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‘Great Public Schools: A Basic Right and Our Responsibility’

American Education Week will be celebrated Nov. 15-21

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Education has served as America’s most potent springboard toward a better tomorrow and remains society’s single best hope for ensuring the American dream.

Communities everywhere want young people to feel connected, believe in themselves, and find joy and meaning in life. One precious gift we can give them is education opportunities and experiences that will help access a productive future.

The theme for American Education Week, Nov. 15-21, is “Great Public Schools: A Basic Right and Our Responsibility.” Investing in the education of America’s youth is the key to empowering and equipping them with the skills needed to compete in the global world and to ensure them a bright and prosperous future. The best guarantee of educational opportunity is a school system that receives strong support from the community.

Schools

America’s schools have made steady progress in many areas as a result of education improvements begun a decade ago. Some areas where schools have focused attention are now showing results of greater achievement. They are:

• Teaching strategies that reflect research-based instructional practices.

• Appropriate instruction, remediation, and acceleration alternatives.

• Testing to ensure appropriate curriculum alignment and student assessment.

• Enhanced use of technology and data.

There are thousands of teachers throughout the nation who in their daily work shape the lives of children — and the future. They are the center of education. Teachers understand the complexity of the teaching and learning environment. Their stories capture the powerful elements in the art of successful teaching where the criterion is student knowledge gain.

However, a familiar question and what continues to be a major challenge to the education community is how to ensure that students have the skills necessary to succeed and how to raise the academic ambition of a school to create a culture of achievement.

Many schools across America are linking standards-based reform with student achievement. Some believe the solution to higher academic success is high-stakes testing. It has become the accountability tool of choice to many states as policy makers struggle to find ways to increase achievement levels. This approach remains an open question.

The drive for so-called higher standards in schools has caused policy makers to pursue a heavy-handed, top down version of education reform. The results: schools have been turned into giant test-prep centers, the intellectual life has been squeezed out of many classrooms, and many educators are tirelessly waiting for a much needed review and change of the assessment process.

Standards are often defined as a long list of forgettable facts that students must know, or else. Moreover, teachers are encouraged to stick with the sort of traditional instruction that has now been shown by the best theory and research to interfere with increased and deeper understanding. Too much emphasis on achievement can reduce students’ interest in learning and often cause them to avoid challenging tasks. The real problem with standardized testing is not only how bad many of the tests themselves are, but also how much attention is paid to the results.

Tougher standards are usually seen not as guidelines but as mandates with accountability, a code word for tighter control over what happens in classrooms by people who are not in classrooms. Weaving its way through all these ideas is the implicit assumption that harder is always better. The result is that tests, texts, and teaching have not become more rigorous but merely more onerous.

Moreover, we should remember that the goal of education is not mastery of knowledge, but the mastery of self through knowledge -- something different altogether. Educators must engage and equip today’s students for effective and meaningful learning. We are failing to help children reach their full potential if we are not helping them to consciously shape their cultural and moral identities.

School should be an inquiry-based curriculum built around questioning, investigating, and analyzing topics in depth with authentic resources and projects. By doing so across the curriculum, students will learn to ask questions and seek knowledge. It instills in them the learning skills, attitudes, and habits that make clear thinking and expression possible. It also helps to capture their imagination, engage their sense of wonder, and nourish a love of learning. This content is not just for middle school and high school but also for every grade beginning in kindergarten.

We need to ensure that high-stakes testing, tests of rote knowledge and “workforce readiness” don’t obscure the most important question of what is the purpose of education: critical thinking, creativity, innovation, ambition, inspiration, and teamwork.

These are the very things that have made education great and America special.

We need to focus on identifying ways to retool the education system so that students can reach their highest level of learning. High expectations for students in a school can be communicated through policies and practices that protect instructional time and focus on highly targeted learning and academic goals that are monitored by the school annually, not necessarily by the state.

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