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Achieving High Educational Standards For All: Conference Summary Part II Perspectives of the Co-Moderators
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Achieving High Educational Standards For All: Conference Summary This page in the original is blank.
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Achieving High Educational Standards For All: Conference Summary Overview Catherine E. Snow The question that motivated the conference and this volume can be formulated as follows: What policies and strategies should be pursued to improve educational outcomes for students from those segments of society that have been least well served by their schools? Should the primary focus be on targeted efforts to close the gaps? Are programs and policies designed to equalize educational opportunities and resources what are needed most? Or will a concerted effort to implement high educational standards for all students be sufficient? In a preconference workshop, Kent McGuire, the assistant secretary of education, formulated the challenge to the education research community more straightforwardly, as one of “helping people be smarter” about educating children. In other words, precisely the challenge we would formulate for all children in U.S. schools, and in particular for those who typically have lower-than-expected achievement levels, is the challenge we must face ourselves. How do we become smarter about educating children? How do we help teachers become smarter? How do we ensure that the school administrators who hire and supervise teachers, select curricula, and launch reform efforts become smarter about doing those things? And how do we help policy makers become smarter about using research to guide their efforts?
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Achieving High Educational Standards For All: Conference Summary GETTING SMARTER Fortunately, the principles of learning and teaching outlined in How People Learn (see Chapter 3) apply to adults as well as to children. Intelligence is a dynamic capacity, and even very difficult learning challenges become tractable if presented in a way that acknowledges both their complexities (knowledge-centered teaching) and the state of understanding of the learner (learner-centered teaching). Effective learning for adults, as for children, requires some degree of personalization, opportunities to construct rather than simply consume the bases for new understandings, and procedures for assessing one’s own progress. Unfortunately, rather little of what currently goes on in most teacher preparation or professional development programs, or for that matter in preparation programs for principals or superintendents, lives up to these principles of learning. We will not close the student achievement gap if we fail to acknowledge the many gaps in teachers’ capacities and in administrators’ skills. While skilled and effective teachers and administrators exist, they have typically achieved their status by dint of natural talent, good luck, and high motivation. Being a good teacher or administrator should be like being a good reader—something that anyone can achieve with appropriate background knowledge and instruction. Shifting from the notion of talent to the notion of craft as central to the educational professions is a lesson we have started to learn from comparisons of U.S. and Japanese science and math teaching (National Research Council, 1997b) but have not yet fully internalized. USING RESEARCH-BASED KNOWLEDGE A first step in becoming smarter involves charting those domains of knowledge that are sufficiently well established to support education reform. Various presenters at the conference argued convincingly that there is an intellectual basis for making vastly improved education, characterized by research-based new practices, in at least the following domains: Early childhood care and education: classrooms serving preschool-age and kindergarten children need to offer environments rich in linguistic and cognitive stimulation, exposure to authentic opportunities to learn and practice emergent literacy and math skills, activities structured by planful thinking about curriculum, and many ways of learning and of representing knowledge about the world. Also, the cognitive and linguistic advances of children in these settings become possible only if they have warm relationships with the adults. For young children, it is impossible to distinguish between education and care.
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Achieving High Educational Standards For All: Conference Summary Early reading instruction: literacy development starts with rich language and literacy experiences in preschool and kindergarten. In the 1st and 2nd grades, children need opportunities to learn about the alphabetic principle—the ways in which letters represent sounds—in the context of reading and being read to from meaningful and engaging texts. They need opportunities to write, using invented spelling initially, and to practice reading to achieve fluency. Early math instruction: as for literacy, primary math instruction should be able to build on understandings about quantity, measurement, estimation, and geometry that children have developed during the preschool years. In the primary grades, ensuring that children learn number facts is not in conflict with their coming to understand math conceptually, e.g., by inventing new ways to solve problems or by exploring numbers using manipulatives. Science achievement: the inquiry-based learning of science generates engagement and personalization of knowledge, automatically starts from the theories the students hold and thus offers the possibility of changing those theories, and builds in assessment automatically as well. Real inquiry-based learning requires, of course, an authentic inquiry orientation from teachers—the capacity to admit ignorance, to seek advice from more advanced scientists, to deviate from a prescribed curriculum. Such an approach teaches science by modeling the procedures engaged in by scientists, rather than treating science as a static body of knowledge. The conference presenters described new practices for each of these domains— instructional procedures that incorporate the principles of integrating skills with meaning, providing opportunities for constructing new understandings, connecting new knowledge to old, and promoting active engagement. While the specific form of these new practices varies as a function of the age of the learner, the content being taught, the setting, and other factors, the new practices all grow out of a similar understanding of the nature of learning and a shared commitment to use knowledge generated by research. PUTTING NEW PRACTICES IN PLACE Using the new practices comprehensively in classrooms is far from easy. Getting them implemented requires providing the curricula, materials, technology, and professional support to scaffold good-enough practice (that is, good enough to ensure learning for most children) while simultaneously creating opportunities for teachers to get smarter so they can develop mastery of the new practices. An underlying assumption is that excellent practice will bring lower-achieving students up to expected
