Monday, November 10, 2008

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Public Schools for Tomorrow

Public Schools for Tomorrow (PSFT) is a network of public school leaders who understand that America’s future depends on a renewed vision for public education and on school reform more effective than the limited, test-driven approach of No Child Left Behind (NCLB)

PSFT – school superintendents, former superintendents, district and building administrators, teachers, college and university professors, and other friends – seeks to shift the focus of debate over educational policy. PSFT promotes its bold covenant for public education through position statements, public dialogue, systemic collaborative action, and advice to leaders (civic, community, and corporate).

For more information about PSFT, go to our website. You can also email Professor Thomas Sobol, President of PSFT.

Our Concern: Today’s Educational Crisis

Now, more than ever, individual welfare and the nation’s common good depend on the strength of our public schools. America’s promise has been that all her children must have access to equal opportunities for educational success. Our nation has too often failed to keep that promise; but in this changed and changing world we can no longer do so. What altruism once required, self-interest now compels.

Today’s educational policies and practice are failing America’s citizens. Instead of preparing our children to be thoughtful citizens who can innovate and hold their own with well-educated people from other countries, too many of our schools devote too much time to test prep in literacy and mathematics, ignoring inquiry based science, critical thinking skills, and creative arts. The gap between the “have” and “have-not” schools and students is widening, as school after school is labeled as failing in the NCLB lexicon.

What should we teach, how should we teach it, and how can teachers use the results from different assessments to improve instruction? These questions go to the heart of school activity. Paradoxically, for all the debate over education reform, surprisingly little has been said about teaching and learning. Reform that ignores these essential activities is doomed.

It is time to discontinue meaningless either/or arguments about “accountability” and so-called “broader, bolder” reform. The times call for a new covenant among local, federal and state governments and local school districts. The PSFT mission is to ensure that every child acquires the quality education he or she needs and deserves.

What We Believe

• Powerful currents at home and abroad call for fundamental and rapid change in schools and school systems. All students must be educated well to maintain a strong democracy and compete in a global economy, yet too many children of color and those in poverty fail to earn a high school diploma. This is morally unacceptable and will have terrible consequences for the United States of America.

• Today, we are encountering a new influx of immigrant children, many from Asia and Central America. Our social and economic order will be profoundly influenced by how effectively we educate them. Gaps in learning must be eliminated so that Latino and African-American children are achieving at the same or better levels as white and Asian children.

• Standards of achievement should not be confused with standardization of process. There is more than one right way to teach, learn and assess learning. Students should have more than one way to demonstrate learning. Current efforts to improve teacher capacity are under-funded, piecemeal, and inadequate to the need. Remember – tests don’t teach children, teachers do.

• Schools should provide not only for children’s academic needs, but for their developmental and social needs as well.

• Schools must change to meet these goals, but schools cannot meet them by themselves. Our nation needs to commit resources so that the children in the richest country in the world no longer are hungry, live in substandard housing, or are denied medical care. Schools can’t do it alone.

• Although we expect to learn from today’s and tomorrow’s public school reforms such as charter schools, attempts to privatize the schools should be resisted.

• The manner in which schools are funded – at local, state and federal levels – must be fundamentally changed so that all children receive the resources needed for a sound, comprehensive education.

• Instead of today’s mandated top-down accountability system, we need a new system of mutual accountability. In this system, every participant—legislator, governor, policy-maker, school and district administrators, teacher, student, parent—is responsible for his or her share of the work and accountable to the others for accomplishing it.

Genuine equality of educational opportunity is at the core of American democracy.

Our 2008 Recommendations

All children deserve schools with the advantages of our most successful school communities:

• Clear, common mission
• Wise, consistent leadership
• Well-educated, eager teachers
• A culture of high expectations
• Curriculum and teaching based on respected research
• Funding that gives all students updated texts, technology and other materials
• Rich learning measures including portfolios, projects, exhibitions, and tests

So that every child has these advantages, PSFT calls for the following immediate actions:

• Assessments need to change so that they measure the skills that our graduates will need in the coming century.

Standardized testing should be just one in a broad range of measures that assess student success and school effectiveness. Future federal legislation should discontinue annual standardized testing of every child. Over-testing is unnecessary and educationally unwise; it causes reductive teaching that emphasizes test-taking skills and lower-order abilities.

Federal and state funds should be used to develop assessments that evaluate higher order thinking, creativity and the ability to solve problems. We can learn from current practice in some European nations.

State education departments should emphasize the educational uses of assessment; the main purpose of evaluation should be to help improve teaching and learning. States should help localities build capacity to use information for this purpose.

• New initiatives are needed to support quality teachers and leaders.

Federal and state governments, working together with superintendents and teacher educators, should undertake a long term effort to recruit, educate and retain highly qualified teachers and school leaders. Nothing is as important as effective teachers and visionary school leaders in influencing what students learn. Teachers need time and school-based support to develop with colleagues curricula and instruction to address their students’ different learning needs and styles. Added funding will not be the only resource required, but it will be necessary. We need legislation to fund such an effort, modeling the National Defense Education Act of the late 1950’s.
• State and federal commitments must be renewed to support the well-being and development of our nation’s children so that they can grow up to be productive adults in our democracy.

The states and federal governments should expand funding for quality pre-school programs taught by quality teachers. Such programs should have social, emotional, and behavioral components as well as age-appropriate academic goals.

The federal government should commit itself to a long term initiative aimed at understanding and addressing the impact of poverty, malnutrition, inadequate housing, and absence of early education on children’s ability to learn.

• We must renew our nation’s commitment to thoughtful federalism, and shared responsibility instead of top-down accountability. Local control is not perfect, but over time, its success has been impressive. Throwing the baby out with the bathwater has never been a good idea.

The federal government should require states to mandate the teaching of core literacy and math skills. How these skills are taught and assessed should be the responsibility of the states.

State education departments and/or regional consortia should work with professional organizations such as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics to develop regional “best practices” clearinghouses in support of localities.

State education departments should create and provide funding for teams of educators to support schools needing improvement. These should include representatives from the local district, successful schools, and higher education. They should be invited to develop and implement improvement plans that include assessment, as well as restructuring plans, where appropriate.

State and federal governments should fully fund mandated programs.

• Educational leaders need to be part of the dialogue about how to improve education. Superintendents and other educational leaders have been absent far too long from educational policy deliberations.

Congress should create a national panel of educational leaders to advise about any future legislation, and on a reauthorized ESEA, in particular. PSFT stands ready to contribute to this effort.

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