Excellence Redefined for the 21st Century
Posted by Norman Eng on July 25, 2015
This is the concluding article to my co-edited symposium with Allan Ornstein on “21st Century Excellence in Education.” The original article–as well as references to other articles in this symposium–can be accessed in the journal Society.
Since the Nation at Risk report over thirty years ago, the United States education system has focused on standards and tests that mainly measure academic, and often low-level, knowledge. According to our contributors, such policies will not lead to twenty-first century excellence. International tests do not indicate real-world abilities. Not only do they correlate modestly with work productivity and global skills, they correlate inversely with innovation and entrepreneurialism. Current competency-based systems simply do not match the way we live and work and, therefore, will not likely produce qualified job candidates, innovators, or even “better” adults.
Schools need a broader approach that aligns with 21st century life. However, they must first recognize what defines present and future society. Based on our contributors’ essays, three themes clearly emerged: 1) individuality; 2) connectedness; and 3) non-cognitive attributes. Each one is inextricably linked with the 21st century way we live and work. Understanding and acknowledging them is critical to education reform. Without that, education policy will not align with the innovation goal—a problem we are seeing now.
This wrap-up article examines each theme separately, including its role in the 21st century and its relevance to education. Examples will illustrate how our contributors and others have successfully leveraged these elements to improve success. Combined, these themes build the case for a broader education approach aimed to help all students maximize their potential so they can achieve 21st century excellence.
Power resides within the hands of individuals, particularly in the global age. We consume content the way we want, not the way institutions and companies want. We watch on-demand via Hulu, we curate content via Flipboard, and we create and share them through social media. Yager referred to this process as negotiating the “landscape of information, while at the same time becoming a part of it.” A company’s success, therefore, depends on its ability to align with the way individuals operate. By the same token, individuals now also compete with companies—to sell content, products, and services, thanks to globalization and the internet. The primacy of the individual in the 21st century demands we cultivate each child’s individual abilities and interests at an early age.
Yet the current emphasis on high-stakes testing, standards, and accountability do not align with or facilitate this perspective. New programs like Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Go Math! and Math in Focus (i.e., “Singapore Math”), for instance, provide tightly scripted lessons aimed more at the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS) than at students’ aptitude, despite their sections on guided practice, differentiated instruction, and investigation. Zhao believed such programs prepare mass-produced, employment-minded job seekers, rather than innovators or entrepreneurs.
Yager envisioned a student-centered, journalistic approach. Students would formulate questions in science, investigate multiple sources, evaluate information, and produce value for an end-user—just like a reporter. Imagine extending that approach to other traditional subjects. For example, math students learning perimeter and area could explore the amount of table space needed to fit 125 fifth graders and their place settings for an end-of-the-year field trip. Failure to produce appropriate solutions would have real-world consequences. Compare this with the traditional approach where students measure the length and width of predefined quadrilaterals.
The difference lies not just in the level of concept mastery, but also in the level of ownership. With a journalistic approach, the motivation to learn comes from within—essential when cultivating innovators and change agents. Policymakers appear to acknowledge the benefits of this approach, since they recently funded personalized learning in certain rural districts of Kentucky and Mississippi, but it needs to reach critical mass to empower a generation of graduates. Likewise, students favor practices that emphasize autonomy and relevance.
Teachers will undoubtedly play a primary role in shaping student-centered classrooms. Tomlinson’s differentiated instruction model recognizes and addresses the varied levels, interests, and approaches to learning. Here, teachers seek (and appreciate) differences, cultivate the right attitudes and habits, and link experiences to learning, among other principles of “teaching up.” In the end, this mentality fosters a sense of agency and responsibility that a one-size-fits-all, competency-based approach does not.
None of this is possible, unless teacher education recognizes the primacy of individuality. Monk cautions us to consider the current tumultuous state of teacher reform. There is still lack of consensus on best practices, cost-effectiveness, and the benefits of value-added measures, despite the new CAEP standards. These challenges compel us to harness our research more effectively.
Like individuality, being “connected” is a part of the way we live and work. However, it is more than just accessibility and integrated technology. Three components—caring, networks, and interdisciplinarity—define the “new connectedness” in the 21st century. Cultivating global citizens requires schools to recognize each of them.
