Once again this past few weeks, the ongoing education debate in the United States occupied the headlines, bylines and cable news scrolls. NBC launched its second annual "Education Nation Summit", billed as a way "to engage the country in a solutions-focused conversation about the state of education in America".
Meanwhile, President Obama, approaching warp speed on the campaign trail to try to convince us he's actually the transformational guy from 2008 - as opposed to the chary chap we've found running our country since - made a fresh pitch in his weekly radio address for his version of education reform. Obama tied it to the economic future of our country, and discussed waivers to allow states to opt out of provisions of his predecessor's much-maligned legislation, the No Child Left Behind Act.
Of course, the problem is that we're not having an honest conversation about education in the US, because many of the broader trends degrading our overall political culture are also at work with this issue. Although some people really want to improve the system for our children, there are also those who see our schools as a way to bring about their vision of a 21st-century America - which sometimes looks a lot like 1984.
This whole cast of characters will seem familiar - much like that coffee stain you just can't get out of the carpet, or overacting in a Nicolas Cage movie.
First, there is the science-despising Christian Right, who think school is for fairy tales and the teachings of the unimpeachable sources at their weekly snake handling. If their Bible said that gravity didn't exist, it wouldn't. If you walked off a building and fell straight to the pavement a la "The Happening", it would be your fault for a three-martini lunch you had in April of 1996, or for being married as many times as Rush Limbaugh.
Don't fool yourself into thinking these people don't have a lot of influence. If you don't believe me, see "Texas Board of Education" and "textbooks".
So is it any wonder, then, that in December 2010 the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development released a study showing the US ranking 17th in the world in science and 25th in maths?
Lately, education reform has gotten a bad name. This is largely because all efforts to improve our institutions of learning are suspected to be more Rhee-form than reform, with an emphasis on statistics over students, testing over tutoring, one-size fits all approaches as opposed to creating the kind of cultural change within our schools that will lead to their renaissance.
This is why, for me, it was quite literally a breath of fresh air when I recently was introduced to Steve Edwards, CEO of Edwards Educational Services. Edwards, who speaks so passionately about education that there is no doubting his sincerity, has built a model consulting practice on the premise that leadership skills are of paramount importance, safety, lowering dropout rates and student achievement go hand in hand, and building a relationship of “trust” between students, administrators and educators is key.
In summary, Edwards and his entire organization are so successful because as EES itself states, we can't apply “simplistic solutions to address complex problems…The educational system of each city and town must be structured and continually adjusted to meet the needs of its population, as well as the demands of society’s evolving dynamics.”
Adding to this, Edwards told me:
There are a number of indicators of student performance, of which testing is only one. It is considered 95% of the pie by those dominating many reform conversations today. It should be about 20%.
Let's not create conformity so kids do not learn to think. Let's not substitute rigidity for the ability to study data and demographics from local communities, and see what that tells us about which strategies will be most successful. Let's develop programs so teachers and students can learn to communicate and interact. Let's prioritize safety and achievement, and acknowledge the obvious relationship between them. Let's ensure there is teacher accountability, but not judge teachers based on results from one test, but on how they handle all of these important facets of the educational experience for our children.
If that sounds different than Rhee-form, that's because it is. Innovation should be about updating improving how we teach our children, not figuring out the best way to profit from it. Yes, change is necessary, no it doesn't need to come in the form of some Randian version of public schooling.
How do we know EES’ strategies work? Because even before he took his innovative student-centric approach national, Edwards displayed its effectiveness as principal of East Hartford High School in East Hartford, Connecticut for a decade, during which time he and the school were recognized by USA Today as national leaders in education innovation.
What happened during his tenure there? Only a 50% reduction in suspensions, over 50% drop in incidents of fighting, no student expulsions in seven years, a reduction in the dropout rate to under 1.8%, and increased graduation rates—all while improving scores on the standardized tests that are so all-important to Rhee's crowd.
More recently, from 2005 to 2008, Edwards Educational Services worked with 48 Toledo Public Schools. When compared to the 14 schools that did not work with EES, the results speak for themselves. EES's emphasis on creating a culture of collaboration and data-based decision-making led to an increase in achievement scores of over 60% among the 48 public schools they worked with, while the other 14% saw their achievement scores go up by just over 10%. I don't need Isaac Newton to explain to me that those numbers mean something.
In the years since, Edwards has learned what works on the ground level, joining The National Crime Prevention Council as vice president, to develop strategies to lessen youth, family, and community violence. Edwards also provided kids with the training, skills, and confidence they need as Vice President of Global Initiatives with 180-Degree, and a decade sitting on the Board of the National Dropout Prevention Center—all contributors to the development of the groundbreaking programs of Edwards Educational Services.
As if these results and strategic imperatives don’t speak for themselves, one need only look to a recent piece by Sarah D. Sparks in Education Week, entitled, “Study Links School Safety to Student Achievement, Relationships,” to see the power of The Edwards Approach:
School safety depends far less on the poverty and crime surrounding the campus than on the academic achievement of its students and their relationships with adults in the building, according to a new study of Chicago public schools.
Read the rest, it is well worth it.
I'm excited to be working with Edwards Educational Services in trying to achieve some pretty lofty goals, but I'm even more excited that in EES we have the answer to Rhee-form. And as you could have guessed, it’s real, it’s tangible, and it’s student-focused....REFORM.