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Are Students Prepared for Life Outside of the Classroom?

Jim Collins writes in his best seller, Good To Great, that for organizations to become great, they have to:

•       Have the right people in the right places on the bus
•       Understand and follow their hedgehog principle
•       Confront the brutal facts they are facing

So what are the brutal facts about America’s schools?

*Low rankings on international tests [Math – 24, Science – 21]
*Curiosity and student engagement both decline the longer kids go to school  [80% of fifth graders say they are engaged in school; 40% of high school students say they are engaged]
*Increasing percentage of kids who can’t qualify for acceptance into the military [only 25% can qualify]

It’s not just in the education of our children where we fall down.  Look at where we are ranked in the latest UN report on the general welfare of children which was released just last week.

UNICEF Office of Research, Report Card 11

The report finds that the Netherlands and three Nordic countries – Finland, Iceland and Norway – again sit at the top of a child well-being table, while four southern European countries – Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain – are placed in the bottom half. 

Child well-being measured

Report Card 11: measures development according to five dimensions of children’s lives – material well-being, health and safety, education, behaviour and risks, and housing and environment. 

The study does not find a strong relationship between per capita GDP and overall child well-being. For instance, Slovenia ranks higher than Canada, the Czech Republic higher than Austria, and Portugal higher than the United States of America.

Despite setbacks in some countries on specific indicators, the overall story of the 2000s is one of steady improvement in various fields of child well-being in the industrialized world. Every country for which data are available saw reductions in infant mortality and ‘low family affluence’, while the rate of further education enrolment increased.

However, given the continued absence of up-to-date internationally comparative data on children’s lives (most data in the report apply to the period 2009–2010, the latest comparative information available), Report Card 11 reflects the outcome of government decisions in the period before the crisis. The report states that the three years of economic hardship since then do not bode well for the present or near future.

Good news in behaviours and risks

Nonetheless, for the most part, these data track long-term trends and reflect the results of long-term investments in children’s lives. Average levels of school achievement, or immunization rates, or the prevalence of risk behaviours, for example, are not likely to be significantly changed in the short term by the recession of the past three years.

And, when looking at the ‘behaviours and risks’ dimension of child well-being, there is good news across the board.

For instance, among children aged 11, 13 and 15 in the 29 countries under review, only 8 per cent say they smoke cigarettes at least once a week, just 15 per cent report having been drunk at least twice in their life, and about two-thirds are neither bullied nor involved in fighting. Ninety-nine per cent of girls do not get pregnant between the ages of 15 and 19.

However, exercise levels are low, with Ireland and the United States of America the only countries in which more than 25 per cent of children report exercising for at least an hour a day.

Voices too seldom heard

And actually, we’re not just lacking in regard to education and children.  Check out this August 2011 Newsweek analysis of “The World’s Best Countries”…and notice who is first.  We are going to be looking at Finland today.

Why are our schools and our country not doing better?

1.  Poor professional development – You’ll hear a lot about this in the film
2.  Unclear educational purpose – I’ll come back to this
3.  Cultural changes – Let’s look at the cultural changes first.
            a.  Declining institutional trust – We’ll talk about this after the film but it makes sense that entitled families are going to be more questioning and less trusting.

Take a look at this graph.  Which graph—top, middle, or bottom—represents the income distribution for each fifth of American families?  Which represents what over 75% of Americans including a majority of Republicans and Democrats would choose for the U.S.?  Which represents what most Americans think it is?  They want Finland/Sweden but know we don’t have it.  But what most Americans think we have is wildly off mark.
            b.  Increasing income inequality –  Why is income inequality and problem for education.  The fact is that as inequality increases, the safety net sinks lower and the public education system is less and less effective.

My point is not to criticize inequality in our country.  We all have our own views about that.  What I take exception to, however, are statements like this one this week from Rep. Gus Blackwell in Laverne, OK.  I don’t even know what he’s saying…but I do know he’s unable or unwilling to face the brutal facts.

Aside from the cultural changes of institutional distrust and inequality, another problem with education today is that it doesn’t have clear goals.  For many decades schools were supposed to do three things:

1.  Prepare kids for the world of work
2.  Teach kids about their roles as citizens in a democracy
3.  Transfer knowledge and appreciation of our culture to the next generation

Do these three goals still work in the 21st century?  Tony Wagner—and you’ll see a lot of him in the film—would argue that they don’t.  He feels schools are too focused on #3 [transferring knowledge] while they should emphasize the skills kids will need for work and citizenship [#1 and #2].

Take a look at Wagner’s Seven Survival Skills: PIQAAC

1.  Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
2.  Collaboration Across Networks and Leading by Influence (Rather than Authority)
3.  Agility and Adaptability
4.  Initiative and Entrepreneurship
5.  Effective Oral and Written Communication
6.  Accessing and Analyzing Information
7.  Curiosity and Imagination

Are these the things we are teaching our students in America?  At Westminster?

Now take a look at what Wagner cites as the responses of college kids to what was good about their pre-college education:

1.  Opportunity to play sports and other extracurricular activities
2.  Friends
3.  Relationships with teachers who were willing to help

Notice what’s missing?  Knowledge/Content

….and what do kids say would have been more helpful:

1.  More writing
2.  More focus on time management
3.  More opportunities for collaboration
4.  More emphasis on solving problems
Again, what’s missing? 