Caring provides the ethical basis of connectedness. It matters even in “quid pro quo” relationships, because it profoundly shapes the character of a group (i.e., families, communities, ethnic or religious groups, society). Without caring, there is no reason to build formal or informal relationships. Noddings realized this thirty years ago when she boldly proposed an “ethic of care” education approach centered on happiness.
Extending her idea to the global level takes on profound importance when individuals have more power than ever, even in collectivist societies. Protesters in Tunisia, Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries fomented change during the Arab Spring uprising that began in 2010. President Xi Jinping of China recently vowed to relax the one-child policy, eliminate repressive “re-education through labor” camps, improve the rights of farmers and migrant workers, and encourage individuals and enterprises to invest overseas. Despite ongoing instability, these examples demonstrate mankind’s tendency toward progress and humanity.
Moreover, they suggest efforts to promote an ethic of caring would augment progress and produce better adults. Noddings maintains there is no better goal in education. Without an ethic of caring, we lose the ability to empathize and gain trust. Ornstein, in fact, believes this very intolerance is responsible for American decline, not the loss of Christian values, faith and ideals. Schools need to help children navigate and cultivate relationships better in an increasingly polarized and complicated climate. We can no longer isolate them from the global village.
Networks—the system of interconnected people—have always been essential, yet the adage “who you know is more important than what you know” has never rang truer in a social and global economy. Policymakers and educators underestimate their role in education. It is much more than fostering a collaborative or community-centered environment.
Research on social networks suggests that those we know through friends (also referred to as “second-” or “third-degree connections”) can help us more than our direct connections. Since they “occupy” the same world as we do, our friends tend to possess similar knowledge and experiences. Indirect connections, however, broaden our resources exponentially. Assuming we each have forty friends, third degree connections would yield us 64,000 introductions (40 x 40 x 40), and infinitely more social capital. Successful networking sites such as LinkedIn and Facebook are based on this principle.
Networks can also help high potential, low-income students get into selective colleges. Frequently, they lack the social capital to apply, as Comer indicated, because they are either unaware of the financial assistance offered or they underestimate their qualifications. As a result, they are “undermatched.” These students would particularly benefit from one form of networking, mentorship—perhaps the most powerful form of social capital. Mentors would not only provide valuable insight, they could open the door to vast resources that would be otherwise inaccessible. Supervised internships would provide similar value.
Principles behind social networks also seem to apply to other networks. Research suggests that ethnic and gender preferences, as well as obesity, can spread through networks based on the strength of social ties. There is a higher risk of obesity, for example, if one has obese friends, but lower if his or her second-degree connections were obese. Understanding the science of networks can help us detect epidemics earlier, as well as understand the spread of ideas and initiatives.
According to a Pew research study in 2013, almost 90% of young adults in the U.S. use social networking sites. The potential is staggering. People—not just the advantaged—can harness their network to uncover atrocities and confront problems like disasters, terrorism, inequality, environmental pollution, and climate change faster and more effectively than they have ever done. They just need to know how to cultivate and harness it.
Schools must recognize their role in this. As currently constructed, however, the system is simply not designed to facilitate networks. School and classroom culture is still rather closed, shutting out parents, the community, and businesses—all of which can provide further support, perspective, mentorship, and training. Families and students—particularly those from disadvantaged areas—should not have to cultivate them on their own.
Interdisciplinarity is the capacity to integrate knowledge and thinking in two or more disciplines to produce cognitive or technical advancement—such as solving a problem or creating a product or service. Because life is increasingly complex and fluid, it has become the quintessential 21st century mode of thinking and doing. Interdisciplinary, like caring and networks, define the “new connectedness.”
To maximize this, teachers must allow students to take the lead. Under Zhao’s “entrepreneur-oriented” approach, students’ interests and passions—not a prescribed curriculum—determine what they learn and produce. Teachers respond to and support their pursuits, which will often require tapping into nontraditional areas of study like business, art, and psychology. They are equally as relevant as science, math, history, and language arts.
Interdisciplinarity plays a significant role in any innovation. Former Apple CEO Steve Jobs leveraged his love of design, his business acumen, and his technological acuity to create highly valued, innovative products. His ability to hold different elements in his mind simultaneously and play obsessively with them until it all comes together in a moment of simplicity and clarity allowed him to revolutionize four industries—music, cell phones, PCs, and tablets. Right now, schools simply do not prioritize or integrate many real-world disciplines.
