Shift Happens, Even to US

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In the stunning Shift Happens presentation (click here for the music-enhanced YouTube version or here for the award-winning PowerPoint version) the premise that size and focus matter comes through loud and clear. Basic facts like China has more honor students than we have students, more people with bachelors degrees than we have people, and that they soon will be the largest English-speaking country in the world, make you take pause. I’m still trying to verify these data; however, if they are even close to accurate it is worth exploring the possible impact. Couple these trends with the larger changes we are seeing in the flat world, creative economies, and newer technologies, and shifting seems far too tame a verb for what’s coming our way. In Kristof’s NY Times column this Monday, The Educated Giant, he dives deeper into how serious China is about shifting—and doing so through education. He argues that there are four reasons for their progress: (1) they are hungry for education and economic progress, and as a result they work harder; (2) they have enormous cultural respect for education, revere teachers, and pay them well; (3) they believe in their bones that hard work means much more than talent—in their mind, grades come from engagement and work, not being “smart;” and (4) they don’t believe they are anywhere near good enough. They want to drive more creativity and innovation—which, by the way, will be quite hard in a country that suppresses the liberal arts of critical thinking, dissent, and personal decision making. However, this challenge notwithstanding, after spending time in China and exploring their drive, Kristof echoes a now common refrain from politicians, educators, and economic development specialists: The US needs to respond to this challenge like we did to the launch of Sputnik in 1957, with a massive mobilization of effort, focus, and funding. And it’s not about winning a cold war this time; it’s about whether or not the US will be swimming in the hot springs of education and economic progress that are bubbling up all over the world. So what’s happening here? Yes, we are spending an inordinate amount of time on testing and testing-related issues because of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). However, given the challenges at hand, it’s not surprising we want to help institutions develop the power to know they’re making a difference through education. Leaving NCLB aside, we are waking up to the fact that our system is large, democratic, diverse, with many opportunities to stop in and stop out. These characteristics are clearly a positive. However, our system also is far too porous. Retention, persistence, and academic achievement seem to take a backseat to access. We need to blend the positive access agenda with the now imperative success agenda to drive change. Initiatives like the Lumina Foundation’s Achieving the Dream are doing just this by challenging institutions to work together to meet collectively agreed upon student access and success goals. It’s definitely worth a look. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills is trying to build business and education dialogues to better set standards. And the American Council on Education has launched its and initiatives to make the case for education preparation and investment. There are many more initiatives to list, but, you get the idea. We are trying. But will it be enough? Would we be better served by a much larger local, state, and national political dialogue surrounding education that goes well beyond arguments about outcomes testing? Yes, shift is happening—particularly with China driving their education agenda. However, the US has some innate and powerfully positive aspects to its education system—growing commitments to access, success, and flexibility—that might just position us to leverage these changes like no other. We just need to get our shift together!
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