Harvard professor outlines changes needed in children's education

Ronald Ferguson.

It’s not just the economy that makes employers nervous about the future, said Ronald F. Ferguson, senior lecturer in education and public policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. According to Ferguson, “Big employers are scared that we will not be able to replace the baby boomers when they retire” with young people equipped with the basic skills needed. As our population shifts racially, Ferguson added, our emerging workforce will be “disproportionally from our lowest achieving groups” unless all students make dramatic gains in achievement.

Ferguson spoke recently at Plymouth Church in Shaker Heights as part of the City Club of Cleveland Speakers Series. He has conducted more than 30 years of research on how to reduce economic and educational disparities in schools. He believes we need a movement toward excellence with equity. “We need a culture change, a lifestyle change on a national basis” in our approach to education, he said.

One important change he suggested is to bring adults who are satisfied with their lives into classrooms to talk about the pathways they followed. Employers and organizations could help schools arrange monthly visits from adults in a variety of professions, and range of incomes, to give students “a whole menu of possible selves.”

Adolescent peer culture plays a significant role in achievement. Ferguson emphasized the need to help students create a “conspiracy to succeed.” Surveys of students show that they want to succeed but feel “afraid to openly aspire to high achievement.” He suggested creating a parallel grading system that measures improvement or increased knowledge and skills. This would enable a larger group of students to receive recognition and feel successful. Ferguson also cited recent studies that show that when students work in small groups, the high achieving students are not supportive of the lower achievers. “Intellectual bullying happens. We need to find ways to get kids to work together that lifts them up.”

Research shows that the quality of teaching improves when teachers have the time and training to collaborate on “improving their craft.” Teachers should also study their students’ work as a regular part of the teaching and assessing process. “[Teachers] will notice patterns from mistakes and infer from those mistakes why [students] don’t understand, and then make changes,” he said.

Ferguson believes that parents are willing to do more to be part of the education process, but don’t know what to do. Harvard recently presented a parenting summit and has many of the video-taped presentations available online at www.agi.harvard.edu. One of these presentations focuses on a recent study showing that using hand signals and gestures with young children will accelerate language development. Another examines the positive effects of playing board games, which “helps children learn about sequencing and ordinality – math skills.”

Ferguson emphasized the need to talk to children, even inutero. “Narrate your life to them. Whatever you are doing, just talk,” he said. He wants parents to know that they can increase their three-year-old’s mental capabilities by not just reading to them, but also talking about the story and asking questions combining low and high levels of thinking. For example, is that a dog? (low level). What do you think the dog will do next? high level).

Ferguson mentioned an analysis of parenting styles that concluded that children are more successful students if they have parents who provide a good balance of high expectations and emotional support. He mentioned that researchers thought the best parenting style might differ among ethnic groups but found that a combination of “demandingness, structure and clear rules with responsiveness, warmth and expressions of love is the optimal parenting style for all children.”

Following the presentation, a young man from the audience asked why people aren’t doing these things already. Ferguson replied that many are taking some of these actions but that the slow pace of change is due to a lack of leadership. He believes our nation is in the early phases of a national social movement to improve educational outcomes for students from all racial, ethnic and social class backgrounds and that our political and business leaders need to make this reform process a priority.

Krista Hawthorne

Krista Hawthorne is assistant director of Reaching Heights, a nonprofit community organization in support of public education in the CH-UH school district.

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Volume 5, Issue 1, Posted 1:50 PM, 12.05.2011