Those that do, like Bennington College, have shown promise. In the mid-1990s, it radically reorganized the program structure under its president, Elizabeth Coleman. She eliminated the subject-based curriculum and organized it by political-social challenges such as equity, the uses of force, and health. She treated them not as topics of study, but as frameworks of action to help students think across disciplines and solve real-world issues.
To update Socrates’ popular quote for the 21st century, the “unconnected” life is not worth living. If we cannot cultivate the ability to connect in multidimensional ways, we will engender a learned helplessness in students. They will not be able to solve long-standing conflicts without the ability to care, or at least respect others’ perspectives. They will not be able to affect change if they cannot cultivate global networks. And finally, students will not be able to innovate without the ability to think in broad, multi-disciplinary ways. In short, the “new connectedness” has more to do with a blurring of lines among countries, groups, institutions, and disciplines, than accessibility. The 21st century is about relationships.
- Non-cognitive attributes
Thousands of people can now take free online courses (known as Massive Online Open Courses, or MOOCs) at Harvard, Yale, or MIT, yet only seven percent of enrollees complete them. What do these few have that the others don’t? Carney & Rothstein and Levin believe persistence, focus, and other non-cognitive attributes make the difference. They separate successful people from the rest. They allow achievers to persist in learning a difficult language, persuade clients on a new idea, and follow through on a commitment.
Sheer conviction, for example, allowed Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk—an innovator perhaps only second to Jobs—to push his idea for a streamlined, retractable door handle past the skeptics and into production. There were numerous engineering challenges, including the lack of panel space for a mechanism to work tens of thousands of times in all temperatures, and the balance between durability (so the mechanism could break through ice) and sensitivity (to stop instantly if a child’s finger gets in the way). Musk received tremendous pushback from his engineers—who even told him the idea was “stupid.” His conviction and belief, however, prevailed.
The South African-born Musk typifies the kind of entrepreneurs Zhao and Ornstein believe we need to cultivate and retain, respectively. Work ethic may partly explain why immigrants make up a majority of STEM workers and why China and India, according to Ornstein, graduates four times the number of scientists and engineers as the U.S. It also suggests that immigration policies must complement education policies. If innovation is the ultimate goal, education is one important part of it.
Levin argued that the ability to adapt is perhaps the one attribute that matters in the 21st century. It influences worker productivity both in the short run (through efficient allocation of resources) and the long run (in accommodating new technologies). Evidence suggests that managers can maintain productivity by substituting less educated, but adaptable workers for their more expensive, educated counterparts. Apparently, adaptability matters even more than experience and content skills. In fact, the survival of individuals, companies, and societies is positively Darwinian.
Comer’s work with inner city children proves that we can cultivate socio-emotional skills. His Social Skills Project involved planning and hosting a dance-drama program, where students learned skills like helping those who had difficulty presenting (rather than ridiculing them), as well as raising challenging questions in a respectful way. As a result, academic achievement jumped, student attendance improved, and teacher turnover decreased. Most important, the project had a galvanizing effect on the students, the school culture, and the community. Imagine the impact on graduates if states scaled up social skills efforts at an early age.
Redefining Excellence: Ownership
At no other time has individuality, connectedness, and non-cognitive attributes played such a critical role in the way we live and work. They suggest that knowledge and skill are not enough, and that a broader, more self-directed approach is necessary. We believe the education system needs to move toward an ownership-based model. Ownership drives people to pursue knowledge and skills, because they feel as though what they are working on is “theirs.” It is different from related constructs like commitment and involvement; it is much more active and intrinsic. In fact, it would more effectively develop potential than accountability.
Perhaps no organization epitomizes ownership better than Google, named the top company to work for by Fortune magazine. They empower their staff by taking care of individual needs. Not only do employees have comprehensive on-site perks (e.g., medical and dental facilities, oil change and bike repair, free gourmet food and laundry), they also have unique freedoms. Googlers, as they are known, can take courses in stress management and advanced negotiation, as well as sabbaticals to pursue a reimbursed education. Software engineers have the flexibility to work away from the office, design their own workstations, and even scribble ideas on walls.
