School Reform For Realists

Drawing competition for school kids

Presently, the US is facing twin problems – huge unemployment and talent gap. Many public schools, and to certain extent even colleges, are producing grads who are not qualified enough to be hired for high-skilled jobs. What these grads lack in are scientific knowledge, communication skills, and technical acumen.

Alarmed by this situation, business leaders are pushing for school reforms with great urgency. In recent times, many business houses have collaborated with schools. Many schools, in association with business houses, adopted new ideas, introduced new technologies. However, most of these ideas don’t seem to be working in practice.

What were these ideas? Why are they not working? And what is the way forward?                                       

Reform Measures

Charter Movement, Merit Pay for teachers, management training programmes, and intensive use of digital educational technology – are some of the measures that have been introduced in schools. Unfortunately, schools are not responding favourably to these initiatives. Some prefer to call them faulty initiatives. Most of these reform initiatives are based on false premise that schools should be run like a business house. This is the reason, why many models, despite looking good in theory, failed miserably.

Overemphasis on numbers, imposition of numerical goals, schemes of rewarding high performers, not only failed to improve the education system, but in some case, they even proved counterproductive.

“[The effort] to improve the quality of education turned into an accounting strategy: Measure, then punish or reward,” writes Diane Ravitch in The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (Basic Books, 2011). “The strategy produced fear and obedience among educators; it often generated higher test scores. But it had nothing to do with education.”

Digital Technology

Absence of any conclusive research creates confusion about what kind of digital technologies should be introduced in schools. Many tech companies, big as well as small, are interested in studying the impact of technology on schools. But, their interest does not inspire confidence. In fact, many educators believe that some of the big names associated with the introduction of digital technologies are driven by their own business interest.

Consider the figure. Digitalisation of schools in the US is estimated to be worth $500 billion business. Apple, Microsoft, Cisco Systems, News Corp, and a lot of smaller media and software companies — have a stake in this potential $500 billion business. That’s why many of the assessments done by these companies are dismissed as motivated.

Way Forward

Substantive collaboration at all levels is the best way to usher in reforms in schools.  Only those business-school partnerships will work which lay emphasis on substantive collaboration at all levels.

A recent study by Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, “Collaborating on School Reform,” shows that contrary to popular practice and the dictates of many corporate education reformers, the secret to long-term improvement for teachers, schools, and students is “substantive collaboration” at all levels — the classroom, the school, the district, the community; in short, collaboration among all key stakeholders.

Education system fails to keep pace with changing times, if it is run entirely by educators. While at the same time, businesspeople dictating all the terms to schools, often results in false start. Or worst, businesspeople’s clash with educators threatens to destroy the very fabric of education system.

That’s why Andrea Gabor in his article, Leadership Principles for Public School Principals advocates both forms of expertise to improve the education system.

On the ground, the most effective business–education partnerships are those that foster innovative education opportunities in which both students and parents can participate, and those that create bridges between schools and the outside world, including potential employers.

New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE)’s partnership with Cisco in 2009 for its iZone (“innovation zone”) programme is the ideal model of business-education partnership. iZone model tapped real world expertise and integrated it with school curricula. In this model, not only teachers came to Cisco for several all-day sessions covering a variety of classroom technologies, but Cisco also sought to learn from schools. Cisco’s engineers got some hands on experience of how teachers and students used digital technology.

Presently, more than 100 schools take part in iZone programme. Cisco’s efforts have yielded positive results, because its products are based on the feedback it got from educators and learners.

Global Technology Preparatory’s collaboration with iZone holds an important lesson for all schools on how to introduce technologies without compromising on core values.

Through collaboration with iZone and corporate donations, Global Tech provided free laptop to all its students. Global Tech did not hire outside technology experts for training. A few tech-savvy teachers from within the school trained the staff and students.

In addition, Global Tech enlisted Computers for Youth, a program that provides free desktop computers loaded with educational software and training for poor families; the program is designed to teach parents how to help their children with schoolwork.

Global Tech’s models made impressive success, because they brought together school leaders, teachers, nonprofits, and business collaborators. They were encouraged to brainstorm and plan innovative efforts. That worked better than the ill-conceived solutions that some schools were forced to adopt.

In Houston, a public–private partnership between the school systems and a petroleum industry group, the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA) helped bridge a growing shortage of energy workers. In 2005, some selected schools, in association with IPAA, started a program of industry-tailored advanced-placement courses.  Through this programme, young people got the requisite math and science education to fill entry-level jobs in the oil patch. Since its inception, the IPAA has opened petroleum academies within four public schools in the Houston area.

In these schools, teachers receive training to help tailor courses across the curriculum to the academy’s energy focus.

All these examples suggest that a business-education partnership could bring in positive results, only when innovation becomes everyone’s job.

Adapted From School Reform for Realists

Speak Your Mind