Paul Peterson on Education Policy

Interviewed by Doug Gavel on March 30, 2010

The debate over how best to educate American children has grown louder in recent years, with much discussion about national standards, accountability, teaching training and promotion, charter schools, school choice and vouchers. Paul Peterson, the Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Government and director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance (PEPG) at Harvard Kennedy School has authored many books, articles and briefs on issues relating to education policy in the United States. He is author of a new book titled “Saving Schools: From Horace Mann to Virtual Learning.”

Q. How does the United States education system compare with those in other countries around the world?

Peterson:We have good data on that now for the industrialized world from a test that’s being given internationally, and the United States is not scoring very well in math and science. The last time this test was given students in the United States came out near the bottom of the list; it was well below average. So that is really remarkable given the fact that the United States historically has always been regarded as having the best education system of any of the large countries. Germany has also always had a strong one, but now Germany’s not doing so well and the U.S. is doing even worse.

Q. What is the future of education reform in the United States?

Peterson:Accountability is the idea of the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century and accountability has been put into law with “No Child Left Behind.” That’s come under heavy criticism but the Obama administration is going to keep accountability.

But there’s movement in new directions. There’s much talk about paying teachers for performance, not just for their credentials, and that is a big, new and controversial development that’s being pushed by the current administration. And finally the charter school idea – creating new schools that are privately run and that get their money from the government based on the number of pupils they can attract to the school – there’s about three per cent of the population now going to charter schools – and the Obama administration has been putting its muscle behind that effort as well. So, those are the major new developments while accountability is fading a bit from the scene.

Q. Let’s talk about some of the Obama administration’s reform proposals.

Peterson:They’ve packaged most or all of these proposals into a new proposed law that will replace “No Child Left Behind.” It’s actually going to keep that law intact, except for revisions, but they’re abandoning the name because the name has become very unpopular. As a result, we’re going to have modest changes that are going to incorporate some new techniques to address the accountability issue. But there is also a new focus on merit pay for teachers and measuring how much every child is learning and knowing who the teacher is for every child. And that’s going to really put a lot of heat on the teacher organizations. So there’s a lot of conflict between teachers unions and the Obama administration right now, which is really quite surprising because they were among his most stalwart supporters in the 2008 general election.

Q. What are the ways in which new technologies are having an impact on learning and education in America and across the world and how should they best be harnessed in the classroom?

Peterson:This is the theme of my new book, “Saving Schools: from Horace Mann to Virtual Learning” which is being published in the spring of 2010. The book really makes the argument that the brick and mortar school has seen its day. We’ve had a very centralized system evolve in the United States and it’s not working. But what happens once you move to virtual education is that every person can have a choice of what they want and how they want to learn. They can take any path, any pace, and learn any time of the day. So it’s a total new way of thinking about learning. You could have three-dimensional [learning], like the Avatar movie that has come out. If you imagine biology being taught where your avatar is dissecting the frog’s avatar – no amphibians are going to die as a result – all of this is a very exciting new development. You can have interactive relationships with your teacher and with fellow students and the educational system can be adapted to where you learn.

In schools today kids are either bored or confused because the material is either too far above them or they’ve already learned it. What adaptive learning online is going to do is you’re going to be able to reach every student exactly where they are. And that transformative capacity of virtual learning – we’re only on the cusp. If you think about this as the mechanism for change in the United States, you’re looking at it in too small a way, because it’s really a world-wide phenomenon. As soon as broadband is available in underdeveloped countries, it’s going to give students in places in the world who have very little access to education today a chance to have a direct encounter with the best teachers in the world.

Q. What lessons can we apply from the past into the present and future of education?

Peterson:What we’ve discovered from the past is that reform ideas often have unanticipated consequences. We thought that when we centralized our educational system we would get more equality in student achievement, but we haven’t attained as much equality as we would have liked. There are still huge disparities in educational achievement despite the Civil Rights movement, and despite all the laws mandating equal educational opportunity.

So I think that moving forward we have to ensure that new technologies are leveraged for optimal impact in the classroom. We really have to think through how we are going to make sure that everyone has equal access to the new forms of learning as they become available.


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