Sunday, March 27, 2011


By Bill Honig in Thoughts on Public Education/TOP-Ed |

Posted on 3/25/11 • I’m going to make a flat-out assertion that flies in the face of most current efforts to improve the achievement of California’s students. Unless improving curriculum and instruction becomes the driving force behind these efforts, gains will be minimal. We will never catch up with those world-class performers: nations such as the Asian tigers and Finland; states and provinces such as Massachusetts and Ontario, Canada; or districts such as Sanger and Long Beach. These jurisdictions have made what is taught and how it is taught central to their educational reform strategies. They have adopted a long-range effort to upgrade their teaching force and have built the infrastructure to improve curriculum and instruction.

A recent report shows what the highest performing countries, states, and districts do. A 2010 follow-up to a 2007 McKinsey report – How the World’s Best Performing School Systems Keep Getting Better – concludes that “improving system performance ultimately comes down to improving the learning experience of students in their classroom,” and that systems achieve the best results when they “change their processes by modifying curriculum and improving the way that teachers instruct and principals lead.” Mike Schmoker’s excellent new book Focus makes a similar point.

Nationally, current efforts such as Race to the Top and many state initiatives stress improving the quality of the teaching force by eliminating incompetent teachers (about 5 percent of the teaching force) and rewarding superstars; creating competition through expansion of charter schools (currently serving about 3 percent of our students); adopting standards and assessments geared to those standards in only language arts and math; and transforming or closing a minuscule number of the lowest-performing schools (about 1/70th of California’s schools). No high-performing country or state has limited its reform efforts to this narrowly conceived approach.

It’s not that these strategies are necessarily misguided. For example, some charters are excellent and can be a helpful source of innovative ideas. However, many are no better than their public school counterparts (some are worse) and, in any event, only serve a small number of our students. Some turnaround efforts are successful, but many come way too late. Others are badly conceived or implemented, eliminate a community institution, and after tremendous disruption end up creating a school no more proficient than the original one.

Teacher quality is critical

Improving the quality of the teacher force is a critical goal of any successful reform movement, but there are much more productive strategies available than those being promoted. Eliminating incompetent teachers – if done fairly, using reliable data and with the cooperation of teachers, and after a well-organized attempt to help the teacher improve – is important to do. If done unfairly, based on shaky information, this tactic wreaks havoc.

Recent research on programs to provide individual rewards for the best teachers have demonstrated that such initiatives are not particularly effective, confirming similar studies on individual rewards in business situations. On the other hand, rewarding teams to encourage cooperative efforts at the school or paying our best teachers more in return for them leading additional improvement efforts produces much better performance results.

Most importantly, current teacher quality reforms don’t touch over 90 percent of the existing teaching staff; and most reform efforts have given only lip service to the problem of upgrading the huge number of teachers who will enter the system in the next decade.

As an example, in California, if 5 percent of teachers are incompetent and are let go during the next decade, then about 10,000 classrooms will be affected. But what about the approximately 200,000 remaining teachers or the 100,000 new teachers who will enter the teaching force during the same period?

California needs a strategic plan for new teachers comparable to those adopted by high-scoring countries or states. The plan should include such measures as:

  • Limiting teacher candidates to the top third of college graduates;
  • Radically improving the training they receive;
  • Initiating widespread support for beginning teachers (which markedly reduces the number of teachers who leave after a few years); and
  • Paying teachers salaries that are commensurate with what other professionals receive.

Finally, improving the quality of the teacher force is a necessary component of reform, but is not sufficient in itself. Such efforts need to be coupled with measures that build the capacity of these teachers to improve teaching and learning. This dual strategy will produce much larger gains in student performance than concentrating on the caliber of teachers alone.

Missing link between standards & assessments

Utilizing the Common Core English Language Arts and Math standards and fashioning assessments based on them are important first steps. The ELA standards suggest more emphasis on literacy in informational text, best taught through an organized sequence of history and science, especially in elementary schools. New assessments should reflect this shift in strategy.

