Yong Zhao’s Conclusion: U.S. Doesn’t Produce Compliant, Homogenous Employees

Multiple studies and organizations have been saying this for years!  Yong Zhao puts it succinctly in his conclusion to this essay.

The only reason to boost standardized testing is to standardize our kids in preparation for a workforce run by Wall Street, who wishes to pay as little and with as few benefits as possible.  Think that’s a conspiracy theory?  Keep watching.  It’ll start to come out.

Here’s the conclusion that Yong Zhao puts forth.  Our economic future depends on it.  Funny how South Korea realizes it now better than we do.

“So far all international test scores measure the extent to which an education system effectively transmits prescribed content.

In this regard, the U.S. education system is a failure and has been one for a long time.

But the successful transmission of prescribed content contributes little to economies that require creative and entrepreneurial individual talents and in fact can damage the creative and entrepreneurial spirit. Thus high test scores of a nation can come at the cost of entrepreneurial and creative capacity.

While the U.S. has failed to produce homogenous, compliant, and standardized employees, it has preserved a certain level of creativity and entrepreneurship. In other words, while the U.S. is still pursuing an employee-oriented education model, it is much less successful in stifling creativity and suppressing entrepreneurship.”


The Right Answer

Tonight, I had a driven discussion with my daughter about her high school classes (she would replace the word “driven” with “frustrating”).  Her assignment was to take the role of president for a day and give relatively quick solutions to complex issues and problems facing our country today–with some exaggerations.  The discussion started when she asked me about money, the economy, the best educational system in the world, and some other opinions.  She then took out the paper on which the assignment was printed and read off no fewer than 8 very complex issues that she was being asked to solve, more or less, in about 2 hours.

I asked when it was due.

She said tomorrow.

My eyes widened.

Hers rolled.

My daughter is an overachiever–big time!  Her understanding of the assignment was to research as much as possible about each of those issues and what has been done so far to tackle them, and then write a well-studied and correct paper.  In other words, she was looking for the right answer.  I told her that I don’t think that was what her teacher had in mind.  If he gave one night to complete this assignment, then I was sure he was asking for ideas based on background knowledge, not a full analysis, followed by drafts of legislation.  My daughter, being a teenager, argued with me for a little while (about 45 minutes), and then came to agree with me.

Her problem? She doesn’t “work that way.”

I know she doesn’t.  Neither have many of the students I’ve taught over the years.  Why? Because they are trained to either know or find the right answer.  This is a little frustrating for me, because in the 21st century world, there often isn’t a right answer.

I muttered that she wouldn’t have this problem if high schools ran under my rules.  She had to ask, so I told her.

The culture of standardized testing requires correct answers.  In mathematics, that’s fine (although there is always room for creativity there, too), but in every other core subject, training students to seek “correct answers” is not only boring and stifling to student creativity, it’s also dangerous.

Every time Arne Duncan touts his Race to the Top grants as a way to boost innovation, I feel a little nauseated.  There is no way that prepping students for standardized tests, pigeonholing students by ability, and focusing on the Common Core at the expense of arts, humanities, and sports is boosting innovation.  Duncan’s program is crushing that innovation under the weight of one-size-fits-all curriculum and single-minded progress metrics.

If her high school courses ran the way I would want to see, the assignment would start with a complex question which had a complex answer.  No, several complex answers.  That’s the way the world works.  You can’t ask high school students to solve the healthcare issues in this country by finding the right answer, but most of them will try to and will want to know if they did find it.  Those several complex answers would be the basis for discussion and debate.  Then, further research.  Then, more discussion and debate.  Then, a final proposal and presentation…and maybe even a blog post, which is way more telling than a stupid multiple-choice test!

I strongly believe that one of the reasons that high school students either drop out or aren’t “career and college ready” is because they are so worried about finding the right answers.  And when they don’t get the right answer after a certain number of tries?  Screw it; I quit.

I also strongly believe that standardized testing and the culture of being right all the time (the American way!) needs to change if we plan to stay competitive in this global knowledge economy.  There’s too much information, there are too many potentially “right” answers.  We don’t need to learn how to find the right answer; we need to learn how to find new answers, ways to communicate civilly about them, and how to evaluate their efficacy.

In other words, we need to be more flexible and analytical.  Do you “work that way?”

Teachers Are Unsupported Consumers of Technology Learning

The following is a response to Dr. Tom Whitby’s recent blog post, “Teachers Are Poor Consumers of Learning.”  I enjoyed the post and, at first, totally agreed.  Then, I slept on it.  Check out Dr. Whitby’s blog here!

A while ago, I wrote a piece about the utility of the SMART Board in classrooms and, more specifically, the fact that teachers were given shiny new toys, told to use them, and left with no training or explanation.  The public relations effort seemed to trump any professional development priorities that may have existed.  Perhaps there was no money left to pay for training.  Perhaps there was no desire.  Hopefully, the reason for the absence of PD wasn’t lack of knowledge among district staff, although I have seen that too.