Finally, what do their professors say about their students?

70% say students do not comprehend complex reading materials
66% say students cannot think analytically
65% say students lack appropriate work and study habits
62% say students write poorly 

I agree with a lot of what Wagner says about teaching 21st and developing skills, and I agree with Tom Friedman of the NYT who wrote:  “Knowledge is a commodity available to anyone.  It is not a differentiator any more in the professional market.  The differentiator is what you can do with that knowledge.”

So do these goals of preparing kids to work, to be good citizens, and to understand our culture still work in the 21st century?

I think they do.  We need to teach these skills but we also need to plan and teach content.  Not all knowledge is equally valuable and it’s our jobs as teachers to use our knowledge and experience, select what’s important, and help our kids learn it.  But it’s also our job to think carefully whether our curriculums are too content heavy. 

I added a new essential question this year:  “What Is Justice.”  I’ve come back to it all year and we eventually settled on three theories of justice:

Utilitarians believe that which is just creates the greatest good for the greatest number.  Experts use cost-benefit analysis to research answers to questions and the government then implements it.

Libertarians believe that which is just maximizes personal freedom.  They believe that individuals should be free to do whatever they please so long as they do not hurt someone else.

Egalitarians/communitarians believe that which is just are those things reasonable people would choose if they had no idea what life they would be born to be.  Those principles are: 

1.  Individual freedom to think, say, and believe what they want            
2.  Very little economic equality.  Some people will earn more but they will also be heavily taxed to provide a high safety net and real equality of opportunity for all citizens.

I then asked my eighth graders to write a dilemma about an issue related to justice and offer three possible solutions to their dilemma.  They had to pick their answer, explain why they chose it, and why they didn’t choose the other two.  I want you to take ten minutes and answer their dilemmas.  Feel free to discuss your thoughts with your group and see if you are more of a libertarian, utilitarian, or egalitarian.

At the beginning, I mentioned that Jim Collins offered three things that organizations had to do to become great.  They have to get the right people, they have to confront the brutal facts, and they have to understand their goals…their hedgehog principle. 

What is a hedgehog principle?  Your hedgehog is what you…

1.  have the passion to do
2.  have the resources to accomplish
3.  can do better than anyone else

I think we are clear about our hedgehog at Westminster.  We want our kids to work hard, think well, and work well with others.  The issues we have deal with the art of teaching…balancing skills and knowledge, struggle and support, intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.  We are going to watch a Tony Wagner film about schools in Finland.  I hope you enjoy it and that it will stimulate discussion about trust and practice.

As you know, I ask my kids to answer this last question, “Is America the Greatest Country in the World,” at the end of each year.  I’ve given you a lot of information that would suggest that we aren’t.  I don’t know if we are or not, but I do know that we have been and that we can be again.

I want to close with what I think is a strong reason we still might be the world’s greatest country.  This short video is particularly important today, especially as we commemorate that devastating attack on Oklahoma City 18 years ago.
            a.  Changing parenting styles – Kids are busier today than they have ever been…and in many ways that is a good thing.  Take a look at this very solid research done by Annette Lareau.

October 22, 2013

The United States, Falling Behind


Researchers have been warning for more than a decade that the United States was losing ground to its economic competitors abroad and would eventually fall behind them unless it provided more of its citizens with the high-level math, science and literacy skills necessary for the new economy.

Naysayers dismissed this as alarmist. But recent data showing American students and adults lagging behind their peers abroad in terms of important skills suggest that the long-predicted peril has arrived.

A particularly alarming report on working-age adults was published earlier this month by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a coalition of mainly developed nations. The research focused on people ages 16 to 65 in 24 countries. It dealt with three crucial areas: literacy — the ability to understand and respond to written material; numeracy — the ability to use numerical and mathematical concepts; and problem solving — the ability to interpret and analyze information using computers.

Americans were comparatively weak-to-poor in all three areas. In literacy, for example, about 12 percent of American adults scored at the highest levels, a smaller proportion than in Finland and Japan (about 22 percent). In addition, one in six Americans scored near the bottom in literacy, compared with 1 in 20 adults who scored at that level in Japan.

American numeracy skills were termed “very poor.” The United States outperformed only two comparison countries: Italy and Spain. Nearly one in three Americans scored near the bottom in numeracy. That Americans were slightly below average in problem solving using computers was especially discouraging.

Some countries are making progress from generation to generation. But in the United States, as in Britain, the literacy and numeracy skills of young people coming into the labor market are no better than those who are about to retire. Americans who are 55 to 65 perform about average in literacy skills, but young Americans rank the lowest among their peers in the countries surveyed. The problem is not so much that the United States has gotten worse, but that it stood still on indicators like high school graduation rates while its foreign competitors rushed forward. Beginning in the 1970s, other developed nations recognized that the new economy would produce few jobs for workers with mediocre skills.

Those countries, most notably Finland, broadened access to education, improved teacher training and took other steps as well. Other countries take these international comparisons very seriously; some use the O.E.C.D. data to set policy goals and to gauge the pace of educational progress. The United States, by contrast, has yet to take on a sense of urgency about this issue. If that does not happen soon, the country will pay a long-term price.