Information Age Education
   Issue Number 22
July, 2009   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by David Moursund and produced by Ken Loge. For more information, see the end of this newsletter.

For the most part, I don’t like to read short stories. They tend to lack the extended character and plot developments that I enjoy from novels.

However, I have come to view a brief quotation as a very short story. A brief quote conveys an important message using very few words. I thoroughly enjoy good quotes.

Here are three quotes that are the foundation for this issue of the IAE Newsletter:

“Rule No. 1: Use your own good judgment in all situations. There will be no additional rules." (Bruce, Jim, and John Nordstrom, co-presidents of Nordstrom department stores, in the employee handbook.) This short story says, “Empower your employees and your customers.”

"Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity." (George S. Patton Jr.; World War II general; 1885–1945. This short story says, “Empower the soldiers working under your command.”

“Everything that is not forbidden is compulsory.” (T. H. White; from the novel, The Once and Future King; 1906–1964.) This short story says, “There are a set of requirements, and everything that is not required is forbidden.”

Our Current Educational System

Most readers of this Newsletter likely agree that our precollege informal and formal educational systems are not as good as we would like them to be. Two general approaches that might be used to improve education are:
  1. Give far more power to students and teachers. See http://iae-pedia.org/Empowering_Learners_and_Teachers.
  2. Provide very detailed requirements for students, teachers, schools, and school districts. Implement a detailed system of rewards and punishments to back up the system of requirements.
Seymour Sarason’s 1990 book, “The Predictable Failure of Educational Reform,” provides a careful analysis of what needs to be done to better empower students and teachers and how this will improve education. Seymour Sarason’s book was timely when it was published in 1990, and it is still timely today. Our education system is showing many signs of moving is the opposite direction to what Sarason recommends. Instead, it is taking the approach summarized in (2) above.

Industrial Manufacturing

You are familiar with the idea of designing and manufacturing a factory-produced product that meets exacting specifications. A product may include parts made by different suppliers, and the whole system is designed for efficient mass production. The past two hundred years of the Industrial Age have seen steadily improving success in the mass production of high-demand goods.

Many of the people supporting (2) above tend to have the mass production factory model in mind. They feel we should be able to mass-produce well educated students.

Thus, their approach to improving our educational systems is to carefully specify requirements to be placed on students, teachers, school administrators, school district, teacher education programs, and so on. They try to back up these requirements with required reports, assessments, and a system of rewards and punishments. The people creating the requirements (such as state legislators) may or may not provide the financial resources and other resources needed to adequately meet the requirements. They may or may not base their approach on “solid” research and on practices that have proven widely successful.

I recently read a research paper that explored one example of a mandated approach. In 1998 the California State Legislature passed a bill establishing new standards for all teacher education credentialing institutions. This led to the creation of an extensive set of requirements. Quoting from a 2007 article “Caught in the Current: A Self-Study of State-Mandated Compliance in a Teacher Education Program” by John Kornfeld et al. that was recently reprinted in Teachers College Record (http://www.tcrecord.org/content.asp?contentid=14067):

The document entitled Standards of Quality and Effectiveness for Professional Teacher Preparation Programs (2001) consists of 19 standards, each of which includes a number of specific elements. In order to win the California Commission for Teacher Certification approval, institutions must submit lengthy documents detailing how their proposed credential programs will meet each element of each standard—128 elements in all. In order to earn their credentials in the new program, candidates have to demonstrate their knowledge of 13 Teaching Performance Expectations (TPEs), which are embedded in the 19 standards, by passing a high-stakes Teaching Performance Assessment (TPA). This assessment involves four major tasks, each with carefully scripted and meticulously detailed instructions. For example, Task 3 (Classroom Assessment of Academic Learning Goals) entails six steps—including selecting and planning an assessment, observing and assessing individual students and a whole class, and analyzing and reflecting on the assessment—and requires candidates to respond in writing to more than 50 separate prompts.

I don’t know about you, but the above paragraph made me both laugh and cry. One of the things that I find interesting about such an approach to improving preservice teacher education is that we have no solid research that it will result in better education for the students who will eventually be taught by the preservice teachers. We do not have a cost-benefit analysis of this approach versus other possible approaches. The article details some of the “hidden” costs, such as the time and effort of faculty and students having to “jump through the hoops” to meet the requirements, or the lost opportunities as time and effort are moved away from other possible teaching, learning, and record keeping tasks.

Final Remarks

Right now there is a major national initiative on the idea of developing and then implementing national standards for students in the areas of reading/writing and mathematics. The underlying argument is that nationwide adoption of a uniform set of standards will significantly improve our educational systems. With such standards, we can then develop and require use of uniform assessments and reporting.

I have quite mixed emotions as I think about this project. My fear is that it will give far too much power to a modest number of people at the top, and that it will decrease the power of students and their teachers. If this proves to be the case, my forecast is that such as approach will not lead to an improved educational system.

Three documents describing preliminary work on these national standards have recently become available:
At all levels of informal and formal education we need to be doing a careful critical analysis of this work on National Standards. We need to demand solid evidence that this approach will lead to a significant improvement of our educational system. We need to see a careful cost-benefit analysis of this approach versus other approaches to improving education.


About Information Age Education, Inc.

Information Age Education is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving education for learners of all ages throughout the world. IAE is a project of the Science Factory, a 501(c)(3) science and technology museum located in Eugene, Oregon. Current IAE activities include a Wiki with address http://IAE-pedia.org, a Website containing free books and articles at http://I-A-E.org, and the free newsletter you are now reading.

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