The Global Search for Education: More Focus on Change

C. M. Rubin — In the US we have been on the opposite course of countries that have been succeeding educationally….

Early Steps to School Success, Save the Children US Programs (photo: Rick D'Elia)

Early Steps to School Success, Save the Children US Programs (photo: Rick D'Elia)

“I saw crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children alike”  – President Barack Obama, 2008

Change is painful.  Change takes time.  Change is trial and error, but isn’t Change ultimately brought about by leadership which has the ability to rally all the policy makers around the all important higher purpose – that of educational excellence?

Yes we can close the achievement gap.  Yes we can improve our teachers. Yes we can improve our overall education system.  Difficult as these changes are to face now, what is the alternative in five years time for our students and our nation if we don’t?

This week in The Global Search for Education, I asked Linda Darling-Hammond, with her vast experience in education research, teaching and policy, to focus on Change we can believe in.

Linda is Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education at Stanford University and is co-director of the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education.  She is a former president of the American Educational Research Association and member of the National Academy of Education.  In 2006, Darling-Hammond was named one of the nation’s ten most influential people affecting educational policy over the last decade. In 2008-09, she headed President Barack Obama’s education policy transition team.  President Obama owns a copy of her best-selling book, The Flat World and Education: How America’s Commitment to Equity Will Determine our Future.

What is the impact of poverty on educational quality?

Poverty influences outcomes around the globe, but the effects of socioeconomic status on students’ achievement are larger in the US than in most other countries.  Students in more affluent communities do very well.  For example, on PISA, US  students in  schools serving fewer than 10% of kids in poverty rank above all other countries in the world in reading.  Meanwhile , students in schools with high poverty rank near the bottom.   One of the unspoken issues in the United States is that we have more and more kids living in poverty (1 in 4 overall – far more than any other industrialized country), and more and more schools catering to children in concentrated poverty (ratio of over 50% of children).  Those are schools that also often get fewer resources from the state.  Because of the recession, our tattered safety net, our not paying attention to the issues of growing poverty, the share of high poverty schools is increasing.  In high-achieving  countries, there are virtually no schools where more than 10% of the children live in poverty because in general, childhood poverty rates are much lower.

Save the Children ESSS program builds strong foundation for early learning (photo: Rick D'Elia)

Save the Children ESSS program builds strong foundation for early learning (photo: Rick D'Elia)

What does that mean in terms of changes we need to make?

I would argue that we have to think about changes in two ways.  The last time we made major headway on these issues was in the 1960’s and 70’s when we had the war on poverty and we brought poverty, unemployment and segregation rates down.  The achievement gap (between rich and poor) closed by more than three quarters in a very short period of time (15 years between the early 1970s and the mid-1980s).  There were investments in urban schools, in teachers, in teacher training, in teacher distribution that made a huge difference.  Had we continued with those policies, we would have had no racial achievement gap by the year 2000.  In the 1980’s, we ended all those programs and never really regrouped.

We have to address the problems now from both sides.  On one hand, poverty and segregation are getting worse, and policymakers do not want to talk about it.  On the other hand, we also have to address the issue of what we do to improve schools.  A recent analysis of the  achievement gap shows about a third of the achievement gap between affluent and poor students in 9th grade  is present at kindergarten.  That’s because kids are growing up in very different kinds of communities with different learning opportunities within the family and within the community.  We’ve seen huge reductions in the achievement gap where communities have put high quality pre-schools in place.  New Jersey is an example.  The other two-thirds of the achievement gap is due to summer learning loss.  Wealthy students continue to increase their learning during the summer, while low-income students lose ground.  We have to improve education   from September to June, but we also have to put in place summer learning opportunities.

Then inside of school we have to equalize access to high quality teachers, and we have to improve the training of our teachers, which other countries have done.  We have to get a curriculum that is focused on high order thinking and performance skills instead of bubbling in on multiple choice tests.  Our kids are definitely disadvantaged because they are never asked on our tests to do the kinds of things that PISA asks them to do and other countries teach them to do:  more focus on skills of research and analysis, requiring writing, thinking and expressing your ideas.

Is there a fast track to fix this?

Many of the countries that were low achieving and are now high achieving made huge gains in a decade.  We could make strong gains quickly if we could get focused.   A couple of things need to happen.  We need to end the practice of allowing people to teach without training.  There are states like Connecticut and North Carolina which put in place reforms in the 1990s where they raised salaries for teachers, raised standards for teachers for entry, preparation, and licensing, put in place induction  programs to measure good teaching with strong performance assessments as well as support.  In a few years they went from teacher shortages to surpluses, improved the quality of the teaching force, and raised student achievement.  One of the problems we have in the United States however is that we tend to focus, make progress, and then backslide.  We’re good innovators in terms of starting successful projects and programs in schools, but without the emphasis that is needed to maintain the system.