The recently formed national assessment consortia (PARCC and SMARTER Balanced) are sophisticated and promise to focus on the most important student abilities such as close reading of text or a deeper understanding of pre-algebra number concepts. More importantly, they will produce tests that rely not just on multiple-choice questions, but on essays and demonstrations much like some of the best assessments nationally and internationally. Additionally, the consortia promise to report usable data back to teachers and schools in a timely fashion and in a manner conducive to supporting improvement efforts.

A huge caveat: Standards are not a curriculum (for example, which books to teach at which grades, what sequence of science and history to teach, how best to structure lessons based on the curriculum, or how best to help English learners master more complex academic language).

Some states are working on developing curricula based on the Common Core standards and would be willing to enter a cooperative effort with California. The American Federation of Teachers’ Shanker foundation has recently urged the creation of a voluntary national curriculum supported by a nearly 200 prominent educators and leaders

Common Core, an organization devoted to teaching the liberal arts, has developed curricula maps for ELA standards. California needs to address the issue of how best to encourage the development of effective curricula and how to encourage wide-scale adoption.

By themselves, standards, curriculum, and assessments cannot transform our schools without attention to building the infrastructure to support teaching and learning based on those standards. The assumption of the current reform movement seems to be that if standards are adopted, students are assessed, and rewards and sanctions are imposed, the system will improve. I cannot stress enough that this is not the approach undertaken in those jurisdictions which have produced world-class results. First, they instituted a long-range plan for recruiting, training, and supporting a high-quality teaching force, developed a broad liberal arts curriculum and standards, and produced assessments based on that curriculum. Then, most of their efforts were dedicated to building the infrastructure to support school and district staffs in improving what is taught and how it is taught.

The following initiatives are examples of the missing links between standards and assessment:

  • Reaching consensus on a lean and powerful curriculum including not just language arts and mathematics but also history, science, and the arts;
  • Assuring that our assessment and accountability system tracks this broader liberal arts curriculum;
  • Making available powerful instructional materials (both print and digital) that incorporate best practices based on these standards and curriculum;
  • Building teams at each school to continually assess success and failure and determining the best corrective actions;
  • Developing  school and district leadership required to support these efforts, as well as state policies and programs to enhance these efforts; and
  • Providing  professional development focused on improving classroom instruction.

California used to have a much more comprehensive approach to improvement that incorporated many of the measures cited above. Unfortunately, either as a result of financial retrenchment or lack of leadership, many of the most effective components of capacity building have been neglected, defunded, or allowed to lapse.

Educators have been pleading for this long- term comprehensive strategy for years. For example, see the winter 2010 Common Core Curriculum issue of American Educator.

Recently, strong voices among political leaders have also begun to advocate this approach. Governor Brown’s educational plan for California; statements by the new State Board of Education president Michael Kirst, the new Superintendent of Instruction Tom Torlakson, and some members of the Legislature; and the massive report of Gov. Schwarzenegger’s Committee on Educational Excellence, chaired by Ted Mitchell (the outgoing SBE president), all provide support for these ideas.

As California schools struggle with extreme financial pressure, it may seem like the wrong time to discuss a comprehensive long-term strategy focused on improving the quality of our teaching force and developing the infrastructure to support major improvements in teaching and learning. But as we look forward to refinancing our schools in the next decade, now is the time to develop a consensus on such a long-term reform initiative. Unless these ideas drive reform efforts, California students will never match those world-class performers who have successfully transformed their educational systems.

Bill Honig began his career in education as an elementary school teacher before becoming a California State Board member and district superintendent. He was elected in 1982 to serve the first of three terms as California Superintendent of Public Instruction. He subsequently published “Teaching Our Children to Read” (Corwin Press) and founded the Consortium on Reading Excellence ( CORE works throughout the nation helping schools, districts, and states implement best practices in reading and math. He is a Bay Area native, father of four, and grandfather of five.

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