Either way, many teachers were left to their own devices when it came to using interactive whiteboards effectively.  Some were up to the challenge and developed amazing things.  Some were equal to the task, but got stuck along the way.  Many still use the high-tech board as a low-tech board (Post-Its, anyone?).  And a few have chosen to ignore that they have those boards in their classrooms at all.

Learning how to use technology is not that difficult, and is often really fun.  As blogger Tom Whitby points out, there really is no excuse for teachers to put off learning how to use technology when we all know that it makes huge differences in student engagement, performance assessment, project-based learning, connecting globally–the list goes on and on.  I’ve also (in agreement with Dr. Whitby) advocated that teachers be the learners that they want their students to be.  We should be learning.  All the time.

However, I have issues with some of the ideas in Dr. Whitby’s article for a variety of reasons.  In italics, you will find statements from Dr. Whitby’s post.  Underneath will be my rebuttal.  I have great respect for Dr. Whitby, although he doesn’t know me from Adam, so I hope that my rebuttals show him that due respect and professionalism.

“The problem is that the customer more often than not cannot articulate what the real objection is.”

Teachers don’t generally have this problem, especially if everything else is in place.  If a teacher is well-trained in instructional practices and can comfortably consider himself a specialist of learning and content, then that teacher will be able to articulate what their objections are.  I, too, have heard the “I have no time” excuse.  But one objection I hear even more often is, “I’m not quite sure how to integrate this into my practice.”  This is an important difference.

While being too busy is understandable, it may not be valid if the priority of tech integration is obvious. Being untrained or unsure how to use technology as an instructional aid, however, is valid.  From the stories that I’ve heard and the people I’ve talked to, this is a serious problem and the blame is not on the teacher.  Districts have long had a habit of showing the public that technology is here.  Make it visible.  What the public doesn’t usually see is the teacher who is left to his own devices when integrating it.

“…all along the reason for the objection is that they don’t understand how to use the product. The product is too complicated and they fear that they will fail at learning how to use it effectively, as well as looking foolish for all to see.”

I think that Dr. Whitby and I agree here.  When the teacher evaluations look for technology use, as well as effective teaching practices, and student achievement, this is scary.  I have had teachers come to me in near panic, asking me to show them how to run a lesson on an IWB, a document camera, Prezi–anything–that will help them look accomplished in the eyes of an administrator.  I don’t think of these teachers as those who should’ve been using their time to learn these things, mostly because they have!  They’ve tried to learn it, and may have even mastered the platform, they just don’t know how to launch it.  There are no models, there is no training, there is no systematic professional development.  Teachers do fear the idea of looking foolish and failing.

And when they do fail, Dr. Whitby suggests that they do what other tech customers do: they set the tech aside and ignore it.  The difference, of course, is that private consumers have access to tech support when they need it.  Do all teachers have this?

“As educators, do we throw up our hands and say that this is all too much, and there is not enough time for our students to learn all of the stuff that is out there? I think not!”

Again, Dr. Whitby and I agree one-hundred percent!  Of course we don’t behave this way.  However, students have an important asset that most educators don’t: teachers.  They have teachers who model the skills they need to learn, who mentor them, who offer advice, who track progress, who train them in the use of tools and resources necessary for their success.  This is a luxury for teachers–one which most don’t have.  There are still too few school districts who have mentorships for even their new teachers, much less teachers who are exposed to new technology.

I maintain that every time a new piece of educational technology is put into classrooms, there should be a team of mentors responsible (and accountable) for making sure that all teachers are accomplished in using that technology.  I’ve seen building technology committees put together for this purpose, with very limited success.  Perhaps this is because asking already busy teachers to account for the development of several other teachers is unrealistic.  The district (or building) needs to find effective, sustainable ways to make this work.

“Why don’t educators learn from their own teaching? Break things down into small bites of information.”

I think most of us do.  I also think that this is only the beginning.  There is a wealth of information out there about how to use technology.  There is relatively little (but increasingly more) information about using technology in our own classrooms.  And, as I pointed out above, the availability of ongoing training is almost non-existent.  I don’t think that breaking things into smaller bites is the real issue, or the overall fix.  I think this problem will endure until teachers feel supported and trained.

“As a teacher’s knowledge of technology increases, so do the skills of learning more, as well as the ability to teach more.”

Exactly!  Which is why the training, development, and mentoring I described is such an important, long-term investment that promises great returns.  Once teachers have become comfortable with the basics of the technology (platforms, devices, apps) and the basics of educational integration (research, collaboration, global communication, etc.), they will become the independent researchers and learners that Dr. Whitby describes.

Dr. Whitby is asking teachers to learn from their own teaching, which will lead them to success.  I agree, but for a different reason.  We teach our students to learn from each other and to collaborate with the assistance of a facilitator (their teacher).  Teachers must be supported and aided along the way, too.  This new century is about sharing and collaborating–isn’t that what we tell our students?

Here’s to the New Year! (A Little Planning Break)


I’ve been spending so much time keeping up with reform talk, political issues, writing a book, and watching my amazing grandson grow that I almost lost track of the time!  It’s already July 19, which means that I will be officially reporting for duties in less than a month and will be setting up a brand new classroom in two weeks.  If you’re new here, you may not have heard that I just transferred from one district in North Carolina to a neighboring district.  Now I work in the district in which I live and where my daughter goes to school.  Good move.  But that’s not all.