On top of individuality, Google also cultivates connectedness and interpersonal relationships. Their open space, for example, fosters collaboration. “Everything we [do is] geared toward making it easy to talk,” according to an engineering director. Open spaces enable ideas to cross-fertilize and stimulate serendipitous interaction. “20 percent time”—the freedom to work on any project one full day per week—also exemplifies the ownership mindset. Popular products like Gmail and Adsense emerged from 20 percent time. So do other more creative endeavors, like engineer Chade-Meng Tan’s course on mindfulness. His desire for world peace led him to design this course with the help of psychologists, professors, and other business luminaries. Not only is it one of the most popular classes taught in the company, it has propelled Tan to write the New York Times best seller Search Inside Yourself.
The quality of the end product, as well as spiritual fulfillment, ultimately separates “owners” like Tan from regular employees. The latter adopts a “hey-I-just-work-here” attitude that undermines performance and company success. Unfortunately, that same apathy characterizes the attitudes of most high school students, which in turn undermines the quality of learning and work. Noddings believed that students should choose their own track, rather than be assigned to one. That simple shift would alleviate apathy, increase quality, nourish the soul, and cultivate ownership in a way accountability could never do. Teachers would merely facilitate the process.
Emerging research demonstrates that ownership can be effectively developed and implemented. In 2013, the National Center on Scaling Up Effective Schools sought to identify programs, policies, and practices of high schools that “beat the odds.” They discovered that increasing student ownership made a distinct difference. Teachers developed this capacity by changing beliefs and mindsets of students to increase self-efficacy (i.e., individual beliefs about his or her ability to perform well) and by engaging students to do challenging academic work. They also scaffolded students’ learning of both academic and social behaviors and put structures in place to guide them in taking ownership and responsibility for their academic success.
The ownership model was particularly effective because it enacted what researchers called “school-wide facilitating conditions.” This included:
- Developing a shared school mission;
- Aligning school-wide structures and practices to the mission;
- Cultivating a culture of trust and faculty and student stability;
- Building positive relationships between students and teachers; and
- Ensuring efficacy, accountability, and a safe and orderly school environment.
Incidentally, “ownership” is one of the top attributes Google looks for when hiring candidates, according to its senior vice president of people operations, Laszlo Bock.
Reflecting on the Nation at Risk report, two things are clear: 1) we have been asking the wrong types of questions; and 2) our existing approach does not align with our goal to produce innovators. Policymakers appear to ask questions like, how do we ensure graduates have the right knowledge and skills? Or how do we close the achievement gap? Invariably, the answer requires some measure of students’ competency, which is a poor proxy for innovation, accomplishment, or success any kind. Competency is neither the goal nor the answer to 21st century excellence.
Our contributors’ arguments suggest that more appropriate types of questions ask: How do we maximize students’ potential? And how do we ensure graduates will flourish? A rapidly changing and complex society suggests that mindsets are highly relevant. The right mindset acts as the spark to unlock potential. With ownership, accountability comes from within—not from tests. That difference is significant, especially when most students routinely feel disengaged by schooling. If we want our graduates to maximize their potential and flourish, we must recognize the themes our contributors believe define our times—individuality, connectedness, and non-cognitive attributes—and find an education approach that matches it. A model based on ownership would be a good place to start, since it motivates students to learn, invest in, and fulfill their potential no matter if they go into STEM or the arts. Education has no more a nobler goal than to produce such excellence in the 21st century.
K-12 MOOCs Must Address Equity
Posted by Norman Eng on February 5, 2015
Is MOOCs going into the K-12 arena a good thing?
Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, the new wave of distance education offered by elite institutions like Harvard and MIT, are moving into high schools, and—contrary to what many think—that could be a problem.
Last September, the MOOC provider EdX released 26 free courses covering Advanced Placement, high school, and college-level material.
In theory, disseminating such free or low-cost instruction will democratize high-quality education in much the same way public schools are meant to democratize general education. In practice, however, MOOCs’ lecture-based format, their inability to reach the most-vulnerable populations, and their low passing rates could broaden K-12 learning gaps rather than shrink them.
Politically and pedagogically, K-12 schooling is very different from higher education. There is a greater focus on inequality in the former, due in part to the compulsory nature of attendance. As such, teacher quality and instruction are critical. Elementary and secondary school teachers, especially those in public schools, are expected to motivate the most-disadvantaged and disengaged students.
The didactic, lecture-based nature of MOOC instruction, however, is narrow and may not engage traditionally marginalized students, including ethnic and racial minorities, low-income students, children with disabilities, and English-language learners—the very groups policymakers and researchers have focused on in K-12 education policy reform.
