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Arizona State Forum: Fixing U.S. Education

WASHINGTON – Taking the uncommon step as a public flagship university to help stimulate the national conversation on education reform, Arizona State University convened a panel of education experts for a forum titled “Getting Back in the Race: Fixing American Education” at the National Press Club Friday in downtown Washington.

Arizona State University president Michael Crow, who moderated the panel, began the discussion by pointing out the importance of constantly seeking ways to enhance the educational performance of both teachers and students. It is an issue, he said, that grows increasingly important as the nation’s demographics also continue to change and grow, creating numerous social and economic challenges.

“We have to look at innovation and finding new ways to do things, because it’s clear from the numbers that our performance has peaked,” Crow said. “We need to gain additional ways to enhance the teaching and learning process.”

When asked where that process should begin, Heather Harding, vice president for research and public policy at Teach for America, said that teacher training must continue even after educators begin their careers and that higher performance standards must be required. Harding also said that teachers should be held accountable for how effectively students are learning.

“The job of preparing and supporting teachers and working on teacher development doesn’t end once they graduate [from college],” she said.

Using innovative, new media tools can have a significant impact on how effectively children learn, noted Public Broadcasting Service president Paula Kerger. PBS gears most of its educational investments toward very young children.

“All of the statistics show that, if you reach a child at the earliest ages, the chances of that child achieving in school increase tremendously,” Kerger said.

The PBS network reaches out to children at home, with curriculum-based programming and online games and tools, and creates innovative technology-based content for teachers to use in the classroom. Though teachers are the biggest users of PBS-created content, there are still many teachers who fear the technology. PBS also offers continuing education credit courses for teachers that can be taken online, according to Kerger.

Too often, Kerger said, children are confined to their seats as the teacher stands in the front of the room, as was the norm when she was growing up, but which today is considered a complete disconnect from the way children are thinking, living and learning. Learning in a more passive setting, by watching a program like “Sesame Street,” for example, can greatly increase letter recognition and math skills, she said. Once you introduce games, Kerger noted, children’s learning “jumps off the charts.”

Bonnie Reiss, who serves as education secretary for the state of California, said that innovation would not only rescue K-12 education but also the economy.

“But the bottom line is that, if you focus on having a teacher in every classroom and an effective principal in every school and a finance system that follows that and maximizes the dollars in the classroom, that’s the most significant aspect of achieving student outcomes,” she said.

Reiss added that there’s a movement afoot, fueled in large part by the U.S. Education Department’s “Race to the Top” program, that is placing greater emphasis on principal and teacher performance as a significant way to measure student performance.      

Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), recommended a holistic approach to educating. He said that, in addition to using innovative methods and tools, all teachers, but particularly those working with children of color, must also develop a strong grasp on children’s lives outside school and the challenges they face as well as the strengths that the children bring to the classroom. He also said it is important to prepare teachers to deal with kids who are unhappy or are not ready to learn because they, quite frankly, have hellish home lives.

“We make sure that our [undergraduate] students are working in those challenging schools, and then they come back and talk about those challenges, such as what you do when in the classroom somebody swears or starts fighting. How do you go about rewarding kids when they do the right thing?” Hrabowski explained. “They talk about how you deal with issues of Black-White relationships in the classroom and most importantly how you help young people believe in themselves. That’s not something you know immediately. It takes constant effort.”

UMBC also provides a support system for former students once they’ve graduated from the institution so they can share and discuss their experiences as full-time teachers. California, Reiss added, offers urban teaching fellowships to education majors.

“The issues of improving student learning in America are multifaceted and so are the solutions,” concluded Lorenzo Esters, vice president for Access and the Advancement of Black Public Universities, Association for Public and Land Grant Universities, at the end of the event. “It takes partnership building between all segments of education, and you had here K-12 as well as higher education and that’s the wave of the future. The way we’re going to turn this around is all segments of education working together.”

Click here to view the forum.

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