April 19, 2015
TECHNOS QUARTERLY Summer 1994 Vol. 3 No. 2
Interview with Linda Darling-Hammond
Adapted By Carole Novak
Linda Darling-Hammond is professor of education at Teachers College, Columbia University, and co-director of the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching (NCREST). She is a member of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards and the National Academy of Education. Her current research involves school restructuring, authentic assessment, and accountability. Darling-Hammond is editor of the Review of Research in Education and co-author of Assessing Teacher Supply and Demand (1988). This interview is an adaptation of one conducted by Phillip Harris, then director of the Center for Professional Development for Phi Delta Kappa (PDK). The original conversation is part of Reinventing Our Schools, a series of six video programs jointly produced by the Agency for Instructional Technology and PDK.
How would you evaluate efforts to reform education during the past decade?
I think we've seen a realization that the demands on education are changing substantially from what they were when we invented the system nearly a century ago. I think the Nation At Risk report, released in 1983, was wrong in arguing that schools have gotten worse, which was much of the implication. In fact, schools have gotten a lot better, but the demands on schools have increased even more. We now have to educate every student for a kind of thinking work’ rather than for assembly-line or semi-skilled work, as we did years ago. Since 1983 we've gone from trying to make the present system more efficient to developing a set of initiatives to transform the system into something new that can carry us through the 21st century. We started out in the ’80s with a whole set of new mandatesmore course requirements, more tests. We tried harder to do what we had been doing. Now we're rethinking the whole design.
What role do you see technology playing in this process of rethinking the design?
Technology has several roles to play. The redesign of schools is in part intended to help us focus on active learningdoing research, accessing information, using resources to answer questions and solve problems. Computer technology and databases can be enormously helpful in allowing students to look for information in a variety of ways. Computers can become real tools for making students capable and active learners connected to many resources, and laserdisc technology is extremely useful. For example, having a database, such as an encyclopedia, on disc allows students to ask questions and get answers or watch demonstrations. Students can solve complex problems by using interactive videodiscs that allow them to posit various solutions and then see the results play out on the disc. Student decisions get factored into the way the problem unfoldsthis represents another form of active learning. Videodiscs allow teachers to bring into the classroom experiences that otherwise might take many weeks of field trips to accomplish. Technology can also help us create broader communities of learners not only in the classroom but also with other people, both children and adults. Just as electronic bulletin boards and on-line conferences allow people in medicine and business to share information and pursue ideas together, linking schools to one another can allow students to create a community of learners. They are in contact with students in other states or countries, and their pursuit of answers leads them to communicate across cultural and geographic boundaries; they can pool different kinds of knowledge and resources. The same possibilities are true for teachers.
In school reformwhat are some of the promising practices that you have seen?
One encouraging sign has been the rethinking of warehouse schools, which were invented in the early part of this century to process large numbers of students. The Coalition of Essential Schools [CES] is a model for what I think schooling will become over the next century. The Coalition is reducing the size of high schools, personalizing education, and orienting it around ideas and understanding rather than superficial coverage of curriculum. It's ensuring that adults come to know the minds of students well. In New York City a new initiative is creating 50 small high schools that ultimately will replace large, comprehensive warehouse schools. The warehouses turn 50 percent of the students into dropouts and spend large sums of money on security guards and truant officers instead of teachers. Essentially it's a system of education that doesn't work, and we're in the process of reinventing it.
It almost seems as though we might be better off if we eliminated compulsory education.
Well, there are people who propose that. In that case, at least everyone in school would want to be there. However, I do not think this is good social policy, as it would exacerbate inequality. I think most young people want to be in a school where they are known and cared for. But relatively few young people, particularly in large urban school systems, are in such schools, where the goal is to find their talent and develop it rather than to use sorting mechanisms to decide who gets an education and who doesn't.
Are we seeing an end to the practice of using schools as sorting mechanisms?
I think we arenot so much because people suddenly feel that everyone is entitled to the same quality of education, but because the demands of society have changed dramatically. We're moving from a manufacturing age, which needed a lot of semi-skilled workers, to an information age, where virtually everyone has to be prepared to think and solve problems and work on levels that were reserved for a few in the past. Schools have to prepare all students for thinking work. The task no longer is to sort out those who will get high-status jobs requiring education; the task is to develop the talents of every individual to meet society's needs.
