Linda Darling-Hammond: Time for the U.S. to Learn the Right Lessons from High-Performing Nations

globemagnifyingglassAccording to many lawmakers, the barely average standing of U.S. students in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings is all the proof you need that our schools are failing. They have used the rankings to push ineffective and often destructive policies. But these so-called reformers are missing or ignoring key facts and information. For example, do most countries test their students as much as we do?

The answer, of course, is no. Most countries only test once or twice before their students enter high school, according to Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University, quite a contrast to the current testing regime in this country. High-performing nations also use performance-based tests, open-ended essays, oral assessments and project-based tests. Here in the U.S., there’s more pressure to prepare students for testing beginning in preschool. Furthermore, other countries, instead of narrowing the curriculum, emphasize music and foreign languages.

Darling-Hammond, one of the most influential education policy writer and researchers in the United States, discussed testing, school equity, teaching quality and teacher accountability at the NEA Foundation’s 8th Annual Cross-Site Convening, a gathering of education experts and union-district leadership teams from across the United States. These teams belong to the NEA Foundation’s Closing the Achievement Gaps Initiative and its Institute for Innovation in Teaching and Learning, both of which strive for better student success, learning conditions, and union-district collaboration.

The goal of the event, explained Harriet Sanford, president and CEO of the NEA Foundation, was  ”to share our collective experience, our strength and our hope as we define for ourselves what collaboration means. We are challenging ourselves to transcend old paradigms, now obsolete in the face of 21st century context of teaching and learning.”

Linda Darling-Hammond

Linda Darling-Hammond

These”old paradigms” include the high stakes standardized testing regime and ineffective tools of teacher evaluation that proliferated after the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) beginning in 2002. It’s no coincidence, said Darling-Hammond, that U.S. scores on PISA have stagnated since NCLB.

“The theory of reform behind NCLB – to test and apply sanctions to the failure to meet expected targets – has not made a major difference in student achievement in every one of the areas measured by PISA,”‘ she explained.

Darling-Hammond also pointed out that if you factor in only those schools where less than 10 percent of the students live in poverty, the U.S, actually ranks number one in the world on PISA. In schools where 25 percent live in poverty, the U.S ranks third. Even when you raise that number to 50 percent, our students rank way above the international average. The takeaway is clear, Darling-Hammond said.

“Those countries spend their money in highly equitable ways. If you spend more in schools on the education of children who have fewer socioeconomic advantages, you do better as a country. Other countries invested more money and that is what shot them up in the rankings.”

Some school systems in the U.S have made significant progress when they make smart investments. In 1998, after many court decisions, New Jersey revamped its school system by reallocating its funds. Over 10 years, it cut the achievement gap in half.

Investments in students must also be accompanied by investments in teacher quality. Teachers need more training opportunities, mentoring, collaboration, effective induction programs, and national board certification opportunities, Darling-Hammond said.  The most effective teachers have all had three or more years of teaching, national board certification and certification in their specific field. Yet not all teachers possess at least one of these characteristics—and that needs to change.

“We know that when you use professional teaching standards to guide preparation, teacher effectiveness improves,” she explained.

Professional development needs to be done in a “systemic” way, Darling-Hammond added, and that teacher education programs must address how teachers approach their content, curriculum and practices in the classroom. But for this to happen, teacher evaluation must be about development, rather than testing for punishment. That means a new accountability system must focus on improvement.

“In order to get that, we’re going to have to leverage a lot of change in teacher evaluation,” Darling-Hammond said. “… If all we do is focus on teacher evaluation after people get in the profession, we will be building on a house of sand.”

Video: Linda Darling-Hammond at the 2014 NEA Cross-Site Convening (remarks begin at the 59:30 mark)

Watch live streaming video from neafoundation at livestream.com
  • Frank Luke

    How is it that the following factors are never discussed on such forums:
    1. The objectives of 70% of the students in our high schools are diametrically opposite those of their teachers’ objectives.
    2. Majority of high school and middle school students valiantly and successfully resist education
    3. Teachers do not have the authority to punish the misbehaving students in a manner that would act as a deterrent to future classroom socializing – which goes on unabated throughout the nation
    4. Majority of the students who arrive in high schools across the United States are not students any more – they are merely passengers
    5. Put aside PISA, the state mandated test, the ACT, the SAT; and give the 7th grade math paper to 10th and 11th grade students, and more than 50% of them across all the 50 states in the union will fail. Give the 6th grade math paper to 9th grade students, and more than 50% of them in the entire nation will fail.
    The academic darkness that has gripped our nation for several years now is so endemic, it lies way beyond the scope of pedagogical excellence to even address this darkness, let alone solve it.

