September 11, 2008

Rx for Education: Radical Change Aquino Touts Cure for National Crisis

By Nancy Mitchell

Jaime Aquino leaves Denver Public Schools today after a three- year stint as the chief academic officer who oversaw record gains in student achievement.

At 43, he has seen education from nearly every angle, as a New York City classroom teacher juggling 42 kids, as an assistant professor of education in California and as an instructional administrator in three states.

He'll be working for a subsidiary of the National Center for Education and the Economy, which urges sweeping changes in American schools to better compete in a global economy. He spoke this week about the need for the transformation, not just reformation, of public education.

You said at your farewell reception last week that you became convinced while in Denver that radical change of U.S. public schools is critical. Why?

The United States is failing when it comes to international education rankings. There is a study done by UNICEF that ranks the U.S. 18th out of 24 countries in educational effectiveness . . . We have a system that is failing kids. But it's not only failing kids, it's also failing the teachers, principals and staff who work in our schools, and society at large.

How do you begin this change?

We need to convene a national task force and charge them with the responsibility of starting from scratch. If they were creating an educational system that works, how would they do it?


Yes, this is a national crisis. If we in this country realized that 60 percent or even 50 percent of our children have not been vaccinated against polio, we would mobilize everything at a national level to make sure every child is vaccinated. But we don't do the same thing with education. This is a crisis for us, so we need to address it at a national level.

I also know a lot of people are going to disagree, but I am a big proponent of a national curriculum, national standards and national assessments.

How will that help?

Our definition of academic proficiency in this country varies from state to state. So you can have a child in the state of Connecticut who's proficient in reading and the next day moves to the state of Massachusetts and is not proficient, because Massachusetts has one of the most rigorous definitions of proficiency. Does that make sense?

And think about, for teacher preparation, how easy it would be training our future teachers on national standards and a national curriculum.

A national curriculum might be a tough sell. What other benefits would it have?

We need to narrow our focus at a national level in terms of our standards. Unlike many other countries that are very successful in educating their students, we are trying to cover too many topics. If you look at our fourth-grade or fifth-grade math textbooks compared to the ones used in Singapore, you'll see a significant difference. Ours are much thicker. The same thing happens in algebra in high schools. We try to cover too much; they go deeper.

What else would the national task force do?

The first thing for this task force is to ensure the needs of students are treated as the highest priority. I'm not so sure in our current system if that's the case . . . or if sometimes it's the needs of the adults that work in the system. We have to treat this transformation as a long-term process and not a political event.

Can you give an example?

Teachers and parents demand lower class sizes. That has been a way of reforming education in this country. I was an assistant professor in California when the state passed the class-size reduction bill. Everybody was so excited. Has it made a difference? No.

We're not going to see a difference in student achievement unless we change the way we deliver instruction. Because if you're going to continue teaching 20 kids the same way you taught 30 or 32, what's the sense of reducing class size?

How do you improve the quality of teachers?

Other countries attract the top 30 percent of their college graduates into teaching. How do we do that here? We need to change the way we compensate our teachers. It's something as a country we need to consider, what amount would be enough to do that?

We also need to improve the instruction of teachers through coaching and practical training . . . Maybe we need to think about following the clinical or medical model.

What role should teachers play in this change?

I'm probably going to be criticized, but I'm going to say it anyway. We all need to earn the right to be in the classroom every year by improving student performance, not by entitlement and not by regulation.

I think most teachers want to do what's right and want all teachers to make sure they're making a difference. We owe it to our profession.

What makes you think any of this is possible?

That has come a lot through my experiences being here in Denver. We are changing the way we compensate teachers through ProComp. That was possible . . .

I also think we have no other option, we have to. We need to find ways to ensure that every child, rather than just some children, has access to excellent instruction.

Originally published by Nancy Mitchell, Rocky Mountain News.

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