In addition, these groups tend to have less access than their better-off peers to high-speed Internet.
Only 64 percent of African-Americans, 53 percent of Hispanics, and 54 percent of lower-income Americans overall (meaning those making less than $30,000 a year) have broadband access at home, compared with nearly three-quarters of white Americans generally, based on 2013 research from the Pew Research Internet Project.
Without universal access, MOOCs are pointless. On the good-news front: This situation is beginning to improve, as the Federal Communications Commission increased funding in December to prioritize support for broadband and wireless connectivity.
As it is, the nature of MOOCs attracts advantaged learners. A 2013 analysis of the University of Pennsylvania’s 32 massive open online courses found that participants tended to come from developed countries and were employed, with 80 percent already in possession of a postsecondary degree of some kind. Most students took classes to advance professionally or to satisfy their curiosity. Such findings suggest academically oriented students and those with developed habits of the mind, like the gifted and talented, would thrive in an online learning system. Without such advantages, however, at-risk and even working-class students will require intervening support and oversight to have an equal chance to succeed.
Perhaps most disconcertingly, online courses have yet to demonstrate they can close the performance gap.
In a highly publicized San Jose State University experiment, minority high school students in an Oakland, Calif., charter school performed worse in online pilot classes than those who took the same classes on campus. The result reinforced research highlighting the struggles of at-risk groups in an online context, compared with advantaged students.
On a related note, African-American students, as well as males, younger students, and those with lower grade point averages, had difficulty adapting to, or persisting in, online courses compared with face-to-face classes, according to researchers Di Xu and Shanna Smith Jaggars of Teachers College, Columbia University.
For online courses to have any chance to succeed, developers and e-learning companies must understand the K-12 landscape. Ambitious rollouts have fared poorly, as the iPads-for-all project in the Los Angeles Unified School District demonstrated.
The previously mentioned San Jose State effort, which involved a partnership with the company Udacity, ended its MOOC experiment in 2013 because only 12 percent of high school students earned a passing grade in algebra, among other disappointing findings. These failed examples reinforce two well-worn lessons: Venture philanthropy cannot work unless students’ needs come first, and how you use technology is more important than the technology itself.
Developers also need to address teacher buy-in and professional development in new ways. The novel nature of MOOCs will undoubtedly require overhauling how developers support teachers, a consideration that should make them think twice about jumping into the K-12 market.
If only certain types of learners can thrive under MOOCs, the innovation will have failed as a 21st-century technology and education platform. Its success, therefore, depends on the developers’ ability to address inequality; specifically, to reach a critical mass of students that includes learners from diverse socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic backgrounds. Only then will MOOC providers be perceived as offering legitimate platforms for K-12 schools. Without such attention, the MOOC foray into K-12 will be doomed to repeat, and even exacerbate, inequalities in American education.
Article originally published in Education Week.
Should U.S. Panic Over Latest International Creative Problem Solving Test Scores?
Posted by Norman Eng on May 8, 2014
The gap in problem solving test scores between U.S. and Asian countries reflects the reality that the way students operate in school often has little to do with how they operate in real life.
U.S. educators may be surprised to see that students in Asian countries scored significantly higher on creative problem-solving tests than American students, but they shouldn’t be. It merely reinforces what most of us have long known: School and work often have nothing to do with one another.
The results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2012 Creative Problem-Solving exam found that U.S. 15-year-olds scored above the international average, but at 18th place, still lag behind the top seven education systems (Singapore, Korea, Japan, Macao, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Taipei, respectively), all of which are in Asia. Educators and analysts may wonder how a nation like the U.S., which prides itself on creativity, innovation, and individuality, could possibly fall below collectivist systems that emphasize traditional instruction and conformity.
The truth is more complex. First, unlike in the U.S., students in Japan, Korea, and Singapore actually spend extended periods of time learning fewer topics, an approach that Common Core State Standards developers have recognized and attempted to duplicate. Instead, Asian systems focus on the depth—rather than breadth—of topics, which allows them to manipulate information beyond memorization. A typical seventh-grade textbook in Japan, in fact, has less than half the amount of pages (200) as one in the U.S. (475).
