Glass to Brazil In Search of Educational Excellence

This past Spring, the Council of Chief State School Officers and the Pearson Foundation offered several education leaders from around the country the opportunity to visit Brazil to see schools, be part of a meeting of U.S. state leaders in Petropolis (a mountain city about 45 miles from Rio de Janeiro in a range called Serra Fluminese), and participate in an International Summit on Education.

First, this trip is paid for entirely by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the Pearson Foundation. Not one dime of Iowa taxpayer money is being used for my travel or expenses.

Pearson Foundation-sponsored International Conference on Education - Rio Conference Logo (Source: Jason Glass Blog)

The goals of this trip are really three-fold for me.

First, it’s to spend some time vetting ideas about moving Iowa’s schools from “good” to “great” in advance of the release of our Education Blueprint on October 3.

Second, I hope to learn more from the highest performing, and fastest accelerating education systems in the world as part of the International Education Summit in Rio.

Finally, I want to learn about and tell the story of Brazil’s recent educational rise.

Glass to Brazil

Day 1:

Brazil is a country hungry to improve its schools and to do so dramatically. Their results on the international PISA assessment shows their efforts are starting to pay off. I expect the greatest thing I will see is an education system not afraid to risk, a system urgently engaged in the hard work of meaningful improvement, and a system with a clear focus on the goal of dramatically improving its schools.

Day 2:

Just over a decade ago, Brazil was a country with a nearly unfathomable number of educational problems. According to an article on Brazil’s education story in The Economist , only half of Brazilian children finished even primary education, 3 out of 4 adults were functionally illiterate, and 1 in 10 completely illiterate. The even bigger problem was that few people seemed to care. The wealthy put their children in quality private schools while the masses of Brazilians knew too little to understand what their children were missing.

Day 3:

This morning, the twelve state chiefs who made the trip to Brazil had the chance to talk policy. A rainy and overcast day here in Petropolis was barely noticed, as we dove into some heady policy issues in a discussion led by the very capable Council of Chief State School Officers Executive Director Gene Wilhoit and Strategic Initiative Director Janice Poda.

Our topics of conversation centered on three main areas: Educator preparation, professional learning, and educator evaluation.

How do we improve recruiting into educator preparation? How can we make colleges and universities more selective in who they let into, and out of, teacher preparation programs? What is the right blend of content, pedagogy, and clinical experience? How can we improve the student teaching experience? Where do alternative routes into education fit into the discussion?

An important point was that all of us were careful to take the political, historical, and cultural backgrounds of our individual states into account as we considered the options. What works in Kentucky, for example, might not work in Iowa or Illinois.

Our second topic centered on professional learning and the push for school-level professional learning community approaches, where small teams of educators work together on a regular basis to talk about individual student learning and improving their teaching. The concept of peer supports and teacher leadership played heavy in this talk, and Michael Fullan’s powerful concept of “transparency of practice” emerged as a leading idea as an improvement and accountability strategy.

Fullan discusses “transparency of practice” to mean that when educators visit and see each other’s teaching, observe each other, and are involved in a collective effort on behalf of their students, there is no more powerful means of accountability and improvement for schools.

Finally, we got into educator evaluation. Much of our talk centered on teacher evaluation, and all the struggles with developing consistent and valid measures for classroom teachers. But the discussion drifted to principal evaluation as well – as it should. The fundamental struggle with all evaluation is that it is necessarily a subjective process. As one chief remarked, even when standardized measures are present, we are making subjective judgments about what to test and how to use the data. Yet, everyone acknowledges that there are differences in educator quality, and coming up with systems to measure this quality and support more educators on a path toward improvement is a noble and worthy effort.

Day 4:

This morning I was excited to get to see my first Brazilian school. Finally, real kids! A short bus ride took us into an area of Petropolis called High Serra, which is home to about 60,000 of the city’s poorest residents. This is an area where kids are plagued by poverty, neglect, abuse, child prostitution, and several problems that come with an unstructured home life.

Day 5:
Today saw our troupe of state chiefs, officials from the Council of Chief State School Officers, and representatives from the Pearson Foundation make our way from Petropolis down to the vibrant and bustling city of Rio.

The always gracious and wise Gene Wilhoit from CCSSO gave opening remarks and then handed things over to Harvard’s Fernando Reimers.

Reimers studies education from a comparative context. Thus, he looks at different systems from around the world and studies the similarities and differences among them – always seeking “best practices” for what might improve the process of education overall.

Day 6:

This morning we kicked off in earnest the 2011 International Conference on Education (Twitter hashtag #RioEdSummit of you’d like to follow along).

There were several panels that unpacked the findings from this spring’s International Summit on the Teaching Profession in New York.

Moving from sessions on the teaching profession to recruiting and preparation, professional development and support, and evaluation and compensation – several state chiefs and representatives from partner organizations in attendance spoke on a number of issues relating to how we can improve teaching.

Day 7:

Brazil is a country still struggling to provide an equitable education for all.

Despite a dramatic rise in the size and wealth of the middle class, the best schools here are clearly the private schools.

The vast majority of the slots in private schools are reserved for more affluent students.

A laudable approach this country has taken was to recognize that much of the existing capacity is in the private institutions. Leaders have used public funds to open spaces for kids from poor backgrounds to enter private schools.

While this is a fairly controversial approach in the U.S., here it’s more a recognition that right now the role of private schools as partners, especially the Catholic schools, provides this country arguably the best opportunity to raise the education level.

The Pearson Foundation/CCSSO International Conference on Education brings together an international delegation of education leaders to explore innovative approaches to a single, shared educational issue.

Each year since 2008, delegates have visited with local educators to learn from the host country’s own challenges and successes; met in small working teams to present and share best practices from their own countries; learned from each other ways in which they can improve their own local efforts; and – as a result of this dialogue – made recommendations that may be shared with their local and global peers about methods, practice, and policy.

Focused specifically on the teaching profession and taking its agenda from the Asia Society’s recently published Improving Teacher Quality Around the World, the fourth annual summit took place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – a country whose educational system is recognized in the recent 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) as one of the three fastest-improving this decade.

About profesorbaker

Thomas Baker is the Past-President of TESOL Chile (2010-2011). He enjoys writing about a wide variety of topics. The source and inspiration for his writing comes from his family.
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