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Education Trends

Education Nation: Early Ed, Innovation and Some Unanswered Questions

Some important issues are percolating outside of the classroom

September 30, 2011

Last year, the first-ever Education Nation summit in New York City took a lot of heat for under-representing the teacher perspective. They dropped a divisive bomb from the get-go by screening the movie Waiting for Superman. Then they followed up with a panel discussion that pitted controversial then-DC chancellor Michelle Rhee against the head of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten. There was a clear pro-charter agenda which made for some controversial (and ratings-friendly) sound bites. And it really peeved a lot of teachers.

This year, the event had a very different tone. The opening movie was American Teacher about how teachers should be better paid, and, unlike last year, they added many more educators from charters AND traditional public schools to the roster.

While they did make a better effort to represent the teacher voice this year, the truth of the matter is that Education Nation isn't really intended for teachers. By scheduling this at the beginning of the school year, during the week, it's clear that this event is intended for the ecosystem that exists just outside of the classroom -- parents, policy makers, entrepreneurs and of course, sponsors.

It is tempting to focus on this decision as yet another manifestation of the "corporate reformer" vs "public school system" battle, albeit a more subtle one than last year's event. The truth is that there are corporate interests all over our world, and they're getting stronger. Our challenge is not to fight this -- it's too late and they're too big. Instead, we must find a way to work with corporate interests in a way that keeps the integrity of our society intact. This is a huge challenge and one I will get into more deeply in a future post.

So, given that the goal of the summit is to explore innovations and ideas that are exploding around the periphery of the K-12 classroom, there were some valuable issues that surfaced here. (Oh, and by the way, if/when Education Nation is interested in speakers who can offer high-quality, scalable 21st century practices from within the classroom, I invite them to contact us here at Edutopia for some recommendations. :))

The Crucial Importance of Pre-K

A team of brain researchers including Dr. Patricia Kuhl and Dr. Andrew Meltzoff of the University of Washington Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences and Dr. Alison Gopnik from the University of California Berkeley Psychology Department each presented research that shows -- not surprisingly -- brains do not start developing in kindergarten when kids first start school. Brain development begins before birth, actually, and there are staggering disparities between kids who have had verbal, social/emotional, and problem-solving opportunities before the age of 5 and those who have not. All of these presenters were all strong advocates in the idea that we should focus resources on pre-K to support healthy brain development. Additionally, they noted that supporting healthy brain development before the age of 5 is infinitely cheaper than it is to try to fix problems later. Talk about a scalable fix.

Impact of Poverty on Brain Development

Relatedly, Dr. Jack Shonkoff at the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard showed that negative stresses like poverty, malnutrition, and exposure to violence undermine the development of brain circuits and skill development. This is not rocket science (actually, Shonkoff says, it is) but there are some powerful implications. These findings add yet more urgency to the 15 percent poverty statistic that was recently released, and suggests that poverty adds more challenges that cannot be fixed within traditional educational models. Finally, when it comes to evaluating teachers, we simply must come up with a solution that takes these societal factors into account.

The Role of Competition and Innovation

Innovation was a big topic at the summit, and the centerpiece of that idea was the Education Nation Innovation Challenge, wherein young entrepreneurs were asked to devise a technology tool to help solve a real-world classroom problem.

Three finalists presented their projects:

ClassDojo A real-time classroom management tool that uses a badge system to reward good behavior.

Kickboard an integrated tool that enables teachers and administrators the ability to track and analyze student data.

TruantToday Developed by a couple of teenagers, this app sends a text and email message automatically to parents when students cut class.

The subtext of much of the summit is that innovation is stifled in many of America's classrooms for various reasons including bureaucracy, unions, and a general lack of imagination. There was a lot of talk of public/private partnerships as a way to remedy this.

ClassDojo won the challenge, and rightfully so. By using a badge system as a means to recognize character, creators Liam Don and former teacher Sam Chaudhary have found a way to organize and quantify aspects of classroom behavior like participation, teamwork, and creativity. Very cool.

The Messier Issues

Merit Pay Everyone seemed to agree that pay based solely on test scores isn't a workable solution, but what is a solution is still largely unanswered. Author Diane Ravitch and American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten separately suggested that a more balanced approach, including principal evaluations, student, and peer reviews. Ravitch in particular was quite critical of testing in all forms, both for students and as a means of teacher accountability. This was dismissed by a number of panelists including Geoffrey Canada as not being scalable enough. So there were no real consensus on a solution here, either.

Achievement Gap Everyone agrees that the achievement gap is the civil rights issue of our times, yet there is still not a clear path forward. The decrease in the cost of technology is only part of the issues -- most kids have access to computers and the Internet at home. The real issue is in the education around how to use them for critical thinking and other 21st century skills.

Standardized tests The debate rages on about whether standardized tests are working or not. Testing is a technocrat's ideal, as it -- in theory at least -- creates "objective" metrics for the ever-confounding problems of evaluating student achievement and teacher performance.

Surprisingly, Arne Duncan has considerably backed off on standardized tests. The Secretary of Education acknowledges their myriad weaknesses and our need to assess more of the whole child. He cited his recent waiver program for No Child Left Behind that relieves states of the 2014 proficiency requirements. He also reeled in his talk of merit pay being tied only to test scores.

Hope for Next Year

As the focus was outside of the classroom, many of the panelists weren't as savvy about positive classroom practices like 1:1 programs, project-based learning, the 4C's in educational leadership, game-based learning and the vast opportunities available via personal learning networks (PLN) on social media. So, Education Nation, like I said earlier -- we're here and happy to help, whenever you want to talk.

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