September 8th, 2009
02:49 PM ET

Rethink learning. Now.

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/POLITICS/09/08/obama.school.speech/art.duncan.cnn.jpg caption="Education Secretary Arne Duncan, second from right, listens to Obama's speech Tuesday."]

Sam Chaltain
Forum for Education and Democracy, National Director

Today, as young people across the country head back to school, the rest of us would be wise to heed the words of our former president by asking ourselves, our neighbors and our elected officials a simple question:

“Is our children learning?”

The answer, of course, may depend largely on where you live. But what troubles me more than that basic lack of fairness is that our entire public education system isn’t even being asked to measure whether or not young people are learning – only whether they are demonstrating progress on basic-skills standardized tests in 3rd and 8th grade reading and math.

As everyone knows, learning involves more than basic skills and regurgitating information. It requires higher-order skills and the capacity to digest, make sense of, and apply what we’ve been taught.

Why, then, are we allowing well-intentioned policymakers to unintentionally discourage schools from doing those essential things? Why are we judging whether schools are successes or failures based solely on these insufficient numbers? And why are we tolerating a national culture of testing, when we all know from personal experience that what we need is a national culture of learning?

We can do better.

We can have schools in every neighborhood that teach children both basic- and higher-order skills, that allow creativity and innovation to flourish, and that lead all children to discover how to fully and effectively participate in our economy and democracy.

Before that can happen, however, we need to start having a different conversation. We need to restore the focus of public education reform to its rightful place – on learning, and on the core conditions that best support it.

To help bring about this subtle shift of thinking, a coalition of individuals, education advocates, civil rights leaders and philanthropic organizations has launched the Rethink Learning Now campaign with a simple goal – to ask people to reflect on what they already know to be true about powerful learning, to share those personal stories, and then to use that collective wisdom to help the country better understand what a healthy, high-functioning learning environment actually looks like.

Already, the campaign has collected a diverse set of stories – from citizens to Senators to the Secretary of Education himself – and begun outlining a core set of essential conditions for schools to cultivate.

–  Angela V. from Texas wrote about her junior year of high school, when a new teacher demanded more of her than she knew she was capable of. “My family, church, and community imbued me with a strong, positive sense of self,” she writes. “Where I was lacking, however, was with respect to my academic self-esteem.”

– Jamal F. from California shared memories of long afternoon walks as a young boy with his grandfather. “We cannot think that we need to replicate in public schools the level of understanding and the personal connection between a boy and his grandfather,” he offers. “But we can identify conditions that made this learning experience meaningful and attempt to foster them in our schools.”

– And Arne D. from Chicago – yes, that Arne D. from Chicago – talked about spending time in his mother’s after school tutoring program on the South Side of Chicago. “Everyone was challenged to do their best, every single day,” he wrote. “It was the ultimate in high expectations, both for individuals and the group as a whole.”

In the weeks and months ahead, thousands of other people across the country will share their own stories. As the number of stories grows over time, we’ll all see, in real-time, which attributes appear most often across such a diverse set of experiences. And as that list takes shape, we’ll all be better equipped to hold ourselves, our lawmakers and our local communities more accountable to implementing policies that are based more clearly on what young people need in order to thrive – and stay – in school, and not just on what is easiest to quantitatively measure.

Editor's Note: Sam Chaltain is the National Director of the Forum for Education and Democracy, a DC-based education “action tank.” His next book, “American Schools: The Art of Creating a Democratic Learning Community,” will be released in October 2009.

Filed under: 360° Radar • Education
soundoff (8 Responses)
  1. rob

    50 states and we all have different values in education. 50 teachers can make a big difference if they would communicate the same values of education.

    September 9, 2009 at 12:36 am |
  2. RLWellman

    "Is our children learning?" Is? How about, "Are our children learning?"
    When GHBush talked to the students when he was president, the left wanted him brought up on charges. Should President Obama be brought up on charges also?
    Maybe, those who don't pass should be flunked. Maybe a few more personalities need warped, by flunking them, instead of passing them through.

    September 9, 2009 at 12:16 am |
  3. Scott Stodden

    I find it shocking and appalling that parents, schools, teachers, etc... would not want there children listening to our President of The United States and pulling kids out of school. This speech as I said long before today was not a speech to push President Obama's political agenda or beliefs on the kids. This is a speech that all children across the country need to hear, we are in a deep recession and some kids may not a parental figure, or someone to look up and tell them that they need to stay in school, become somebody, say no to drugs and go to college. This is what kids need to hear and nobody said it was wrong for a President to speak to kids, read to kids, or simply tell kids to say no to drugs such as George W Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan and even Nancy Reagan. For parents, schools and teachers to say they dont want President Obama to speak to kids is one of two things, either there afraid of the President speaking the truth to our kids who are our future generation or its simply because he's black. This is truly racism at its highest in this country and Im embarressed for the people who are acting like fools but Im still proud to be an American. Wake up America and get real, this is the President Of The United States who has done nothing wrong but speak to kids and clean up the Republican's mess, stop judging by the color of his skin and know he deserves respect.

