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Cascade Matters is the blog of Cascade Educational Consultants. Cascade has extensive experience in policy development, advocacy, education reform, youth leadership, teaching and learning strategies, education collaborations and civic development. We are committed to ensuring schools create and sustain quality teaching and learning environments for all students to be successful in school and contribute to their communities as active principled citizens. Learn more about us.

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How Do We Define Ourselves?

It is absolutely critical as schools balance their focus on student knowledge and skills, that they do so within a safe, high quality and inclusive environment consistent with our nation’s democratic principles. Such a school climate combined with engaging teaching and learning strategies more effectively leads to student academic, social emotional and civic development.

This is concept is reflected in
Thomas Friedman’s recent New York Times article titled “Pass the Books Hold the Water”. It is a great analysis of my friend Andreas Schleicher’s data and concludes “Add it all up and the numbers say that if you really want to know how a country is going to do in the 21st century, don’t count its oil reserves or gold mines, count its highly effective teachers, involved parents and committed students.”

Friedman mines data from the
Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or O.E.C.D., mapping the correlation between performance on the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, exam -- which every two years tests math, science and reading comprehension skills of 15-year-olds in 65 countries -- and the total earnings on natural resources as a percentage of G.D.P. for each participating country. In short, how well do your high school kids do on math compared with how much oil you pump or how many diamonds you dig?

The results indicated that there was a “a significant negative relationship between the money countries extract from national resources and the knowledge and skills of their high school population,” said Andreas Schleicher, who oversees the PISA exams for the O.E.C.D. “This is a global pattern that holds across 65 countries that took part in the latest PISA assessment.” Oil and PISA don’t mix. (See the data map at:
http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/43/9/49881940.pdf)

Friedman makes the case that there are various measures of a nation’s progress and success and we might just want to pay attention to human resources rather than focusing on production and products.

Here are the final two paragraphs of Friedman’s article:

But there is an important message for the industrialized world in this study, too. In these difficult economic times, it is tempting to buttress our own standards of living today by incurring even greater financial liabilities for the future. To be sure, there is a role for stimulus in a prolonged recession, but “the only sustainable way is to grow our way out by giving more people the knowledge and skills to compete, collaborate and connect in a way that drives our countries forward,” argues Schleicher.

In sum, says Schleicher, “Knowledge and skills have become the global currency of 21st-century economies, but there is no central bank that prints this currency. Everyone has to decide on their own how much they will print.” Sure, it’s great to have oil, gas and diamonds; they can buy jobs. But they’ll weaken your society in the long run unless they’re used to build schools and a culture of lifelong learning. “The thing that will keep you moving forward,” says Schleicher, is always “what you bring to the table yourself.”

This article reminds me of Wendell Berry’s analysis of life in its simplest form. Berry suggests four questions that can frame what he calls “Learning Days”:
  • How does a community amuse itself? What kinds of theatre, dance, music, visual art, book groups, bridge clubs, bowling leagues, folk art, recreation, sports and festivals does a community use to please and divert itself throughout the year?
  • How does a community console itself? How does it grieve and deal with loss, death, hard time, disappointments and conflict? How does it bring healing when people sustain injury or are hurting?
  • How does a community educate itself? Not just in its schools but in its workplaces, churches, businesses and celebrations? How does a community use acts of amusement and consolation to learn? How does it use individuals with inventive ways of learning and teaching?

My colleagues and I are committed to high-quality equitable teaching, learning and serving school cultures so all students will succeed in school and in life and recognize the consistency of the O.E.C.D. data with our values and practices. While the international comparisons are meaningful, the focus on knowledge and skill development aligns with our work to assist schools and other youth serving organizations to consider both the context and content of strategies to educate, motivate and activate youth to be successful now and in the future

Given the Friedman article and Berry’s analysis I propose a set of prompts we as citizens, communities and a nation pose to ourselves and contribute to the current and future political narrative:
  • How do we define ourselves?
  • How do we measure our progress and success?
  • How do we maximize the human potential of everyone?
  • How do we ensure our youngest citizens have equitable access to opportunities?
  • What culture and climate do we sustain that ensures we have the knowledge and skills to achieve greatness as individuals and a nation?
  • How do we build a culture and climate that contributes to our youth developing a sense of responsibility?

Our individual and collective responses to these questions define us and identify the elements of our lives we find most important to sustain our democracy. Our nation deserves no less…

About the author: Terry Pickeral, president Cascade Educational Consultants has extensive experience in policy development, advocacy, education reform, youth leadership, teaching and learning strategies, education collaborations and civic development. His commitment is to ensuring schools create and sustain quality teaching and learning environments for all students to be successful in school and contribute to their communities as active principled citizens.

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