    • FE

      I agree with you wholeheartedly. Let me add to your comment about passengers. I think the curriculum that is often forced on us creates passengers. For example, in Virginia, the senior English curriculum for everyone is British literature. This curriculum may be appropriate for AP or dual enrollment students, but the majority of our seniors cannot relate to The Rape of the Lock! The selections in our senior lit book are identical to the ones I read in college as an English major. I really wonder how many seniors nationwide are able to read and understand this lit. I find I spend most of my time translating. As you said, the books come with “adapted readers” that simplify the material by one or two grade levels…akin to giving them the tenth grade work sheet as seniors. Most of my students are required to study British Lit, but were not required to have world history as a prerequisite. So much for activating prior knowledge. I find that my students and I are perpetually frustrated due to their total lack of interest in the material. I’m a pretty good marketer/salesperson, but eighteen year olds are savvy enough to realize that Paradise Lost has no relevance to anything they will be doing after graduation. I don’t blame them for their apathy, It’s not their fault that the authors of the standards are so out of touch with reality. Americans will scream and yell if Netflix raises it price or Verizon jacks up their cell phone rates, but most don’t even know what NCLB and Common Core are about. Companies keep telling the media that the workforce is below par. They keep telling us that kids can’t do basic math, write a simple paragraph, a lab report, a memo, or run a cash register. Yet, year after year, we keep cranking them out because they “pass all the tests”. Of course we don’t match up internationally. We need to diversify college prep and vocational education like most of the industrialized world. A child who is a skilled welder or electrician should not be tortured in British literature. He/she should be perfecting basic reading and writing, math, accounting, and computer skills, not expounding on the merits of British poetry.

  • Robert Hull

    I would rebut that those issues identified in the previous post by Frank Luke are indeed very clearly addressed in the presentation by Dr. Darling-Hammond. The issues raised in the post are indicators or symptoms of the current dysfunctional system and would all be eradicated if the system described in the presentation were to be fully implemented. For far too long we have been reacting to the symptoms rather than reforming the dysfunctional system from the core. Students WOULD be engaged, WOULD share the same objectives with educators, and WOULD arrive in high school as students rather than passengers if only the system were designed in the manner described by Dr. Darling-Hammond.

    You are so right that the solution does lie beyond pedagogical excellence. The solution is not to attack the symptoms displayed by students, but rather to start at the very core and restructure the system – not just the educational system, but rather the societal system as it pertains to children – in such a manner to produce the results we desire. The current adult-centric system must give way to a child-centric system if substantive reform is to occur.

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  • LINDA DARLING, FRANK LUKE & ROBERT HULL
    THE ARTICLE AND YOUR REPLIES LEAVE ME ASKING QUESTIONS RATHER THAN PROVIDING ANSWERS. 1ST, WORKING WITH NATIONS THAT ARE EXCELLING IN INTERNATIONAL RATES: DO WE KNOW THE QUALIFICATIONS OF THERE TEACHERS AND ARE THEY ANY HIGHER THAN OUR OWN? 2ND IS IT YOUR OPINION OR DO YOU HAVE RESOURCES THAT SQUARLY DEFINE POVERTY AS THE CAUSE OF BAD GRADES? CAN YOU TELL ME HOW MANY TEACHERS WERE TEACHING IN AMERICAN SCHOOLS WHEN AMERICA’S INTERNATIONAL RATINGS WERE HIGH, COMPARED TO WHEN THE RATINGS DROPPED? THIS COULD BE A CLUE AS TO CAUSATION.
    I DO HOPE ONE OR ALL OF YOU HAVE THE ANSWERS TO THESE QUESTIONS, AND REPLY.

  • Naomi Marcus

    I wish the article would have expanded on the entici
    ng mention of less testing and broader curriculum, especially music and foreign language. In Europe and Japan, students do not get reading curriculum until second or third grade. If we focused on reform in the primary years alone, the benefits would carry the young learners into the rest of their educational years. I believe this article missed its own point in returning to the same buzz words about professional development, accountability, ad nauseum. We have a nation of highly qualified teachers strangled by this distracting rhetoric.