Practice, Practice, Practice

Which of these two approaches do you believe generates better results, whatever the endeavor?
  1. Constantly shifting gears; placing a high value on trying new programs an strategies without necessarily waiting to evaluate the results of what you have initiated before moving on to the next new thing.
  2. Deciding on a course of action and then sticking to it faithfully for an extended period of time, even when evidence surfaces suggesting that there may be better strategies and newer, more innovative techniques that could yield better results.
In the real world, of course, one needn't choose one or the other. But I would argue that public education systems in this country have most often and by default chosen something resembling the first approach over the second. The frenetic pace of new mandates and initiatives have made it almost impossible for educators to settle in and get good at implementing any particular series of changes.

As state Sen. Mike Johnston wrote on this blog last week, Colorado finds itself in a place today where slowing down and implementing the state's abundance of new initiatives would be the wisest course of action:

With Colorado in the middle of rolling out new standards, developing new state assessments that will replace CSAP, and overhauling our principal and teacher evaluation system, a number of the most critical components of our statewide system are in flux.

This summer I had the opportunity to talk with more than 1,000 teachers and more than 70 superintendents and their consistent message was that they are committed to getting standards, assessments and evaluations done right, but they need the time to do that before embarking on another big initiative.

In the following paragraphs, or course, Johnston said yes, but we must also address "student accountability" and the method by which we count enrollment in districts. So don't expect stagnation at the State House.

I keep thinking back to a trip I took to Mexico in March 2004, when I worked at the Piton Foundation. Educator Rob Stein, community advocate and Mexican national Jaime Di Paulo and I spent a week in the state of Zacatecas visiting schools. (We also spent an enjoyable evening following around a burro that dispensed shots of mescal, but that's a story for another venue).

We wanted to see what we could learn about Mexican education at the classroom level, and whether any of those lessons might be useful to educators in Colorado, who were working with growing numbers of Mexican immigrant students.

You can read a full account of the trip here, the highlight of which is Stein's insightful analysis of Mexican classrooms.

Mexico is not known for its stellar public education system. In the latest (2009) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results, Mexico ranked in the bottom 20 percent of countries in reading, mathematics and science, behind the underperforming U.S. in all areas.

And yet the Mexican teachers with whom we spoke almost to a person observed that students who came to them after being schooled for a time in the U.S. consistently lagged behind their counterparts who had been educated solely in Mexico. This was especially true in math, the teachers said.

And in the hamlet of El Tepetate, where cars with Colorado plates are a common site, we talked to a couple of students from Denver (sent home to live with grandparents after misbehaving in the U.S.) who said they had to struggle to catch up academically to their Mexican-educated peers.

As Stein observes in his piece, Mexican education is old school. We visited about a dozen schools and everywhere the methodology was identical. It probably hasn't changed since 2004. The teacher stands in front of a class of uniformed students in an unadorned, cinderblock and cement classroom and delivers lessons.

Stein wrote:

In urban and rural schools alike, the curriculum follows an almost lock-step adherence to the prescribed series of subjects, materials and textbooks issued from Mexico City. Each state teaches its own history, which is the only curricular area in which one might find differences in material taught.

In classrooms around the state of Zacatecas, on any given day, students of the same age and grade can be seen studying the same chapter, from the same textbook, sometimes at the same time of day. The full course of studies includes mathematics; science; history and social studies; reading and writing, which give way to literature in the older grades; physical education; and English.

It doesn't sound exciting or stimulating, does it? It's not exactly Expeditionary Learning. Yet I came away with the impression - and I think Stein and Di Paulo shared it -- that the Mexican education system in many ways does a better job fulfilling its mission - educating students through ninth grade - than some U.S. schools do fulfilling theirs - preparing all students for post-secondary training or education.

As Stein wrote, it's as if "the floor is raised but the ceiling is lowered at the same time."

So despite the glaring deficiencies, I left Mexico respectful of its education system. Let me be clear: I know Mexican schools are not what we want to emulate in this country in most ways. Many Mexican kids arrive in the U.S. with weak language skills - in Spanish as well as English, making it hard for them to catch up. But it's not clear to what extent we can blame Mexican schools for this deficiency. What I've been told is that may of those lagging students come from rural areas and may have attended school only sporadically if at all.

Stein wrote:

Students seem highly engaged in Mexican classrooms, probably more so than in the United States. Learning seems more purposeful on average, with fewer interruptions and clearer agreements about the process of schooling. The level of learning, especially in basic literacy and numeracy, rivals that in the United States.

There is general agreement among teachers, administrators and parents that schools, in spite of their lack of books and technology, are working pretty well. Parents do not question the role of the teacher and school in giving their children a fundamental education. When asked, educators will respond that Mexican schools rival those in the United States.

Mexico is a clear case of a country that employs the second of the two strategies I described at the outset. Do we want to emulate Mexico? Probably not. Does the doggedness of Mexico's approach to education offer us some valuable lessons? Probably so.

It's essential that we have charters and other autonomous schools that are innovating and trying new strategies and methods. In the end, those schools will probably help us get to the next level. Meanwhile, though, it might make sense for the bulk of our public schools to slow down and get good at what they're doing rather than endlessly questing after the next great idea.