CAMDEN — Systemic school change requires determination, planning and perseverance.
Vivien Stewart, expert on international education and author of the book “A World-Class Education: Learning from International Models of Excellence and Innovation,” highlights the complex menu of ingredients required for transformation of an educational system.
Three of these are attracting top candidates to the teaching profession, providing conditions conducive to retaining those teachers for the long haul, and training school leaders in transforming schools. How does a nation, state, school district or town do this?
Singapore has done it by making a concerted national effort to overhaul its system and create a better one. As a result, Singapore is off the charts in terms of student learning outcomes. The country:
• Offers beginning salaries to carefully selected K-12 teachers commensurate with those of engineers, lawyers and other professionals at the start of their careers.
• Provides topnotch professional development throughout a teacher’s career.
• Steers teachers along one of a variety of pathways depending on talent and interest – trainer of younger teachers or school leader are two such pathways.
• Focuses on equity.
• Provides rigorous, innovative training for school leaders.
Finland has done it by:
• Creating a highly competitive entry process for prospective teachers.
• Rewarding those who are admitted into the profession with a no-cost, two-year master’s degree program.
• Training teachers in how to conduct research while working in schools.
• Scheduling a relatively short teaching day with much time provided for study, planning, collaborative projects and research.
• Paying good salaries.
• Offering teachers and administrators the autonomy to make decisions at the school level.
• Emphasizing equity.
• Building trust among parents and the culture at large.
Some say a big nation like the United States can’t do what small countries can when it comes to transforming education. However, our individual states are not so big – Maine is less than a third the size of Finland – and much decision-making for our schools takes place at the state and local levels anyway. So, actually, size is not an excuse for accepting mediocrity.
What steps would we need to take to transform our system of education and make it competitive with international systems?
The first step would be to convene stakeholders and create a task force in each district in the state. These task forces would be comprised of parents as well as representatives from schools, businesses and higher education.
The first purpose of these groups would be to articulate what attributes a successfully educated student must display. Then they would determine:
• What standards need to be demanded of those entering the teaching profession in order to provide children with the education required.
• What changes need to be made to the training provided in graduate school in order for teachers to meet those standards.
• How the induction process could be improved once a teacher enters the workforce.
• How to create a systematic, comprehensive, effective system of continued professional development for teachers and school leaders.
• How to create a compensation package attractive enough to lure top candidates.
• The best way to select and train school leaders.
At some point in the process of planning for transformation, the state (or districts) should send some of their best teacher leaders, alongside town leaders and perhaps professors of education, on study missions abroad. In that way, they could see first-hand what it means to be trained and then work in top-performing systems such as those in Singapore, Finland, New Zealand and Korea. They could then share their expertise at the state and district levels and especially with the task forces they represent.
All of this would cost money, and the question then becomes where to get this money. I propose a moratorium on buying textbooks and on extending the provision of 1:1 technology to students younger than middle school age. With the money saved from these two areas, I think we’d have enough to fund task forces and study missions abroad.
Our population is under 1.5 million people here in Maine. If we put our minds to it, we should be able to do what far larger systems have done before us.
Let’s stop tinkering at the edges of school change and instead make careful plans for how to approach the project of improving not just one aspect of the educational system, but rather the entire educational ecosystem.
— Special to the Press Herald