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Now is the Time

I have been doing a little reading on one of my true loves, brain research, and would like to take a moment to say that rapid growth in the field is producing astounding findings that are important to those of us in the brain business, teaching and learning. I am, of course, dismayed by the current education reform efforts, most of which appear to be diametrically opposed to the new research findings. I won’t go into detail here, but even on the macro level the predatory reformers have it wrong.

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I am unabashedly pro-reform, and proud of it. The public schools in the U.S. are headed in the wrong direction and must be redirected to a new course. The evidence is clear that things have gone unquestionably wrong. Failing schools, increasing drop out rates, a badly deteriorating infrastructure, and demoralized teachers are all indicators that we need to look at the policies and procedures that have led to these declines, stop them, and turn things around.

Here is the data-based reform required to improve our public schools.

Stop the standards-based curriculum mandates. We have been doing this for more than 10 years and no one can argue that things haven't gotten steadily worse. More schools are judged as failing every year. Replace the current one-size-fits-all model with the research-based protocol of meeting individual needs and helping each child reach their full potential in a whole-child approach to education.

Decrease the overemphasis on a narrow range of curricular goals, unproven high-stakes testing, increasing class sizes, and underfunding school programs. Instead, expand the curriculum to include interest areas of all students, provide multiple forms of assessment designed to help each student grow both in areas of strength and weakness. We must replace the rote learning required by the current emphasis on testing and instead include problem solving, creativity, and critical thinking in our arsenal of instructional techniques. Further, we must provide assistance in meeting curricular demands and help each student monitor their progress toward their own goals.

Current efforts are designed to cut school funding, both by direct budget cuts and by pulling money away from local school board control and hand it over to private interests to run charter schools, provide vouchers to private schools, and bring under-trained staff in to local schools to replace experienced teachers. The outcome of this combined money drain has been to concentrate the hardest to solve problems in schools serving primarily minorities and the poor and to provide these schools with an ever-declining revenue stream. The result is deteriorating facilities, lack of up-to-date books and other instructional resources, and large class sizes. Our reform efforts must be directed to ending the corporate takeover of school functions by ending the use of public dollars to fund charter schools, vouchers, and privately run teacher replacement programs. The dollars saved must be returned to the control of local school communities. Further reform efforts are needed to identify revenue streams that will ensure the maintenance and replacement of outmoded school facilities.

Current school policies have resulted in a workforce that is badly demoralized. Teacher bashing through the use of unproven “accountability” measures, school closings and the resulting teacher layoffs and firings, legislative efforts to end teacher bargaining rights, increasing class sizes, top-down control of both curriculum and instruction, and efforts to replace experienced teachers with short-term, unproven neophytes all must stop. Reform efforts must be made to reverse these disturbing trends and rebuild a professional teacher presence in our schools. Lower class sizes, reliance on the professional judgment of trained staff, and school supported professional development are all steps that must be taken to improve teacher morale.

What is outlined here is just a sample of what must be done to turn around the failed, top-down efforts to operate our public schools. It is time to end the experiment on children being perpetrated by the U.S. Department of Education. It is time to take back our local schools and institute REAL reform. Join us in this effort to turn around an attempt to steal our children's future. http://dumpduncan.org

Where Do You Stand?

One could argue that the primary function of the public schools is the cognitive development of the children who attend. It seems reasonable that those who are in charge of said cognitive development would have a solid understanding of what the concept means and of the current research in the field. As I observe current practice in the K-12 schools it is apparent that those in charge of instruction either don't have even a rudimentary understanding of cognitive development theory or they are willfully ignoring what is known about how children learn.

Several years ago I searched for areas of agreement in the work of brain researchers and other cognitive scientists to see if there is a body of agreed-upon knowledge in the field. The search resulted in a list of eight promising candidates for the basic theorems of learning. The listing was reported out at the Learning and the Brain Conference at Harvard and MIT in May of 1999 and is included here for your consideration and comment. It is not assumed that the list is all-inclusive. It may contain redundancies and may contain items all researchers would not agree upon. It is intended as a starting point in an effort to limit energy-wasting arguments over particular teaching techniques, instructional strategies and curriculum designs. All this said, here are the eight candidates:

At birth, our brain is made up of tens of millions of basic neural networks, each programmed through natural selection to process a specific element of the environment.

Stage Development
The growing brain is especially well equipped for particular kinds of learning at certain stages of development.

Mental Models
Infants form mental models about how the world works and, as they receive new information from the environment, they modify their theories to better explain to themselves what they are hearing, seeing, and feeling.

Emotion plays a central role in cognition both by driving attention and by aiding in memory storage. High challenge and personal meaning enhance learning, threat inhibits learning.

Handling Crisis vs. Slow Developing Problems
The brain is better at sizing up and responding to high contrast, sudden changes than in monitoring slowly evolving, subtle changes.

Brain Plasticity and the Role of Experience
Brains are self-organizing, making connections and allocating space in response to each individual’s experience and perceptions. They are capable of growth throughout life. Learning is a reflective activity that allows us to draw upon past experiences to create meaning, formulate deeper understanding, and shape our futures. Knowing depends on engagement in practice.

The Social Nature of Learning
Learning is essentially a social, collaborative, problem-solving activity.

Adequate Time
Adequate time is needed for assimilation and integration of new knowledge.

Fifteen years after the list was developed it remains pretty much intact. How is it then, that virtually everything we can agree on about cognitive development is systematically ignored by the federal and state mandates that expect all children to learn the same things at the same rate over the course of their public school experience? In any other field it would be called malpractice or outright abuse. And that is what it is in the field of education. At a minimum it is malpractice and for many children it is abuse.

Why do we stand for it? Aren't we guilty of malpractice or abuse as we sit on the sidelines as parents or carry out the abusive activities as teachers, principals, and superintendents?

When are you going to stand up and say, NO MORE?