Education Reform: It’s Time to Move Past Slogans

The latest editorial in the Billings Gazette really takes a unique stand on education, suggesting that schools “must prepare students for life.” A bold position, as evidenced by the 128,000 Google hits for the following search: schools “prepare for life”.

It’s just a meaningless phrase. Demonstrating that parallelism is not a necessary skill for life in the field of journalism, the Gazette editorial argues that education “must emphasize critical thinking, problem solving, teamwork, leadership, work ethic and more extensively incorporate information technology.”

No, really?

Anyone involved in education knows that these are important skills, and schools are working to develop them in students. It’s not news to any of us. Where it gets complicated is the implementation. For example, the Gazette editorial suggests that laptops might be better purchases than textbooks, arguing that they “may be more cost effective.” What about content? Do we just turn students loose on Wikipedia and ask them to make a group PowerPoint presentation? Maybe have them do a web quest to find information? Modern information gathering is an essential skill for our students, but does anyone really believe that it can substitute for the discourse and interaction that characterizes excellent education?

The idea that teaching 21st century information seeking skills is a substitute for providing depth of knowledge is one of the great errors of contemporary education reform. Certainly, we should help our students become critical consumers, finders, and evaluators of information, but we also have an obligation to provide a foundation of knowledge that will give those skills meaning and application.

Ken DeRosa, a lawyer who writes an education blog, argues convincingly that students need to have “domain knowledge” to become effective learners who can contextualize information and build on it. The 21st century skills model seems to suggest that students need an hour of Google instruction and a firm handshake before they are sent off to work for some corporation. It’s just not that simple, though that kind of education certainly must appeal to the economic and political elite in this country.

The answer to improving our schools and their students is not, as the Gazette suggests, cutting corners with online and dual credit courses. It’s not going to be found in 21st century skills or other warm, fuzzy slogans.

So why do schools and the media embrace these quick fixes? Because implementing them is much simpler than working on the two factors that have the greatest bearing on student success: the living conditions of our students and the quality of their teachers. Until we are ready to tackle the incredible inequity that still characterizes American schools, we can at least work on the latter: recruiting, training, retaining, and evaluating excellent teachers, because the
makes it very clear that it’s not the latest edu-fad of the week that helps students grow; it’s quality teachers.

Truly “preparing students for life” means giving each student the ability to maximize her potential. We can only do that by focusing on meaningful, challenging, quality instruction. No slogan or laptop will ever replace that.

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About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba has been writing about Montana politics since 2005 and teaching high school English since 2000. He's a former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.


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    Assuming that these 21st century students went abroad to say, Bolivia, to speak with heritage speakers, they’ll be pretty shocked at living conditions and the sight of a book. Since I’ve been in college, I’ve realized that my research papers that only require one text source usually only have text sources. I feel that the scrutiny that written publication goes through is way more intense and therefore I trust it more. People can do ANYTHING on the internet and that kind of freaks me out.

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