Huffpost Education

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Sam Chaltain Headshot

Time for Obama to Become Our Teacher-in-Chief

Posted: Updated:

On March 4, during an appearance in Miami with former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, President Obama announced he will spend the month of March conducting a listening tour across the country, and "talking to parents and students and educators about what we need to do to achieve reform, promote responsibility, and deliver results when it comes to education."

I think it's a great idea -- and the clock is ticking. So without further delay, I'd like to recommend three core questions Mr. Obama should ask at every stop:

1. What do we know about how people learn -- and how can we apply that wisdom to education policies and practices?

2. What does the ideal learning environment actually look like -- and how can we create more such places for kids, both in and out of school?

3. What other metrics of success can we use to gauge student learning -- and how can we apply them in ways that will continually improve both our schools and our teaching?

If you don't live and breathe this stuff, it may surprise you to find out that these questions are not the ones currently framing our national debates about public schooling. In fact, despite 2010 being the "year of education reform" -- from Race to the Top to Michelle Rhee to Waiting for Superman -- the last fifteen months have been, in effect, a national debate about labor law, not a national conversation about how we can best help children learn how to use their minds well.

We know, for example, that a revolution in the study of the mind has occurred in the last three or four decades, with important implications for education. In the 2000 report How People Learn, a diverse coalition of scholars report that "learners of all ages are more motivated when they see the usefulness of what they are learning and when they can use that information to do something that has an impact on others -- especially their local community."

This sort of insight requires a fundamental shift in how we think about the delivery of information, how we think about assessment, and how we think about structuring the school day. Yet in scores of states across the country, a rightful push to rethink teacher assessment and evaluations has led to policies that would tie as much as half of a teacher's overall evaluation to their students' performance on basic-skills standardized test scores. Further compounding the irony, this continued overreliance on a single metric coincides with a report the National Research Council released last week -- one day after the President's speech in Florida -- saying that without sophisticated longitudinal analysis tracking individual students over time, test scores are of little value as evidence of actual learning and academic growth.

The thing is -- we all knew this beforehand. In fact, we all know a lot more than we think we do about how people learn, and about what the ideal learning environment looks like. We just need to reflect on what we've already experienced, and then apply those personal insights in ways that enhance our professional learning environments.

Since September 2009, I've been doing just that -- gathering hundreds of personal stories from people around the world, all in response to a simple question: What was your most powerful personal learning experience -- regardless of how old you were, and regardless of whether it took place in or out of school? 50 of those stories -- from students to social workers to the Secretary of Education himself -- were collected into the recently released book called Faces of Learning. And thousands more people can now share their own stories, and read the stories of others, at

What these stories reveal are core conditions of powerful learning -- and, not surprisingly, the best learning experiences occur in environments that are challenging, engaging, relevant, supportive, and experiential. Perhaps, then, as Mr. Obama listens to the stories of the people he meets with, he can start encouraging policymakers, practitioners and the general public to start asking a different question when it comes to school improvement: How can we give children learning opportunities that are more challenging, engaging, supportive, relevant, and experiential? And what metrics would we need in order to properly evaluate whether or not we were being successful?

Despite what you may think, that's not what we're doing in this country. In fact, the school Mr. Obama came to Florida to celebrate -- a school that had just engineered its own cultural turnaround -- was motivated singularly by its need to "pass the state test." Yet the president spoke without irony about the appropriateness of this singular goal, even as he (rightly) urged us to create an education system that can "prepare students for a 21st century economy."

Let me be clear: testing has a key role to play in our education system, and basic-skills proficiency in reading and math is essential. It's also extremely overvalued. And we are on a path to overvalue it further.

The good news is there's still time to turn this ship around. And so, as the president and the education secretary travel around the country this month asking questions, I hope our nation's commander-in-chief will become its teacher-in-chief as well.

As any good teacher knows, the worst thing you can do is try to answer a question before you fully understand the problem. That's why we need to have a deeper reflective conversation about what powerful learning and teaching actually look like so that we can start to realign our system -- and stop celebrating success stories that spring from communities forced to focus all of their efforts on passing a single state test. We can do better -- and now is a good time to start.