Second, lower U.S. scores do not necessarily mean East Asian students are more creative. In fact, their high scores, especially those in Shanghai, may not even reflect the norm in China, as OECD Deputy Director of Education Andreas Schleicher has admitted. The gap reflects the sad reality that the way students operate in school often has little to do with how they operate in real life. This is true in U.S. as well as in many top-performing education systems abroad. Learning in school is largely characterized by narrow, detached, and contrived experiences, whereas work— especially the highly skilled jobs that drive the economy—incorporates more active, cross- disciplinary, and out-of-the box thinking.
Such mental processes characterize the work of entrepreneurs like former Apple chief executive Steve Jobs and SpaceX chief product architect Elon Musk, according to a Fortune magazine article. They leverage their “deep understanding of technological possibility, strong design instincts, a clear grasp of the economic ecosystem surrounding a potential product, and an uncanny ability to enter the head of a future customer” to produce innovations like the iPod or launch vehicles for the International Space Station.
Students rarely experience this sense of possibility and ownership while at school—even less so in a high-stakes accountability system. The thousands of families who opted out of the recent Common Core state tests highlight the growing disenchantment with the U.S. education system. Is it any wonder so many creative-types, including Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg decided to bypass college to do something different?
Third, Asia’s market demand may also explain their relatively lower rate of innovation, despite their students’ higher test scores. China’s economy remains driven by manual labor and low-cost and low-margin manufacturing, so firms tend to seek many more workers than managers or thinkers. These “top-light” firms, as MIT Sloan School of Management professor Yasheng Huang calls them, are more akin to factories than startups. Moreover, government agencies hire a significant portion of Chinese college graduates, who compete fiercely for civil service positions. The reality is that firms rarely leverage students’ creative problem solving potential.
Fourth, the cultural emphasis on hierarchical authority, social relations, and group harmony (over frankness and honesty) can also inhibit graduates’ creativity and individuality. Age-based seniority runs deep in most Asian institutions. In fact, many Koreans, when meeting strangers or new colleagues, will quickly establish each other’s age to work out how they should behave and speak to each other, according to a 2012 article in the Wall Street Journal. In Japan, subordinates may make decisions only if they reflect what their bosses would have done. This hierarchical structure also contributes to the stifling of talent, particularly among those who have just graduated.
Finally, research suggests tests like PISA’s creative problem-solving exam have little predictive value to workplace productivity; in fact, they predict only about 6 percent. More important is the drive to create something that solves a real problem. These characteristics, which include both cognitive and non-cognitive skills, must combine with the right external conditions such as culture, market demand, organizational environment, and policies.
Right now, the U.S. still leads the world in that regard. Its free market policies, individualistic culture, and entrepreneurial spirit have been compensating what it lacks in public education for a long time. Adequate creative problem-solving test results merely reinforce the need to shore the gap between school and work. High schools, for instance, rarely partner with local businesses— including laboratories, offices, and factories—to provide glimpses into work life. Internships only help students enrolled in higher education. We need alternatives.
Perhaps some good news is coming. President Obama has recently announced grants intended to update school curriculums to better integrate work experiences and real-life opportunities. It will finance partnerships with local education agencies and employers, which would enhance job shadowing and mentor opportunities. Six-year high school programs focused on career and technical education and partnered with corporations like IBM are giving many students alternatives to four-year colleges. Yet, they are at the experimental stage and not yet the norm.
Equally important, we need an education approach that syncs with the fluid way we live and work in the 21st century. This includes more inquiry, student-driven projects, and cross-disciplinary experiences apart of the current accountability and Common Core focus. They prepare our students more productively than a performance- and outcome-based approach ever will. China, ironically, has been trying to adopt a more western approach to educating its students, despite their high test scores. We would do well to remember that when considering policy implications to improve U.S. students’ creative problem-solving abilities.
Article originally posted in the American School Board Journal.
Expanding the Six-Year High School Model
Posted by Norman Eng on February 22, 2014
Recently, there’s been a lot of talk about the six-year high school model, where four years of high school are combined with two years of college for an equivalent of an associate’s degree. Known as the Pathways in Technology Early College High School (or P-Tech for short)—made famous by the high achieving P-Tech school in Brooklyn, New York, and by President Obama in his State of the Union speeches, this approach allows students to learn in-demand 21st century workforce skills—with the help of industry partners like IBM. Time magazine recently profiled another P-Tech school, the Sarah E. Goode STEM Academy in Chicago.
