We Might Be Nearing the End of the Education Reform Wars

There's a growing consensus that learning is about more than test scores.

Like any sentient political junkie, I was struck in the third Presidential Debate by how much of a point Romney made to agree with President Obama's approach to foreign policy—on intervening in Libya, on leaving Afghanistan, on keeping troops out of Syria. It was Romney who stated, "we can't kill our way out of this mess," delivering a line one would have expected to hear from Obama in 2008. And like any sentient liberal, I was irked, wondering which Romney we'd get were he to be elected.
But then I thought about other debates that aren't really debates, and wondered if we've made a mistake to assume that every issue of importance has two sides.
In a recent op-ed for the New York Times, Thomas Friedman declared the Administration's education policy one of "Obama's best kept secrets." Citing the growing need for high-skilled workers and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's oft-stated line that we must "educate our way to a better economy," Friedman praised the effect that Race to the Top, and its predecessor No Child Left Behind, has had on teacher and principal accountability.
In today's education reform climate, saying as much is an invitation to battle, and this occasion proved no different.
As friend and frequent collaborator Sam Chaltain wrote, "What Friedman seems to have forgotten, and what the Obama administration has repeatedly failed to heed is that systems as dysfunctional as those in American public education require more than a new set of end goals: they require deep and sustained investments in our collective capacity to imagine and sustain something new—and that sort of change requires two main ingredients: technical expertise and emotional commitment.
"Unfortunately, Race to the Top (RTTT) lacks both ingredients: its formulas for technical expertise, such as new teacher evaluation systems (good idea) based significantly on student test scores (bad idea), move the goalposts but ignore the skill levels of the players."
Here's the catch: call me Pollyanna, but I fail to see where the debate is.
The need to prepare high-skilled workers for the high-skill jobs of the future, as Friedman suggests, isn't in dispute: where we differ is simply with regard to our definitions of "highly skilled."

I am one of what I expect to be about a dozen people in the world who gets the daily Google Alert for "Empathy" delivered straight to my inbox. And so I am regularly reminded of the critical role that empathy plays in high-skilled fields, ranging from business to journalism, medicine, and robotics engineering.

What's more, innumerable voices in education—KIPP, Turnaround for Children, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Raikes Foundation, to name but a few—are turning their attention to the role of non-cognitive skills play in equipping kids for success, a trend that has begun to pick up significant steam thanks to Paul Tough’s new book, How Children Succeed. To say that math and literacy test scores alone are no guarantors of college success is no longer a bold declaration, but rather a statement of fact.

And is there anyone who is against educating students "to college- and career-ready standards," as Friedman writes? We'll be the first to raise our hands when it comes to taking education seriously and ensuring that lofty rhetoric is matched by results. The problem—one not limited to education—is that too often, that data's been used to shame and starve struggling schools and organizations, while increasing the funding stream to schools that are already performing well. The result has been a tendency to hide bad data to inflate results and to prioritize the kind of cognitive learning that’s easy to measure, while ignoring everything else.

Fortunately, there's a growing commitment not merely to gathering data, but to gathering the right data, and to using it to improve, rather than prove. Organizations like the New Teacher Center are working to develop what are known as formative assessment tools—which incorporate qualitative feedback to help teachers improve instructional practices—that include social and emotional learning measures, helping teachers identify students' strengths as well as their own, and to identify specific strategies for improvement.

Friedman gives a nod to the Common Core Standards, adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia—and long anathema to many in the progressive educator circles—which establish clear learning goals and competencies in math and literacy for students across multiple grade levels. Quoting Duncan, he cheerfully writes, "For the first time in our history, a kid in Massachusetts and a kid in Mississippi will be measured by the same yardstick."

Even there, however, the battle lines are no longer quite as rigid as we tend to think. Earlier this year, Expeditionary Learning—known for an educational model built on Outward Bound, with an explicit focus on empathy, collaboration, and self-discovery—was hired to develop the curriculum and professional development training for grades 3-5 of the Common Core for the state of New York.

