Friday, May 20, 2011

China’s Choices

Recently, I had the honor of being part of an education delegation to China, sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers, Asia Society and Pearson Foundation. I had an opportunity to learn from and share with educators from Beijing to Shanghai. In this blog I want to highlight two clear choices that China has made with regard to education and relate these choices to a recent article that appeared in Education Week.

China made a choice about teacher time. In China, teachers have about 12-15 hours of instruction time with students each week, compared to U.S. teachers with 24-30 hours. The Chinese teachers utilize between 15-18 hours each week for preparation, improving instruction, collaborative learning with other teachers and support services like grading papers, as compared to U.S. teachers with 0-6 hours. The choice made by China is class size. The average class size in China could be between 40-50 students per class as compared to the average U.S. class size of 16-25.

Another choice the Chinese have made is teacher specialization. In elementary/middle grades, teachers have specialization in Chinese, English, math, science and other subjects. In the U.S., our teachers -- especially in elementary school -- are asked to be ALL things to students and teach ALL subjects. Quite often, our elementary and even middle school teachers lack the math and science content knowledge that these specialized teachers in China have.

Recently, I read an article by Frederick Hess, Greg Gunn and Olivia Meeks – Maybe the Square Peg Will Do – that appeared in Education Week’s opinion section. This article talks about teacher effectiveness and says that currently we have two schools of thought:
* Teachers are doing the best they can do given social ills like poverty and the breakdown of family, and we should support teachers with more resources and not “blame” them for poor performance.
* We need to remove ineffective teachers, and the best way to measure effectiveness is with student test scores. After removing them, we need to replace them with “superstar” teachers who have proven to be effective in raising test scores in spite of social challenges.

The article makes the point that maybe we should quit trying to fit the round peg (teacher) into the square hole (expecting superstar teachers) and just change the “hole.” The article proposes that we should start changing teaching to fit a model like the medical model. Across the U.S., there are 7 million medical professionals, and fewer than 10 percent have an M.D. Most medical professionals have an area of specialization. The authors propose that we rethink geographical limitations of teaching and utilize more digital learning, with local teachers acting as support to specialized teachers. Also, we need to rethink the tasks that we ask teachers to complete. Rather than didactic instruction, teachers should be facilitators, similar to what is happening with the School of One project in New York City. Finally, we should look at levels of specialization in our schools. A master teacher could coordinate and manage a number of technical assistants working with larger groups of students. (For more information, see the May 11 issue of Education Week.)

I am not certain where the discussion will lead us concerning class size and teacher specialization; however, these are important discussions to have, considering our comparative performance with China and our continuing budget challenges in Kentucky and U.S. schools.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Impact of Poverty on Student Learning

Recently, I reviewed a story about poverty and the impact on education outcomes in Texas. Michael Marder, who is a professor of physics at the University of Texas at Austin, also is co-director of the UTeach program that encourages university grads to become math and science teachers.

In the article, Marder discusses his research around student learning outcomes and the correlations with poverty and ethnicity. Interested readers can connect to an excellent video at

Marder’s research shows the strong correlation of poverty to low student achievement and also shows how schools are failing to educate many children of color. Marder clearly states that we have not been able to take a solution to the poverty challenge to scale. He also points out that, while there are a few charter schools that are “beating the odds,” most charter schools in Texas are not achieving strong results.

Marder used the “Boeing” story to illustrate his key point. After World War II, the British tried to regain transportation supremacy through air travel with the de Havilland aircraft. After numerous crashes, the British were unable to develop a theory that would improve the aircraft; however, a young engineer with Boeing came up with a new way of thinking that allowed Boeing and the U.S. to take supremacy in air travel. The British theory had been “flaw free” and had failed. The Boeing theory was a “flaw tolerant” design of aircraft, and it succeeded.

Marder makes the point that “poverty is causing our public school system to crash and burn and fail many children.” He says that if we do not figure out how to address poverty, then we will lose our technical supremacy – as many reports have also documented (Gathering Storm, Incarceration and Social Inequity, a Center for American Progress report and more). Marder says that our current theory of only addressing teacher quality and accountability through standardized tests has not been proven to address failures on a sustained basis. He says we need a new “Boeing” theory.

During my recent visit to China, it was apparent the country is struggling with the same issues – poverty in rural and urban settings, poor performance of schools and failure of schools/society to meet the needs of a diverse group of children. The Chinese have developed five- and 10-year plans that have strategies of strong schools helping weaker schools and strong leaders and teachers helping weaker leaders and teachers. Also, there is a strong push to meet needs of individual learners and use higher level skills of problem solving, creativity and innovation.

Looking at our current national and state reform strategies, I do believe that we also are addressing a systemic approach to improving student learning outcomes. We are not focusing solely on standardized test results and accountability. We have a strong push for a more balanced approach to accountability, strong teachers and leaders, strong instructional support systems, and early childhood.

Marder has posed the concern about our public policy theories of action. The key for policy leaders is to not use poverty as the excuse, but to look for the “Boeing” theory of action that will meet the needs of our children and the future of our Commonwealth.

There are two issues that arise when we discuss poverty and impact on student learning. Either we do not believe children of poverty can learn to high levels, or we do not know how to help children of poverty achieve at high levels. It is difficult to say that we do not know how; however, that response can be addressed. If we do not believe that children of poverty can learn at high levels as well as any child, then we have a more difficult issue.

Friday, May 6, 2011

TELL Survey Garners High Response, Roadmap for Future

This week, KDE released the results from the first teacher working conditions survey, or TELL (Teaching, Empowering, Leading and Learning) Kentucky survey. Readers may be interested in viewing the data at

At that link, readers will find the state results, district results and school-level results. We are very excited about this release of data, since more than 80 percent of Kentucky’s teachers and principals responded to the survey. Kentucky had the highest first-year participation rate of any state that has utilized the survey.

So… now that we have the results, what happens next? We are working with our partners to provide support and training on how schools, districts and state leaders can use the results to change policy and practice at each level. The Kentucky Board of Education will model how to use the results at a work session on June 7. The board will review the results and receive recommendations from our Working Conditions Coalition. The board will prioritize the recommendations for the budget and legislative agenda for the 2012 session of the General Assembly.

We are very excited that our partners are supporting training and coaching for teachers, principals, district staff and school boards on how to utilize the results of the survey. We hope that school boards will build capacity to include in superintendent evaluation process how the results are used to prioritize policy and budget decisions at the district level. We also hope superintendents will use the results in principal evaluation process to prioritize process changes at the school level. Also, we hope school-based councils will utilize the results in collaboration with the principal to prioritize changes in school-level policy and budget decisions.

We strongly recommend that the results of the survey NOT be utilized for any personnel evaluations or decisions. We strongly recommend that how leaders utilize the results to create improvement plans should be part of personnel evaluation procedures.

While we have had phenomenal success in the implementation of the survey, the actual value now comes with the actions taken to improve working conditions in our classrooms, schools and districts. Improved working conditions will mean improved learning conditions for our students. Improved working conditions will mean lower teacher turnover rates and reduced costs for human resource processes. Improved working conditions will mean improved learning results for our students. Thanks again to all of our partners in this important work.