By Rhonda Broussard

This is the second of two interviews by Rhonda Broussard with Susan Patrick for the online series “One Good Question.” See the first part here. Susan Patrick is the President and Chief Executive Officer of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL).

In what ways do our investments in education reveal our beliefs about the next generation’s role in the world?

There’s a big difference in how you would fund the education system if you were building for the long term—in that case, you would invest in building capacity and trust. We need to take a very honest look at our investments. If people and relationships matter, we need to be building our own sense of inquiry. That’s not at odds with innovation investments. We should be about innovation with equity. That way, we can change our own perspectives while we build new solutions.

The debate about top-down reform vs. bottom-up innovation is tied to the same trust issues. In Finland, they made an effort to go towards a trust-based model, and it meant investing in educator capacity so that the systems in place trust educators to make the best decisions in real-time. If we don’t start investing in trust, we can’t get anywhere.

When U.S. educators visit other countries, we tend to look for silver bullet programs from the highest-performing countries. What are we missing in that search? 

During my Eisenhower Fellowship, I was able to meet with teams from OECD and UNESCO, which gave me great new perspectives. UNESCO has just published an Education 2030 outlook presenting their global education development agenda that looks at the whole child. Their goals are broad enough to include developing nations who aren’t yet educating 100% of their population. When we read through the goals and indicators, the U.S. could learn a lot from having our current narrow focus on academics. Our current education structure is not going to lead us to provide a better society.

Are we even intending to build a better society for the future? We’re not asking the big questions.  We’re asking if students can read and do math at grade level in grades 3-8. In Canada, they ask if a student has met or exceeded expectations. If not, what are we doing to get them there? You can’t just keep moving and allow our kids to have gaps.

The UNESCO report specifies measures about access to quality education. Is there gender equality?  Is there equity? They define equity as:

Equity in education is the means to achieving equality. It intends to provide the best opportunities for all students to achieve their full potential and act to address instances of disadvantage which restrict educational achievement. It involves special treatment/action taken to reverse the historical and social disadvantages that prevent learners from accessing and benefiting from education on equal grounds. Equity measures are not fair per se, but are implemented to ensure fairness and equality of outcome.

Across the global landscape of education systems, there is a diversity of governance from top-down to bottom-up regarding system control, school autonomy and self-regulation, and how this impacts processes and policies for quality assurance, evaluation and assessments. It is important to realize that top-down and bottom-up dynamics are often a function of levels of trust combined with transparency for data and doing what is best for all kids. In the U.S., let’s face it, our policy conversations around equity are driven by a historical trend of a massive achievement gap. Said another way, there is a huge lack of trust from the federal government toward states, from states to districts and even down to schools and classrooms. We ask, “how do we trust that we’re advancing equity in our schools?’”

However, when you start to think about what we need to do to advance a world-class education for all students and broaden the definition of student success, you hit a wall in finding a coherent policy that would align with better practices. There’s so much mistrust in the system given our history of perpetuating inequalities across the education system. In recognizing that our education system isn’t based on trust, therefore, perhaps we need to focus on what our ultimate goals and values for our education systems should be and then backward engineer how we get there, how we hold all parties accountable and how we could actually build trust in a future state.

We need to consider future-focused approaches that work to build trust, transparency, greater accountability and capacity for continuous improvement. We do need to assure comparability in testing to tell us whether we have been providing an equitable education. It’s just right now, this lack of trust is creating a false dichotomy of limited approaches to a future-focused education system. We’re defaulting that the only test that we trust is criterion-referenced standardized tests.

We need to take a deep look at the implications that systems of assessment mean for the rest of the system. It seems that we’re only willing to trust education outcomes based on standardized tests, that we commit to locking students into age-based cohorts, and that we focus primarily on the delivery of content. What would be the long-term implications for creating better transparency, more frequent inquiry approaches on what is working best for both adults and children? Are there different ways to evaluate student work and determine whether students are building knowledge, broader skills and the competencies they need for future success? Can we consider a range of future goals and backward map alternative approaches? All assessments don’t have to be norm-referenced. This is a familiar conversation with education experts globally. I’m afraid we’re not having that conversation in the US.

That’s what’s so interesting to me about iNACOL’s work. It’s global and focuses on future states for educators and practitioners designing new models using the research on how students learn best. We listen to practitioners working on next generation designs and then ask, is our policy aligned with actually doing what’s best for kids? What if you could set a vision for a profile of high school graduates that would ensure success? What goals would you want for redefining what students need to know and be able to do? And, how would you then approach aligning the systems of policy and practice with what’s right for kids?

The new federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) law gives states the flexibility to come up with new definitions of students’ success. States can now use multiple measures—and still report data transparently. This is a really important time to engage in deep conversations between states and communities, families, local leaders and educators around what would we do for redefining success—but I’m not yet seeing any states that are having enough foundational conversations on the ultimate goals and vision of education WITH COMMUNITIES. I’m hearing educational leaders say, “All we know how to do is NCLB… ” and wonder which other indicators a future accountability system might require. They’re uncomfortable thinking about alternatives.

It’s a sort of “Stockholm Syndrome” of educational policy limited by the past. ESSA is an opportunity to engage in real dialogue with the communities we serve. Communities have been locked out of the process for years now. Community outreach has become a box that people check, but it’s an ongoing dialogue and should be about building understanding and trust. This is a really rare opportunity in the United States to engage in a broader conversation around student success with local school boards and communities. This would encourage innovation and provide a clear platform driven by communities on the clear goals and outcomes we hope to achieve in our education system for equity and excellence.

Susan PatrickSusan’s One Good Question: Who asks the question is as pertinent as which questions they ask. Earlier, I mentioned that investment in the long-term capacity building of our education system would require building our own sense of inquiry. In other, more top-down nationalistic approaches to education in countries outside the U.S., leaders do control the system so they are having strong “values-based” conversations about education in the context of societal goals, too.

Because we are a strong federalist approach to education, this isn’t possible or even desired at a national level. The U.S. Department of Education doesn’t have a federal role in that way, and quite frankly, we can’t have a national or even state-level values-based conversation in the same way. In a federalist approach, we have 13,600 school boards with local control. The unit of change in this country is the local school district (LEA means local education authority).

School leaders, superintendents, CMO leaders—they actually can drive the values conversation about what our educational goals, vision and values are and how we measure success transparently. We’ve stopped talking about values in the name of objectives related to literacy and numeracy. I believe literacy and numeracy are extremely important, but let’s not forget that a foundation of reading and arithmetic (with all students having proficiency) is not enough in the modern world.

For students to be successful it is a “yes, and…“ with literacy and numeracy being important but not enough. I don’t know how schools can address the extreme inequities in our education without having a values conversation and a re-framing of conversations around re-defining student success with broader definitions of student success.

I think that our local communities should start asking themselves these two questions:

  • When a student graduates what should they know and be able to do?
  • What is our definition of student success?

This blog was originally posted on rhondabroussard.com.

For more, see:

Rhonda Broussard produces One Good Question, where she explores international education and access for all students through multiple lenses, but all with the same question. Follow her on Twitter: @BroussardRhonda.


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