Thursday, May 21, 2009

It's been Two Decades. Anybody Up for a Radical Restructuring of Kentucky's School System?

That's what we've been talking about (among other things) for the past two days at the CPE's annual conference in Lexington.

The Kentucky Conference on the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning merged with the Teacher Quality Summit to offer college faculty and administrators a forum to examine topics related to K-12, adult, and postsecondary education. The 9th annual conference was jointly sponsored by the Council on Postsecondary Education, Kentucky's public postsecondary institutions, and the Kentucky Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.

Aside from the usual presentations, panel discussions, and poster sessions the participants heard from new CPE head Robert King at dinner and Marc S. Tucker, author of the report Tough Choices or Tough Times at lunch. (Photo: Robert King)

King, a former budget director to New York Governor George Pataki (R) and former SUNY Chancellor has been on the job in Kentucky for four months now. King's invitation to Tucker may have shed some light on the direction he wants Kentucky to go.

His old boss, Pataki, came under fire for politicizing public education in New York. According to the Village Voice, Pataki brought "a dramatic shift in mission and tone."
A Republican elected on a small-government platform, Pataki has slowly but markedly moved the university away from its stated mission of access and affordability and shaped it along the lines of his free-market, lower-taxes philosophy. Its deepening relationship with the corporate sector is only one example of the changes.."
Would King do the same in Kentucky?

Marc Tucker is President and CEO of the National Center on Education and the Economy, a leader in the movement for standards-based school reform in the United States. Tucker authored the 1986 Carnegie Report, A Nation Prepared: Teachers for the 21st Century, which called for a restructuring of America’s schools based on standards.

CPE says,
Although Kentucky has made measurable progress since passage of the Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA) of 1990 and the Kentucky Postsecondary Education Improvement Act of 1997, we still have a long way to go to be considered among the best educational systems in the world. While Kentucky continues to be innovative in teaching and learning, the stakes are higher now, and the system is losing ground in a number of important areas. This is compounded by an economic downturn of severe proportions that calls for a new educational reform framework.
Tucker presented a compelling set of ideas on how America might maintain it's (slipping) standing among world nations through a radical restructuring of the whole system of schooling.

Among its problems, however, is that it directly attacks "the system" for a cure and a whole host of sacred cows like, the Carnegie Unit, the graded structure that under girds high school athletics, teacher pay, early childhood education, local school boards, social promotion, teacher qualifications, graduation ...and those are the ones off the top of my head.

Senior Fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution and President of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation Chester E. Finn Jr. called Tucker's report a “penetrating, scary analysis" with "astute, far-reaching recommendations [that] amount to A Nation at Risk for the next generation. "...a brave, clear call for top-to-bottom reforms in U.S. education. While overturning plenty of creaky applecarts, Tough Choices sketches a bold and efficient new vehicle for equipping 21st century Americans with the skills and knowledge they will need—and that the nation needs.”

The recommendations include:

S T E P 1 : Assume that we will do the job right the first time and get students are ready for college — really ready for college — when they are 16 years old.

S T E P 2 : Make much more efficient use of the available resources. The changes will save $60 billion nationally.

S T E P 3 : Recruit from the top third of the high school graduates going on to college for the next generation of school teachers.

S T E P 4 : Develop standards, assessments, and curriculum that reflect today’s needs and
tomorrow’s requirements.

S T E P 5 : Create high performance schools and districts everywhere — how the system
should be governed, financed, organized, and managed.

STEP 6: Provide high-quality, universal early childhood education.

S T E P 7 : Give strong support to the students who need it the most.

S T E P 8 : Enable every member of the adult workforce to get the new literacy skills.

S T E P 9 : Create personal competitiveness accounts — a GI Bill for our times.

S T E P 10 : Create regional competitiveness authorities to make America competitive.

