The Global Achievement Gap

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During my first year as superintendent, I traveled across the Tacoma tide flats to have coffee with Rudy Crew for regular tutorials on the education system. Rudy would carefully flatten a napkin and draw pictures that explained the what and how of educational leadership. One of his first recommendations was to send principals to Harvard’s Change Leadership Group.  After interviewing CLG founder Tony Wagner, my deputy said, “He sounds kinda like you, but we understand him.”  Tony and his book Global Achievement Gap get a lot of love from Tom Friedman in a great NYTimes column today (below).

As noted yesterday, Duncan’s post-midterm rhetoric is increasingly disruptive, “Incremental change isn’t going to get us where we need to go.”   I’m less optimistic than Duncan about new district contracts and believe the new learning employment landscape will be more profoundly influenced by the flexible performance-based arrangements that charters and online schools create and by an expanding variety of opportunities in learning professions enveloping the calcified system.  

Here is the full article about the global achievement gap, “Teaching for America.” Thomas Friedman, New York Times You can also read the whole article below:

When I came to Washington in 1988, the cold war was ending and the hot beat was national security and the State Department. If I were a cub reporter today, I’d still want to be covering the epicenter of national security — but that would be the Education Department. President Obama got this one exactly right when he said that whoever “out-educates us today is going to out-compete us tomorrow.” The bad news is that for years now we’ve been getting out-educated. The good news is that cities, states and the federal government are all fighting back. But have no illusions. We’re in a hole.

All good ideas, but if we want better teachers we also need better parents — parents who turn off the TV and video games, make sure homework is completed, encourage reading and elevate learning as the most important life skill. The more we demand from teachers the more we have to demand from students and parents. That’s the Contract for America that will truly ensure our national security.

Here are few data points that the Secretary of Education Arne Duncan offered in a Nov. 4 speech: “One-quarter of U.S. high school students drop out or fail to graduate on time. Almost one million students leave our schools for the streets each year … One of the more unusual and sobering press conferences I participated in last year was the release of a report by a group of top retired generals and admirals. Here was the stunning conclusion of their report: “75 percent of young Americans, between the ages of 17 to 24, are unable to enlist in the military today because they have failed to graduate from high school, have a criminal record, or are physically unfit.” America’s youth are now tied for ninth in the world in college attainment.

“Other folks have passed us by, and we’re paying a huge price for that economically,” added Duncan in an interview. “Incremental change isn’t going to get us where we need to go. We’ve got to be much more ambitious. We’ve got to be disruptive. You can’t keep doing the same stuff and expect different results.”

Duncan, with bipartisan support, has begun several initiatives to energize reform — particularly his Race to the Top competition with federal dollars going to states with the most innovative reforms to achieve the highest standards. Maybe his biggest push, though, is to raise the status of the teaching profession. Why?

Tony Wagner, the Harvard-based education expert and author of “The Global Achievement Gap,” explains it this way. There are three basic skills that students need if they want to thrive in a knowledge economy: the ability to do critical thinking and problem-solving; the ability to communicate effectively; and the ability to collaborate.

If you look at the countries leading the pack in the tests that measure these skills (like Finland and Denmark), one thing stands out: they insist that their teachers come from the top one-third of their college graduating classes. As Wagner put it, “They took teaching from an assembly-line job to a knowledge-worker’s job. They have invested massively in how they recruit, train and support teachers, to attract and retain the best.”

Duncan disputes the notion that teachers’ unions will always resist such changes. He points to the new “breakthrough” contracts in Washington, D.C., New Haven and Hillsborough County, Fla., where teachers have embraced higher performance standards in return for higher pay for the best performers.

“We have to reward excellence,” he said. “We’ve been scared in education to talk about excellence. We treated everyone like interchangeable widgets. Just throw a kid in a class and throw a teacher in a class.” This ignored the variation between teachers who were changing students’ lives, and those who were not. “If you’re doing a great job with students,” he said, “we can’t pay you enough.”

