Monday, May 30, 2011

The secrets of successful K-12 education

I came across this very interesting article recently that calls for K-12 education reform in the US based on strategies embraced by other top performing nations. I found these two suggestions in particular very interesting:

- Pick one or two grade levels for accountability testing (often, in the top-performing countries, the end of middle school and/or the end of the sophomore year of high school) and make them “gateway tests,” with standards that have to be met before moving on to the next stage of one’s education or training for work.

- Other countries are getting much more for their money by spending less on fancy school buildings, glossy textbooks, intramural sports and district administration and more on their teachers and their most disadvantaged students.

I find these suggestions interesting because I see how this works in the context of the cultures that embrace them, and question whether the culture in the US is conducive to this.

In my experience, the word "competition" seems to be a bad word in US schools. Parents immediately begin to worry about the pressure placed on their children, teachers strive to emphasize accomplishment as an end in and of itself, and the schools focus on the intrinsic value of learning and attempt to motivate students to learn for the love of knowledge. In an ideal world, this is exactly how I'd like it to be. In the meanwhile, Asian students who are used to the pressure cooker atmosphere are rapidly outpacing and out distancing American students. I am not condoning the intense pressure cooker method that's typical of Asian systems, but to shield a student from all pressures of competition is doing them a disservice in my opinion. As the world becomes flatter, the competition for Americans is only growing, and the competition is coming from younger people in greater numbers. Our children need to be taught how to compete effectively, and also to define the terms of the competition.

Other countries may spend less on glossy textbooks and intramural sports but I don't know of any high achieving countries (in the academic sense) that idolize/idealize their sports and sportspeople at the level America does. Accomplishments in sports matter a great deal here, with students who excel getting passing grades in school work regardless of whether it was earned through academic performance, and full scholarships to prestigious universities based on those accomplishments. Given this scenario, is it even realistic to suggest cutting spending on intramural sports?

I have more practical suggestions:

- Yes, let's have gateway exams so kids who read at the first grade level don't end up in high school and drop out.

- Let's make parents who can afford it pick up the tab for their students' ancillary expenses. For those that can't afford it, let's give them scholarships/financial assistance, and the extra help they need to be successful. It doesn't make sense to subsidize every student in the country given limited resources. There will just be less for every one all around.

- Centralize education standards (Common Core Standards are the way of the future) but decentralize financing of education. It's hard for governments to know how exactly to allocate and distribute resources to local communities. This also has the disadvantage of adding layers before the funding reaches the student, and compensating everyone enroute to the student has a marked trickle down effect.

I don't claim to have all the answers but these certainly seem like some obvious ones.

No comments: