Guest View: Making public education work
For many years, there was little reliable research about effective schools, but that has changed. In the last two decades we have learned much about how to make schools work efficiently and effectively.
First, we must start early. Colusa Unified School District implemented full-day kindergarten last year and the effects were immediately evident. The data clearly showed that the kindergarteners who had a full day of instruction learned significantly more than their predecessors who went only half days. Full-day kindergarten and a comprehensive early childhood education system are keys to helping kids get a firm educational foundation. Study after study shows the positive impacts of getting kids an early start in public schools.
Another key factor in making schools work is to have a set of clear and rigorous standards. We have to agree upon what kids should know and be able to do, before we can plan lessons. Looking at the history of public education, we see a consistent trend of trying to cover every topic. What we know to be more effective is covering fewer topics, but increasing the depth and complexity of our learning. When kids learn how to think deeply, be creative and solve problems, they are prepared for the real world outside of schools.
Making the cultural shift away from measuring inputs creates higher levels of accountability for everyone in public education. What does that mean? Well, for many years of my career, educators and schools were judged by inputs, not outcomes. Schools were ranked and rated by the number of different programs they implemented, and the amount of time staff put into teaching.
Let's use the analogy of an automobile manufacturing plant to explore this idea. If a company wants to build cars, they measure their productivity by counting the working cars which come out of the plant each day. If they measured only the parts they received, and the time workers spent at work, they would have no real idea of the plant's productivity. Education is the same way. No question; it is important to have the right atmosphere in a school, and it is necessary for kids to make connections with caring adults, and these things take time. But at the end of the day, we must teach in a way which motivates kids to learn the things which we agree are important to their success. To make schools work, we must measure how much students learn, and use that as our means of evaluating how well a school works.
We are facing one of the greatest shifts in public education since the disappearance of the one-room schoolhouse. The Smarter Balanced Assessment, which will replace STAR testing, will assess students based upon their creativity, problem solving and critical thinking skills. This is a complete shift from the factual recall that is currently the core of most state assessments. If we are going to make schools work, we must start early, set clear and rigorous standards, teach topics deeply, and change the culture of schools to imbed measuring outcomes instead of inputs.
– Dwayne K. Newman is superintendent of Colusa Unified School District.