That is why Duncan is starting a “national teacher campaign” to recruit new talent. “We have to systemically create the environment and the incentives where people want to come into the profession. Three countries that outperform us — Singapore, South Korea, Finland — don’t let anyone teach who doesn’t come from the top third of their graduating class. And in South Korea, they refer to their teachers as ‘nation builders.’ ”

Duncan’s view is that challenging teachers to rise to new levels — by using student achievement data in calculating salaries, by increasing competition through innovation and charters — is not anti-teacher. It’s taking the profession much more seriously and elevating it to where it should be. There are 3.2 million active teachers in America today. In the next decade, half (the baby boomers) will retire. How we recruit, train, support, evaluate and compensate their successors “is going to shape public education for the next 30 years,” said Duncan. We have to get this right.

Wagner thinks we should create a West Point for teachers: “We need a new National Education Academy, modeled after our military academies, to raise the status of the profession and to support the R.& D. that is essential for reinventing teaching, learning and assessment in the 21st century.”

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Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is founder and CEO of Getting Smart. He is also a partner in Learn Capital and a director of iNACOL, Digital Learning Institute, Imagination Foundation, Charter Board Partners, Strive for College, and Bloomboard.

2 Comments

Core 4 All /

The Global Achievement Gap came out roughly three years ago. The contents of the book is spot on: we need to do a better job preparing our youth for the 21st century workplace. And yet, educators continue to move on the same way they have taught in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. We could transport a student from 1976 and I bet he could adjust very quickly to the “new” environment. As educators, we cannot control what happens outside the classroom. We do have control of what we do within the four walls of a classroom and unfortunately, we have not improved our craft for decades. There is so much research to improve instruction and yet teachers do everything in their power to dismiss the research, continuing their way of instuction. Mr. Wagner has provided us with specific skills for students to improve on. To build capacity in our future leaders, we must teach our youth to be readers, critical thinkers, influencers, questioners, collaborators, and innovators. If we are to improve our craft, we must the Common Core as the vehicle to drive curriculum. The CCSS are rigorous and what this nation needs to improve academic achievement. What we need are change agents, edupreneurs in each school to take it upon themselves to revamp their curriculum. We need teachers to read the most current research (John Hattie, Robert Marzano, Douglas Reves) to improve instruction. Only then can we provide our youth with the skills needed to be the leaders of tomorrow.

Ed Jones /

(National Security IS the reason I’m in education.)

Last year I asked a guy (reserve MG grade) serving as a Civilian Assistant to the Secretary of Defense, what he thought of the young soldiers’ education. It’s great he said, they’re great young people and well educated. ‘But what of the issues of our urban schools?’ I pressed. ‘Ah, that’s another matter’ was his reply.

It’s more than just fitness to serve or to contribute to the economy. It’s about how we as citizens maintain a democracy. Its about whether our bankers have the moral fiber to restrain themselves and be honest. It’s about whether we know the limits of a deployed Army, when to use it, and how. It’s about those few core words “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution” and “self-evident that all men are created equal”. It isn’t about test scores in Finland.

Telling kids that they “need to learn to communicate effectively” doesn’t seem that powerful. Snooki and The Situation communicate effectively, They just have nothing to communicate. This seems to serve an over-educated, under-learned population just fine–in the short term. What about the long term?

When we talk about teachers, then, shouldn’t we talk about something more than ‘they’re in the top third of their college class’? Shouldn’t we ask that they know things?

Shouldn’t every 4th grade teacher know that Julius Caesar did away with the Constitutional Republic? How Jesus of Nazareth arose in the immediate aftermath? How Michelangelo transformed art?

Shouldn’t every 8th grade teacher-math, music, or otherwise–have some understanding of the significance of Runnymede? Be able to generate a simple P&L sheet? Draw a demand and a Laffer curve? Have some glimmer of the number of troops involved in D-Day

In this spirit, when we talk of deploying edu technology, might we think of it for keeping teachers proficient as well?