As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, “middle skills” jobs (like technical support, medical technicians, and high-tech manufacturing workers) are increasingly in high demand. In fact, they are as much in demand as high-skilled STEM jobs, which only account for 5% of all U.S. jobs. Not everyone needs a four-year degree, but they need more than a high school diploma. Workers with an associate’s degree will earn 74% more than those with only a high school diploma, according to the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University.
A six-year program would be more in line with a career and technical education (CTE) model, where students learn real world skills from tech firms and would graduate with concrete job skills. Corporate partners, in turn, are eager to hire those they have trained. Connecticut and upstate New York are also rolling out this approach. The question is, can this model be expanded at the national level?
A few issues to consider. One, how will the teacher’s union react to this? So far, the P-Tech approach has operated within the public school system, rather than outside it (like charter schools), so unions don’t seem to be opposed to the idea. Problems might arise, however, during teacher training. Who trains the teachers–education schools or corporations? Traditional teacher preparation programs will not have the expertise, which can open the door to corporate influence. Issues of power and politics will certainly play a factor. This will be the most significant obstacle to expanding the six-year high school model.
Two, how do we expand funding? President Obama has been pushing for more CTEs and alternative models of education that involve public-private partnerships, and as such, has earmarked $100 million in new grant funds for schools like P-Tech. Funds can also come from the Perkins Act of 2006, which seeks to provide more focus on the academic achievement of CTE students. It is up for congressional reauthorization this year.
Finally, we will need the help of more local leaders and industries. P-Tech programs are easier to implement in large cities where Fortune 500 companies are located, but what about rural and depressed areas? Local leaders, like governors, mayors, and school superintendents must push for these programs.
The benefits of a six-year high school or CTE model are obvious. It would drastically improve the inequality issue as we improve the majority of students—i.e., those that are struggling and those that are average performers (i.e., B or C level students) by giving them opportunities. Not every student needs to learn algebra II or trigonometry, and they need multiple pathways to succeed. Four-year colleges would be reserved for academically talented and/or motivated students. Furthermore, six-year programs would reduce student apathy and the dropout rate – a significant problem in the U.S.
The key, however, is to allow students and their families to decide which track they wish to go, rather than be assigned. Schools can provide counsel. That simple move will minimize problems associated with tracking (the practice of separating children according to ability), such as apathy and mobility.
European countries like Germany have long understood the importance of providing alternatives for students who are not academically inclined. But can we institutionalize them at a larger, and perhaps national, level? It seems we are starting to understand that accountability is not enough to prepare our students for the 21st century. The move to CTE and six-year high school models suggest we are beginning to understand the balance between individuality and the national economic wellbeing.
Common Core: The Conservative Dilemma
Posted by Norman Eng on February 2, 2014
The Common Core State Standards is furthering a rift within the already embattled conservative party. For pro-business groups—who tend to lean toward de-regulation and other conservative, laissez-faire measures—the standards are essential to their interests and the long-term economic viability of their states. They believe high school students are not college- or career-ready, and that they need improve their reading, writing, STEM, and other business skills to compete in the 21st century. A national standard like the Common Core would begin to address this problem. For political and fiscal conservatives, on the other hand, the Common Core represents federal overreach into state matters. They also believe its quality is lacking, and that developers of these standards have not thought this through.
Both sides are jockeying for position. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is providing state chambers of commerce with tools to address opposition in their state, funded in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. With their long-standing relationships, networks, and well-established resources, state chambers have the influence to sway state government leaders, state legislators, and state school chiefs to address what they consider a vital economic matter. Pro-business groups also have momentum, since 46 states (along with the District of Columbia) have adopted the Common Core. On the other end, Republican leaders are voicing some opposition. Many feel the pressure to roll back the Common Core or face repercussions from Tea Party activists. As such, the conservative base is facing a sensitive dilemma that could affect their party’s standing in the next election.
Right now, it appears the pro-business community’s arguments make more sense. The issue is consistency. Students who performs well in, say Mississippi, ought to do the same in Massachusetts—which has not been the case under No Child Left Behind. Their scores ought to reliably indicate the performance of U.S. students when compared with those in other countries. This foundation—or baseline—is critical to informing policy and instruction. Without it, we cannot know if policies and instruction are effective or if students are improving. The fact that the new Common Core is imperfect is not a reason to scrap it.