    Scott Stodden (Freeport,Illinois)

    September 8, 2009 at 11:11 pm |
  4. Mike

    This may be off topic but why does America get so bent out of shape over our President. We don't even acknowledge him as such. Over the months he has been in office I have never seen so much attention published about any President, Its as if we are just waiting fro something to appear that will as "I told you so" . We protest the good that he's trying to do and for what. How bad is it that our President address the youth and urge them to stay in school and make something of them selves. It that not what we as parents tell them ourselves. It is not right to express to the population that is seen by most (black men) to take responsiblity and take care of their families. How bad is it t even try something that has never been done inorder to improve the life of the people in our country. Being in the military I've seen and had to work through policy after policy only to realize that the policies that we continue to make work have already been proven to fail. SO why not try something new.

    One lady has even gone to the point of saying that she no longer feels safe to be in this country. To that I say there is still freedom to leave. My battles here and before have bleed for this and we contine to. Theres a bigger picture, but as American's we are spoiled and blind to what could be a brighter furture. Nostradamus, thought to be crazy for his thought and ideas but to day we reference him for clues into the furture. President Obama is not in office by himself and does not alone make decisions. We put in position for the purpose of making a difference, a change. With the many task set before him WE expect to much to soon. You can not become a millionaire from your fisrt dollar it takes time. You can't even buy the the finest of things without giving time to prepare it.

    Relax America President Obama is our president not Jesus Christ and the way the world is going when Jesus returns (my opinion) He will no doubt receive the same treatment He got in the days He walked among us.

    September 8, 2009 at 10:08 pm |
  5. Annie Kate

    One of the best learning experiences I've had was at the college level but I don't see why it cannot be done in high school or even junior high with some redefinition. Basically, my class was a independent study class where I picked out what it was I wanted to learn more about, I had to find the references, define the scope, and set the deliverables (these had to come from a list of half a dozen acceptable forms of measurement – I chose an academic report). I did mine in religious history during the first century. I could only do this class after so many hours credit in the chosen field and it enabled me to really dig into material about a period of time I found fascinating. I had a professor that I reported to once a week and we discussed progress or lack of progress and he added his helpful hints, etc. That was one of my last classes on my degree and its the only one I remember with any distinction. This class gave me not only more knowledge about the period but it enabled me to scope out a real learning experience that I had control over and could make applicable to me. I think this sort of thing would be of great value in preparing young adults how to prepare not only for college but for the workplace where you have to report on problems, user needs, etc. I also think it would bring out the creativity many of the younger generation has that doesn't get tapped into very often. Could be a very rewarding experience for all involved.

    September 8, 2009 at 9:27 pm |
  6. Mari

    Its a tragedy that we, as a Nation, do not value education. People on the right, call those of us, who are liberal and college grads, "elitists".

    Our children are falling further and further behind in math & science, which means that we will not be able to replace our current engineers, scientists, doctors, architects, etc., etc.

    Without education our Nation can kiss our "superpower status" good bye.

    September 8, 2009 at 7:49 pm |
  7. earle,florida

    How about our government asking the catholic school system how they achieve a 65% -75% higher education enrollment in hi-tech graduate secondary schools,college's,and universities throughout the country? Sure, the nun's ,and priest (teachers) don't get public school wages,but gratification from doing what's right for the countries youth. The enrollment in these schools are all nationalities,and religions (Jewish,Muslim,Vietnese,Iraqi,etc.) as long as seats are available,and absentee-parents agree to stringent rules regarding dress-codes,and disciplinary requirements for the, "Latch-Key-Lost-Generation". How is it that certain states with the worst school system's in the country, pay their school commissioner's( a part time job at most,that states pay minimum ,or no fee's at all?) in different counties $25k-$38k,with an average of $30k salary, just to duplicate what the school board's,PTA's,etc.,are supposed to do,...? Why?

    September 8, 2009 at 7:30 pm |
  8. Tammy, Houma, LA

    I applaud higher expectations, but honestly, it starts with the reporting itself. Using a grammatically incorrect sentence "Is our children learning?" speaks volumes. Not giving credit to whomever said it also speaks volumes. You're capable of better on this blog.

    September 8, 2009 at 6:35 pm |