Do we know enough to develop the talents of all children?
We know an enormous amount about how people learn, how they learn differently, how to help those who have different starting points and styles of learning. The problem is that the knowledge produced by educators, researchers, and others is not widely shared across the profession. It needs to be transmitted across the array of schools. Entering professionalsteachers and administrators alikeneed to understand how to teach so that all people can learn.
Is the problem rooted in our training program?
We do not invest enough in preparation programs for school professionals. We can come up with new standards for teaching and learning, new ideas about curriculum, and new assessment mechanisms, but if we do not invest in helping educators understand how people learn and how to address their needs with a variety of teaching strategies, then everything will be in vain. We have never invested in teachers in this country. We've created a system in which we regulate heavily and tell teachers what to do. We create teacher-proof curriculum. We pay teachers relatively little, and then we spend enormous sums creating a superstructure of supervisors to look over their shoulders. We spend one out of every two education dollars outside the classroom. It's a huge waste, and we can't continue such a strategy and hope to improve schools.
You mentioned new assessment mechanisms. A major trend in alternative assessment is now taking place. Do you think this will continue?
Yes, I think there's a growing awareness that we have sacrificed a great deal by relying on proxies for achievement, such as those that can be measured by multiple-choice, norm-referenced tests. I think we now understand that, in the cause of efficiency and easy scorability, we have created incentives for dumbing down’ the curriculum, for focusing on low-level rote skills rather than on performance skills and abilities. We've created our own problems by producing students who cannot write and think analytically because they're not called upon to do that in assessments. I think we will see a tremendous amount of energy spent in developing performance-oriented assessments. I suspect that in 20 years you will not see the use of norm-referenced, multiple-choice testing in this country to any significant degree.
Won't this require massive changes in curriculum?
Absolutely. We are beginning to transform the curriculum from a passive process of dumping information from one head into anotherinformation that is quickly forgottento a process in which kids are engaged in actively looking for their own answers, cooperatively solving problems, accessing information, synthesizing it, analyzing it, presenting hypotheses, and testing them. This kind of learning is more sustained and useful. We must enable teachers to work this way with students and to demonstrate students' accomplishments with assessments that look for and capture powerful thinking. Changes in curriculum and assessment must go hand in hand if we hope to achieve widespread use of what has been called a thinking curriculum.’
In what ways can technology support the changes you see coming in curriculum and assessment?
I can think of several ways. Teachers on line can share ideas, debate issues, display authentic assessments to one another, work through scoring questions, evaluate rubrics, look at student work and what it represents, and talk over problems they've encountered and strategies to deal with them. Currently NCREST, in cooperation with CES, Foxfire, and Project Zero, is developing a project that involves 60 teachers, a national faculty for authentic assessment. The teachers, drawn from various school-reform movements, are on line with one another, creating assessment ideas and critiquing and supporting one another as development proceeds. This network has turned out to be an enormously powerful tool. Another use of technology in assessment procedures involves the development of interactive videodiscs and computers as devices for storing student portfolios and student demonstrations. Such discs, showing what a student has accomplished and what standards he has attained, can be sent from school to school, or from school to college as part of an application for admission. A project now under way in the state of New York has the CES working with state partnership districts to put individual student portfolios on disc to show a school's approach to instruction. These discs will provide useful tools as the process of reform moves forward. Another tool will be an assessment data bank that allows schools to call up the assessment prototypes of other schools to examine possibilities on which their own authentic assessments can be built.
Are there any barriers impeding the school-reform movement today?
For one thing, we have mixed policy messages. Teachers are being asked to teach in new ways and to develop new approaches to assessment, but at the same time they're being asked to continue to be responsive to multiple-choice, norm-referenced tests. As one teacher in California put it when they were implementing the new mathematics-curriculum framework, It's a Catch-22. They want me to teach in a way that they can't test, but they want me to continue to be accountable to the old tests.’ We have old models of instruction and teacher evaluation that were enacted under the assumption that teaching is standardized, that students are standardizedas if to say that, if you just learn through a formula, it will all work out in the end.
