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Publication Date: 2004-02-15

"Actually, K-12 schools are doing great right now, much better than could be expected . . .," enthuses Rhode Island's commissioner of higher education, Jack Warner, who is something of a tease.

EdWatch by Julia Steiny: Diagnose, challenge support February 15, 2004 "Actually, K-12 schools are doing great right now, much better than could be expected . . .," enthuses Rhode Island's commissioner of higher education, Jack Warner, who is something of a tease. He smiles wryly and continues, ". . . if you use the same standards as we used in the 1950s." I had turned to our local higher ed czar to see if he could shed light on the colleges' contribution to K-12's glacial rate of improvement. It seems to me that higher education and K-12 schools are caught in an unfortunate cycle whereby teacher prep programs turn out teachers trained for yesterday's conditions, who later turn around and become professors in teacher prep programs. Times have changed, but the higher ed spigot seems to keep pouring forth teachers who resent the new conditions of education, including the so-called new demography, instead of instructing them in how to handle the challenges. Teachers loathe being held to account for the poor performance of the great majority of students, complaining bitterly that forces external to their own work are responsible for students not meeting academic standards. Does higher ed contribute to that attitude? Warner says: "The fundamental mindset of all teachers needs to shift from the industrial frame of reference to an information-age standard. The industrial frame educated very well the top 10, 15, maybe 20 percent of the students. The whole set up -- the factory model -- selects and screens, sifts and sorts until it identifies the best and the brightest. In the past, those who did not survive in education could get good jobs that paid well in the manufacturing sector." As we know, the manufacturing sector is greatly reduced. But even if it were not, education is not exclusively about feeding the economy with a workforce, but just as importantly, it is about training children with lots of practice, tricks and information about their ability to solve all kinds of problems throughout life, including earning a living. To reverse the cliche: education is no longer just for some kids. All kids need to become independent thinkers and capable, contributing citizens. Warner continues: "Higher ed has the select-and-screen function down pat, even better than K-12. In some ways, though, even high education has taken the access piece very seriously by becoming broader in their criteria about who to select and by creating places and programs for almost everyone who wishes to participate in higher education. But then it doesn't see them graduate. So once again, we're looking at attention to inputs, but not outcomes. Higher ed will have to change." By "inputs," he means that the teachers feel they have fulfilled their duty when they teach whatever and however they teach, without regard to the "outputs." The "outputs" -- the results of the test scores, dropout stats, the need for remedial courses when the kids get to college, the number of degrees granted -- somehow belong to a different world that is not the responsibility of the teacher or the school. Higher ed teaches teachers how and what to say in class, but not to take responsibility for the effects of that class time. In the 1990s, education made a huge shift from merely regulating "inputs" -- number of books in the library, minutes of English, etc. -- to the outputs-driven, standards-and- accountability movement, but there's still an enormous disconnect between the relationship between the "input" of teaching and its "output." This disconnect is so huge, you hear lots of teachers assert confidently that they can not be held responsible for the results of their teaching because the students are poor, have crummy families or nasty attitudes. Somehow that puts the teachers off the hook, end of story. Warner says: "What's needed is for the fundamental mindset of teaching -- all teaching, K-16 -- to move from select and screen to diagnose, challenge and support. Until teachers understand the new challenge, they will continue to feel they are doing a great job no matter what the output. In the diagnostic and prescriptive model, we ask: What does the child know and not know? How can we be sure that what she needs is what's in front of her? To do that schools will need to assess students -- to know what's going on -- and then develop the conditions that support teachers teaming up on creating answers, on helping each other. If you can create a culture of support for the kids, they will persist in school." This is not to say all kids should just "persist" without reaching rigorous standards. Rigor is essential. But each kid is failing for a different reason, and until you find out what that reason is, there's nothing you can do about it. If the family does happen to be the problem, contact the home or, failing that, contact social services. If families need to be held more accountable, by all means go for it. Bring 'em in and give 'em what for. If the parents don't like it, they can move to some place that has a culture that doesn't support the kids and doesn't care if they persist in school. Warner takes another crack at it: "One hundred years ago, we adopted the Carnegie unit (roughly 40-minute classes) as the coin of the realm. Students would accumulate seat-time credits in a kind of accounting system. The right number of credits could be cashed in for a degree. In the new world, credits need to be according to proficiency outcomes. State the outcome and then let students take whatever time they need to achieve that outcome. Move from seat time to proficiency. This will mean a move from industrial technologies to individualized learning. Imagine the expectations for student learning broken into one-credit modules. When you achieve proficiency at that module, you move on to the next." So some students will plow through curricula like crazy and others will take more time. But all kids need to be brought along a continuum at a pace whose challenge is rigorous, but specific to them. Warner is very proud of the state's new program standards for accrediting teacher prep programs, because they articulate clear outputs, which is to say goals that higher ed must itself meet for preparing new teachers. He believes these standards will definitely change the mindset of teachers. Eventually. I hope I live to see it.

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