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Education Reform in the Spotlight

January 31, 2014


This is the time of year when the President and state governors offer up their “state of” speeches. This year almost every one of those executives has placed an emphasis on improving education. This is what President Barack Obama said in his 2014 State of the Union address:

“Race to the Top, with the help of governors from both parties, has helped states raise expectations and performance. Teachers and principals in schools from Tennessee to Washington, D.C., are making big strides in preparing students with the skills for the new economy — problem solving, critical thinking, science, technology, engineering, math. Now, some of this change is hard. It requires everything from more challenging curriculums and more demanding parents to better support for teachers and new ways to measure how well our kids think, not how well they can fill in a bubble on a test. But it is worth it — and it is working. The problem is we’re still not reaching enough kids, and we’re not reaching them in time, and that has to change. Research shows that one of the best investments we can make in a child’s life is high-quality early education. Last year, I asked this Congress to help states make high-quality pre-K available to every 4-year-old. And as a parent as well as a president, I repeat that request tonight. But in the meantime, 30 states have raised pre-k funding on their own. They know we can’t wait. So just as we worked with states to reform our schools, this year we’ll invest in new partnerships with states and communities across the country in a race to the top for our youngest children. And as Congress decides what it’s going to do, I’m going to pull together a coalition of elected officials, business leaders, and philanthropists willing to help more kids access the high-quality pre-K that they need. It is right for America. We need to get this done.”

I agree with the President that our students need to be taught problem solving and critical thinking skills with an emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and math. That is one reason I established a non-profit organization called The Project for STEM Competitiveness (to read more see my post entitled “Teaching STEM Subjects Using a Mission to Mars“). I also agree with the President about the importance of Pre-K education. To learn more about why Pre-K education is so important, read my post entitled “Educating Our Children: The Earlier the Better.” Education is not a partisan issue, governors from conservative states, like South Carolina’s Nikki Haley and Utah’s Gary Herbert, placed as much stress on improving education in their State of the State addresses as the President did in his speech.


“By most accounts,” writes Molly Alexander Darden, “in education American youth lag behind others in the world. We can catch up if we’re determined to do so, but it won’t be easy or quick; it will take totally rethinking our approach to education.” [“Quantum Education Comes From Three ‘R’s + Four ‘C’s,” Huffington Post The Blog, 31 December 2013] Darden’s prescription for reforming education in America contains some very controversial ingredients, like “removing athletics programs from our school and applying the funds and attention to improving our teacher support and curricula.” I can already hear the rebel yell coming from the south about that suggestion. Darden isn’t “anti-physical fitness.” In fact, she believes that students should get physical fitness education, but “with an Olympic mindset” rather than a mindset that insists on supporting a football or basketball team.


Some of her other suggestions aren’t as controversial. Like the President, she believes that American education must change “from a memorization-testing mindset to one of critical thinking.” I couldn’t agree more. If you can teach children how to solve problems, they can apply those skills to any subject in any field. Learning to think critically is much more important than memorizing answers to a standardized test. Darden also believes that we should keep “our children in school closer to the 230 days of Chinese children rather than the 180 days of ours (ours are in school less than half the calendar year), thereby reducing or eliminating hours of homework.” Although I don’t disagree that more days in school is probably the right direction to go, days in school is not the only factor (or even the most important one) when it comes to creating a meaningful educational experience. In a previous post, I cited an op-ed piece by Thomas Friedman. He wrote it after visiting Shanghai’s Qiangwei Primary School. He wanted to find out why “Shanghai’s public secondary schools topped the world charts in the 2009 PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) exams.” Friedman assumed that Shanghai’s schools had discovered a secret. What he learned was, “There is no secret.” [“The Shanghai Secret,” New York Times, 22 October 2013] He explains:

“When you sit in on a class here and meet with the principal and teachers, what you find is a relentless focus on all the basics that we know make for high-performing schools but that are difficult to pull off consistently across an entire school system. These are: a deep commitment to teacher training, peer-to-peer learning and constant professional development, a deep involvement of parents in their children’s learning, an insistence by the school’s leadership on the highest standards and a culture that prizes education and respects teachers.”