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Achieving High Educational Standards For All: Conference Summary levels of performance. Even in these areas in which we know what the new practices should look like, we can hardly expect their immediate introduction into every classroom—adults don’t learn like that. Like children, adults need time to internalize and construct the learning that would underpin their new practices, and they need opportunities to participate in professional communities that support their learning. Thus, it is crucial to have structures in place that provide good-enough instruction while teachers are getting smarter. And it is crucial that administrators understand the complexity of what teachers embracing new practices are undertaking, so they can ensure: structural support, e.g., mentoring for new teachers, changing schedules to accommodate longer classes or coteaching, availability in the school of specialists to provide help when children have reading or language problems, speak a second language, or have special learning needs; sensible curricula, i.e., those that scaffold the performance of novice teachers while giving more skilled teachers lots of opportunity for variation, expansion, and enrichment; adequate professional development, i.e., coherent school site-based programs focusing on the new practices; ongoing teacher engagement, e.g., by involving more advanced teachers in assessment, research, mentoring of less experienced teachers, or other professional activities; and appropriate incentives, i.e., procedures for recognizing and expressing appreciation of professional engagement and improved practice. ENSURING THE NEW PRACTICES WORK AT SCALE AND IN CONTEXT The new practices outlined above represent our best bet, based on current research findings and on theory, about how to improve educational outcomes for children. But no one has systematically taken these practices to scale—evaluating their use across all the classrooms in a district or a state. Nor have they ever been evaluated in context, i.e., in classrooms in which all of them were being pursued simultaneously. One of the features that limits understanding of these new practices is that they tend to be introduced one at a time, so that upgrading literacy instruction may even compete with maintaining attention to good practice for math and for science. Furthermore, these new practices—as promising as they are—remain hypotheses about best practice for all children. Their impact needs to be evaluated carefully, not just for schoolsful of children, but in a way that disaggregates the performance of children in high-risk groups from those
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Achieving High Educational Standards For All: Conference Summary at lower risk, of children from varying linguistic and cultural backgrounds, of children who have immigrated recently, and of children at the top and the bottom of the achievement curves. There is too much evidence—some of it reviewed in Chapter 4—concerning subgroup differences in the nature of the knowledge available to bring to learning, in pedagogical and interactive strategies learned in the home, in availability of resources in the community to support learning, and in dozens of other domains, just to assume that one set of new practices will work best for all children. Still, there is also considerable evidence that excellent teachers equipped with excellent curricula are effective with children from varying backgrounds and with differing resources, since the principles of learning are the same for all of us. Only further research will help us to answer the question whether greatly improved instruction will by itself close the gap between high- and low-achieving groups. We do know that it will improve performance across the board. BEYOND NEW PRACTICES The new practices briefly sketched here hardly constitute a full agenda for reforming U.S. schools and increasing achievement. We have not even discussed the challenges of helping students succeed at reading with comprehension in the various content areas, or advanced math and science, or foreign languages, history, geography, computer competency, music, physical education, and the other components of an excellent education. But improvement in these central areas of early childhood education and care and early reading, math, and science instruction—where we have a knowledge base to call on—needs focused, persistent attention, investment, and evaluation. Meanwhile, we should be pursuing research to provide a knowledge base for improvements in those other crucial areas. A major failing of the U.S. education policy and research establishment is the absence of a mechanism for exploiting basic research that is relevant to practice or for ensuring that practices proven effective can travel beyond the site where they were developed. Three bodies have addressed this issue: the National Academy of Education with its Recommendations Regarding Research Priorities (1999); the National Educational Research Policy and Priorities Board’s report called Investing in Learning (1999), and the National Research Council in a brief report called Improving Student Learning: A Strategic Plan for Education Research and Its Utilization (1999d). The NRC is following up on the plan outlined in Improving Student Learning by launching the Strategic Education Research Program, whose initial strategic planning and research centers around teaching and instruction and student engagement and motivation. In all these reports, the recommendations were similar: ensure better dissemination of the
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Achieving High Educational Standards For All: Conference Summary best research, recognize that reform has to happen a school at a time, but also that no school should have to invent the process on its own, and recognize that educational challenges will always be with us, that the need to improve achievement will never be satisfied. Another dilemma in U.S. education policy is that reform efforts are often started or supported as political initiatives, then evaluated prematurely or in some cases eliminated before proving their value because political winds shift. The standards and accountability movement is at the center of such a dilemma right now. There is considerable consensus that U.S. schools need to be held to higher standards and that student assessment is one crucial piece of defining and approaching those standards. Nonetheless, the early imposition of high stakes associated with the tests has caused distress among educators and parents, is suspected of leading to increased dropout rates, has powerfully highlighted the racial and ethnic divide, and has led to negative consequences for many schools. Standards and accountability can be imposed without unfair stakes for students or schools (National Research Council, 1999c), but only if many safeguards are in place, including clear definitions of the standards, assessments well aligned with them, curriculum clearly aligned with both, appropriate accommodations for students who speak English as a second language or have disabilities, and adequate opportunities for all students to have learned the material tested. Because the stakes have preceded the safeguards, some states are now lowering standards or reducing accountability—before the reform has really had a chance to demonstrate its degree of utility. KNOWLEDGE AND WILL Edmund Gordon asked at the conference which was the more important factor limiting our capacity to improve education for all students— knowledge of what to do or the will to do it. This volume has summarized material suggesting strongly that, for several domains at least, the knowledge is in place. The task is to muster the will to use that knowledge effectively. In other domains, more knowledge is needed—knowledge that will require the investment of research dollars and of precious human resources. But, as Christopher Edley notes, the task of achieving high standards for all students is the most urgent one we face.
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