Go Eagles!

The best part is that I’ve moved from a huge district that is experiencing some pretty wild growing pains and is going to be adjusting to a new superintendent after not having one for a whole year.  Technology is scattered at best and teachers are having a very hard time adjusting to the increasing amounts of testing that the district is subscribing to.

My new district is considerably smaller, more closely knit, and is in its third year of 1:1 technology implementation.  I’ve spent the past two years planning (dreaming?) of how I would use 1:1, but was always missing one thing: the technology.  This year, it’s coming to fruition and I’m just a little overjoyed about it!  My building administrators are the courageous types that believe that teachers know best how to teach, and will take the risks associated with letting teachers take risks.  It only makes sense–when you roll out a new initiative like 1:1, there’s plenty of PD that can be done (and this district does deliver), but the rest is up to the creative and innovative teaching in the classrooms.

Only one more statement about the comparison between the two districts: the change is refreshing.  It’s like walking out of a dark, smoky room into a wide-open, sunny field.  I’m just sayin’.

Anyway, I love science!  I’m a die-hard STEM teacher who truly believes that our next generation must be scientifically and mathematically literate.  (Don’t worry, ELA and SS teachers, that totally means that they should be able to communicate legibly and deeply in the English language, and that global understanding of history and culture are very important.)  I also love project-based learning, inquiry and discovery, and creativity and innovation.  I’ve taken the buzzwords of the past five years and made them my passion.

So, again, wow!  What a great year this is gearing up to be!  I can’t wait to share my ideas, my successes, my trials, my mistakes, and my reflections.


P.S. Seriously, if you aren’t blogging right now, get started!  This feels great!

Stereotypes of Education

I recently read several articles from scientists and science educators relating the stereotypical images of mad scientists to the aversion of some students to study and enter STEM fields–especially girls.  Here’s something a little bit related.

I was perusing a stock photo site through its education category and noticed something equally as weird, at least, if not disturbing.  Out of 119 images, I counted five that contained any image of technology beyond a calculator, and those five images simply had pictures of desktop computers.  You know which staple of education gets the most press in these images?  Go on, guess!

It’s the CHALKBOARD!  I didn’t count, but I’ll estimate that 90% of the images I saw contained a chalkboard of some kind.  Also highly prevalent were images of people smiling next to stacks of huge textbooks, rows of desks, and somebody lecturing to other people.  

Obviously, stock photography can’t be treated as an accurate reading on the pulse of education.  But isn’t it still somewhat, I don’t know, depressing that this is how the world generally views it?

School Cuts Leave Students Woefully Unprepared

Welcome to the new EdFocus blog site!  This is a source for all things that are related to the need for, journey to, and successes in educational change.  To begin, let me share with you a guest opinion piece I wrote to the Statesman Journal, the newspaper of record in Marion County, Oregon.  And be sure to check in often for more research, news, calls to action, and stories to keep on top of the ongoing endeavor to revive our youth’s economic, academic, and global competitiveness.

School Cuts Leave Students Woefully Unprepared    June 14, 2011

Kris Nielsen

“Many teachers in Salem-Keizer School District continue to wait to hear of their fates. But this letter is about something more socially impacting: student achievement and the future we are creating for America and, even more pressing, for Salem and Keizer.

In the wake of the “Great Recession,” it’s easy to see how taking a few bucks off the teachers and students over the next two years will ensure a more balanced budget in the short term. But what of the longer term, when our graduating classes of 2014 and beyond have only limited skills, which will prevent them from competing locally, much less globally?

To make that point a little more relevant, let me share my biggest concern: technology. As a math teacher in middle school, I am charged with making sure that all my students have the foundations for algebra and geometry conceptually mastered before they enter the high schools. This means our students must move beyond the basic skills and become increasingly proficient in analysis and evaluation (also called “critical thinking”).

In high school, students master the application of these concepts and are then, in theory, ready for employment or college.

Unfortunately, they’re not. Most students in Salem-Keizer have limited access to technology in math and science classes, and that technology is generally limited to the slow, outdated PCs that are shared by the entire school.

The reason this is damaging is that no globally competitive company uses this technology anymore, and our students’ limited access actually hinders their competence in the post-K-12 world.

In fact, most schools still are stuck requiring their math students to use graph paper and pencils — which is a monumental waste of time when we could have technology do the busy work for them, thus opening up opportunities for analysis, change and application. Colleges and employers alike speak to the frustrations of receiving high school graduates who are not ready to begin college or work, because no company uses graph paper and pencils — or even Excel 2003.

The reality is that we are in a downward spiral as we become less and less competitive. The state of Oregon has cut education budgets to bare bones. We are nervous about our economy now, but it’s nothing compared to what the economy will look like in the future as we move our kids through a strangled education system that has few resources to maximize their potential in an increasingly global and technological economy.

Copyright © 2011 http://www.statesmanjournal.com. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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