Is there a disconnect between education systems and the real world, i.e. the kind of education systems kids need to excel in the 21st century?

I believe the disconnect is a concern in  the UK as well as the US.  Too often policymakers and educators  think about a curriculum that consists of the facts you need to know across your 12 years of school, and schools are asked to make sure that students learn those facts instead of being able to use knowledge for complex problem solving, or being able to collaborate effectively.  We need to expand students’ experiences to connect to the world out of school and we need to enable them to use technology to explore the world of ideas and to create new products.    The change in mindset has to happen, first, at the governmental level, and it has to be reflected in student assessment.  You see this change in mindset  In places like Finland and Singapore where the governments are moving ahead with an idea about what schools should be doing to accommodate the kinds of jobs that are going to be available, the kinds of thinking and  knowledge and creativity that are going to be needed.  You do not see this change in mindset yet in the US.  Nearly all of our curriculum is organized around multiple choice testing.

Is academic pressure creating a problem for the well being of students?

Human beings are learning creatures.  From the minute human beings are born there is a drive to learn.  The question is how do you build on that drive to learn in the school environment?  When people are faced with challenges they feel are irrelevant, that drive to learn diminishes.  Of course, children  might not think they need to do some of what is needed to be a productive adult in a challenging world.  However, so much of what we need to accomplish can be done in a way that is engaging, productive, and can combine the joy of learning and work.

I saw this vividly in two different classrooms that one of my children experienced in 1st grade.  One was a school that was all about control.  The kids could not talk or move.  They were punished when they made a sound. It was an awful environment, so we moved her.  She went into a new classroom where kids were being scientific in their spaces (their community, their school), doing stimulating projects, writing their own books and publishing them.  All the kids were engaged, wanted to work hard, and learned about ten times more than in the rigid school.  So part of the stress issue has to do with the way we are structuring the work in schools, because it is often at odds with the way people really learn.  We need to rethink that and need to rethink the backward-looking testing systems that we currently use, which make people believe that is what you have to do in school.

How do you see the role of the arts and creativity?

I am a musician by training.  The arts are important for their own sake for all of the things they develop in a human being: ways of being, ways of thinking, ways of expressing.  We also know that the arts help kids learn other subjects like math and English.  Our problem with this in the US is the narrow view of much of the policy community.  It’s not that schools or educators or parents don’t see the value of the Arts.  It’s lack of awareness from the policymakers who have a narrow old factory model view that school is all about producing reading and math scores.  The problem is worse in poorly funded schools.

We need  a balanced vision of education where there is an appreciation for the whole person and for what it means to develop a human being.  I wish I had a magic wand.  My message to the policy community would be “wake up and smell the coffee.”

In the US we have been on the opposite course of countries that have been succeeding educationally for at least the past ten years.  The conversations in Washington are very remote from the conversations in everyday people’s lives across the country.  The politics are still very narrow.  We need enlightened leaders who are willing to learn more about education internationally and at home.  Let’s think about what we want to achieve.  Let’s think about how we’re going to get there.

Linda Darling-Hammond and C. M. Rubin

Linda Darling-Hammond and C. M. Rubin

In The Global Search for Education, join C. M. Rubin and globally renowned thought leaders including Sir Michael Barber (UK), Dr. Leon Botstein (US), Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond (US), Dr. Madhav Chavan (India), Professor Michael Fullan (Canada), Professor Howard Gardner (US), Professor Yvonne Hellman (The Netherlands), Professor Kristin Helstad (Norway), Professor Rose Hipkins (New Zealand), Professor Cornelia Hoogland (Canada), Mme. Chantal Kaufmann (Belgium), Professor Dominique Lafontaine (Belgium), Professor Hugh Lauder (UK), Professor Ben Levin (Canada), Professor Barry McGaw (Australia), Professor R. Natarajan (India), Sridhar Rajagopalan (India), Sir Ken Robinson (UK), Professor Pasi Sahlberg (Finland), Andreas Schleicher (PISA, OECD), Dr. David Shaffer (US), Dr. Kirsten Sivesind (Norway), Chancellor Stephen Spahn (US), Yves Theze (Lycee Francais US), Professor Charles Ungerleider (Canada), Professor Tony Wagner (US), Professor Dylan Wiliam (UK), Professor Theo Wubbels (The Netherlands), Professor Michael Young (UK), and Professor Minxuan Zhang (China) as they explore the big picture education questions that all nations face today.

