Joint Committee to Develop a Master Plan for Education

Achievement of Students

The Context

It is important to provide all Californians access to high-quality education, but it is equally important that their education equip them with the ability to manage change and to think both critically and independently. They must know how to locate information quickly, weigh and evaluate information for bias and accuracy, and synthesize and apply that information to solve problems. These 21st century skills build on and absolutely require a strong foundation of traditional reading, writing, and mathematical abilities. They represent the basic building blocks of learning and will be a major asset for successful entry into tomorrow's workforce.

While it is important to equip students with the knowledge and skills that will prepare them for success in California's workforce and postsecondary education, it is equally important that students become well-rounded individuals with a sense of self worth and of the importance of civic and community involvement. These qualities are essential to a democratic society. They equip individuals with the ability to accept opinions that are different from their own without devaluing their own opinions. They instill a set of values that motivate a person to engage with the larger society, to try to make a positive difference, and to improve the life conditions of others as well as themselves.

California's adoption of academic content standards is an essential step in defining the knowledge we expect public schools to impart to all students, but it falls short of capturing the skills involved in learning how to learn. Teaching a discrete set of skills is an appropriate aim for education institutions, but if a child is to learn a skill, s/he must either enjoy practicing the skill or understand the usefulness of that skill. That is, students must see the connection between acquiring a skill and getting something else they want, if they are to develop the disposition to learn it. But most skills, like reading and doing long division, are usually embedded in more complex activities. Exercising those skills usually does not resemble the way students learn them, and if learners are to understand the value of the skills, they have to see how they are embedded in broader activities that they enjoy or at least find useful. Once students develop a disposition for learning something, it stays with them a long time, unlike simple memorization of facts. Unfortunately, too many education institutions get caught up in the process of transmitting a large body of common knowledge to a diverse group of students who promptly forget what they have been taught after they have been tested on it.[31]

This Master Plan for Education seeks to move California beyond the simple transmission of knowledge, by emphasizing efforts to develop a disposition for learning and achievement among all of California's learners. Employers can help in this regard by placing an emphasis on student achievement. Currently, few businesses ask for high school transcripts in deciding whether to hire young people, and, therefore, there is no employment incentive for high school students to be disposed to attain high achievement levels. Such incentives are more evident for college graduates, who receive higher entry salaries and have lifetime earnings that greatly exceed those of their counterparts who terminate their educational careers at the high school level.

Traditional approaches to teaching and learning have been based on a variety of research assumptions and findings that have subsequently proved to be inaccurate. Some of those incorrect assumptions include that the brain's development is entirely dependent on the genes a child is born with, that early childhood experiences have a limited impact on a child's later development, that brain development is fundamentally a linear process, and that a toddler's brain is less active than that of a college student. Recent research on how the brain develops indicates that children are born 'wired-to-learn' and that development of the brain is a complex interaction between genetic inheritance and early childhood experiences. A child's experiences from birth to age three not only shape the context for future learning, but also have a decisive impact on the architecture of the brain and on the nature and extent of adult capacities.[32] Research also documents that brain development is an episodic process; there are particularly prime times for children to acquire different kinds of knowledge and skills.

Building a solid foundation for learning requires focused attention to developing the social, emotional, cognitive, and physical competencies of infants and toddlers. Each child must develop satisfying social interactions with other children and adults, since that experience builds the capacity to engage in true cooperation and sharing relationships. Research indicates that young children have the capacity during their preschool years to begin developing the skill of symbolic representation that, in combination with improved memory, helps young learners develop more logical thinking, increased language skills, and the ability to categorize objects by attributes.[33] Learning theory reinforces the importance of children's developing the ability to express ideas and feelings through symbolic representation, noting that skill's association with development of mathematics learning and significant gains in knowledge and cognitive development.[34] Providing learners with opportunities to engage in creative activities such as dramatic play, or manipulation of objects in their environment like blocks, dolls, and clay, or the study of nature by planting seeds and monitoring their growth into plants is a valuable teaching strategy to promote the cognitive development of students.