The bigger problem appears to be the politics. Despite the state-led, bipartisan collaboration among teachers, researchers, and other educators, the Common Core has become a toxic brand in the eyes of many Republicans. They associate it with the Obama’s administration and feel that any attempts to centralize control is un-American. “If we removed the ‘common core’ branding, it would defuse some of the issues,” according to a GOP candidate for state superintendent in Georgia. This “soft” protest suggests that political conservatives are not necessarily opposed to the Common Core principles, and that they are trying to move past the divisive elements undermining their recent support.
The Educated Society strives to evaluate issues based on a holistic perspective. As an educator who faces ongoing pressures from students, colleagues, administrators, and other interests, I continually ask myself: What is in the best interest of the students? The answer becomes obvious. In this case, we ought to streamline standards and allow states to pursue them in ways they feel is most appropriate. Students will know where they stand regardless of location. States keep their autonomy while the United States remains, well, united. Despite my mixed feelings about the Common Core, the principle behind it—that all children have clear, consistent learning expectations (no matter what part of the country)—is sound. We should not allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good.
A Socially-Conscious Orientation in Education
Posted by Norman Eng on October 5, 2012
No matter our ideology, education will always be closely linked with a nation’s economy. We saw a ramping up of science and math education during the Sputnik era in the 1950s-1960s, another call for rigorous standards when fears emerged about international competition from Japan (and Germany) in the 1980s. Of course, the past decade has been all about meeting the demands of the global 21st century knowledge-based economy under No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the call for more STEM education.
Too bad. The “excellence” march will always trump the “equity” one when a nation’s economy is at stake. Such initiatives might make us economically and militarily powerful, but not necessarily a better nation. Once countries reach “maturity,” (i.e., industrialization or advanced development stage), they need a more post-modern approach that considers its people and its responsibility to the world. And that requires a socially-conscious approach to education.
Countries that are rapidly developing in order to catch up the the U.S., such as China, India, and Brazil, will generally forgo social/environmental progress in order to reach economic ones, which is exactly what we did in the middle of the 20th century. Environmental concerns and civil rights didn’t come about until after World War II, when the world recognized this period as “the American Century.” We can afford to be more socially and ecologically aware when we’re at the top, while other countries will probably follow our footsteps as they progress. Yet the gini coefficient indicates an economic inequality not seen since the Great Depression (not to mention social and political polarity). Nothing exemplifies this zeitgist more than Occupy Wall Street.
Do other countries want to follow this American Dream? Maybe not.
As nation’s are seeking to define their place in the world, they may not necessarily want what we have; some in fact resent it. Thomas Friedman’s recent article in the New York Times, entitled China Needs Its Own Dream, pointed to the conscious change that many Chinese citizens are making in shaping their 21st century identity. Peggy Liu, the founder of the Joint U.S.-China Collaboration on Clean Energy, argues that the Chinese today are yearning to create a new national identity, one that merges traditional Chinese values like balance, respect, and flow, with its new modern urban reality.
China’s latest five-year plan is based on sustainability for its burgeoning middle class that seeks to counter the growing conspicuous consumerism. The younger generation does not necessarily want to follow the typical growth path–the rising consumption, “now it’s our turn” kind of mentality–that Americans went through.
Instead, the creation of a “Chinese Dream” that redefines personal prosperity by merging the unique traditional Chinese values with the burgeoning urbanization to create more access to better products and services—not necessarily owning them–so everyone gets a piece of the pie. This includes better public transportation, spaces, housing, e-learning, and e-commerce. For a society, isn’t “better access for all” preferable to “exclusive ownership”? It’s certainly greener and infinitely more egalitarian.
This socially conscious mindset amongst its students appears to be more prevalent as well. One student Friedman interviewed, Zhou Lin, said that it was in China’s best interest to find a “cleaner” growth path.
Part of this change, I believe is that they spend a lot of time reflecting on what other nations have done as a blueprint for success (such as America’s innovation and higher education) and on what dangers to avoid (e.g., American social values). No doubt they want to define their own path to trumpet as a 21st model to emulate. A lot will be riding on the new leadership’s ability to address increasing prosperity and inequality.
For the U.S., the current education culture is exclusively focused on maintaining economic hegemony and STEM competitiveness. Where is the socially conscious models that George Counts and Nel Noddings advocated for? Despite the calls to close the achievement gap, it seems far too much is placed on standards and testing in the interest of economic expediency. Perhaps excellence in education for the 21st century should consider more of the socially-conscious and heterogeneous model that values individual growth and global collaboration.