September 30, 2013

In the past few weeks — two very important, and lengthy, articles have appeared — both of which touch on issues we have referenced in previous blogs. Reading each would be well worth your time as they are both thoughtful and important challenges for those of us committed to better learning for everyone.

The first is an excerpt taken from THE WILSON QUARTERLY, “Getting Real About High School” by Sarah Carr:

“ . . . Even advocates of career and technical education acknowledge that the programs are often divorced from economic and industry needs. Many of them were designed not out of a desire to prepare students for high-wage jobs in growing technical fields, but on the basis of classist, racist assumptions that low-income students and children of color cannot learn at high levels. To the extent that these programs fill an economic need, it’s to create a permanent underclass of workers destined for minimum-wage jobs. In New Orleans, before Katrina, that meant the schools produced an endless supply of graduates to serve as housekeepers and dishwashers working for less than $20,000 a year in the city’s tourist-based economy, but very few who could repair air conditioning units, a job that pays more than twice as much.

A confluence of forces has fueled the college-for-all push of the last couple of decades. Apart from the well-publicized hollowing out of the economy, a raft of reports have shown the differential benefits of college and graduate school education in terms of earnings, job stability, and health. In 2010, for instance, the median wage for a male high school graduate between the ages of 25 and 34 was $32,800, compared to $49,800 for one with a bachelor’s degree.

At the same time, the standards movement—with its emphasis on disaggregated data, high-stakes testing, and school accountability—exposed huge failures in the schooling of low-income and minority children. “This very good idea that all kids need a strong academic underpinning morphed into the idea that all kids need to be prepared to attend a four-year college,” says Robert Schwartz, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He doesn’t think the two ideas are necessarily the same.

The 1990s and 2000s also saw the rapid growth of programs such as Teach For America, which sends recent graduates of elite colleges into poor communities in New Orleans and other places for missionary-style stints. TFA members and recent alums founded several of the charter schools and charter networks, such as KIPP (the Knowledge Is Power Program), that dominate in post-Katrina New Orleans and are the most strident, best-known backers of the college-for-all—or at least college for far more—movement.

Some prominent educators have pushed back against the movement in the last two years, citing its lack of pragmatism. In 2011, for instance, Schwartz coauthored an influential paper, Pathways to Prosperity, which reported burgeoning demand for “middle-skill” workers, including electricians, construction managers, and dental hygienists. The report focused on fields where the average wage is above $50,000 ($53,030 for electricians, $70,700 for dental hygienists, and $90,960 for construction managers, according to 2012 figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics); workers in other traditional vocational fields, including health aides and short-order cooks, make far less.

The “middle-skill” fields described in the report typically require an associate’s degree or occupational certificate, but not a four-year bachelor’s degree. “The ‘college-for-all’ rhetoric . . . needs to be significantly broadened to become a ‘post high-school credential for all,’” Schwartz and his colleagues argued.

The Harvard report stressed that schools and officials should not downplay efforts to improve traditional academic instruction. But it concluded that secondary school career training should be significantly upgraded and expanded by introducing more opportunities for work experience, extensive employer involvement in shaping programs, and enhanced hands-on (as opposed to classroom-based) learning. . . . “

The second excerpt is taken from an article in THE WASHINGTON POST, “What is learning, exactly?” — a lengthy, and most important, blog by Valerie Strauss:

“ . . . On a philosophical level, however, many educators question whether the textbook approach is the best one for student learning. That time-honored custom is based on the assumption that everything students need to know is contained in textbooks, and learning is merely a matter of reading them, understanding, and remembering. Even if that were so, research has shown that textbook approach produces mostly short-term remembering. That is, students do well on tests immediately following textbook study or review, but in the long run they forget much of what their teachers thought they had learned.

A more significant objection to the textbook approach, however, is the growing conviction that the possession of knowledge is not synonymous with learning. Many of our most effective teachers believe that their students have to be able to adapt, apply, expand, and think critically about knowledge in order to function in the real world as wise, ethical, and productive individuals. As a result, these teachers are using one or both of two other instructional approaches to produce more successful learning. One is a “generative” approach, in which students create something new from their knowledge. It could be a play about a historical event, a survey of their schoolmates to determine their attitudes or behaviors, a set of math problems drawn from their everyday experiences, an experiment to test a popular assumption about bullying, or a poem inspired by one they’ve read.

The other approach is an “exploratory” one in which students interact with people, places, and information in terms of their own ages, interests and abilities. They do not stop at remembering facts about events, such as the American Revolution, but work on to explore the physical conditions, political forces, and individual personalities connected with them. Through field trips, watching videos, reading biographies and firsthand descriptions, and examining relics and memoirs of the times, they are able to gain a much deeper and more personal understanding than any textbook can give.

In light of these deeper and more authentic approaches to learning, we have every reason to expect that the teachers using them enable their students to learn more and retain their learning much longer than their predecessors. But, unfortunately, the standardized tests that predominate classrooms today are keyed to a textbook approach and tell us nothing about students taught in different ways. . . . “

You will be well compensated by investing time to read these articles in full. They shed much needed light on two of the most challenging issues facing our nation today — for teaching and training young people are the best investments we can make for our future.

More on Wednesday – – –

— Bill Walton, Founder
ITC Learning (Mondays & Wednesdays)