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"Silver Bullets" In Education Cannot Fix Everything

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Originally published on Youthradio.org, the premier source for youth generated news throughout the globe.

By: Robyn Gee

Eighteen-year-old Maya Cueva is a senior at Berkeley High School, which recently divided its 3,000-plus student population into small learning academies. Does this impact her learning experience? Definitely. She said she sees students benefiting from tighter relationships with their teachers and more academic attention. The question is whether schools across America should adopt the small learning community model based on Cueva's story of success.

Dr. Tony (Anthony) Frontier is an Assistant Professor of Doctoral Leadership Studies and the Director of Teacher Education at Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee, WI, and he is skeptical about macro-level education reform, and whether the big initiatives eventually translate into changes in the classroom. For example, small schools might be all the rage, and adopted as a "silver bullet" for solving educational inequity, but are small schools actually changing the way students learn?

Frontier explained that structural changes are visible initiatives aimed at reorganizing the way schools operate. Frontier calls the popular ones "silver-bullets" because school districts adopt them under the misconception that they will fix everything.

Some of these initiatives include:
- smaller class size
- block scheduling
- gender-separate classes
- breaking large high schools into small academies

Meanwhile, the White House released a fact sheet about President Obama's goal to "out-educate" our global competitors by spending money on programs like Race to the Top, a competitive program that dedicates $4 billion to embrace policy and practical changes in school districts around the country.

Then there's Investing in Innovation - a program that dedicates $650 million to programs that support high-needs students and work towards closing the achievement gap. Since the point of this dedicated money is to support new, innovative ideas, we don't know all of the programs this budget will fund, since some of them have yet to be created. However, it's a good opportunity to examine whether we're even focusing on the right KINDS of change.

"Adults may notice the difference with these changes, but unless it reaches the point of contact between teacher and student, these 'silver bullet' initiatives exist only as potentials," said Frontier. For instance, students might have the exact same experience in a class of 30 students as they do in a class of 10, if the teaching is the same. Frontier said the key is making structural changes that are based on strategic changes pertaining to actual instruction, like teacher professional development, and instructional strategies to teach certain kinds of lessons.

"The misconception is that charter schools will take care of everything, smaller classes will take care of everything , or summer school... No. It's what you do during that time that is the difference between effective schools and ineffective schools," said Frontier.

One "silver bullet" initiative that has caught on lately in education is punishing teachers for not achieving results on test scores, and instituting merit-based pay for teachers. Frontier opposes these initiatives. He said more so than in other spheres of public life, being certified as a teacher does not signal immediate expertise. "It's about creating a culture where you can ask, 'How do I get better?' and where it's valued to ask, 'How do you teach this kind of lesson?'" he said - as opposed to punishing a teacher for not being an expert already. "Teaching is too complex a task to not acknowledge that it takes a career to experience mastery," said Frontier.

So what's the answer? How do we make sure that Obama's investment in structural change actually transforms student learning?

"We have to go beyond the idea of reorganizing and thinking that things will magically get better," said Frontier. "You have to improve teaching, you have to change students' conceptualizations about themselves as learners. Kids at failing schools - those are kids who have been playing a losing game for ten years, and it takes time to change people's thinking," he added. In addition, it takes time to change teachers' perceptions of their own profession. "We need teachers doing their craft with more clarity, complexity, and more nuance," said Frontier, instead of relying on big levers to make the change for them.

Youth Radio/Youth Media International (YMI) is youth-driven converged media production company that delivers the best youth news, culture and undiscovered talent to a cross section of audiences. To read more youth news from around the globe and explore high quality audio and video features, visit Youthradio.org.

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