With a focus on harnessing the power of leadership to improve the quality of public education, school administrators from across the nation converged on the San Diego Convention Center Feb. 23-26 for the American Association of School Administrators (AASA) 2006 National Conference on Education.

In an era when federal education spending threatens to dip for the first time in more than a decade and school leaders increasingly find themselves under fire for the academic deficiencies of their students, AASA President David Gee called on administrators to stand firm in their commitment to public education and work together to “build bridges” that will help prepare students for the evolving challenges of life in the 21st century.

Calling the nation’s children “our most important resource,” Gee said it’s time for school administrators everywhere to “stand up for public education”–and themselves.

Though being an advocate for public education isn’t easy, especially in the face of proposed budget cuts, Gee–along with a handful of other speakers throughout the weekend–said a shift in thinking, paired with the effective integration of new tools for teaching and learning, should go a long way to help the nation’s schools stay competitive in a new global economy.

When he began his term as AASA president a little more than a year ago, Gee said, he looked forward to heading to Washington to work with national leaders and policy makers to bolster the quality of education in the nation’s public schools.

What he encountered instead was resistance.

Lashing out at lawmakers on Capitol Hill and elsewhere, Gee said school administrators have become the scapegoats for a floundering school system–one where educators have been forced, under sweeping reforms such as the federal No Child Left Behind Act, to do more with less.

“I’ve come to learn that cooperation and teamwork [are] simply not the case [in Washington],” he said of his experience working with lawmakers. “It’s either their way or the highway. I’m tired of [politicians] quoting inaccurate details … and distorting the facts. And I’m irate that my friends and colleagues are subject to this sort of abuse.”

Taking up a theme that was reiterated throughout the weekend, Gee accused politicians of unfairly blaming school administrators for the troubles of the nation’s schoolchildren while refusing to provide the funding necessary to meet the demands of an education system anchored in accountability and fairness.

School leaders have but one choice, he said–to overcome.

Debunking the ‘myths’

But at a time when world figures from Bill Gates to President Bush have expressed concerns about the state of American education, suggesting that a trend of substandard student performance eventually might strip the United States of its status as a world economic power, some in education have begun to question the accuracy and pessimism of such forecasts.

Amid charges that U.S. students are losing ground to their academic counterparts in other industrialized nations, author and researcher Gerald Bracey told attendees to use caution when believing what they encounter in the news media.

In his book Setting the Record Straight, Bracey, an associate for the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation, sets out to debunk what he calls “the myths” surrounding education and global competitiveness. Though the nation’s current education system leaves a lot to be desired, he says, there is very little evidence that America is in danger of losing its place as a world economic leader.

Citing results from a battery of highly publicized national and international academic indicators–including the National Assessment of Educational Progress, more commonly called the Nation’s Report Card; TIMSS, short for Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study; and PIRLS, the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study–Bracey said what is perceived by the media as a decline in the performance of U.S. students is the result of our tendency as a nation to misread, and misunderstand, these data.

“Sometimes you have to see the data … and you have to make the rhetoric match the data,” Bracey told attendees.

Though these sorts of tests provide a broad representation of student populations in several nations, he said, the results often fail to account for important variables such as poverty, demographics, and the academic standing of students. For example, where U.S. schools might test a broad cross section of students, other nations might decide to test only their most academically accomplished students, making it difficult to provide realistic comparisons of academic proficiency.

And there are other variables, too, he said. Researchers also must take into consideration that different nations have varying definitions and interpretations of the terms used to describe student proficiency, such as “mastery” and “highly skilled.”

As an example of this disconnect, Bracey cited a popular statistic used to feed the perception that colleges in developing nations such as India and China are churning out more high-quality engineers and other technical graduates than modern U.S. institutions.

Though these and other developing nations are, no doubt, making strides to become more competitive, Bracey said, the perception that the U.S. is struggling to keep up isn’t necessarily true.

Amid reports that China currently pumps out as many as 650,000 engineers a year and India 300,000, compared with a mere 60,000 from U.S. institutions, Bracey said, the reality is that students graduating from academic programs in developing nations often don’t enter the workforce armed with the same high-quality skills as U.S. graduates.

In some countries, he said, what might amount to a bachelor’s degree might not even qualify as an associate’s degree at a comparative U.S.-based institution.

“It doesn’t translate well,” Bracey said of the comparison. The reality is that U.S. schools “are doing much better than their critics say and, in some cases, are doing much, much better than they ever have.”

Though schooling is a necessary ingredient for successful human development and growth, Bracey said, how well students perform in the classroom isn’t necessarily the best indicator of a nation’s economic future.

“Education, as it turns out, is not nearly as important to economic competitiveness as educators would like to think,” Bracey told the audience. Rather, he says, more in-depth research from other international organizations place a greater emphasis on other elements, including physical infrastructure, security, efficiency, human capital, market size, health, and–perhaps most importantly–innovation.

