A Conversation with Linda Darling-Hammond

Linda Darling-Hammond Last week I had the pleasure of meeting with Linda Darling-Hammond. She is being honored by Teaching Matters as our 2011 Champion of Education and Innovation.  Below is an abridged transcript of our conversation on key issues in today's education landscape -- Common Core, Assessment, Teacher Quality and America's commitment to real education reform.  

Guastaferro: In a recent speech, you mention several high performing school systems in other countries organizing their curriculum around problem solving and critical thinking skills.  Would you say the US is moving in that direction with the adoption of Common Core standards? 

Darling-Hammond: I think that there is certainly a lot of good language in the common core about good critical thinking skills and problem solving and so on, but the end result is going to depend on many other factors. It's going to depend on what we do around building curriculum materials, it depends on whether we transform assessments in very important ways. It depends on what we do about professional development for teachers and for school leaders, because you can implement the common core curriculum in a way that is much more focused on higher order learning skills or you can implement the common core in a way that just replicates a lot of the more rote-oriented teaching that we currently have in place.

I would say, especially important, if you look at the US in relation to other countries is rethinking the testing system. We're the only major country that uses multiple-choice testing to a large degree; all of the high-achieving countries test much less than we do, test almost exclusively in open-ended formats with writing and performances, scientific investigations, research papers, and projects as part of the examination systems.  

Guastaferro: So assessment is the really critical structure that we have to get right, and then we must back into the right supports.   What's your analysis of our national assessment strategy as it stands now?   

Darling-Hammond: The assessments consortia groups PARCC and Smarter Balance will develop assessments of the common core, and that will likely move the needle to some extent in the direction of more thoughtful assessments. But they won't get us all the way to where countries like Singapore and Australia, Hong Kong and many other countries are already.  PARCC and Smarter Balance are being asked to do every child/every year testing, again, which no other country does. These other countries assess every three years at most, and therefore they have the resources to do use deeper assessments that involve students in ambitious work that they may complete over several weeks, for example, and they can  involve teachers in developing and scoring the assessments. 

Just to give you a contrast,  in our two new assessment systems, we may have extended tasks that last one or two days or class periods.  If you were in Singapore, in nearly every science class you would have a several-month scientific investigation that students design, conduct, and analyze... And those kinds of expectations for students mean that students are continuously being asked to think, to analyze, to synthesize, to communicate, to evaluate, to do those things that they will have to do in college, in the world outside of school to persevere at big task, to frame and solve problems.  

Guastaferro: I agree that good assessment is the lynch-pin to developing students higher order skills -- but what about accountability?  Working in New York City schools, we see both the negative and positive effects of the accountability system. But prior to accountability there was not a systemic way to look at performance - and there were areas of true neglect - no one really looking under the hood.  How do you strike that right balance? 

Darling-Hammond: Used well, assessments can be apart of a very powerful instructional improvement system and an accountability system where the goal is to be transparent about what kind of outcomes we are getting. The tests have to be worth teaching to, the outcomes have to be the right ones, the process has to engage teachers in ways that makes them smarter about their teaching, and more capable of being responsive to students.   In addition, there's a form of accountability that we have not been investing adequately in this country, which is 'professional accountability.' That is what happens in Finland, Singapore, Canada, and  many other countries.  With attention to professional accountability, everyone who wants to enter teaching is both highly selected and highly supported. Teacher education is high quality [and free to candidates]..and they have put a lot of attention into designing high quality preparation because they think that it is a good investment.... 

...We've been trying to put all of our eggs only in a testing-with-rewards-and-sanctions basket. And we've gotten as far as you could get with that model on accountability. We need to make the investments in professional knowledge and skills. Then we need to allow the assessment system to be a good measure of learning in which teachers could actually be engaged as part of the process of evaluating the assessments, scoring them, and thereby becoming better teachers.  

Guastaferro: Do you think our accountability focus comes from the fact that this country has so much inequity in the education we offer our students.    We've seen so much failure in our schools -- and are there examples where they have the kind of a real diversity in income levels, like the extremes that we're see in the United States? 

Darling-Hammond: There are a lot of countries where almost all of the kids are poor. In Singapore, 80% of the kids live in public housing, and yet it is one of the highest achieving nations in the world. But, no kid is homeless. 

Guastaferro:  Yes a culture of poverty vs economic poverty.

Darling-Hammond: No child is without health care. No child is without food. We have one of the highest  effective rates of poverty for children in the world.  ...Also, in almost every developed country, schools are funded equally. In New York State, you have some schools spending three times what other schools are spending per pupil. And, so you've got those inequities, then you add to that we don't have a highly functioning early learning system, so kids come from kindergarten with radically different levels of vocabulary and skills. And then you add to that the fact that when schools are resourced inequitably, you have big distributional differences in the quality of teachers. And that's what you're seeing...is the affects of all of those levels of inequality. We were less unequal in this country in 1979, than we are today.

Guastaferro: In terms of urban schools, what have you seen that you felt has really built teacher capacity?  

Darling-Hammond: Well, there have been some districts that have really done explicit capacity building initiatives, and those have really paid off. So, years ago there was a lot of attention to the work that Tony Alvarado was doing in district 2 in New York City, and a lot of what's going on now, including the work that Teaching Matters is doing that is so fabulous, really comes from the work that they started, which was figuring out how to wrap around a set of supports for learning about teaching that could get into the classroom level, that could figure out how to give teachers a knowledge base, that they may not have had the opportunity to encounter. How to do that in a way that builds common practices, and norms and standards and a discourse about teaching, where people could get regular access to a body of knowledge that they could then work on together with coaching and support and curriculum materials.

Guastaferro: It's so funny, I never made the connection between Tony Alverado in District 2 and Teaching Matters' model -- but that is the genesis.

Darling-Hammond:  What we saw in that period of time there was a real effort to create instructional...coherent...comprehensive, instructional knowledge and supports. Where superintendents have had the understanding, foresight and resources to bring that together, it has been transformative for some urban districts. We saw a number of urban districts in places like Connecticut that tried to support that state-wide, really make strong gains in reading and writing by doing that. 

I think again, with the current emphasis on the peripheral issues, there is less support for districts to do that--to bring together a coherent vision for instruction and professional development support, and make that a regularized part of what teachers could expect to get in their professional lives. And I think as a matter of equity and obligation, we should be organizing ourselves in this society to give teachers the knowledge and the skills that they need to have to get the job that they want and need to do. 

Guastaferro: Thank you Linda, I really appreciate your time. 

Darling-Hammond: You are very welcome.