The Global Search for Education Community Page


C.M. Rubin has more than two decades of professional experience in development, marketing, and art direction for a diverse range of media businesses.  She is also the author of three bestselling books, including The Real Alice In Wonderland.


  1. Ian Gordon

    It would appear that the Obama administration is going in the wrong direction, and some of the larger states are also focused on the wrong levers. I think that the references to Connecticut and North Carolina tell us more about how to make change, as most of the burden of change lies with the states. The clock is ticking.

    • martin joel

      We need our educational leaders and advocates of change to focus on the state level.

      • joanna n.

        Think about how much states there are though! How much work would that take? will there ever be successful results or will it fluctuate until the end of time.

        • Keith K

          Sure it would take a lot of work – that is a given. But it’s something that has to be done, and can be done if enough effort is put into it.

    • Helene

      Unfortunately, the states are running out of money and can’t print it like the feds.

  2. The Global Search for Education: More Focus on Change |

    [...] C. M. Rubin — In the US we have been on the opposite course of countries that have been succeeding educationally…. Read More [...]

  3. Competing in a global world | Ed Policy Today

    [...] Education News has a piece featuring a Q&A with Linda Darling-Hammond, an education researcher and the Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education at Stanford University. In it, Darling-Hammond discusses the change needed for the U.S. to compete educationally with the rest of the world. [...]

  4. John Mark

    Poverty, which people do not like to acknowledg­e in the U.S. because it is inconsiste­nt with our image of prosperity­, is a critical component of the education problem in this country. It needs to be fully recognized and addressed at the federal level and state level.

    • martin joel

      If we do not do this, it will not be long before there are more serious consequences. We have not had riots in this country for 40 years. The economy is bad and the middle class is being squeezed.

    • Helene

      Ok,sure. But let’s recognize there are many challenges to fixing poverty, and there are other factors that hold back low income kids.

  5. Alan Poe

    “is there a fast track to fix this?” seems a bit of a loaded question to me. The changes required to make the US competitiv­e again, let alone rank near the top are going to need to be massive. And making massive changes quickly is not exactly synonymous with Government­.

    • martin joel

      Much more focus needed at the state levels.

    • john mark

      The US is facing serious economic and educational problems. If we don’t fix the latter, fixing the former is going to be much more difficult long run. US companies will do their hiring from the outstanding foreign labor pools that are now building as a result of the great educational progress made by other countries.

      • Keith K

        It will be all too easy to slip into a downward spiral. The US isn’t far off from going back into recession and if that happens, budgets will be slashed and education will take a back seat for another 5 years minimum.

    • Matt Meyer

      We need to get started with establishing a consensus plan involving national and state leaders. We don’t even have agreement on how to make the needed changes.

    • Helene

      No fast track. Patience required, big time.

  6. NZKiwi

    The answer to the penultimat­e question makes a good point – humans have an inherent desire to learn, it isn’t necessary to force students to learn in an oppressive environmen­t, it’s just a case of nurturing what is already there.

    • John Mark

      hear hear!

    • jillian lewis

      hear hear, but we already have learned that oppressive environments are no help to learning… so what now

      • Keith K

        Apply what we know to real life scenarios! Really, you wouldn’t think it would be so hard with all the research that’s been done in this area. Most of it is just common sense.

    • Helene

      Students will almost always work for an inspiring teacher.

  7. B.B.

    The worrying thing is how we’ve been going in the opposite direction for such a long time – at least 10 years. Even with radical changes now, we’re still looking at a lost generation of educationa­l success.

    • martin joel

      We will lose another generation if we don’t take this more seriously. The US economy also has significant problems and the opportunities are outside this country. Just like the better educational systems today.

      • jillian lewis

        perhaps since the economy is struggling something will finally happen

        • Keith K

          Well, you say that but I can definitely see a scenario in which other sectors get prioritised over education (things involved in creating jobs, and encouraging businesses to keep their HQs in the US, for example) and then education gets put on the back burner again.

      • dennis meyer

        I believe we will lose another generation even if we do take it seriously. Great plans take time to be developed and implemented.

    • Matt Meyer

      Patience required. We must not look for a quick fix. This will take 10 to 20 years.

    • Helene

      Maybe even 2 lost generations.

  8. moncler

    Connecticut and North Carolina tell us more about how to make change, as most of the burden of change lies with the states. The clock is ticking.

    • john mark

      We must be willing to make sacrifices to achieve sustainable gains. Will our politicians be up to this?

      • Keith K

        Politicians are in a tricky position. Unpopular decisions may well need to be made for the greater good of society, but in making those unpopular decisions, the politician will lose popularity and find themselves out the door at the next election.

