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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

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