Patrick L. Sullivan
The Lakeville Journal
LAKEVILLE — Richard Elmore had some startling observations about and predictions for American education at the Salisbury Forum program Friday, Oct. 10, at The Hotchkiss School.
• American schools are in the process of being marginalized because learning has “escaped” from them.
• American teachers cannot do what they are being asked to do.
• The best way to provoke a political crisis in Sweden is to make the case that the schools there are almost as bad as America’s.
Elmore is the Gregory R. Anrig Research Professor of Educational Leadership at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.
He began by describing teaching in the U.S. as “an occupation trying to be a profession without a practice.”
A profession, he continued, controls entry into its ranks; does not delegate responsibility for professional standards to a government or other outside agency; develops and maintains standards that have to do with practice and knowledge.
In a dozen years of touring schools in the U.S., Canada and Australia, Elmore has been trying to “create a profession in education.”
He spent time with physicians in a teaching hospital “to try and understand how to create a culture of professionalism.”
He watched instructional rounds in the teaching hospitals, wondering how the practice could be adopted to teaching.
And he went to schools — lots of them. Elmore estimated he visited 500 schools and 2,500 classrooms in the U.S. and hundreds in Canada and Australia over the last 12 years.
He was thinking along the lines of establishing a practice in education that would gather data; describe what happens in classrooms; and make predictions.
And he developed a clinical, self-assessing model of organizations. But, he said, “I’m stepping away from this now. The more I got into it, it was becoming a radicalizing experience.
“I felt I was doing palliative care for a dying institution.”
Elmore described the general pattern in American classrooms: “The dominant pattern is crushing mediocrity. Students are achieving a small fraction of what we know they are capable of.”
He put the blame for this on the restrictions placed on American schools.
“It’s something we do to ourselves.”
He said that the problems lie more in social capital differences than in “patterns of institutional practice.”
He said of American teachers: “We have dedicated people in public schools. They think they are doing important work. They are not qualified to do the work we are asking them to do. We have a monumental human resources problem we have refused to acknowledge, and the solutions to this are radical and politically distasteful.”
Elmore said that cognitive neuroscience, once a “backwater of psychology,” is now attracting significant resources. “We have growth in knowledge on how people learn.”
But because education is not a profession, there is “no bridge between knowledge and practice;” there is no clinical connection as in a teaching hospital — and no threat of losing a license to practice if a teacher is unable to meet professional standards.
“Because of this we are not making use of what we know about learning.”
In favor of digital teaching
Elmore then began talking about digital culture as a medium of learning. He predicted that digital learning will increase exponentially, traditional schooling much less so.
Elmore described the school environment as “cells, bells and hallways.”
“If you were starting from scratch the last place you’d go is a school.”
One major flaw in traditional schooling, he believes, is that knowledge and information have to pass through a single adult before reaching the student. There is no redundancy built into the system.
So if there is a misconception on the part of the teacher, it goes straight to the student.
“It’s a miracle this system has survived,” Elmore said. “It has survived because it’s a monopoly with political influence.
“Meanwhile digital culture is largely unregulated. It doesn’t care about having a single authority.”
School is like the post office
Elmore said he can imagine a situation in which the educational system transforms itself.
“But we have given the organization privilege. It’s not going to go away soon.
“The longer this goes on, the more it looks like the post office: a utility that will probably always be there, that employs people;but the volume and efficiency of movement of information has outpaced the post office. Same with schools.”
Elmore said Americans need to be realistic about what schools do:
• Schools decide what’s worth teaching
• How the learning experience is organized
• Who controls access to knowledge
• What constitutes evidence of learning.
He contrasted that with the digital world, “which responds to the needs, disposition and access of the learner.
“This drives ‘education’ crazy. Most learning outside school is done this way.”
Digital learning offers access
Digital culture is not synonymous with technology, which he described as the “enabling condition.”
Digital culture is not the Internet — “that’s just an artifact we use.”
Digital culture is not information. Elmore asked the audience to imagine a steel plate with a small hole in it. “Information” is on one side, “knowledge” on the other, and the hole is “learning.”
The learning process is dependent on the size of the hole.
In digital culture, the information is bypassing the entire steel plate — never mind the hole.
Digital culture is not the substitution of machines for humans. It is the opposite; it is a means for increasing contact.
“Digital culture is really about access, about enabling relationships previously constrained by distance.”
Wrong by definition
He offered a definition of what learning is not:
• The ability to memorize and repeat
• The ability to repeat routine tasks on demand
• The ability to distinguish between right and wrong answers to factual questions.
He said that public schools (and to some extent private schools as well):
• Manage the attainment structure — “they are primarily about the allocation of privilege and access”
• Provide custody and control
• Provide socialization to prescribed norms and attitudes
• Influence personal development
• Oversee learning.
“The problem is we pack all this into one institution — a shrinking franchise increasingly about custody and control.”
Meanwhile, as the institutions struggle, learning “escapes.”
Elmore said the next question will be how schools can adapt, and whether they will. He asked the audience to think of Hotchkiss or any other high-performing high school, whose “stock in trade is their ability to place students into competitive colleges.”
He said higher education is “stressed” at present — “the business model is collapsing.”
“Suddenly there are significant numbers of applicants from schools with hybrid transcripts, with college courses already taken from alternative sources.
“What happens to attainment when these alternative pathways open up?”
He described these changes as “disruptive innovation.” Elmore likened disruptive innovation to the functions of an iPhone — “did you know 10 years ago you needed these things? Now we can’t live without them.”
Disruptive innovation often marginalizes rather than displaces the established institution; the new way grows by redefining the central value proposition (think Federal Express vs. the post office).
Why the Swedes object
Elmore said he is heading to Sweden soon, where there is a major political crisis about international test scores (the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA).
The crisis, which brought down one government already, is that Sweden’s scores are similar to those of American students.
To the Swedes, “this is a major sign of educational system failure,” Elmore said.
During the question-and-answer period, Elmore was asked about charter schools. He said he has seen a lot of them and actively supports one in Chelsea, Mass. Overall, he finds that charter schools run the gamut between outstanding and horrible, and the overall results don’t look much different.
“I don’t think we’ve gained much ground. Charter schools are schools that white people like for other people’s children.”
Asked which countries are doing well with education, Elmore said that of the top 10 countries in the PISA scores, half are Asian and “none of them have anything in common except they all made a Draconian choice to control entry to teaching.”
By contrast, in the U.S., “40 percent of teachers come from the bottom third of college classrooms.”
Asked why students from other countries come to the U.S. if the system is so bad, Elmore said, “These kids come from families with money — gobs of money — and they want American degrees. They understand attainment, they come from cultures where they can buy privilege. What’s mysterious about that?”
Asked about the home-schooling movement, Elmore said, simply, “Wow.”
“Five years ago I thought it was a faith-based, marginal enterprise, without a lot of collaboration.
“Well, home schooling has become a digital culture. While it mimics traditional education to some degree, it is also finding community-based solutions to learning that are extraordinary.” He said that the home-schooling movement will probably soon face some obstacles, such as mandatory attendance laws.