I recently attended a meeting in Madison to review the findings of a study on how to build a world-class education system state by state commissioned by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The study, No Time to Lose, looked at what policies and practices were found in high-performing educational systems around the world and what we could learn from their success. Senator Luther Olsen served on this study committee and Mr. Marc Tucker from the National Center on Education and the Economy presented the results to those of us in attendance. It is very important that we recognize how educational policies are intricately tied to economic policies and social policies. A strong educational system is a necessity for a strong economy and to the resolution of problematic social issues. It is also very important that we use evidence, not ideology, to construct sound educational policy. There are common elements present in every world-class education system which the United States and Wisconsin must consider if we want meaningful and comprehensive changes in our educational system that will produce real results for our students. Here are those elements:
Children come to school ready to learn, and extra support is given to struggling students so that all have the opportunity to achieve high standards. In world-class educational systems, the government and/or extended families take responsibility to ensure that all children arrive at school ready to learn. Additional resources are provided to schools which serve disadvantaged, struggling students and the best teachers serve in the most challenging schools. Here in the United States, the wealthiest communities are most likely to get the best teachers and the finest facilities because of the way we finance education.
A world-class teaching profession supports a world-class instructional system, where every student has access to highly effective teachers and is expected to succeed. In world-class educational systems, a rigorous set of criteria for determining a candidate’s eligibility for teacher preparation exists and teacher candidates are recruited from the top quarter of high school graduates. New teachers are expected to serve apprenticeships with officially designated, well-trained master teachers. Schools are designed to maximize the success of teachers and students. Teachers are given a lighter teaching load and more time is spent working in teams with other teachers to develop and improve lessons, observe and critique classes, and work with struggling students. Teachers are compensated more generously than American teachers and they are viewed with a great deal of respect as they are viewed as “nation builders,” preparing the country’s next generation. International benchmarked standards specify what students should know and be able to do in all required subjects and curriculum frameworks specify the order in which concepts should be taught, which results in a clear path to student mastery.
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A highly effective, intellectually rigorous system of career and technical education is available to those preferring an applied education. In world-class educational systems, career and technical education is not viewed as a route for students lacking strong academic skills. Rather, it is viewed as another approach to education, skills development, and good jobs. Career and technical education is well-funded, academically challenging, and aligned with real workforce needs.
Individual reforms are connected and aligned as parts of a clearly planned and carefully designed comprehensive system. In world-class educational systems, there is no “silver bullet” approach, but rather, a vision has been established at the national level and states/provinces are charged with implementation. In the United States, a decentralized system of education is traditionally preferred. However, states are well-positioned to create the kind of clear vision and system reform that high-performing countries have. This will require coordination and cooperation of those in charge of government and education policies so that the vision/educational priorities are not subject to the whims of the party in control in any given year.
Consider what is happening in Wisconsin. Through the expansion of vouchers and tax credits for families whose children attend private school, finances are being pulled from public schools, and the students who most need additional resources are receiving less. Teacher morale is low, and fewer high school students are entering teacher education programs. Due to this shortage, we are compromising on requirements and making it easier to become a licensed teacher. We have been chasing test scores and been distracted from providing each child with the education which is most appropriate for him/her whether that is a college-prep or career-tech route. Viewing key initiatives like the Educator Effectiveness system or Academic and Career Planning system as a way to hold educators responsible, rather than a way to empower our teachers and students to learn, grow and improve, has diminished the success of this work.
It is time that we bring key stakeholders − parents, legislators, business leaders, and educators − together around this issue. Strong conversations on how Wisconsin becomes a state with a world-class education system must be held. There is no time to lose!
If you have any questions or comments about the information and opinions expressed in this edition of The School Bell, please contact Cindy Zahrte, district administrator, at email@example.com or 374-7002.
Cindy Zahrte is the superintendent of Tomah Area School District.