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John Merrow

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Some Thoughts On Education Nation

Posted: 09/28/11 08:17 AM ET

As always, remember that John's book The Influence of Teachers is for sale at Amazon; you can also check out a Sacramento Bee editorial he co-authored with Esther Wojcicki, the Learning Matters Board Chair.

Although I left before the final event -- an appearance by former President Bill Clinton -- I was on hand for almost everything else, and I am comfortable declaring Education Nation 2011 a success, a 180-degree turn from last year's disappointment.

Last year, education wonks will remember that Education Nation was badly tilted in favor of charter schools and against unions and the 'bad teachers' they protect. It was as if everyone running the show drank the Kool-Aid poured by "Waiting for 'Superman'", Davis Guggenheim's well-made but fundamentally-flawed movie.

Not this year. Balance was the order of the day. Both union presidents and lots of regular public school teachers got ample stage time. Because NBC's talent pool is deep, lots of good questions were asked.

For me, the absolute hit of the two days was the 65 minutes on Monday morning devoted to "Brain Power: Why Early Learning Matters." We were treated to four snappy, insightful and short presentations by professors from the University of Washington, UC Berkeley and Harvard, after which NBC's chief medical editor, Dr. Nancy Snyderman, presided over a lively discussion about the educational implications of what we had just seen and experienced.

This hit home with many audience members because much of it was new and because the pedagogy modeled what all of us are arguing for in today's schools.

But there was other good stuff: Brian Williams herding a panel of ten (10!) governors, Tom Brokaw talking with Sal Khan and Arne Duncan, Williams again with an examination of inequality ("What's in a Zip Code?"), and David Gregory refereeing a debate between Diane Ravitch and Geoffrey Canada.

Secretary Duncan was everywhere, taking questions gracefully and speaking earnestly about education as 'the civil rights issue of our time.'

At least 271 people labored to make Education Nation run seamlessly, which they did with a smile. Hats off to them.

And Education Nation is also a great opportunity to see and be seen. I had a dozen or more stimulating conversations and left with four or five really good story ideas for PBS NewsHour.

And so, I think it's fair to say that Education Nation is close to achieving that lofty 'must attend' status, no small feat for an enterprise that stumbled so badly out of the gate and is only two years old.

Is Education Nation all talk, or mostly talk, or will good things happen because of these conversations? I don't know, but in defense of education and Education Nation, I don't believe that comparable events are being held around health care, energy and transportation, to name just three other issues of great importance.

Now to the tough part -- and here I have a choice between being nice and being not-so-nice. For once, I choose the former. And so I am couching my critique in the form of a proposal for next year's Education Nation, instead of complaining about missed opportunities.

Next year, NBC's journalists must tackle two of the elephants in the room. One is the obstacles to innovation. The second is the problem inherent in overemphasizing 'innovation.'

Start with obstacles: In an early morning session on Monday, Melinda Gates of the Gates Foundation spoke eloquently about the possibilities of blended learning. Kids, she said, could now explore and advance at their own pace in many subjects. And she's right. We know that students using the Khan Academy math program (which I watched in action in a school in Mountain View, CA, last week) can move through three, four or five 'grade levels' in math without ever being aware of how rapidly they are moving -- because there are no "Stop, you have reached the end of 5th grade!" signs.

So far so good, but, unfortunately for those fast-moving kids, current 'seat time' and course credit rules mean that a student earns just one year of credit no matter how many levels he or she actually moves up. In fact, that kid's teacher is probably going to have to tell him to slow down, which is a terrible message to send.

But that issue wasn't addressed, and, until it is, lots of wonderful innovations are going to rust on the sidelines. I mentioned this to Tom Brokaw, and he got it right away, connecting it to the one-room school that his mother had attended. There, he said, the teacher had to let kids move at their own pace because she was responsible for six or seven grades. Perhaps that proves that there is no new thing under the sun. The point is learning can be 'customized' in theory, but it won't happen in practice until the system loosens its rules on 'seat time.'

A few educators told me that some schools and districts are experimenting with approaches that judge students based on competency, instead of weeks of seat time, and that's good news. Next year NBC ought to make this a centerpiece and show us how and where it's being done -- and what problems this new approach creates.

My second issue is deeper, and that's all the enthusiasm for 'innovation.' I say, "Enough already." Please give equal time to 'imitation.' We have lots of good schools and good programs and good teachers, stuff that can and should be copied.

Notice that I am not saying 'replicate' or 'go to scale.' Those fancy terms are part of the problem, frankly, because they scare away folks -- or they become an excuse for not doing anything. Educators can rationalize that they don't have support for 'innovation' and don't have the apparatus for 'going to scale' and 'replication,' and that's why they aren't doing anything out of the ordinary.

Sorry, those excuses don't cut it any longer. Just imitate. It's easy to do, and it doesn't have to be earth-shattering, headline-grabbing stuff. Here's an example: KIPP kindergarten teachers explain to their kids why they are going to walk in a line and why they are expected to be quiet in the halls. Lots of regular teachers just tell the kids to line up and be quiet. The first way is respectful and creates shared responsibility, while the second seems likely to create behavior problems down the road.

Teachers who copy that are not 'endorsing' KIPP or sleeping with the enemy. They are just doing something that works.

I strongly believe that education needs a new narrative to replace the current one ('honor teachers'), which replaced last year's narrative ('charter schools are good, unions are bad').

I suggest a narrative that is tougher on schools but also closer to reality. It's this: "For as long as anyone can remember, there has been close to a 1:1 correlation between parental income and educational outcomes, whether the parents were rich, poor or somewhere in between. On one level, that seems to mean that schools basically do not matter. Only money talks.

"However, we know that's not true because we have in front of our eyes hundreds of examples of schools and teachers that do change lives.

"So do not be mad about schooling's failure to dramatically improve the lives of all 15 million children living in poverty. Instead, imitate the successful places, people and practices. Find out what's keeping educators from imitating success. Eliminate the obstacles and -- here's where you should get mad -- get rid of the educators who refuse to be copy-cats."

Congratulations, NBC, for sparking a national conversation that will be ongoing. I hope you will invite me back next year.

 

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