Of all of those factors, I’m convinced that the “deep involvement of parents” is the single most important factor, followed closely by the competence of teachers. Speaking of teachers, Darden insists we should be “hiring teachers from the tops of their graduating classes.” I agree. But you aren’t going to attract top graduates without offering them top salaries. Paying good teachers what they are worth has never been an American strength. Darden also agrees with Friedman when it comes to having a “relentless focus on the basics,” but she insists that is not enough. She writes:

“In order to make the quantum leap to excellence, of course, we must continue teaching reading, writing and arithmetic, but that’s no longer enough. We must commit to making the quantum leap of absorbing the traditional studies while adding a 21st-century curriculum and global attitude. Just as our parents could not have conceived the huge progress in communication, information and technology we have experienced in the last three decades, we cannot imagine the changes our children will experience as they enter a world with entirely different challenges from the world in which we gained our education. We must view education from the standpoint of what they will encounter, rather than the status quo. The first change we must make is huge. We must shift from our culture of playing at school and at home, to one of learning. In all our schools, we must teach critical thinking, communication skills and computer coding — all in a setting of problem-solving teamwork.”

I’m not sure that I would eliminate playing from schools. I believe both playing and learning have a place in our education system. It probably depends on your definition of play. If we are going to keep our children in schools, learning must be fun as well as interesting. As I noted earlier, I strongly agree with Darden that education must involve problem-solving teamwork. I also agree with her about the necessity to adopt new approaches to education that include advanced technologies. The Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation calls this a “blended learning” approach. It defines “blended learning as a formal education program in which a student learns at least in part through online learning, with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace; at least in part in a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home; and the modalities along each student’s learning path within a course or subject are connected to provide an integrated learning experience.” The Institute reports that there “are four models of blended learning that categorize the majority of blended-learning programs emerging across the K-12 sector today. These four models are: Rotation, Flex, A La Carte, and Enriched Virtual.” You can learn more about each of these models on the Institute’s website.


The headline of Darden’s article indicates that an excellent education can only be provided if it includes the traditional three R’s (reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic) and four C’s (culture, critical thinking, communication, and coding). I agree that those characteristics provide a wonderful foundation upon which to build any educational system. Concerning the culture of learning, Darden writes:

“Not fully understanding the link between education and its effect on their future success, our youth are often distracted with social media along with athletics — tweeting constantly, both in class and out. Facebook, Instagram, games, TV and other social media outlets consume their attention; little, if any is education related. … Are Chinese children smarter than ours? Not at all, yet they excel where our children — even the best of them — lag behind others in the world. One difference between our children and Chinese children is that Chinese families function in a culture of learning. They do play, of course, but learning is paramount. Parents and teachers interact closely and often; three times weekly is common, to ensure that students are progressing well; their teachers travel the globe in order to improve their skills. Granted, our social problems may be different but, through adaptation, we can follow their success.”

On the important subject of critical thinking, Darden cites Dr. Karen I. Adsit, Director and Professor, Walker Teaching Resource Center, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, who believes there are eight characteristics of critical thinking. “The eight characteristics of critical thinking,” Professor Adsit writes, “are asking questions, defining a problem, examining evidence, analyzing assumptions and biases, avoiding emotional reasoning, avoiding oversimplification, considering other interpretations, and tolerating ambiguity.” In a world in which our children are going to be bombarded with data, Darden concludes, “Evaluating the barrage of various opinions and ‘facts’ we encounter via social media and other outlets, it is important to be able to analyze the information completely and accurately in order to make reasoned decisions on issues that will impact our lives.” On the importance of communication skills, Darden writes:

“Verbal and non-verbal communication skills are at the very core of success or failure in negotiating life’s challenges. Excellent communication skills, leading to effective interpersonal relationships, include (but are not limited to) team leadership and team participation as well as conflict resolution and negotiation. These skills help us to present our ideas and projects effectively, and to ‘sell’ ourselves at job interviews, participate as team leaders and members, and so on; the application of effective communication skills is virtually endless.”

Darden’s fourth “C,” coding, involves computer skills of all kinds. There are a number of groups now demanding that computer science courses be made a part of any core curriculum. The sooner you begin such courses the better. Darden adds:

“Thousands of technology jobs are going unfilled in America today because of a lack of qualified candidates. Prospective employers are looking overseas for them. And that’s only today. As we see computers gradually being phased out in favor of other devices, future developments promise unimaginable opportunities in hardware development. (Think robots, computerized shopping, bioengineering, drones, manufacturing and scientific research, for starters.) Savvy students will be poised to delve right into a myriad of employment opportunities, in which they can write their own tickets.”

Darden concludes, “It is time to realize that the future is here; we can either choose to move with the times, anticipating the future and make the quantum leap to excellence or maintain the status quo and take the consequences.” The problem, of course, is that the “we” Darden mentions involves politicians, educators, parents, and students. If any one of those groups fails to “move with the times,” a student’s chance of succeeding is greatly diminished.

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