Despite challenges, public schools ‘doing something very right’
Equity in education is essential to provide students deeper learning opportunities critical to developing skills necessary in our rapidly changing economy, Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond, professor of education at Stanford University, told a group of Arizona education leaders last week.
“There is increasing demand for non-routine skills – communication, analysis and thinking – while the demand for manual labor or even routine cognitive skills has gone way down,” Darling-Hammond said. “The skills that are easiest to teach and test are also the ones easiest to digitize, automate and outsource.”
“The kind of education that used to be reserved for students in honors track and Advanced Placement courses is now the education all our kids need to compete in the labor market and be part of society,” said Darling-Hammond, author of “The Flat World of Education: How America’s Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future.”
Darling-Hammond is founder and faculty director of the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education. She served as executive director for the National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future from 1994 to 2001, led President Barack Obama’s education policy transition team, and started out teaching high school English classes.
Increased rigor comes with a cost some states, including Arizona, are failing to provide. In contrast, the 10 countries whose students scored highest on the most recent Program for International Student Assessment have not reduced their education funding, said Darling-Hammond.
U.S. students ranked 21st in reading, 32nd in mathematics and 23rd in science on the PISA, with scores remaining flat since 2000.
What those numbers do not show is that “inequality substantially influences the rankings for all countries, but especially the United States” where White and Asian students scored above the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development average in all subject areas, yet Black and Latino students scored far below, Darling-Hammond said.
“The poverty rates of countries in PISA are associated with how kids do overall on the tests,” Darling-Hammond said. “The United States poverty rate far outstrips the other countries with one out of four children here living in poverty.”
When government aid for housing, food, support and health care are taken into consideration, the poverty level for children in most other countries is below five percent, but in the U.S. it remains relatively the same “because the safety net for children is so tattered in this country,” Darling-Hammond said.
What are nations with the highest-achieving students doing?
Those nations support children’s welfare, including health care and preschool, provide equitable resources to schools, make substantial investments in initial teacher education and ongoing support, design schools to support teacher and student learning, provide equitable access to a rich, thinking curriculum and assess students’ performance by focusing on higher order skills, Darling-Hammond said.
Those nations are not cutting funds to schools/colleges, privatizing education, ranking and labeling schools and teachers, allocating rewards and sanctions based on test scores, and de-professionalizing teaching, Darling-Hammond said.
“When you look at literacy in schools in the United States where less than 10 percent of children live in poverty, we are number one in the world,” Darling-Hammond said. “In schools where as many as 25 percent of children live in poverty, the United States is number three in the world.”
In schools where 50 percent of children live in poverty, the U.S. is still “way above the international average,” Darling-Hammond said.
“Our schools are doing something very right under very challenging circumstances,” Darling-Hammond said.
The large drop-off in achievement is in the growing number of schools where almost 75 percent of children live in poverty, Darling-Hammond said.
“There is no other industrialized nation in the world, that allows so many of its children to live in poverty, then concentrates them in schools that are almost entirely segregated by class and often by race and then gives those schools less money to educate their children than other schools are receiving,” Darling-Hammond said. “Clearly that is not a recipe for equity or adequacy.”
Q: Will Common Core standards move us to number one?
A: There are some good things in those standards in terms of critical thinking, problem solving, mathematical practices and roles of communication, but there are also things that need to be revised. We would hope that practitioners will get their hands on the standards and make them better.
Just having the standards will not make us number one. We’ve got to fund the resources, materials and high-quality teaching that can teach the standards.
We must assess learning in ways that are really true to the standards. The jury is out as to whether the next generation of assessments will take the steps necessary to truly reflect those standards.
If we want the standards to help us propel the nation to number one, we need to think about them several ways.
One, we need to make strong investments in professional development for teachers, other educators and in curriculum materials they need to teach the positive aspects of the standards well.
We need to close the opportunity gap in resources among schools and districts, because some places right now cannot teach the standards because they don’t have the base on which to do it.
We need to transform the assessments. We need to have fewer tests of much higher-quality. We need to use them for information and improvement and not for punishment and sanctions.
If we get those things, which is how other countries implement their national curricula, we would have a shot.
Q: Many times equity is talked about as synonymous with race and ethnicity. It’s much bigger than that. How do we change that conversation with policy makers?
A: We need to think about equity both in terms of who gets opportunities – including students who have different learning styles, learning differences, are in different geographic regions of the state along with other contexts – and also what people are getting access to.
Equity has to do with the nature of the curriculum – who’s getting access to what kind of knowledge and whether what you’re getting access to is what you need for the future.
Equity doesn’t mean standardization. We need to think of equity as giving children what they need at that moment to be able to learn.
A wonderful man who teaches students with learning differences says other teachers will often say “I can’t do that for you, if I’m not doing it for her,” and he calls them on it.
Q: Title I was created to provide students living in poverty access to more resources. Is Title I an effective way to do that?
A: Title I is small, and less than 10 percent of schools nationally receive it.
It certainly can make a difference if it’s well spent in providing some additional resources such as specialized teaching and smaller classes. But by itself, it’s not enough to address the huge imbalances in needs and what our kids don’t have.
A congressman who is a long-time supporter and defender of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act said, when I look at the schools in my district what ESEA needs to become is a set of wraparound services where kids get health care, mental health services, social work and other support before-school and after-school so they can concentrate on what they do during school.
Q: To what degree do you see technology leveling the playing field in education?
A: Certainly, technology is important, it plays a role, but it is not a magic bullet.
I just finished a study on the use of technology for at-risk students.
There are many studies that found people using technology had no greater gains in achievement than those not using technology. In particular, putting a workbook on a computer and having a kid sit in front of a computer and go through it does not improve achievement.
What does improve achievement is the right mix of teachers and technology that lets kids create their own products and work.
Teachers have done scaffolding on ways to use technology to practice certain skills or revisit subjects with teaching interspersed in the right times and ways. It is really useful if the technology is interactive and gives the kids lots of ways to visualize and to see a problem.
The highest-need students are the least likely to be able to use technology in lieu of a teacher to make gains. The support of a human being and the interactive conversations that go with teaching have to be combined with technology-assisted learning.