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Education 2008: Year in Review

This year has brought its share of ups and downs in education, many of which have provoked much thoughtful conversation and friendly debate on the Harvard Graduate School of Education campus and beyond. As 2008 draws to a close, we decided to pose a question to several members of the HGSE community - all of whom were profiled this year on our website: In your opinion, what are the most promising and the most disappointing events, occurrences, and decisions in education this year? Their responses follow, and we encourage others to submit their own opinions in the comments section below.

Eric Marcos, Ed.M.'03


Unfortunately, NCLB continued to exist with its damaging focus on 'accountability' and standardized testing.

It has been an exciting year as more and more educators implemented purposeful technology to facilitate student collaboration, global awareness, digital citizenship, as well as increase student engagement. The messages from education-technology leaders such as Alan November (November Learning), [and] David Warwick and Vicki Davis (Flat Classroom Project) have begun to resonate with educators.

Emmett Cartwright, Ed.M.'08

05_emmett_cartwright.jpgThe appointment of Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education offers the most promise for significantly transforming education over the course of the next four years. Arne Duncan brings that rare ability to build consensus among multiple stakeholders around dramatic reform efforts, while at the same time demanding increased accountability and intelligent use of data. He embraces principles of choice and competition always with a principled sensitivity to teachers, parents, and children. Duncan eschews the trappings of bureaucracy and union politics that stifle innovation. Instead, he insists on experimentation and sharing of best practices with an understanding that the languid pace of status quo reform efforts won't do. Perhaps most impressively, Duncan brought unprecedented levels of transparency to the Chicago Public Schools and will hopefully do so with the controversial and often misconstrued federal role in education policy. He is uniquely qualified to make common sense amendments to the reauthorization of NCLB without sacrificing the core principles behind the legislation. I'm deeply encouraged by the selection of Duncan and find comfort in knowing that he and Barack Obama are closely allied, so that education over the next four years won't be left behind.

Armida Lizarraga, Ed.M.'08, doctoral candidate


[I'm most disappointed by] funding cuts for Reading First, a federally funded program that would implement scientifically based reading instructional and assessment tools to early reading instruction so children would be reading proficiently at the end of third grade. This program was implemented in schools with families below the poverty line.

A final report of the Reading First Impact Study was released this past summer. It claimed that, in general, students did not show improvement in reading comprehension. According to the study, Reading First did not increase the percentage of students with scores at or above grade level. The advisory committee found some fundamental flaws in the design and study implementation to be reliable enough to inform policy decisions. For example the sample was not representative of the demographics and achievement characteristics of the schools involved nor did it evaluate other variables such as professional development, or literacy coach support, variables which would have influenced the program outcomes. Although the program has been reauthorized, over 60 percent of its funds were cut. Not because of the report, but because of conflicts of interest with the contractors running the program. RF is not only a literacy program targeting early age children, but serves students that were in the bottom quartile of achievement and income distribution. If improvements were needed they should have been done - cutting the program funds was a disservice to students.

Professor Chris Dede

chris_dede.jpgThe promising trend in 2008 is the growing availability of powerful, low-cost cellphones. These are becoming the ubiquitous technology infrastructure both for youth in our country - even young people in poverty - and for the developing world abroad. Taking advantage of this delivery system to reach out with educational experiences that move beyond presentation to active learning through engaging with one's local context has great potential for enhancing motivation and achievement.

Metta McGarvey, doctoral candidate

metta_mcgarvey.jpgI agree with others that the appointment of Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education is the most promising thing this year.  He has a commanding grasp of the complex issues plaguing the educational system, and will avoid well-intended but simplistic principles like the idea that test scores can be the basis for accountability. He has the thoughtfulness, pragmatism, and leadership abilities needed to bring all the relevant players together to revitalize public education, and to create sensible metrics for measuring progress and enhancing accountability.

Fiamma Rupp-Gembs, Ed.M.'08

07_fiamma_rupp_gembs.jpgThe worst thing I have witnessed in education in 2008 is the continuous action based on personal interests and advantages of many local and global economic and political players losing the main objective of 'education as a fun activity,' and thus of encouraging and inspiring young children through play and simple but innovative teaching methods that foster critical thinking, teamwork, and the urge to learn more for the sake of learning and not for meeting set standards.

The best thing I have witnessed in education in 2008 is the indefatigable attempt of many local and international players to close the gap of socio-economic disadvantages around the world with a lot of courage and personal engagement despite many political, bureaucratic limits and shortfalls of investment in the sector of education.

Professor Tom Payzant, M.A.T.'63, C.A.S.'66, Ed.D.'68


Barack Obama elected President and nominating an impressive, talented, diverse group of people for his cabinet including Arne Duncan, CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, for Secretary of Education. In addition, Governor Deval Patrick's Readiness Project team presented him with a 10-year plan with ambitious goals and strategies for improving public education in Massachusetts beginning with the first five years of a child's life preK through 16 (college/university).

The most disappointing was the collapse of the housing market, foreclosures, and the deep recession, [all] which are adversely affecting those who are most vulnerable and make clear that there are still huge equity issues that are not being addressed in America.

Steffie van der Steen, Ed.M.'08

05_steffie_vandersteen.jpgIt is absolutely fantastic that teachers and researchers stand up for education in their country, and their concern about the quality of education is legitimate. I also feel a stronger focus on education is needed, because things are not going very well. According to Strong American Schools, seventy percent of eighth graders are not proficient in reading. In addition, more than 1.2 million American students drop out of high school every year. Moreover, American teenagers ranked 25th in Math and 21st in Science when compared with students from 30 industrialized countries. But education reform is also needed in other countries. In my country [The Netherlands], researchers are concerned that students' natural curiosity is not fostered enough, which may ultimately lead to a shortage of professionals in Math and Sciences. Other countries in the European Union are concerned about the quality of school curricula. There's no doubt that a lack of investments in education can have major political and economical consequences on the long term.

What went well in education in 2008? In his campaign, Barack Obama promised that his new government would invest more money in education, including extra money for early childhood education, and educational research. He recently nominated Arne Duncan as U.S. Secretary of Education, who has supported student achievement throughout his career. Around the same time, leaders from the European Union have decided to focus more on teaching quality, and to work towards a link between research and practice. In The Netherlands for example, a long-term research program called Curious Minds/TalentPower has been established. The program aims to answer the question how we could best stimulate children's interest in science. It uses hands-on tasks that require and stimulate the creativity and problem solving skills of young children (ages 3-5). In this way, researchers and teachers hope to maintain children's natural curiosity, and to prevent that children lose their interest in science and math at a later age.... We are not there yet, but we are definitely on the right track. I hope that 2009 will bring education all the best. I hope the government will indeed invest more in education, and that collaboration between educational researchers and teachers will be strongly encouraged.

Tim O'Brien, Ed.M.'08


Randi Weingarten's [president of the United Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of Teachers] openness to discuss new approaches to tenure and merit pay was one of the most promising moments of 2008. Weingarten said, " issue should be off the table, provided it is good for children and fair to teachers." This seems to indicate that the American Federation of Teachers sees merit pay and tenure reform as inevitable initiatives they need to work with rather than against.


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