        • adam rawson

          This is why I think we need a national consensus of state and national leaders.

    • adam rawson

      This is why the states need to be at the forefront of these changes. But this will take time and strong leadership, state by state.

    • Helene

      I agree. But we need to push NY and California towards making changes.

  9. bill

    great article. but it’s frustrating how much work there is to do and how much we can talk about these things to no avail.

    • Keith K

      Yep, it’s a daunting task, but there’s no way we can shy away from it now.

      • dennis meyer

        I agree fully. And we will have to make large sacrifices to get there.

  10. Louise Rose

    two thumbs up for darling-hammond

    • Helene

      Linda for education secretary if Obama wins in 2012.

  11. E

    Education shouldn’t be job-preparation.

  12. North of 49th

    In high-achieving countries, there are virtually no schools where more than 10% of the children live in poverty because in general, childhood poverty rates are much lower.

    Canada consistently scores much higher than the U.S., but there are plenty of schools where a high percentage of students (even all of the students) are from homes in poverty. Rural and depressed-economy communities, city neighborhoods with recent immigrant communities, Atlantic provinces with small and generally poor fishing and resource-based communities — all would have schools where the vast majority of students would be poor, although the childhood poverty rate is much lower than in the U.S., and children have access to adequate medical care in most places, and to subsidized housing.

    However, the way schools are funded and supported is practically the opposite of what happens in the U.S. Schools in low-SES areas receive extra funduing and staff, additional curriculum support, additional resources of many kinds. The focus is on enriching the curriculum, and multiple-choice tests are not regularly used. The provincial tests in Ontario (for Grades 3,6 and 9-10) are mostly essay-type, not MC (there are MC questions embedded, I’m told mainly as a reliability check).

    Many Canadian teachers and parents in provinces with some regular standardized testing feel that there is too much emphasis on it, but there is nothing here remotely like the test mania in the U.S. Schools with poor test results are not punished, they are given yet more support, resources and PD to improve teaching and learning. This approach generally yields results.

    Seems like a better approach than the shame-and-blame idea. Completely eliminating “gaps is probably impossible, since humans are stubbornly varied, but much can be done to improve learning outcomes for children from poverty and those with learning challenges of varying kinds.

    • Helene

      Sounds like a wonderful system. How do we get it adopted here in the US?

  13. Cathy Rubin

    Just to mention we have two more stories from Canadian thought leaders coming up in the series – will be interesting to hear what they have to say on this.

    • matt meyer

      Have heard the Canadian system is very different from the US system despite the proximity and common language.

  14. Michelle H

    From a teacher’s prospective i agree with not having such multiple test curriculumn. Let’s get the kids into learning more and getting involved more than just studying for the test. UK has a nice school system I’ve been over there and they do school year round as well. The school I work at does school year round two and its great.

    • Helene

      If we do standardized tests, let them be tests that get at the essential skills and knowledge needed to be successful in many places.

  15. Doug

    The Canadian system is a world leader except, as was mentioned Aboriginal education is a national shame. On the other hand, only 4% of the Canadian population is Aboriginal and it is a mainly rural hinterland group so there is an out of sight out of mind aspect to it. Aboriginals are the poorest Canadians by far and all poor groups tend to do badly in education.

    Aboriginal education is a Federal matter in Canada and all other K-12 education is provincial.

    There is also a serious war between Aboriginal leaders and the Feds over who controls the schools. Sad.

    • Helene

      People are on this one. It is a Canadian embarassment.

  16. adam rawson

    What a smart system. Need some Canadian educational leaders down here.

  17. matt meyer

    I have heard the all schools are treated equally…less elitism

  18. adam rawson

    The nation needs a broadly education population to advance among the leading nations of the world, most of whom make excellent education available to almost all of their populations.

  19. matt meyer

    I agree.

  20. North of 49th

    That is generally true in the larger provinces, but huge inequities affect First Nations schools. The ghastly example of Attawapiskat is one egregious instance:

  21. Helene

    This is not just theory. The broadest citizenry will get the best education, bar none.

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August 16th, 2011

C.M. Rubin Contributor

Filed Under

C. M. Rubin Early Steps to School Success education reform global education Lina Darling-Hammond music and education National Academy of Education PISA test poor schools poverty and educational quality pre-school programs President Barack Obama Save The Children segregation and education socioeconomic status and achievement Standardized Tests teacher quality the achievement gap the arts and education The Flat World and Education: How America's Commitment to Equity Will Determine our Future The Global Search for Education The Real Alice In Wonderland Book the war on poverty U. S. public schools U.S. education policy

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