Education is fundamental to everything that is important to American vitality and growth. Most can agree on that matter. On most other issues, though, education is exceedingly contentious and polarizing. Diversity Journal has gathered renowned education experts from across the country to speak on some of the most pressing issues in the state of education today.

What are some of the paramount problems with education in America? And on the global level?

Bena Kallick: At the very heart of it all, we are in a time of transition in which we are moving from a more industrialized model of education to a more global, information-age, technology-age education. And although we see this as something we talk about in society and the workplace, it’s not that easy to make those shifts in schools because it means a rethinking of the way school is designed, the school day is designed, and what we expect from kids to be able to know and do. The stabs we take at it keep pushing us back to old forms as opposed to new forms. So rather than thinking of it as school reform, I would think of it as school “new-form,” by really understanding what’s required in the 21st century for skills for students. I think also the government has made many missteps in terms of No Child Left Behind.

Based on that, making all kinds of restraints and stipulations that have faulty assumptions, for example, that we would be able to test students and know they are well-educated by the kind of tests they design. I’m not sure it’s getting us to the question as to whether our kids are learning and producing at the level we are looking for.

Gerry Wheeler: We must ensure that every child has a quality teacher. A quality teacher is both an expert in what to teach and skilled at how to teach it, and receives sustained professional development for continued learning. We must do a better job to attract, prepare, and retain well-educated, effective pre-K–12 science teachers. Strong, performance-based science teacher education programs and science teacher licensor standards are essential for all science teachers and will provide a foundation upon which teachers may build throughout their professional lives. We need to focus on science education at the elementary level. Student understanding of science concepts build cumulatively. A solid foundation in science during the elementary school years gives students a better grasp of science at the secondary level and beyond. And last, parents have to be much more engaged in their child’s science education. Parents who encourage the daily use of science skills, such as observing, classifying, and predicting, can enhance their child’s ability to learn lifelong skills necessary for success in later school years.

Tammy Heflebower: I believe another problem with education in America is the Carnegie Unit as a measure of “success” in a class. We need to work toward proficiency rather than seat time as a measure of learning. Our systems need to focus less around ages and grade levels, and more about proficiency in content, processes, and emotional intelligence for moving through our systems. Additionally, our staffs need to work more collaboratively within such systems. Another concern we are noting is the gaps among preschool, K-12, and higher education. Rather than seeing these entities separately, we need to continue to foster ways to improve our cohesiveness and collaboration. Again—reconsidering what it means to be ready for the next level. It shouldn’t be as much age-based as it is proficiency-based. We need to rely on multiple measure of student success. Balance measures of external testing with demonstrated capabilities through portfolios of learning. We need to be less about a single score, and more about our depth of knowledge and understanding through demonstrations of that information.

Is curriculum a major aspect of the problems in education? Or is it something else, like testing, or quality of teaching and teachers?

Bena Kallick: In my mind, I would say that if we were able to come to understand what constitutes a quality education, and come to some understanding on the values behind that, and that we account for whether students are learning, testing is one of those that needs to change. Once you begin to change how you account for learning, you also begin to change how you teach, the way the curriculum is designed; everything else falls in after that.

Tammy Heflebower: These all really go hand-in-hand. A consistent, quality curriculum is an important base. Curriculum, solid instruction, sound assessment practices, and high-quality teachers and leadership are all essential elements of great education.

What are some of the fundamental issues facing females in terms of education?

Bena Kallick: There are more women now that are reaching administrative positions than there was previously. I think the issue is that if we look at some of the work done on gender differences, women have a different way of knowing, and they are more inclined toward what 21st century schools are calling for. They’re more inclined to be collaborative, more able to function in a chaotic and uncertain world, and yet because schools are structured otherwise, it puts a damper on the kind of creative solutions and ideas that women might come up with. In addition to that, women tend to be skilled in the field of teaching, which many prefer to management positions. Because there are no real career opportunities in the field of teaching, this limits you, so you don’t have a career ladder that allows you to grow.

Gerry Wheeler: To encourage girls in math and science, we need to begin first with their beliefs about their abilities to these areas, second with sparking and maintaining greater interest in these topics, and finally with building associated skills.

How can educational objectives be changed to better reflect skills that goals that are more attune with what a graduate needs to be successful? How can these educational objectives also be changed to satisfy all parties involved: teachers, parents, community leaders, and students?

Bena Kallick: I don’t think it’s as much of a puzzle as it appears in the conflicts of the media. I think what’s actually happened is that the people in politics have taken over, making too many decisions about what’s appropriate for kids. I think too often we don’t talk to the people who are closest to the daily lives of the students in the classroom, those being teachers, and we make all kinds of decisions based on private and corporate need. So many political interests are being served, and children are becoming pawns in that arrangement, as are parents.

There’s a lot of local identification and good feeling about a lot of what takes place, but the media is presenting it to make it seem like we are absolutely failing.

Tammy Heflebower: I believe making our courses more applicable to real world experiences—blending our communities and businesses, is essential to helping our students learn the value of an infused education. Students cannot simply leave our systems being able to pass tests. They must be children of character, skilled in decision-making and problem solving processes. These kinds of skills are fostered in learning environments that are interactive, infused with technology and necessary 21st century skills, complete with internships and connections to a global society.

What can we do as a community to better educate students and help education succeed?

Gerry Wheeler: We must work to expand the diversity of the STEM pipeline and workforce, including targeted initiatives to promote the inclusion of underrepresented minorities and women in STEM fields. Our schools must have a strong emphasis in learning environments on hands-on, experiential, inquiry-based and learner-centered student experiences and activities, including engineering design processes. In addition, we encourage incentives to promote business community engagement in STEM education activities at every level.

Tammy Heflebower: As a community, work with your schools, not against them. Partner, offer, connect, and support one another. It really does take a village to raise children—parents need training and support; schools need to be hubs of our communities that exchange resources and services.

Bena Kallick is a private consultant, providing services to school districts, departments of education, and professional organizations. She has taught at Yale University, the University of Massachusetts, and Union Graduate School, and is the co-author of Habits of Mind Across the Curriculum.

Dr. Gerald Wheeler is interim executive director of the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), the world’s largest professional organization representing science educators. He served as executive director of the NSTA for 13 years, served on advisory boards and hosted children’s television programs, and taught physics at Montana State University. He is a fellow of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Dr. Tammy Heflebower is vice president of field services at Marzano Research Laboratory, a regional educational laboratory based in Colorado. She is a consultant with experience in urban, rural, and suburban districts throughout North America and Australia. Dr. Heflebower has served as a teacher, building leader, district leader, regional professional development director, and national trainer.