U.S. President Barack Obama says America's education system should be "the envy of the world," promising that his just-announced reform agenda would improve education at all levels, from pre-school programs to universities. While educators agree on the goal, they have very different visions of how to achieve it.
Two authors offer differing approaches to meeting the challenge of creating an educational system that encourages imagination and critical thinking.
Long Hours, Rigorous Testing Secrets to KIPP's Success
Work Hard, Be Nice by Jay Mathews is the tale of two young teachers who began their career at an inner-city school in Houston, Texas.
"They just graduated from Ivy League schools," he says. "They thought they were God's gift to education, but they started teaching in elementary schools in Houston, and they realized they were just terrible. Their classrooms were chaos, and they didn't know what to do. They were terrible teachers."
So, Mathews says, Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg worked hard to improve.
"They learned from some master teachers that they had run into," he says. "They did things that made sense to them, like keeping their kids in class longer, keeping kids after school, like going to visit parents when they had problems with discipline. Finally in 1994, they created one little class where they would teach their own way."
The results were so astonishing that the following year, their approach - called KIPP, Knowledge is Power Program - was expanded to the entire school.
"The extended hours are really important," he explains. "The KIPP school day is about nine hours long. The usual school day is about six-and-a-half hours. They have every other Saturday sessions. They have a required three-week summer school.
"Number two: They have high expectations from all those kids. They tell the fifth graders coming into their middle schools, 'You are all going to college.' They focus on results. They are not afraid of saying the tests our kids take are important. They don't complain about teaching to the test. They create a team spirit in the school: the kids, the teachers and the parents, all together as a team.
"So what KIPP's formula has done is created new principals. They recruit very good teachers, give them a year's training as a principal. Then give them the power to start their own schools. They've unleashed the creativity of these young principals."
Since 1995, KIPP has produced impressive results, in Texas and around the country.
"The first 1,000 KIPP kids to go through four years of a KIPP middle school have gone from the 32rd to the 60th percentile in reading and from 40th to the 82nd percentile in math," he says. "Now they have produced a network of what this summer will be 84 schools in the District of Colombia and 20 states."
Veteran Teacher Advocates Creative, Real-World Approach
While Mathews says creating more programs modeled on KIPP can deliver a quality education to America's low-income kids, John Taylor Gatto has a different point of view.
"Certainly there are many thousands of sincere and intelligent people associated with the programs you talk about, but they are all based on raising the standardized test scores of the students," Gatto says.
In his book, Weapons of Mass Instruction, the 75-year-old veteran teacher argues that America's educational system needs to be fundamentally reformed.
"Our schooling is about training in consumption. Production of value to communities hardly gets emphasis at all," he says. "Our schools teach people to memorize the dots, not to connect the dots. They produce a non-inventive, non-resourceful, somewhat worried mass of people who make reliable employees, but not the kind, I think, the planet needs today."
Testing is one aspect of the current educational system that needs to be replaced.
"We all know the information that tests deliver has a very little worth," he says. "Our tests are memory tests. They don't translate into useful information. It tells you that a person was a 'B.' They memorized what they were told to memorize. It does not stand as a proxy for performance."
Gatto suggests evaluating students by their performance in real-world activities. He says students should spend less time in classrooms and more time doing out-of-school assignments, observing businesses, taking notes and even doing apprenticeships.
"Let me give you one example of that," he says. "Just a couple of months ago, a teenage girl in Manhattan was faced with a puzzle of how a certain kind of fish, the red snapper, had steeply declining populations, and she matched that with the fact that red snapper, an expensive fish in supermarkets and fish stores, is available everywhere. She became suspicious. So, she sent 42 samples of what was being sold as red snapper in Manhattan to a DNA laboratory.
"They returned with startling conclusion that 80 percent of that fish was a cheap fish called red fish being sold as the more expensive fish. That was so common to do this cheat in the fish stores! So she added knowledge [to the community]."
Gatto also supports creating a new, more rigorous curriculum that helps free kids' imaginations and enhance their critical thinking skills.
"Kids don't read classic books," he says. "If they feel that what they are reading has value to them, they don't care how tough it is. I used to go to Harlem in New York City and teach Moby Dick, which is the most difficult American novel, major American novel, ever written. They didn't have any difficulty with Moby Dick.
"In mathematics, I can remember in 1940s having algebra, beginning algebra, in third grade. Now some kids don't get it at all, and the so-called bright kids until they are really at the last year of junior high school or the first year of high school."
After a 30-year-career as a public school teacher, Gatto is now a full-time advocate for school reform. He says transforming the current educational system will allow self-determined, inventive, imaginative brains to flourish. And, he adds, that's what our world needs now.