It's a big deal, because for the first time, it means we don't have to choose—we don't have to choose between academic learning and non-cognitive development. We don't have to choose between overly burdensome (and by many accounts, meaningless) standards and nothing at all; we don’t have to choose between the interests of teachers and the interests of those who control them.
There are, of course, the obvious non-debates that masquerade as controversial: climate change comes immediately to mind. But when it comes to education, it seems that the time has come to lay down our arms: to acknowledge our shared commitment to better education and to better education outcomes, to celebrate the progress we’ve made, and to openly acknowledge and address the long way we have left to go.
I can hear the scoffing now. “Why can’t we all just get along,” has long been a losing line, after all. But I’d like to think the Pollyanna costume is one I’ll soon be able to wear year-round.
A version of this post originally appeared at Start Empathy.\n
Classroom of diverse students photo via Shutterstock\n
via The Howard Stern Show / YouTube

Former Secretary of State, first lady, and winner of the popular vote in the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton, sat own for an epic, two-and-a--half hour interview with Howard Stern on his SiriusXM show Wednesday.

She was there to promote "The Book of Gutsy Women," a book about heroic women co-written with her daughter, Chelsea Clinton.

In the far-reaching conversation, Clinton and the self-proclaimed "King of All Media" and, without a doubt, the best interviewer in America discussed everything from Donald Trump's inauguration to her sexuality.

Keep Reading Show less

Offering parental leave for new fathers could help close the gender gap, removing the unfair "motherhood penalty" women receive for taking time off after giving birth. However, a new study finds that parental leave also has a pay gap. Men are less likely to take time off, however, when they do, they're more likely to get paid for it.

A survey of 2,966 men and women conducted by New America found that men are more likely to receive paid parental leave. Over half (52%) of fathers had fully paid parental leave, and 14% of fathers had partially paid parental leave. In comparison, 33% of mothers had fully paid parental leave and 19% had partially paid parental leave.

Keep Reading Show less

Bans on plastic bags and straws can only go so far. Using disposable products, like grabbing a plastic fork when you're on the go, can be incredibly convenient. But these items also contribute to our growing plastic problem.

Fortunately, you can cut down on the amount of waste you produce by cutting down on disposable products. And even more fortunately, there are sustainable (and cute) replacements that won't damage the environment.

Coconut bowls


Who says sustainable can't also be stylish? These cute coconut bowls were handmade using reclaimed coconuts, making each piece one of a kind. Not only are they organic and biodegradable, but they're also durable, in case your dinner parties tend to get out of hand. The matching ebony wood spoons were polished with the same coconut oil as the bowls.

Cocostation Set of 2 Vietnamese Coconut Bowls and Spoons, $14.99; at Amazon

Solar powered phone charger


Why spend time looking around for an outlet when you can just harness the power of the sun? This solar powered phone charger will make sure your phone never dies as long as you can bask in the sun's rays. As an added bonus, this charger was made using eco-friendly silicone rubber. It's win-win all around.

Dizaul Solar Charger, 5000mAh Portable Solar Power Bank, $19.95; at Amazon, $19.95; at Amazon

Herb garden kit

Planter Pro

Put some green in your life with this herb planter. The kit comes with everything you need to get a garden growing, including a moisture meter that helps you determine if your herbs are getting the right amount of food to flourish. All the seeds included are certified to be non-GMO and non-hybrids, meaning you can have fresh, organic herbs right at your fingertips.

Planter Pro's Herb Garden Cedar Planter, $39.00; at Amazonedar Planter, $39.00; at Amazon

Reusable Keurig cups

K & J

Keurig cups are convenient, but they also create a ton of plastic waste. These Keurig-compatible plastic cups are an easy way to cut down on the amount of trash you create without cutting down on your caffeine. Additionally, you won't have to keep on buying K Cups, which means you'll be saving money and the environment.

K&J Reusable Filter Cups, $8.95 for a set of 4,; at Amazon

Low-flow shower head


Low-flow water fixtures can cut down your water consumption, which saves you money while also saving one of the Earth's resources. This shower head was designed with a lighter flow in mind, which means you'll be able to cut down on water usage without feeling like you're cutting down on your shower.

Speakman Low Flow Shower Head, $14.58; at Amazon

Bamboo safety razor


Instead of throwing away a disposable razor every time you shave, invest in an eco-friendly, reusable one. This unisex shaver isn't just sustainable, it's also sharp-looking, which means it would make a great gift for the holidays.

Zomchi Safety Razor, $16.99; at Amazon

The Planet