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By Dr. Harry Tennant

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Friday, July 22, 2011

If there is a crisis in education, who's going to fix it?

Let me say first off that I don't believe in the "crisis in education" talk. Is there need for improvement? Sure. There always is. And improvement is always important. But a crisis? I don't think so.

But let's assume for the sake of argument that there is a crisis in education...in other words, there is an urgent need for improvement. I can subscribe to the notion that there is a need for improvement in education. In fact, I believe there is a need for improvement in every endeavor. Is the need for improvement urgent? Let's put it this way: there is always an need for improvement and if some urgency is attached to the effort to improve, it may happen more quickly. Where we go astray is when urgency becomes panic, and change efforts become irrational.

So, let's accept that education (like everything else) needs to be improved and we think it's important enough to assign it high priority (we give the task some urgency).

Who is best prepared to improve education?

  • Economists and business people? This approach is based on the assumption that the market knows best in all things because everyone is motivated primarily by money (market forces). And money is why teachers have worked hard for low pay for decades? I doubt it. The economic argument misses the primary motivation of teachers: to affect the development of children.
  • Politicians? Education involves a considerable amount of money and parents' most precious resource, their children. So, of course, politics will play a role in public education. But politicians are far removed from what goes on in the classroom. Although the control they budgets, they don't control the ideas or wisdom that will become the solutions.
  • Researchers? Research in education is not in very good shape. The notion of research suggests that research findings have scientific validity. But much of the research done in education is done by researchers without a scientific background. Often "research" findings in education is little more than opinions and anecdotes. Other education research has sound scientific basis. The problem is that it is hard for a non-specialist to tell the difference between the two. There is a lot of talk about "evidence-based" methods, which means scientifically valid findings. Unfortunately, just because a paper appears in a peer-reviewed education journal does not guarentee dependable, evidence-based findings.
  • Schools and teachers? For good or bad, this is where the change has to come from. Teachers are on front lines of education. They can observe what works and what doesn't. But they may need help with the skills for applying the results of their observations to making lasting improvements. How to do that?
    • They must make improvement a priority as important as teaching itself.
    • They must be clear and explicit about desired outcomes. (This is the good thing that learning standards has done.)
    • They must reflect on their experience and track their own and students' performance in a systematic way, rather than simply depending on impressions.
    • The improvements and problems in student achievement must be tied back to the circumstances that brought them about.
    • They must feel the freedom to experiment, which includes the likelihood of failure. And with that freedom, they must accept the responsibility to learn from the experiments.
    • They must be willing to collaborate with their peers to accelerate the schoolwide learning process and minimize repeating experimental errors.

The way to improve education as quickly as possible is to give the responsibility for improvement to schools and teachers, make improvement a priority as high as teaching itself and give them the tools to do the job.

Posted at 12:00 AM Keywords: continuous improvement 4 Comments

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