Why does the United States do so poorly compared to our international competitors on achievement tests? And why is it that the public — even veteran educators — keep looking for magic bullets that can fix this problem overnight? We’ve tried the magic bullet route for at least 100 years and the U.S. still has poorly performing schools. What are we doing wrong?
Maybe the magic bullet is an illusion. Maybe it’s time to step back and examine alternatives that could gradually but steadily improve students’ learning in ways that would last. Maybe transforming our educational system takes more than implementing high stakes tests when we don’t change anything else in the classroom.
For years, the U.S. has been trying to improve teaching by improving teachers — recruiting more talented individuals, increasing their qualifications, retaining the best and removing the worst. This strategy sounds so reasonable that we’ve tried it over and over again. But teaching stays pretty much the same. Why? Because teachers teach the way they were taught — it’s kind of like how we raise our kids. We do pretty much what our parents did to us. Teachers also copy what they see and how they were taught. Contrary to popular opinion, even talented teachers don’t invent the methods they use, they inherit them from their predecessors.
So why do we keep hanging our poor educational achievement on our teachers? Maybe we expect too much from teachers. We think they should emerge fully formed from their teacher education programs and capable of working solitarily in their classrooms teaching the lessons in their planning guides. But this is an illusion. Just as physicians and researchers often work in teams, teachers need to do that too, to improve their practice. What do other countries that regularly outperform the U.S. on international comparisons do? They do not confuse teachers and teaching. They recognize that teaching is a continual improvement process and even the most talented individual needs to work as a team with other teachers to figure out the best way to open and engage kids’ minds. It’s being done in Asian countries and even, with considerable success, in pockets around the U.S. The idea is remarkably simple: shift the focus from teachers to teaching. Work directly on the methods used to teach, not the people who do the teaching. Get educational researchers, curriculum writers, and classroom teachers working together on studying and improving the lessons used to teach. And don’t expect this to work instantly; it takes time and hard work and a commitment to improve!
But what should we do tomorrow? Get a school, or better a school district, to agree on the specific learning goals for their students. Then allow some time each week for teachers and educators to plan lessons that will best help students achieve these learning goals. Observe how successful the lessons are by assessing how well the students achieve the goals and use this information to revise the lessons for the next time they are taught. Planning carefully each detail of a lesson, gathering information about the lesson’s success, using the information to improve the lesson for next time, and keeping a record of why the changes were made — these are magic bullets. Collaboration between teachers works wonders, lesson by lesson by lesson. But they won’t change failing schools and classrooms overnight.
We know what works. It’s not memorization. We are well past the days of the old Dragnet TV show, “Just the facts ma’am; only the facts.” Real learning means our kids can use what they learned to solve new problems, to adapt what they know to learn still more. American kids could do just as well as their peers in other countries. If we want real change, we need to give teachers the time and resources — and responsibility — to constantly work to improve how to teach.