When you take these and other factors into consideration, as researchers for the World Economic Forum did as part of its 2005-06 “Global Competitiveness Report,” Bracey said, evidence shows that, despite widespread criticisms, “the United States remains the most competitive nation in the world.”

But, as he pointed out, that doesn’t necessarily mean the current education system has students headed in the right direction. “If nothing else, I think No Child Left Behind is destined to fail simply for its sole reliance on test scores,” Bracey added.

When trying to determine whether a child is equipped to become a productive member of a global economy, he said, a test built to measure how well someone comprehends a particular discipline or skill says little about his or her ability to contribute to society.

What these standards-based tests can’t measure are those rare, intangible qualities such as resilience, persistence, endurance, enthusiasm, and humility, he said–all attributes that are liable to affect how a student copes with the stress and uncertainty of day-to-day life. An outspoken opponent of NCLB, Bracey called the oft-criticized law “a one-size-fits-all approach to education” and said its focus on testing and standards is likely “moving us in the wrong direction.”

Not unlike other critics of the law, Bracey believes NCLB is misguided in that it seeks to measure the progress of students by focusing on grade-level achievement, rather than tracking the individual progress of students throughout the school system from year to year.

Tearing the tapestry

Bracey fears NCLB’s emphasis on test scores is precisely the wrong approach in today’s world of complex global challenges, because it fails to encourage the kind of innovation and problem-solving skills today’s students will need for success. Cultural anthropologist and author Jennifer James agrees.

What will it take for policy makers and education stakeholders to understand that change is needed? For James, it’s the ability of school leaders and others “to tell a new story”–one that integrates technology and explores the cultural desires of a new generation of learners, a group she refers to as the Internet Generation.

“The learning curve today is straight up,” James told attendees as part of her Feb. 25 keynote. At a time when technology is driving change at a rate that the world has not seen before, she said, it’s imperative that educators adjust their teaching styles to accommodate learning in the digital age.

“This is the most intellectual generation of learners we have ever seen,” she said. “It’s a generation that wants to learn to think.”

Stressing what she perceives as a need for more higher-order and critical-thinking skills in the nation’s classrooms, James called on educators to stop relying on old mythologies and start devising progressive strategies to meet the educational needs of a new generation of schoolchildren.

“Why is common sense not common practice?” James asked. Like Bracey, she criticized the Bush administration and federal lawmakers for placing too great an emphasis on teaching to grade-level standards, while doing little to underscore a growing need for more creative approaches.

In the future, she said, schools won’t have the luxury of falling back on old approaches. “We’re tearing the tapestry of learning,” she said, adding the question is no longer where are we, “but where are we going?”

To answer that new question will require old-fashioned leadership, many speakers stressed. Donald Knauss, president and chief operating officer of Coca-Cola North America, took the stage Feb. 23 to encourage educators to keep working in the face of adversity.

Knauss outlined five principles of leadership he said ring just as true in the field of education as they do in the boardrooms of corporate America: integrity, curiosity, optimism, compassion, and humanity.

Like all leaders, Knauss said, superintendents must harness their abilities, and the abilities of others, to create a culture of confidence, which ultimately leads to success.

A shift in thinking

To lead by example, school leaders first must learn to think outside the box, said Joel Barker, founder and chairman of The Institute for Strategic Learning and author of Five Regions of the Future: Preparing Your Business for Tomorrow’s Technology Revolution.

“Technology is going to be the primary driving force of the 21st century,” predicted Barker, whose new book explores the emerging concept of “implications literacy.” As educators, “you need to prepare yourselves and your students” for “a new way of thinking about technology,” he said.

As the term suggests, “implications literacy” states that to use technology effectively, everyday users–including teachers and students–have to understand not only how a particular technology works, but also what its uses are and, more importantly, how a certain device could be deployed to address a range of societal needs, from global warming to healthcare to the economy.

“It is imperative that we become more precise in our descriptions of what these technologies actually do,” Barker explained. “We have to better understand the implications if we want to know how [technology] can help us.” Rather than speak about technology in general terms, Barker wants people to begin thinking about technology as they would an ecosystem, where different “sets” of technologies work with, and feed off, each other in much the same way living organisms evolve in their own natural environments.

No matter how educators relate to technology, Barker said, the key is for teachers and students to understand how each breakthrough might be used in the future to solve a variety of new and longstanding problems, from disease control and prevention to increased economic production, energy consumption, and communications.

“This kind of thinking is mandatory for the 21st century,” he said. “If we don’t get literate, we are not going to be able to play the game with the rest of the world.”

‘Do the mission’

Of course, as speakers and school leaders repeated throughout the conference, a shift in thinking would mean little without the presence of solid leadership in the nation’s schools.

“Our job is not to seek the recognition–it is to do the mission,” California Education Secretary Alan Bersin told the audience.

Calling education “the great equalizer” and the “cornerstone of our freedom,” Bersin urged his colleagues across the nation “to stay the course” in their efforts to build stronger, more engaging public schools.


American Association of School Administrators

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