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Pathways to reform

From holding students accountable to improving teacher preparation, ideas for reforming K-12 education in America from this year's Milken Institute Global Conference.

6 min read



Milken Institute

What will it take to reform K-12 education in America? Government initiatives, including Goals 2000 and No Child Left Behind, have generated little progress. Education Week gave the American public-school system a letter grade of “C” in its 2018 K-12 Achievement Index Report.

So what’s the answer? A panel of education experts debated this topic during the Getting What Works Into the Classroom session at this year’s Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, Calif. Lowell Milken, founder of the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching moderated the conversation with the panel, which included Candice McQueen, CEO of the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching; Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality; Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers; Matthew Springer, Robena and Walter E. Hussman, Jr. Distinguished Professor of Education Reform at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill; and Stephen Heyneman, professor emeritus, International Education Policy, Department of Leadership, Policy, and Organizations at Vanderbilt University.

Here are highlights from their conversation.

Build a growth plan that includes teacher input. Create sustained pathways of improvement that can grow, year over year, said Candice McQueen, CEO, National Institute for Excellence in Teaching. “If you say you’re going to change standards to be college ready that doesn’t mean you catch everyone’s child in that year,” said McQueen. “It has to be a process that you move through and you have to do it with urgency.”

McQueen outlined the formula for the process: Change standards and match assessments to them; invest in teachers and provide support in the form of professional development and coaching; and build clear pathways to higher education and make sure students can see those paths.

And don’t forget the teachers, said McQueen. Make sure your plans include your teachers’ input. “You can’t just change standards and all of us a sudden, things change; you have to create teacher support,” she said. “You have to have teachers at the table with you, trying to figure out how you’re going to move your students forward.”

Call students to accountability. Students in other countries know that they need to attend school daily and participate in the process, said Heyneman. Students in America, though, do not have that same regard for education, he maintains.

“How can you teach reading to children who refuse to learn? How can you teach reading to children who don’t know it’s their obligation to want to learn? How can you teach reading to children who are continually misbehaving?” he asked. “American children live as if they have a choice. We, as a culture, have neglected to teach them that over that issue, they have no choice.”

This difference in mentality is responsible, in part, for the widening achievement gap between students in the US and those in other OECD countries, according to Heyneman. He also attributed the gap to the how teachers’ roles have shifted, in comparison to their international peers.

“Teachers are spending much of their time not teaching—they’re policemen or social workers. That’s not true of teachers in other countries,” Heyneman asserted. “Teachers in other countries are paid to be teachers—to teach reading, or to have children who are ready to learn reading.”

Improve teacher preparation—seriously. Reading and math are foundational skills all students must have but teacher training programs do a poor job of preparing teachers for this task, according to Walsh.

“Do teachers know how to teach reading? Are teachers capable enough in mathematics to deliver solid math? The answer is too often no,” Walsh said. She puts the blame on colleges. “It’s not the teacher’s fault. It’s a system of preparation upheld by higher ed where they abdicate their responsibility to provide those two basic skills in future teachers.”

There is the potential for pressure on higher education, Lowell agreed, but indicated that it should come from school districts.

“The district is the ultimate consumer, in a way,” he said. He suggested that districts push back on teacher prep programs and hold them accountable for better training.

“If the districts are saying to the teacher prep programs–and they identify those teacher prep programs–that they’re not interested in hiring your graduates because you’re not preparing your graduates with the skills and we have to totally remediate all of their work at a huge cost to us, I think you’re going to see universities change,” he said.

Open the ivory tower. We need to bridge the disconnect in education research practice and policy, according to Springer. “The ivory tower has not been good at engaging with policy and practice…there’s a lack of trust,” he said.

Springer cited evidence from a program in Tennessee, in schools where students lacked quality instruction. Research showed that, in Tennessee, highly-effective teachers—those who rate a 4 or 5 on a multi-measure system—are five times more likely to leave a low-performing school than they are to leave an average-performing school. The state implemented a one-year program offering $5,000 retention bonuses to highly-effective teachers who stayed in the lowest-performing schools. It worked. Highly-effective teachers stayed in schools where they were most needed and their students—particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds—received about 8-11 weeks of additional learning.

Research like this, when applied to policy and practice, helps improve lives, said Springer. “[W]e need to get this evidence into the policy and practice community in order to make meaningful change,” he noted.

Include teacher unions in the conversation. The last decade has seen a number of changes in education, many of them that did not reflect the needs or voices of the classroom, said Weingarten. “Things were done to teachers and not with teachers,” she said. “The further away from the classroom somebody was, the more powerful somebody was about children and teachers’ learning.”

Weingarten attributes this to two root issues: disinvestment and deprofessionalization. Both have contributed to misconceptions about the teaching profession and weakened teacher influence in policy and practice. “There’s a presumption that someone goes into teaching because they can’t do anything else,” she said. “There’s a presumption that people are incompetent in teaching—as opposed to a presumption that people went into teaching because they wanted to change the lives of kids.”

Teacher unions provide a vehicle for teacher voice, said Weingarten. They can help create fairness through contracts and support the real ambitions of teachers: student success.  “Teachers want what students need,” said Weingarten. “Our job is to help create the environment and conditions that enable us to do that.”

Kanoe Namahoe is the director of content for SmartBrief Education and Leadership and covers issues related to education and the workforce.

Sean McMahon is the director of content for SmartBrief Finance and edits newsletters on global financial markets and consumer banking.


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