Education shifts into higher gear

Gosh, the sentiments sounded so familiar.

‘The foundation for American education has to be the home. No school can compensate fully for failure in the home. And we’ve had massive failure in homes in this country.’

That was Terrel Bell, then U.S. education secretary, speaking in Dallas in October 1983.

‘There’s the danger that the public trusts standardized tests as the only way they can know how a local school is doing … I hope the focus is on learning and academics and rigor, and it will come … that tests scores will improve.’

Bob Cameron, then an official with the College Board, said that in November 1983.

‘I simply reject the notion that black and Mexican-American kids can’t learn. They can learn, and it’s our job to teach them.’

Carl Candoli, then Fort Worth public schools superintendent, pledged as much in May 1983 as the district worked to improve achievement and close persistent gaps between white students and those from racial and ethnic minorities.

‘In many cases, economic concerns and lack of parental and community support combine with such factors as a language barrier, low attendance and high mobility to inhibit students in largely Hispanic areas.’

That’s what I wrote in June 1982 in an analysis of the challenges facing Hispanic students and those trying to educate them.

When I dug out a file of old stories last week to share with an education researcher, it was startling to see how, more than a quarter-century later, so many of the same problems continue to dog education.

But it shouldn’t have been so surprising.

Institutions are slow to change.

People fear embracing change, even when it’s for a greater good.

Propose closing schools? Be prepared for neighborhoods protesting the disruption.

Try to restructure teaching staffs? Be prepared for the indignation, complaints and commotion about job loss.

Suggest all-day preschool? Be prepared to explain who’s going to pay for it.

President Barack Obama’s speech on education and the billions of dollars in stimulus money being poured into public schools hold the potential to push educational improvement into higher gear.

He touched on elements that are key.

Investing in early childhood programs has become essential to help prevent young kids from getting too far behind too early. (And surely it’s better to spend dollars on the front end, preparing productive citizens, than to pay later for social services and criminal justice.)

Paying teachers extra, as an incentive to work in more challenging schools or as a reward for clearly making a difference is an innovation worth testing.

Evaluating students based on their thinking, problem-solving and creative skills is more meaningful than just measuring their bubble-coloring ability.

Using technology to track students’ educational progress can help provide support to those who are struggling and advanced resources to those who are excelling.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan also has said that states and districts will have to ‘get dramatically better’ to be eligible for grants from a special $5 billion fund.

Of course we want real reform that produces real results.

But I’m not persuaded that ‘real reform’ can be achieved through national standards and more charter schools.

Meaningful reform involves so many smaller steps, from a consistent curriculum to tools that let teachers immediately pinpoint where individual students are having trouble.

It’s training teachers to engage students in their classes and providing technology to help with visual supplements. It’s conducting research to document what techniques work and why, whether they’re a longer school day or smaller class sizes. It’s understanding what outside distractions kids bring to school and connecting them with services that help them focus on learning.

And even dramatic change that produces meaningful structural improvement doesn’t show up immediately in the latest round of test scores.

Obama was correct that turning around our schools is ‘our collective responsibility as Americans.’

But he also was correct about the element of personal responsibility: Students must show up, pay attention and stay out of trouble, and parents have to do their job.

‘Government, no matter how wise or efficient, cannot turn off the TV or put away the video games,’ he said. ‘Teachers, no matter how dedicated or effective, cannot make sure your child leaves for school on time and does their homework when they get back at night. These are things only a parent can do.’

Seems like some of the most fundamental drivers of change aren’t radical at all.