Another barrier is the lack of investment in the preparation and development of teachers. We will never manage to teach all children well until teachers know how students learn and how to teach effectively with a variety of approaches that can reach students with different experiences, languages, cultures, and learning styles. We've assumed that knowledge can trickle down from a giant bureaucracy. We'll seek the single best way to do something, and we'll encode that in teacher-proof curriculum packages, textbooks, testing programs, and directives, and then we'll ask people to follow those directives. But if you look at Philadelphia, where teachers have had rigid lesson plans telling them what to do and when to do it every day of the year, you will see that kids simply don't learn that way.
A third barrier is the dramatically unequal funding that schools in rich and poor communities receive. One of the major ways our education system differs from those of many other countries is that theirs tend to fund schools centrally and equally. In the United States there is a 10-to-1 difference in spending between the richest and poorest districts. We have schools with enormous resourcesgymnasiums, computers, qualified teachersand we have places where the asbestos is falling out of the ceiling, the textbooks are 30 years old, no playground exists, and few teachers are qualified. Some schools in New York City have faculties on which 85 percent or more of the teachers are untrained and inexperienced. We'll never improve those schools with the present approach to funding. We have to equalize resources if we want to educate all students well.
Is there anything incompatible between alternative assessment and the movement toward a national curriculum and set of standards?
Standards that indicate ways in which a curriculum can better support learning can be very helpful when they're voluntary, when they're put forward as a tool for others to use and learn from and adapt. But if national standards are legislatedif they become linked to national assessmentwe're in big trouble with the school-reform movement. This is because the standards contain a lot of contradictions that can't be worked out nationally. The current history standards are at odds with the proposed social-studies standards, which in turn are different from the civics standards. Such differences can't be resolved at the national level. You've got to let local people make sense of them in a curriculum. Some schools are trying to develop an interdisciplinary curriculum, but the current national standards are discipline-based. Tying national tests to discipline-based standards would destroy the interdisciplinary-curriculum work of CES and others. And if we try to create national tests and align those to national standards, we will eventually repeat what happened with the National Assessment of Educational Progress [NAEP], which changed from an authentic approach to assessment to a multiple-choice approach. We'll slide backward in our quest for assessments that capture critical-thinking approaches to teaching and learning.
In 1969 the NAEP was a performance assessment. It had students singing, performing music, doing artwork, and writing compositions. Then it became clear that it was expensive to assess students doing these things, and, as the federal government withdrew some support, the assessment became increasingly a multiple-choice process until it began to measure only lower-level cognitive skills. Now we're trying to move in the other direction again. The way to get effective teaching and learning is not through national tests but through assessments developed by local communities, with teachers, parents, and community members involved, so that students are working toward more challenging standards and teachers are learning how to look at students differently, how to support their learning better, and how to think differently about standards. We can't achieve that with top-down national tests.
What advice would you give to educators who are interested in reforming their own schools?
Start by listening to students. Students know a lot about how they learn and what conditions they need in order to learn well. If we start by listening to students rather than throwing facts at them, we will evolve a set of ideas for changing schools that will have a certain authenticity and grounding that might not otherwise emerge. I'll never forget the time one of my daughters came home from school and said, You know, if the teachers would stop talking, we could get our work done.’ That's the kind of thing you learn every time you talk to students. If they're engaged in active learning, they're really understanding things in new ways.
Next, think holistically. If we're really reinventing schooling for the 21st century, we can't do it by changing one little thing while hoping to keep everything else the same. If you try to change the curriculum without changing school organization, grouping practices, testing procedures, and other things, the curriculum reform will die. If you change governance and don't change anything else, you don't get good results. You have to think holistically. You may not do everything at once, but you must consider how one piece affects the others so that, ultimately, the school revolves around the learner in every way it functions.
Finally I would say, stay in it for the long haul. Change is always difficult; it takes time; it seems threatening. Established ways of doing things are more comfortable. But don't be discouraged that the process creates conflict. There must be some conflict, and then you must find ways to resolve it. Listen to different points of view. New voices and new constituencies should become involved. Everything upsets the apple cart to some extent, but eventually, if the focus is on students and learning, those difficultiesthough they will never disappear completelywill lead to a deeper conversation and a richer learning environment than we have today.
Are you hopeful about the future of education in our country?
I'm very hopeful. I'm hopeful because I've had the privilege to work with an enormous number of dedicated, committed teachers, school principals, and teacher educators who are willing to do whatever it takes to reach kids and to create a future for them that can maximize their potential. It's not going to be a piece of cake, obviously. But I think people are committed, and that's what will make it happen.