In my office this week one of the many conversations has been the release of the latest PISA exam results. This international exam is often referenced as a measure of student ability to demonstrate literacy skills in three key areas – mathematics, science, and reading. However unlike most tests, these skills are measured by asking students to solve problems in real-world contexts, attempting to assess how well educational programs are transferring to real-life skills and life-long learning. Every three years it is given to groups of 15 year-olds all over the world and national scores are compared. As history would predict, the United States did not fair too well. As a matter of fact students in Shanghai, China scored extremely well – so well that even the experts are a little bit stumped. I have mixed emotions about the PISA. On one hand, I’m happy to see that it is a test that is a more authentic measure of what we actually want students to be able to do when they leave our educational system and become 21st century citizens. On the other hand, the results are used to compare countries which is a little like the classic analogy of trying to compare apples to oranges. As an educator who is always looking to improve his craft, I have 10 questions I would like to ask my fellow educators in Shanghai. So in no particular order…
- Professional Learning – What sort of professional learning are you engaged in to constantly improve your practice? Do you make use of lesson study, professional learning communities, or staff development? Has the Federal government considered cutting funding for any professional organizations to which you belong?
- Differentiation – In American classrooms our goal is to help every student succeed. I assume this is the same in China, soI am curious how you differentiate instruction for non-native language speakers, special education students, students who are below grade level?
- Classroom Management – Some of our students are well let’s say “more behaviorally ready” for school than others. How do you handle classroom management? Do you focus on building relationships with students or do you make more use of punitive measures?
- Classroom Materials – What sort of instructional materials are you using? Paper? Books? Pens and Pencils? Markers? Laptops? LCD Projectors? Cell Phones? Interactive Whiteboards? Classroom Response Systems? Do students bring these materials to school with them? Does your school system provide them? Or do you find yourself cruising the $1 bins at Target or Walmart in early August (if so, say “Hi” next year) and hiding your Amazon.com bill for your classroom library from your husband or wife so that in an era of decreasing education budgets all of your students will have the materials to learn?
- School/Community Relationships – How do you build school/community relationships? Do your families often attend back-to-school night and other school site meetings? As a teacher, when you call families at home to ask for support in helping their student succeed in class, how are you received? Do they answer the phone? Is their phone number up to date? Do they respond to email? Are they willing to come for parent-teacher conferences, observe classroom lessons, and help ensure their student is ready for school by providing a safe, caring, nurturing environment? Are your students coming to school hungry too? Is school viewed as a priority or something “the kids do” from 8-3? Do you have parents who are concerened we’re asking our kids to do too much?
- Societal Belief in Education – When you are out with friends and community members your age, what is their reaction to you being a teacher? Are teachers and educators held in the same esteem as doctors, engineers, or lawyers? Or do you find yourself having to explain why you decided to use your degree in Biological Sciences degree from a prestigious university to become a teacher as you get shallow, quiet looks of pity from the rest of the group?
- Assessments – Do you have more than one high stakes assessment in May to measure student achievement and in theory your job performance? Do your assessments align with what you are being asked to teach and the community is hoping you will accomplish? Do your assessments look at student growth over time or do they simply measure what they were able to do on that day? Do they measure factoid information for which you can easily Google or do they attempt to measure critical thinking and problem solving skills?
- Education Reform – Are you in the midst of education reform too? Are your elected officials making sure as changes are made that they are in the best interests of students help to mentor 21st century citizens or does it seem to be more of a political ax-griding contest? Are they able to provide the funding to ensure these reforms happen and committed to the idea that change likely takes 5-10 years? Are they obtaining ideas from educational researchers or from reform celebrities? In my city one of these reformers is proposing the mayor should take over the schools (he’s struggling to run the city as it is and she also happens to be his fiancee, but Oprah likes her and she was in this movie – perhaps you’ve seen it?)
- Broken Systems – If you find yourself in a broken system what are you able to do about it? Do you have any power to help ineffective teachers and administrators improve or find a new profession? Or do you find yourself closing the door and praying they don’t affect you and your kids?
- Job Security – Are you preparing for the emotional roller coaster of being laid off again this spring regardless of your teaching ability because the state has trouble balancing the budget each year? Or do you have faith that you will be able to focus you time and energy on constantly improving your teaching and helping all of your students succeed?
Hopefully, my questions don’t seem too snarky. They are honest questions and as I drive to and from work each morning these are the thoughts that are flowing through my mind, along with many others like – How can I help that group of students? How can I help that principal see that coaching and professional learning do matter? How can I help that teacher see her students as amazing writers with powerful voices? Really, my questions are more for the rest of America. Our educational system cannot be measured by just one test and while the system is in desperate need of fixing and reform every single American has a role to play in making that happen. For far too long we’ve seen schools as something extra or “what kids do” and not as the pathway to our economic and political futures. As Thomas Friedman wrote earlier this week, “we’re in a hole and we keep digging.”