As an example, this report also offers to pay teachers more who are "willing to work the same hours per year as other professionals typically do." While it's true that teachers can work less hours than many other professionals, most teachers I know work at least as many hours as other professionals I know (yes, this is unscientific, but if they only count "contract" hours than they are missing the point).

Step 4 (pages 14-15): Develop standards, assessments, and curriculum that reflect today's needs and tomorrow's requirements.
While many states have increased the proportion of the test that enables students to contruct their own answers to questions rather than select an answer from a preselected list, these tests still have a way to go to provide the kinds of information that the world's best high school exit examinations provide. On balance, they are designed to measure the acquisition of discipline-based knowledge in the core subjects in the curriculum, but, more often than not, little or nothing is done to measure many of the other qualities that we have suggested may spell the difference between success and failure for the students who will grow up to be the workers of 21st century America: creativity and innovation, facility with the use of ideas and abstractions, the self-discipline and organization needed to manage one's work and drive it through to a successful conclusion, the ability to function well as a member of a team, and so on. Moving from America's tests to the kinds of examinations and assessments that will capture these and other qualities at the level of accomplishment required will entail a major overhaul of the American testing industry . . . A system that pursues the wrong goals more efficiently is not a system this nation needs.
For the most part, I agree with this, although I have doubts about the ability of any test to measure those attributes. But here's the thing, aren't the results from these existing tests that do "little or nothing" to measure the qualities that students need the very same results that this report is using to demonstrate that our system is failing? On page four of this report, they talk about American students scoring "anywhere from the middle to the bottom of the pack" internationally on these tests. Does anyone else see a problem with this commission using these test results to justify its conclusions - conclusions which include a forceful condemnation and dismissal of the very same tests?

Step 5 (pages 15-17): Create high performance schools and districts everywhere - how the system should be governed, financed, organized, and managed.
First, the role of school boards would change. Schools would no longer be owned by local school districts. Instead, schools would be operated by independent contractors.
Hmm, I thought schools were "owned" by their communities. I've also heard that one or two folks have had bad experiences with "contractors."
Both the state and the district could create a wide range of performance incentives for the schools to improve the performance of their students.
Again, I know many folks will disagree with this, but I don't think that "performance incentives" is what is lacking in our schools. To me, the basic premise of "performance incentives" is that we would all work harder if we simply had a monetary carrot dangled in front of us. That we are choosing not to work hard now because that carrot isn't there. That we really don't care about doing our best for our students, it's all about compensation. Of course there are exceptions, but for the most part teachers are some of the hardest working and caring people I know. Any educators out there think you aren't working very hard and would work harder (and achieve better results) if there was a "performance incentive?"
Districts would be obligated to make sure that there were sufficient places for all the students that needed places.
I teach in a suburb of Denver, a fairly large metropolitan area. Under this plan my district would be "obligated" to take every student in the Denver Metro area (actually, Colorado, but keeping in mind transportation issues) if they chose to come here. How exactly would that work? We develop some really outstanding schools, everybody wants to come to them, so now we have to figure out how to house 10 or 100 times as many students and replicate that success? If it was that easy, wouldn't we have already done that?

Step 6 (page 17): Provide high-quality, universal early childhood education.

I'm okay with this one as long as it's optional - I don't want kids starting "school" at the age of three, but high quality, learning oriented daycare for everyone who needs it would be good. But I do have a teensy problem with the way they're funding it - as far as I can tell, they do that by eliminating 11th and 12th grade for quite a few students.

Step 7 (pages 17-18): Give strong support to the students who need it most.

I don't know anywhere near enough about school finance to truly address this one. I do agree that we need to give strong support to our students who need it the most. But I wonder how they plan on "preventing" wealthy areas from providing additional support to their schools.

Again, you should read it yourself, but these are some of the things that I noticed along the way. I find it interesting the pieces that TIME magazine picked up on, which I generally agree with, but how completely they ignored the actually recommendations for how to get there.

