Tuesday, October 10, 2006

World Class Schools in the Information Age

A recent conference which I attended at the University of Minnesota focused on the development of "World Class Schools". A "Call to Action" from 27 school superintendents proposed 8 traits that schools should have to prepare students for the global Information Age.

The superintendents' overall vision for education includes: raising student achievement; eliminating educational disparities; focusing on best practices; and leading the way to prepare students for the global economy in the Information Age.

In brief, the 8 traits that the superintendents encourage, to achieve this vision:

1. There are many academic roads, but all are rigorous and lead to higher education. The superintendents' report states: "...providing every student with academic rigor is the single most powerful step we can take toward closing the achievement gaps that exist..." They feel that no student should have to travel along the "low road" in education.

2. Educational investment starts early. They cite a high rate of return for every dollar spent on early childhood education; they encourage all day, every day kindergarten for five year olds.

3. Learning takes as much time as it takes. At least two important points here. One, students should have the amount of time they need to learn what they need to know to meet state standards. Two, we need to adjust our school year from one designed for the agricultural calendar to one that fits the Information Age. Minnesota averages 172 school days; England requires students to attend 190 days; Japan and Australia 210; and China 230!

4. Great educators have great support. Research shows that, of all the things in the school, the quality of a student's teacher has the strongest effect on learning. Teacher training and continued development and support are crucial.

5. Data and research inform teaching and improve learning every day. The superintendents encourage productive decisions, made by principals for schools and by teachers for classrooms, based on data and research.

6. Funding is predictable and sufficient to produce world-class performance. The United Kingdom, for example, guarantees three year budgets, in order to give principals and teachers confidence to plan for the future.

7. Services for students with special needs emphasize outcomes, not processes. The superintendents advise: Don't specify an inflexible process. Identify outcomes, and enable schools to reach those outcomes in ways that work best for their own situations.

8. Global citizenship is a core academic subject. Two important points here. One, students need to see the "increasing cultural, racial, and linguistic diversity of our state as an asset"...and schools should equip students "with the skills and sensitivity to interact with people and communities whose backgrounds are very different..." Two, students here, as in other countries, should enhance their "knowledge and understanding of international affairs, world history, geography, global economics, and foreign languages." Students should achieve basic fluency in a language other than English.

Whether we agree entirely with what the superintendents proposed, their intent is very worthwhile: They are attempting to create a vision for the future; without a vision, we won't know what we should strive to achieve.

Any thoughts??


Anonymous said...

These are sound, insightful recommendations. Was there any discussion concerning how to fund some of the initiatives, such as teacher training and support, a longer school day for kindergarteners and a longer school year for all? Funding is one of the greatest obstacles to achieving these goals.

Paul Mattessich said...

Great question. The superintendents did not put forward a funding strategy. Yet, this is clearly a major challenge. I don't yet have an opinion, because I have not considered all the options and issues. However, I do think that the funding solution will require a combination of increased revenues for the schools along with increased accountability and productivity. Other countries of the world, with strong competitive economies, are achieving (or trying to achieve) this; we can too!

echerin said...

Although I agree with your comments here and in the PP, it bears noting that at stake with the referendum is more than simply the prospect of future success through increased funding of particular proposals. If the referendum does not pass, our schools are facing an immediate funding reduction of $17 million. In a district that has seen a real decrease in overall funding yearly for the past four years, this would be a blow from which it would be virtually impossible to recover. Every school would be required to cut staff and increase class sizes. [At Central, for example, my third hour IB economics class (your son's economics class) currently has 38 students enrolled, in a room with 36 desks.]

Nothing serves to discourage good teachers more than increasing the size of their classes; we at Central have lost a number of our best young teachers over the past few years simply out of frustration about how difficult it is to be do our job in a climate of increased expectations and diminishing resources. Whatever the research evidence on the relationship between class size and achievement, one should never underestimate the effect of class size on our ability to recruit and retain great teachers.

Our district is facing a crossroads. If we choose correctly and pass the levy (which, it should also be noted, will still leave us near the bottom compared to the other metro districts in terms of levy dollars raised per student), we should certainly make sure that the funds are used to promote best practices and move us forward toward our community goals. Let's not lose sight, however, of the fact that choosing incorrectly puts us on a downhill path for many years to come.

Anonymous said...

On funding:
In 1995 the US spent 4.02% of its GNP on education. The world-class average was 3.9%. However, much of that money was spent on school lunches, high cost sports like football, janitorial services, and other extra costs. If we begin to focus our educational dollars on education and not extra services, there could be quite a bit more $ out there without additional funds. Also, teaching to standardized tests wastes valuable resources that could be spent on teaching to the individual needs and talents of the students themselves.