What do we want from our schools?

In the December 17, 2012 issue of the New Yorker, Louis Menand writes about one of the French President’s more obscure powers; he can abolish homework, and in fact has the intention of doing so. It’s easy to imagine that such a move would win him a huge majority of voters in the 8-18 demographic, but the article goes on to explore the efficacy of homework in general. As I’ve argued for a long time, there is very little reason for homework, and very little correlation between homework and academic achievement. The longest term and most in-depth studies show only a slight connection between homework and success in school, and it’s a connection that draws at least in part on the relative education and income levels of families. There is no study that shows that large amounts of homework make much, if any, difference for students.

I encourage you to read the New Yorker article, as it explores these questions in more depth. But I was more intrigued by a deeper question Menand poses. He asserts that homework is in fact a reflection of the kind of schools that a country and its population perceive that they want. Thus, Finland, the most highly rated education system in the world by Pearson’s global report, has no homework. South Korea, in the number two spot, is legendary for the sheer quantity of study expected by their students. Each approach reveals something about the national character.

And so the question surfaces for us. What kind of schools do we, as a country or a state, want? Especially at a deeper, perhaps less conscious level, what do we as parents, educators, and citizens, want for our students?

I’ll hazard a couple of guesses, in no particular order, but I’d be very curious to hear what others’ perceptions might include.

I believe that Americans in general want schools that are orderly, safe, and serious. Parents are often confused when they see children out of their seats, not utilizing textbooks, having fun, even when deeply engaged in learning. Somehow we carry an image deeply embedded in our cultural psyche that learning means sitting at a desk and being quiet.

Americans want the basics covered. The horror stories of students graduating and being unable to read, or being deficient in foundational math skills, provoke a round of collective disapproval and often blame aimed at the education system.

Surveys also have shown that parents want their children to learn kindness, to get along with others, and to show compassion.

We also want schools that compare favorably to schools in other nations. One of the best ways to get us riled up is by showing how we are lower than others in international rankings.

It’s not a comprehensive list, but it raises the question of where the central focus of the WISN fits with directions in American education.

At the WISN, we believe that the focus on schools should be on encouraging innovation in education in order to identify and share best practices. We also believe that those best practices include a focus on collaboration, creativity, and student-focused instruction. Does this vision fit with the larger direction of American education, and with the image our culture has for schools?

The short answer is that I don’t know, but that I believe a central tenet of our work is to share what we are learning about education, not only with members of our network, but with the public at large. It’s not enough to function within an isolated group. The work of changing education takes place as much in legislative bodies and community forums as it does in schools themselves.

And so our direction in the new year becomes two fold, inner and outer. We will continue making connections between educators, sharing what we’re learning. But we will also work to form and reveal a vision of what education can be, to be part of the debate about where schools are headed.

And if, along the way, we can rethink homework, we’ll have a host of new advocates, drawn from those who matter most— the students themselves.

As always, I welcome your feedback.

-Dr. Heather Terrill Stotts, Executive Director

An Innovative Approach to the Common Core State Standards

The Common Core standards have arrived, or are on their way, depending on which state you are in. Forty-five states have adopted them, and we can expect that the rest will probably follow. The intention behind the Common Core standards seems to be good; let’s standardize what we expect students in the U.S. to know, appreciate, and be able to do, in order to simplify instruction and provide a consistent foundation for wide ranging assessment. Although we might argue with the particulars of what’s in the standards, it’s reasonable for a society to debate what we want students to know. At present, the standards are only for English Language and Mathematics. The debate over content in social studies and science carries political implications that will complicate that branch of the effort.

The work behind creating and establishing the Common Core State Standards has spanned years, and millions of dollars. I wish that a similar effort could examine not what teachers should teach, but how they should teach. Education for the future needs to be less about content than it is about learning approaches and styles. With the availability of the internet, knowing facts has less meaning than ever. However, ways of thinking are even more important. What if, along with the implementation of the CCSS, we had similar expectations around instructional practice? What if we expected teachers to be versed not only in content, but in a variety of educational strategies? In the same way students should be exposed to American and European and World history, perhaps they should also be exposed to inquiry based and project based learning, arts integration, Montessorri and a variety of other approaches utilizing multiage settings. The opportunity to learn in different ways would have a greater impact than the opportunity to focus on any particular content.

In short, the foundation of learning is about how you learn, not what you learn. In that sense, the CCSS do not address the heart of the problems and promises of education.

However, they are here. How do educators who are interested in fostering innovation and collaboration work within the structure and demands of these standards?

Perhaps the first response is to reframe the question. It’s not a matter of how to work within the structure, but instead of how to use the standards to engage within the structures of meaningful learning, especially along the lines of 21st Century learning skills. Apart from the scope of what’s expected, there’s nothing to prevent teachers from using a variety of educational approaches and framing content within the pedagogical perspectives we are interested in applying. Schools have had standards for many years, and following national ones doesn’t change the essential questions of how we enhance creativity, collaboration, and authentic preparation for the future.

The answers haven’t changed because of the Common Core State Standards. Students will continue to need a variety of instructional methods, especially those that require the use of 21st Century skills. Arts need to remain a non-negotiable part of student learning. Teachers need to share successful practices. And educators in general need to keep their eye on what’s really important – not acquiring content, but acquiring habits of mind that will serve over the course of life long learning.

Dr. Heather Terrill Stotts, WISN Executive Director