K–12 Comprehensive School Improvement
Guest Editorial

Guest Editorial: A Perspective on Educational Reform and Improvement

By Jim Geringer
Governor of Wyoming 1995–2003

In its dedication to building better education systems, Learning Point Associates fosters dialogue among stakeholders as we work together to improve education for all students. In this guest editorial, former Wyoming Governor Jim Geringer suggests that comprehensive improvement requires multifaceted approaches and multilevel action.

Research has shown that we are not doing as well as we could in teaching our children to understand and use ideas essential in mathematics and science education (see figures X). However, heeding this news must involve something more than just wringing our hands and raising a polite rallying cry for improvement.

Business and political leaders, parents, teachers, and researchers know that our nation's future competitiveness depends on how well students learn and apply knowledge. And, just as we all have opinions, so too each of us has a role in making an impact on student achievement.

The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) Web site summarized the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) findings for mathematics as highlighting two key points for U.S. educators1:

  • [NCTM is] moving in the right direction, guided by the NCTM Standards documents, but we have a long way to go before we can be content with our practice and our students' performance.
  • We have made progress in closing the achievement gap, but there is more work to be done.

Despite this and other developments, we are still not motivating our kids to the level of competence they will need to live their lives and work at their jobs productively. We are not challenging their imaginations deeply enough nor instilling in them the traits of a good citizen. Because learning involves many variables, comprehensive improvement of our schools requires us to look at multiple factors.

Support Teachers
What was it about our favorite teachers? Did they teach us more than simple facts, more than simple phrases that could be regurgitated on multiple-choice tests? Or did they teach us that knowledge has value when it applies to our lives and the world around us? Perhaps they instilled in us the capability of discovery, of self-initiated, self-directed learning that became our norm of life.

The way to interest children in learning is through teachers who are enthusiastic about their subjects, steeped in their disciplines, and professionally prepared as instructors and leaders. The responsibility for teachers' professional development and training belongs to all of us.

A recent publication by the Education Commission of the States (ECS), Teachers' Knowledge and Skills Are Key to Improving Student Achievement in Science, Math,2 follows a report issued five years ago as a result of the teaching quality initiative we undertook while I was privileged to chair the ECS. Acknowledging teacher quality as the greatest factor affecting student achievement, both reports emphasize a need to change how we prepare and support the teaching profession through professional development.

Under the No Child Left Behind Act, we've set high standards for achievement by all students, not just for a privileged few. Now, we must invest in developing and sustaining research-supported teaching and learning. Professional development must be based on scientific knowledge of how people actually learn and how teachers should teach.

Develop a Shared Mindset
Education reform and improvement goes beyond teacher preparation and professional development. Much of past education reform has centered on the economic effects of inadequate public education, but we cannot neglect societal and personal goals. The 1983 Nation At Risk summary noted,

Our concern, however, goes well beyond matters such as industry and commerce. It also includes the intellectual, moral, and spiritual strengths of our people which knit together the very fabric of our society. The people of the United States need to know that individuals in our society who do not possess the levels of skill, literacy, and training essential to this new era will be effectively disenfranchised, not simply from the material rewards that accompany competent performance, but also from the chance to participate fully in our national life. A high level of shared education is essential to a free, democratic society and to the fostering of a common culture, especially in a country that prides itself on pluralism and individual freedom.3

Address Change
Yes, it's about the economy but it's also about change, constructive change. We will have to change the outdated, antiquated, often unmotivated systems. And I see, just as NCREL's Blue Ribbon Panel has (reference BRP supplement pages here), that technology will play a major role in catalyzing effective change. Without technology central to educational change, we cannot begin to gather or analyze the data needed to ensure successful assessment. Nor will we be able to tailor courses to specific times, places, and circumstances that best serve students.

Foster Leadership
We don't need more critics. What we need most is leadership. We need innovators, risk-takers. We need you. While many can define the problem, few can carry through a solution. But it only takes a few.

To this end, I support the Strategic Education Research Partnership (SERP)4, an initiative begun by the National Academies. SERP is a proposal to develop strong partnerships between university research communities and schools around a research program focused on the problems of practice. It connects researchers and practitioners right in the classroom. This is not a model in which professors write papers and knowledge trickles down into practice. Instead, schools become "field sites" in which the problems and lessons of the classroom become the subject of study. SERP proposes to emphasize the "D" in R&D as well—to bring developers into the picture so that new understandings become new classroom tools and programs that can be tested in different contexts and under different conditions.

Build Comprehensive Solutions
As we move forward together, we need to refine and connect our work. Standards must be linked to high-quality assessments. Supports for teachers to reach, meet, and surpass standards are essential. We need data to know what works and what doesn't work. We need data that can help teachers see more clearly what's going on in their classrooms, can help principals understand what's going on in their schools, and can lead elected officials to make decisions based on evidence rather than anecdote.

If we are going to see a genuine improvement in education outcomes at both the K–12 and higher-education levels, we must make a serious investment in understanding more about how people learn effectively, and thus how to teach effectively.

We know that the strength and well being of our states and nation greatly depend on how education can transform our economy and society. We are faced, however, with the inflexibility and high cost of traditional educational practices, including outdated institutional and public policies. In the words of Rock Springs, Wyoming, Mayor Paul Oblock, "If we always do what we've always done, we'll always get what we've always got."

1 http://www.nctm.org/news/releases/2004_12timss_intro.htm
2 Education Commission of the States, The Progress of Education Reform 2004: Science and Mathematics Education (Denver, CO: Suzanne Weiss Editor)
3 National Commission of Excellence in Education. A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office(1983).
4 M. Suzanne Donovan and James W. Pellegrino, Editors, Panel on Learning and Instruction, Strategic Education Research Partnership, National Research Council, www.serp-institute.org


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