Voices - Margaret Spellings   Voices


I believe in that vision of a free and dynamic nation, but it only works if it’s coupled with fair opportunity.

Voices Margaret Spellings
Voices - Margaret Spellings

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I like that you suggest the purpose of education is to provide an equal shot at the American dream for everyone. However, I am not sure that is really accepted. Frankly, today’s public education system is fundamentally the same as that created by the Committee of Ten over a decade ago. The purpose then was really to screen people into different categories, where some would become white collar managers and other would become laborers. The way the system operates and teaches, including the basic curriculum, is essentially the same as it was then. It is frequently noted that schools are about the only place today that look pretty much the same as they did when we went to school, with a few polishes of technology added. Why do we expect that a system designed to judge and screen people would be effective at giving all an equal opportunity? If we want equal opportunity, we must redesign our education system in a way that meets the new goal. The system as practiced today is all about feeding accepted answers to kids because that met the old goal of screening. It makes little sense in a world where all known answers are readily available on a smartphone. We need kids who are confident in researching issues and finding new ways to address them, innovative problem solvers, collaborators, etc. Answers today are also much more complex. We can no longer prepare each student to meet some “standard average” criteria and expect them to be successful. We need to help each student identify their passions and strengths and develop those so each student is prepared to be the best he or she can be in today’s world.

I see very little commitment to making the kinds of changes that address that new goal. People talk about “21st Century” skills all the time, but they still try to hold schools accountable using simple exams that cannot possibly assess such skills. I am waiting for a national leadership effort to come up with clearly understood new goals for public education that fully address the needs of today. That effort should include things like a profile of a modern graduate and ways for assessing. They need to be clear enough that educators cannot just change a textbook or add some technology and say they are doing 21st Century skills when they have really just tweaked the old system. Then we need to encourage (pressure) and support all school districts to engage serious efforts to transform to meet the new goals.

A few bold pioneers have shown that education can meet the goal of giving everyone an equal shot at the American dream. They did it under all the constraints of policy and funding that others use as excuses. But they recognized that they had to unlearn almost everything they did before and make the fundamental change from “teaching” to “learning.” If there is any question, just read the recent book Timeless Learning, by Ira Socol, Pam Moran, and Chad Ratliff. When this country finally realizes the need for a fundamental transformation, and starts leading and supporting the kind of deep rethinking of education that is needed, we will finally realize that promise of equal opportunity on which our country is based. If we do not, we will become a second class country. And we don’t have decades to do it because others have figured this out and are already moving.