I guess what bothers me the most about this report is that it appears to be written with what's best for the American economy in mind, not what's best for our students. Will Richardson notes that the word "learning" is only mentioned once in the executive summary - I think that's telling. I'm not saying that preparing our students to be successful in the job market isn't part of what we do, or that I don't want the American economy to be successful. But I don't think that's what school should be all about. I believe that if we do our best to help each of our students learn, to meet their individual needs, then they - and the American economy - will be just fine. It just seems so backwards, instead of focusing on students and learning, this report seems to focus on the needs of the American economy. It spends a lot of time talking about competition, but very little time talking about cooperation - and I see cooperation being a critical skill in the 21st century. And while it criticizes our current school system as being outmoded because it's based on an industrial-age model (and I agree), it still proposes to replace it with a different "one size fits all" model with its end goal to create a globally competitive workforce. As Chris Lehman points out much more eloquently than I could,
[D]espite the dour headlines in the media, and despite the proclamations of CEOs everywhere, our job is not to create the 21st Century workforce. It's our job to co-create the 21st Century citizen. Creating workers is not even half the job. We have to help our kids to become thinkers, scholars, activists, creators, scientists. We need to help them make sense of the world, even if we don't have much of a handle on it ourselves. If we do that -- if we help them to become the best people and citizens they can be, we'll have a pretty amazing workforce too. But let's never forget that creating the next generation of workers is not anywhere close to an important enough goal.
But maybe I shouldn't be so surprised that the report doesn't seem to focus on the students. If you look at the members of the commission, you'll notice that it doesn't include any K-12 administrators. Or teachers. Or students. Or parents (well, I imagine many of them are parents, but that wasn't their role on the commission). I know I'm pretty naive, but if I was creating a commission to examine the changes that were needed in K-12 education, I think I would've had representatives of all those groups. I certainly would've included CEO's and professors and ex-politicians and many of the different groups that were represented on the commission, but I wouldn't have limited it to those folks. And I can't help but wonder what the median age of the commission members is. I'm not saying that older, experienced people shouldn't be part of this (after all, I'm certainly edging into that category myself). But for a report that tries to look at and predict what students need in the future, don't you think they might have included at least a couple of relative "youngsters"? I wonder how many of them are under 60? 50? 40? 30? I don't know, but my guess is very, very few (if any) in those last two brackets. And I think those age groups have something to offer to this conversation.

The Post article does end with a statement from the Colorado Speaker of the House saying he doesn't intend to "airlift" the report and drop it on Colorado, but that he wants to "start a conversation about the problem that we are trying to fix and sketch a solution and build a coalition for change." If this report helps start that conversation, then I'm all for that. Because I do agree change - and systemic change at that - is necessary. But I think a big part of that conversation needs to be to identify what the "problem" is that we're trying to "fix." Because I'm not sure that I agree with what they think the problem is. And if we fix the wrong problem, we're not likely to be satisfied with the solution.

Whew, if you made it this far, congratulations. I'd love it if you'd join this part of the conversation and share your thoughts in the comments. Or, for my staff and others in Colorado, maybe a call or e-mail to your favorite state representative would be in order. Let's make sure that we all agree on what we're building before finalizing the blueprint.


  1. "[A]ssume for the moment that we want to send everyone, or almost everyone, to college."
    The first question is, who is "we"? Why force everyone to go to school, then create Teaching Colleges, then say no-one who doesn't graduate from these teaching colleges can teach in school? Is this about real learning, or is about managing entire populations (and future populations) of people for state and corporate interests?
    So who is "we", and what are their objectives and motives in this business, and do you share them?

  2. What bout the physical buildings for the schools...does this report discuss the need to update and/or completely replace the physical structure[s] that will house this new type of learning? How will this be funded? Just a thought...

  3. I think your post today was the best I have seen on Tough Choices orTough Times.

    If education is really going to make the effort to educate, standardized testing will not give us a thinking, engaged community of life-long learners. Recruiting the top 1/3 of students will not do it either; students need to learn from a variety of educators with a variety of backgrounds. The term high performance just scares me...sounds like we are creating a car.

    How students team to provide effective solutions is one of the mostimportant lessons they can learn. Encouraging each student to take aleadership position on a project can better prepare them for the future than any test. Teaching them tools for communicating clearly in the
    midst of a difficult project is something they can use daily.

  4. Not sure if you had a chance to catch the authors today downtown at the Convention Center. While something still doesn't sit right about what they are proposing (is it Friedman-esqe?), I wonder if it isn't worth deeper consideration.

    The one part that completely stumped me, even after today, was the obsession with students attending college. As if the broad assumption is that college will aptly prepare students for the 21st to compete with India and China in the global economy.

    Great post.

  5. I saw the authors speak at the Convention Center. What I'm wondering is - what business would consider relocating their staff to Colorado if kids were tested at 16 and then "tracked" to their future. What parent would want to come to Colorado with a HS Freshman, who received their education in say Florida...and then test them on Colorado standards?

    To start something of this magnitude takes upfront money. No discussion about where that comes from.

    And...what about sports and fine arts and debate, etc?

    A discussion on kids and their education is good, but I'm not sure this particular book is the place to start.