Schooling: In and Out
Usually, we flip the school calendar in September, not January. But September is always frantic, so let's take a moment to consider what's in and out in the world of schooling. It can be hard to tell without a scorecard.
Tom Friedman's discovery of the new, flatter world sparked a flurry of hand wringing among the education set. Somehow, we had managed to thus far miss the significance of the rising tide of technological change, free trade, and international competition. Now, the "flat world" is in with a vengeance.
Last spring, Bill Gates talked to the National Governors Association about the need to reinvent the anachronistic American high school. The governors stampeded to endorse high school reform, signed up their states for the American Diploma Project, and embraced smaller high schools. Somehow, political and educational leaders had overlooked the problems plaguing the American high school. (Whoops.) For the moment, high school reform is very in.
In a related development, the education community was surprised (for the third straight year) to discover that we had been miscalculating high school graduation rates for the past several decades. Accurate, impartial analyses showed that completion rates were below 50% in many cities—rather than the 90 or 95 percent touted by district and state officials. It was widely agreed that this had been an unfortunate mistake.
About six months after Gates gave his big speech, the American Institutes for Research found that the Gates Foundation's high school effort has yielded mixed results. Gates officials themselves concede that they are still finding their way and that the earlier emphasis on making high schools smaller may have been a flawed strategy. So, certain kinds of high school reform are out—although it's unclear whether small high schools are in, out, or a bit of both.
The Bush Administration had suggested another tack on high schools. In November 2004, immediately after his reelection, the President announced his intention to extend the No Child Left Behind Act to grades nine through twelve. Not only had that idea quietly vanished by the time of Gates's speech, but the new Secretary of Education wound up spending all of 2005 allowing states to sidestep some of the sillier strictures already in NCLB. So NCLB-based high school reform is out, as are some NCLB requirements—but the bipartisan commitment to hammy rhetoric like "leave no child behind" is very much in.
What had educators been focusing on while missing some of these seemingly noteworthy trends? Well, for one thing, they'd been spending a lot of time trying to defend the integrity of curricula that are already grounds for much concern. In some textbook or other, 2005 may well be remembered as the new "year of the monkey." With school boards in Kansas and Dover, Pennsylvania, launching high-profile challenges to evolution, educators were forced to fend off "intelligent design." It's looking like evolution is in, though it's hard to be sure.
The professional researchers aren't much help either. In early 2005, the National Academy of Education awarded postdoctoral fellowships to 20 young professors. The winning research projects included, "Revitalizing Basque: Does Gender Make a Difference?"; "Discursive Identity and Science Learning: Teaching Science as a Discourse"; and "At the Intersection of Classroom Culture and Culturally Relevant Pedagogy." In the world of education schools, at least, jargon, gender, and "discursive identity" are still in. It's less clear what's up with helping students to learn stuff.
In California, reformers pursued the radical dream of insisting that teachers work four years, rather than two, before receiving the employment guarantees of tenure. That notion went down in defeat. Meanwhile, a new study examined two decades of data and found that, in the entire state of Illinois, just two teachers a year are terminated for poor performance. So, quick tenure and security for mediocrities are still in.
In Florida and Minnesota, on the other hand, governors enjoyed more success in promoting the clever new notion that good teachers and those with critical skills should be paid more than their peers. Despite hostility from the major teachers unions, it looks like this lunacy might catch on.
The thing about schooling is, you never know.