"Children begin their lives with endless possibilities, only to find doors closed and opportunities limited. When they start school, they experience overcrowded classrooms and antiquated theories, and they enter a disjointed system that is ill-equipped to meet the needs of the new century."

--Robert H. McCabe, 2001 League for Innovation in Community College

Teaching and learning should never be viewed as independent functions within educational settings. Qualified teachers and engaged learners are the two essential components of any successful education enterprise. The Beginning Teacher Support and Assistance (BTSA) program recognizes the importance of support for new teachers, assigning experienced teachers to guide their novice peers into the teaching profession by providing advice and assistance on instructional strategies and helping them navigate theschool environment. The Peer Assessment and Review (PAR) program seeks to further enhance the professional growth of novice teachers by having their more experienced peers evaluate their teaching effectiveness. Together, BTSA and PAR serve to reduce the variation in teaching effectiveness between more and less experienced teachers. The body of expertise that teachers possess about the strategies that are most effective in promoting successful achievement of diverse groups of students should also be actively engaged by administrators and school board members as they develop plans for improving student achievement within their schools and districts. Teachers' knowledge of instructional materials, assessment instruments, the strengths and weaknesses of students, and the role of parental support constitutes valuable input for strategic planning that focuses on improving students' achievement.

Though much of the research on brain development and learning focuses on infants and toddlers, the basic findings are applicable to learners of all ages. It is important that teachers and education institutions focus on development of the whole person, including development of social, emotional, physical, intellectual, and cognitive skills. Positive relationships and interactions with adults and advanced learners can be extremely influential in promoting learning among students. Because every learnerbrings a unique combination of personal attributes, childhood experiences, and styles of learning, it is important for education institutions to not limit their evaluation of intellectual potential to assessments of language and mathematical skills. Such a focus is too narrow and fails to recognize the multiple strengths that each learner brings to the teaching and learning process. A focus on student learning, therefore, requires that multiple strategies be integrated into the curriculum to promote a wider array of opportunities to demonstrate learning, and that those strategies be developmentally appropriate.

The exact components of education that promote high achievement are not always what many people think they are. Education providers, parents, and elected officials alike can benefit by distancing themselves from several myths associated with undergraduate education in America.[35] Several of these myths, which are equally applicable to all levels of education are summarized below:

Myth 1 - Institutional prestige and reputation reflect educational quality

Most people believe that, for any given student, going to an institution with all (or most) of the conventionally accepted earmarks of 'quality' will lead to greater learning and development. The fact is that it probably won't. The traditional earmarks of quality include educational expenditures per student, student/faculty ratios, faculty salaries, percentage of faculty with the highest degree in their field, faculty research productivity, size of library, admissions selectivity, and prestige ranking. This myth ignores the kinds of students that enroll in those institutions in the first place. Most schools that graduate high-performing students also admit high performing students. These indicators of quality say more about institutional advantage than they do about what institutions do with the resources available to them to promote student achievement.

Myth 2 - Traditional methods of instruction provide proven, effective ways of teaching undergraduate students

Lecturing is the traditional method of undergraduate instruction in most institutions. Research evidence indicates that the lecture/discussion approach is not ineffective but it is not as effective as other, far less frequently used approaches. These more effective approaches emphasize small, modularized units of content, student mastery of one unit before moving to the next, immediate and frequent feedback to students on their progress, and active student involvement in the learning process. These individualized, collaborative approaches to teaching are more effective because they respond to differences in students' levels of preparation, learning styles, and rates of learning.

Myth 3 - Faculty members influence student learning only in the classroom

A number of studies demonstrate that faculty exert much influence in their out-of-class contacts with students. 'Instruction,' therefore, should be interpreted more broadly to include the important teaching that faculty do both inside and outside their classrooms. Student informal contact with faculty is positively linked with a variety of outcomes, including perceptions of intellectual growth during college, increases in intellectual orientation and curiosity, growth in autonomy and independence, increases in interpersonal skills, gains in maturity and personal development, educational aspirations, persistence, educational attainment, and women's interest in male-dominated career fields.