Finding Value in The Flat World and Education

This week’s Presidential budget is further raising attention on pressing education issues such as teacher quality, closing the achievement gap, and ensuring our communities have the systems in place to drive the levels of improvement we are so desperately thinking.  With all of the rhetoric, both this week and in recent years, we seem to be focusing on promising ideas without necessarily looking for the research, evidence, proof, and data that should be separating the good ideas from the great ideas.

While Eduflack seems to spend a great deal of my time talking and opining, every so often I do find the time to actually read and learn from others.  And even more infrequently, I actually find what I read to be of the sort of import that I want to make sure others are aware of it, positioning the latest book or article so it is influencing the current policy discussions.  Today is such a day.  The book is “The Flat World and Education: How America’s Commitment to Equity WIll Determine Our Future.”  And The Flat World and Education is brought to us by dear Eduflack friend Linda Darling-Hammond (who really needs no introduction).

In this latest volume from the Multicultural Education Series and Teachers College Press, Dr. Darling-Hammond offers up a clear and compelling primer for comprehensive school system improvement.  Rather than looking at incremental reforms or boutique solutions that address just a sliver of the students who are in such need of real, lasting efforts, the book provides a detailed blueprint of how to create high-quality and equitable school systems, with emphases on student achievement and teacher quality (those terms that far too many think are owned by the so-called “reformer” community.)

Some of the statistics Darling-Hammond presents are startling (yet all too familiar).  One one in 10 low-income kindergartners ever earn a college degree.  Our nation’s graduation rate (listed at an optimistic 70 percent) has dropped from first in the world to the bottom half of the rankings for comparable nations.  And we won’t even get into how U.S. students on the whole (let alone those from historically disadvantaged groups) stand up against their international counterparts on tests like TIMSS, PERLS, and PISA.

Darling-Hammond provides one of the strongest and most passionate discussions regarding the opportunity gap in the United States and the downright destructive impact it is having on both educational quality and long-term value of our public schools.  Fortunately, it is not all doom and gloom.  The book provides specific action steps we can take (at a federal, state, or even local level) to implement the sort of comprehensive systemic reforms that may be required to truly address the opportunity gap problem, including:
* Implementing stronger induction programs for teachers — We can’t ask new teachers to row our children to the promise land while only giving them half a broken oar.  New teachers entering the classroom need strong pedagological background and even stronger clinical training.  Believe it or not, we can learn a great deal from our global competitors about how to properly prepare a teacher candidate, ensuring they have the knowledge, skills, and direction necessary to succeed in even the most challenging of classrooms.
* Supporting quality teachers — Teacher quality is not just about financial incentives for those who are boosting student test scores.  New teachers (even the best of them) need mentors and a strong support network.  School districts and states need to use tools like National Board Certification to both identify quality instruction in their classrooms and share that best practice with other teachers in the building, the district, and the state.
* Designing effective schools — School structure does matter.  In the current reform agenda, we aren’t spending as much time talking about systems as we probably should.  When we look at the problems — resource inequities, getting good teachers in the classrooms that need them the most, and providing the necessary targeted interventions (particularly for ELL and special needs populations) — we need to create and support the school structures that are most effective in serving 21st century students.

By looking to establish strong professional practice in all schools and promoting equitable and sufficient resources across the board, Darling-Hammond IDs a clear route to ensure that all students — including low-income students, students of color, and English language learners — have the teachers, curriculum, and level of resources necessary to achieve … and to make sufficient gains to begin to close that daunting achievement gap.

Does The Flat World and Education provide all of the answers?  No, and it shouldn’t.  This book provides some important lines of inquiry and thinking that should be front and center as we discuss implementation of new funding streams like RttT and i3 and the upcoming reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.  As EdSec Arne Duncan and his team look to completely reinvent Title II (both under ESEA and the Higher Education Act), Darling-Hammond’s data and conclusions on teacher induction and ongoing teacher support need to be central to the discussion.  They may not be adopted whole cloth (and probably shouldn’t) but if they aren’t part of the debate, we are missing a central point to meaningful education improvement.  These aren’t just good ideas, but they have the data and the real-life case studies that can be pointed to to demonstrate true impact.

I recognize that many may be quick to discount Linda Darling-Hammond, fearing this is just the latest defense of the status quo.  But nothing could be further from the truth.  We forget that the role that Darling-Hammond has played in the charter school movement in California and her work in both building and supporting effective charter schools in Northern California.  We overlook her commitment to common core standards and her commitment to accountability, albeit a more comprehensive and broader approach to measurement.  And we are quick to discount that everything and everything she does seems to be in the name of the student, particularly those low-income and minority students who have been perpetually caught in the opportunity gap vortex.  For those who want to get caught in such urban legends, forget who the author is.  Just read the book.  It will still prove worthy.

Eduflack recognizes he is a bit of an advocate for dear ol’ LDH.  And after reading The Flat World and Education, I am reminded why.  Too often, we talk about education reform as if it is a lab experiment where we can substitute one ingredient for the next, and just move on the next test.  Darling-Hammond reminds us that teachers are at the core of our public schools, both good and bad, and need to be central to any school improvement effort.  More importantly, though, she makes clear that we are not operating in an experimental vacuum.  There are very real children who are effected by our decisions and those kids impacted the most are the ones that are neglected in the decisionmaking far too often. 

We may not realize it now, but ultimately the education reform parade is going to have to head down the street LDH is paving if we are going to have the sort of impact we are looking for.  Better to give this primer a close look now and see what can be implemented in the current environment than discounting it in its entirety and then needing to play catch up when ESEA rolls back around in another decade.  Happy reading!

125 thoughts on “Finding Value in The Flat World and Education

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