This righty-approach challenges us to look at better ways to do schooling, but it's going to take legislators with political death wishes and balls the size of Alpha Centauri to get it done in Kentucky.
According to Mission Measurement, six states - Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Utah, Arizona, Delaware, and New Mexico – have committed to the “Tough Choices or Tough Times” education reform agenda so far.
Writing for the Tom Mooney Institute for Teacher and Union Leadership, Mark Simon argues that the plan gets several things right - brightest teachers; current accountability measures are failing; reality of social inequities; need for expanded pre-school - but that it makes some unsubstantiated leaps. Simon says,

What we need is not a new system based on flawed assumptions about the efficacy of the private marketplace, but a system guided by the wisdom of educators. In the past decade, the voice of teachers has been absent. That fact speaks volumes about the theory of change – the strategy – of the reformers. Reforms that also dis-empower the key actors, teachers, have bred cynicism, and have failed to unleash the creative energy of the profession.

The key "Tough Choices" prescriptions take us in the wrong direction. They essentially sidestep the issue of how to get us better teaching and learning to world class standards, because, at their core, they are not about improving the quality of teaching and learning in our schools. They focus instead on who should administer public education.

Shannon T. Hodge reviewing for the Harvard Education Review expressed serious concerns for higher education under the plan.
While the report focuses on preK–12 issues, the commission’s recommendations place heavy demands on institutions of higher education, which would need to make substantial changes in the way they operate to align with restructured high schools. The commission itself notes, “The sea changes we propose in higher education will not happen unless the higher education community is deeply involved in the discussion” (p. 48). However, while the commission demands much from colleges and universities, Tough Choices or Tough Times fails to engage thoughtfully with the challenges currently confronting postsecondary institutions, such as access, accountability, cost, quality, and student success.
Hodge points out similarities and differences with the Spellings Commission report and recommends that policy makers take care "to explore whether the ambitious high school plan is feasible and actionable, given the challenges facing postsecondary institutions."
Given both the criticism of the report and the lack of enthusiastic support from key players such as state education boards and teachers unions (see, e.g., McNeil, 2007; National Education Association, 2006; Ravitch, 2007), worth serious consideration is whether these recommendations are even desirable, much less attainable, or whether they merely serve a symbolic function. For example, the report’s recommendation to restructure high schools clearly responds to existing problems with secondary schools and the transition to college, but its heavy reliance on a shift in postsecondary education without any discussion of what it will take to get there reveals a substantial weakness.
As a provocative conversation starter Tough Choices or Tough Times is terrific. As a policy, it lacks a strong constituency and far too many details regarding implementation to be a serious proposal. For that to change, there's going to have to be a lot of conversation that includes the very stakeholders Tough Choices seems to dismiss - teachers and community leaders.
In 2007 AFT President Randi Weingarten sat beside Tucker and expressed teachers union objections to privatization as a solution and Tough Choices' plan to pay teachers more - but at the expense of retirement pensions - which she calls a false choice. (Video at Celebration of Teaching and Learning from 13/WNET, WLIW21 )
Back at the CPE conference, King followed Tucker with a keynote that underscored the need for American education to hop up off its laurels and expand advanced educational opportunities once again.
Access to higher education in America since the civil war a was truly an anomaly in the world. While attendance at a university in Europe and Asia had historically been reserved for the sons of wealthy or politically connected families, the United States had chosen a different path expanding access to anyone with the intellectual talent and determination to seek a college education.
There is broad agreement that America's economic prowess was directly related to the expansion of high schools in the early twentieth century and a higher education system that was the envy of the world. But not any more. In fact the world was so envious, that many nations went out and surpassed America in the number of its citizens with advanced degrees. In India, for example, it is commonplace for a family to spend 50% of their worth educating their children. This has implications for America's future economic competitiveness.

King's data supported the direct relationship between America's educational success and its economic success as measured by Gross Domestic Product from 1820 to 1994. His presentation was compelling and important but would be strengthened if he would drop the old-school pretense that running a PowerPoint slideshow is difficult to master, while exhorting Kentucky's students to higher standards. It undermines the message.

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