Arne Duncan on NPR: Lacking in imagination to work on educational challenges

This is a re-post from my Facebook feed that I’d like to keep a record of here.

Related to the Stepford Kids link, I was listening to Arne Duncan this morning on NPR (Diane Rehm). I was embarrassed at how narrow his thinking is about improving education. We need a massive change, not the minor tweaks we have been using. We need spending from the federal government and states to start model schools in districts like I have seen with places like the New Tech HS in Coppell, TX. Better yet, don’t let districts and schools get so big to begin with so that they have flexibility. The district I live in, and my daughter goes to school in, has over 50K students, which makes any change similar to trying to turn a supertanker in rough seas. I know our superintendent and he is a great guy, but he’s given an almost impossible task, because schools cannot overcome underlying social, cultural, economic, political, and other problems facing the students, teachers, admins, and staff working at those schools.

Gathering and analyzing data to track increasing failure in student learning, decreasing teaching success, and a focus on general standards is not working. While it may be useful, the focus on “big data” is not improving anything and should not be expected to do so. It gives you a snapshot. A moment in time and a very limited picture as if one is trying to understand a child like the three blind men and the elephant.

What about we instead create a focus on the individual child and their abilities, goals, and needs? Why not work on restructuring schools and districts so that classes are small (since that is correlated with real improvements in learning), teachers who have the power to make real change, and a focus on teaching kids to think first and acquire “facts” second. Perhaps we could bring back some experimentation (lab schools, university work, etc.) in terms of methods and pedagogy and push back against the limited understanding of the politicians. Maybe we could, bring in portfolios and evidence of learning through products and processes instead of tests, which we have already learned are not improving learning.

Of course it is more complicated that this, because huge systems always are. There are other social issues that have to be addressed that affect learning like poverty, lack of parental involvement (many are working long hours, multiple jobs, a general negative view of public schools being pushed by corporate interests towards a goal of privatization and profit, etc.

Also, as one of the participants notes, having states continue to pull money away from schools and colleges, contributes to the negative impact on learning, because they do lead to increases in class size (decreasing learning), cuts to items like SNAP (so kids don’t qualify for breakfast, making learning difficulty), elimination of early childhood programs. States like my own also pass the cost of their cuts with higher education (and tax breaks for businesses) on to parents who are already struggling with flat or decreasing wages. Our district, for example, was forced to make parents pay for buses, due to the massive cuts to public education here in 2011.

There is a lot to be done if we accept that there is a lot we can do if we don’t accept that it has to continue as it is with minor tweaks.


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