Rethinking Learning … Then What?

While it may be the hip and hot thing to do, Eduflack is not going to spend the majority of today’s blog talking about this afternoon’s Presidential address to students.  After reviewing the text of the speech, one lesson learned from my K-12 education comes to mind — Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.  While it is unknown if the final remarks circulated today were the intended remarks, what POTUS will say to students in Arlington, Virginia today really is much ado about nothing.  Read the remarks, and you will see a sprinkle of previous lines given by the President to civil rights organizations, with a heavy dose of the type of rhetoric often found in a mayor’s State of the City or a superintendent’s State of the Schools address.  Stay in school  Work hard.  Wash your hands.  Eat your vegetables.  You can find the full speech here, but those worried about indoctrination should have greater worries about the latest infomercial or news segment on Fox or MSNBC than today’s remarks.

No, I’m more intrigued by some of the other actions swirling in the edusphere.  Over at USA Today, today’s he said/she said is on Race to the Top and the need for innovation in the schools.  As expected USA Today speaks for the reformers, those supporting the current agenda moved forward by EdSec Arne Duncan and the team at the U.S. Department of Education.  Speaking for the loyal opposition is Marty Hittelman, the president of the California Federation of Teachers.  We’ve all read about the teachers’ concerns with RttT (particularly the National Education Association’s strong “comments” regarding the RttT draft guidance).  Much of the content of Hittelman’s piece , found here, should surprise no one.  But the most interesting line is one we have all suspected, but no one has been willing to say in public — “our opposition to ‘Race to the Top.'”  For the record, Hittelman has made clear that the California Federation of Teachers is opposed to Race to the Top.  Now we finally have a game, where major groups are starting to pick sides.  (It of course makes it a little easier to be opposed to RttT when it is clear your state won’t receive it, but you watch you top elected officials scramble to enact “reforms” to align with what ED is looking for in the law.)
For weeks now, Eduflack has been calling for the loyal opposition to come out of hiding and have their voices heard in this great debate over reform and innovation in public education.  I believed the initial salvo, launched by EdTrust, DFER, EEP, and CAP, was a good first start.  CFT’s remarks in this morning’s USA Today move the ball further down the hill.  And this morning we have a new public information campaign designed to poke fist-sized holes in ED’s plans over accountability and student achievement.
Today, the Forum for Democracy and Education, among others, launched a new campaign called “Rethink Learning Now.”  Backers of the effort call it a “national grassroots campaign to change the direction of public education reform — from a focus on testing to a focus on learning.”  To support the effort, the Forum is collecting “learning stories” from leaders across the country, seeking tales of those learning experiences that have shaped one’s lives.  The point is to demonstrate that real learning is not measured by the score on a state assessment, it comes from those qualitative and intangible moments where one discovers the motivation for learning and education, beyond just quantitative achievement.  The campaign’s website can be found here, complete with the EdSec’s learning story.
Rethink Learning focuses on three key buckets — learning, teaching, and fairness.  The motives behind the three are simple.  Learning cannot be measured simply by student performance on state assessments.  Teaching cannot be measured simply by crosswalking teachers with those same student test scores.  And as long as we have the resource gaps between the haves and have nots, we can never truly deliver high-quality teaching and learning to all students.
I will give it to the Rethink Learning Now folks.  Their TV commercials are top notch.  This AM, CNN previewed one commercial in particular.  In it, a tween goes on about how states are now using third grade student test scores to determine potential incarceration rates, then following the path to talk about how we are spending more on prisons than we are in schools.  The visuals of the bright-faced kids in orange prison jumpsuits drives the message home, and speaks to the President’s message about the need to stay in school and the EdSec’s recent bemoaning of our national 30 percent high school dropout rate.  For an attention-getter, the Forum has hit a home run here.
But the nagging question is what do we do with this?  Once all of the learning stories are collected, once we have shocked those suburban parents who will watch such commercials on CNN, once we have driven a self-selected group of individuals to visit the Rethink Learning website and enter their contact information, what do we do with it?  Do we declare mission accomplished because we have hit a certain number of visitors?  Do we bask in the glow of folks seeing some edgy commercials?  Do we celebrate some of the celebrities who have shared their stories, thus giving the campaign an A for effort?  Or do we expect more?
Those who have read Eduflack for a while know that I am a disciple of the Yankelovich school of public engagement.  it isn’t enough to simply inform individuals about an issue, as Rethink Learning Now is doing.  That is merely the first step to a more complex engagement effort.  Informing is the easy part.  You then need to move on to building commitment for a solution and mobilizing around a particular action.
Building commitment is more than just building an email list.  It is gaining proactive participation and support for a particular solution.  And mobilization comes when we get those stakeholders to say and do whatever is necessary to bring about change.  So the question before Rethink Learning is what is the ask?  
Do we want to join with the California Federation of Teachers to fight federal provisions that say a good teacher is measured by how well his or her student does on the state exam?  Do we want to join with the Broader Bolder Approach to Education and oppose the general education accountability framework in general?  Do we want to join with the Opportunity to Learn folks in the name of multiple measures and equity of resources?  Is it a little of each, or is it a new path that the Rethink Learning organizers are planning for down the road?
Regardless, Rethink Education and its backers need to have us stand for something, and not just argue against something.  It is no longer enough to say that state assessments are unfair or that we need to look at the whole child to get a full measure of the quality of education.  It is no longer enough to say that there are too many intangibles to teaching that we can’t effective measure good instruction.  And it certainly is no longer enough to say we need a different approach, particularly if we aren’t willing to offer up the specifics of that approach.
Rethink Learning should get credit for breaking through the white noise and having its voice heard at a time when most are only listening to the folks at ED.  But now is the time to maximize that opportunity.  If folks are listening, they need to hear what is worthwhile.  They need a real call to action, a direction, a goal.
 They need to know what they are working toward, how to measure success, and when we will be able to declare mission accomplished.  Otherwise, this is just the latest in grassroots campaigns that mean well, but have no lasting impact on the education infrastructure. 
The next decade of public education reform is being determined right now, as we sort out RttT, i3, and then ESEA reauthorization.  We’ve got group after group talking, with many afraid to offend the power structure and even more trying to be everything to everyone.  What we need is a voice what can harness the power of the naysayers and backbenchers and offer a unified alternative to what is moving forward.  And in the immortal words of Elvis Presley, we are in desperate need of a little less conversation and a little more action.  Please.

400 thoughts on “Rethinking Learning … Then What?

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