USA: Dr Susan Furhman

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Dr Susan Furhman - Columbia University

Dr Susan Furhman on the dangers of an over emphasis on soft skills, and the need for robust assessment criteria to raise standards in K12 education

Dr. Susan Furhman is the President of Teachers College, Columbia University. She is also Chair of the Management Committee of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education (CPRE). She has written widely on education policy and finance, and her many professional involvements include membership on the Board of Trustees of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and the Coca-Cola Council for Corporate and School Partnerships. She is also a member of the National Academy of Education, a former Vice President of the American Educational Research Association, and a non-executive Director of Pearson.

Her research interests include state policy design, accountability in education, deregulation, intergovernmental relationships, and standards-based reform.

Attributes And Skills For Education And Employment

Dr. Furhman's experience, research portfolio and track record position her as one of the most powerful and important voices in education reform. During this interview, which took place in her offices at Columbia University, New York, Dr Furhman directly challenges some of the assumptions made throughout this interview series in relation to the importance and teaching of 'soft' skills and stresses the importance of making evidence-based policy decisions.

Responding to a question about the apparent disconnect between the skills employers say they want and the skills students leave college with, Dr Furhman begins by describing her recent experience of co-chairing a panel on educational accountability on behalf of The National Research Council (part of the National Academy of Sciences). During their first workshop, the panel looked at 'college and workforce readiness', and Dr Furhman asserts that

"There are over thirty 30 states trying to define standards of readiness (for work) beyond high school and figure out ways to assess them... This is very much an active debate."

She references ACHIEVE, a Washington-based organization which has also been looking at these fundamental issues in order to document the mismatches between education and employment and then set standards that reflect the "new understanding of what is needed".

Dr. Furhman identifies assessment as the key issue in this discussion, and frames a compelling argument around the inadequacy of a single testing measure (i.e. when a student leaves school):

"Having one end- of-course assessment in high school is simply not sufficient".


Soft Skills Matter For Students As Well

When discussing 'soft skills', Dr Furhman voices strong opinions on a debate that she sees perhaps, as an unhelpful diversion in the wider discussion about education reform.

She makes an interesting point about the false dichotomy between differentiating between skills needed for study and employment, arguing that both environments demand exactly the same attitudes:

"What I've learned about the soft skills thing is: one, they're obvious. Two; they're the same for workforce and college. To say employers want problem solving but colleges don't is really silly. Everybody wants reliability, inter-personal skills... We all want these things"

And warns against diverting valuable school time to concentrate on what she describes as "character building type activities"explicitly designed to develop character soft skills.

Dr Fuhrman advocates a different approach to addressing the need to develop such skills:

"For me, what you do is embed problem solving, teamwork and those other things into the content (of courses) and that's how you build those skills".

and is robust in her defense of retaining the level of study time devoted to more traditional subjects in the overall curriculum:

"I'd be really upset if I saw my grandchildren doing less history and more "let's catch each other when we fall "... I like those experiences, but in education we have trouble keeping a balance."

She points out that it is this balance that is key in the equation, and admits to feeling scarred at the idea of moving the focus of education "away into these non cognitive skills". The crux of Dr Fuhrman's argument is that it cognitive skills and solid knowledge of key topics are critical to an individual's success - and therefore the success of the wider community and economy:

"To assume that we have gone anywhere that we need to go with the cognitive skills is mistaken, we have too many high school drop outs and those who come are not ready... We have one quarter of American students in remediation in college. No employer will tell you that they don't expect a basic level of reading comprehension and math, societal understanding and citizenship in addition to a pleasant demeanor..."

So the solution is to have these (soft) skills "deliberately embedded" whilst being aware of the danger of having

Dr Fuhrman's position is backed up with evidence, and she asserts that there have been strong statistical studies, correlation studies and content and analysis studies that document that college ready and employer skills are almost identical.


The Challenges For Education Policy

Dr. Furhman firmly believes that curriculum and assessment are the major challenges for education in the USA in 2009 and beyond. She describes current standards as "vague and not sufficiently guiding"and argues "assessments (are) narrowed around what is tested and becoming the default curriculum". She is convinced that a lot of the problems with the current testing model reflect insufficient investment, and is against having "one test that drives everything" stating that:

"We need to go back to the drawing board."

Whilst praising the previous administration's 'No Child Left Behind' initiative in terms of its focus on accountability in education, Dr Furhman believes that this "one size fits all" policy did not allow individual states sufficient flexibility to address their own unique challenges and needs. She also argues that No Child Left Behind "accelerated the decline of standards based reform into narrow test-based accountability"and was not backed up with the resources to deliver against its stated aims:

"There are forty percent of schools in need of improvement in the USA, and states tend to less than a tenth of those schools because they don't have the capacity. What is the point of labeling everybody as failing when we don't have the remedies in place?"

However, Dr Furhman commends the current levels of attention being devoted to these issues and outlines some ways forward for policy makers and educators:

"There is a lot of discussion in Washington about developing curriculum, assessments and standards linked at the same time... where curriculum can draw on all our developing understanding of how children learn and their learning progression. We need to structure curriculum and informative assessments around those things rather than just using vague standards and assuming they provide sufficient guidance".


Technology, Personalization And Testing

Dr Furhman sees the potential for technology to help create adaptive testing models that can assess an individual against standardized measures, but across a wider selection of domains, therefore generating richer, more meaningful results to track the progress of learners as they move through the system:

"If we talk about instruction and its link to learning, we have to use technology to monitor progress - there's no way a teacher can keep a track of everything...There are so many things we could do... this is going to be very important for our future."

That said, Dr Furhman acknowledges that there is some way to go towards getting teachers up to speed on the effective use of technology in the classroom, and as "a pretty big fan of Clay Christensen's Disrupting Class" sees the future as using technology to help deliver high quality, personalized education experiences for everyone:

"This is the future... prospective teachers aren't yet being prepared this way, but we're working on that. Here at Columbia we have courses on adaptive instruction that are taught adaptively; I can tell you there's a lot of teachers interested in this".


Education Reform, The Economy And The Future

Dr Furhman considers the Government's role in education in the current economic climate and is optimistic about future investment in education under the new administration, in spite of the restrictions imposed by the global downturn:

"I think Obama is a major supporter of education and wants to invest and that is a great mentality. We should all think that way, as a country - it is perfectly appropriate to go into deficit at this time to support education because it is a great investment".

Regarding to the economic downturn and its effect on children and their parents' view of education (in terms of committing both time and money, Dr Furhman points out that in some ways the downturn may have an upside in terms of re-iterating the value - in all senses - of education:

"We'll have to go back to a point where kids see a future and once they do there will be re- emphasis on professions that require (post-college) education, as opposed to investment banking... which didn't! In the short term, one of the things that will get us through is that people from Lehman Brothers are coming to places like this, which didn't happen before".

Concluding our interview with a discussion on the status of vocational education, Dr Furhman echoes findings from the 'Effective Education for Employment' research, stating that its status in the US is:

"...terrible, second class, not the same status of a technical college in Singapore- in fact, the polar opposite ".

There are, however, some outstanding exceptions, such as some of the careers academies in New Jersey, whose value is widely recognized. Dr Furhman ends our discussion by underlining the importance of Community Colleges (a research specialism at Columbia Teachers College), and warns of the dangers of policy makers dismissing them as second class institutions:

"Too often policy makers think of them (community colleges) as just filled with remedial students and immigrants, but they are the places that are more flexible, more adaptive and really can carry a lot of the very high tech vocations that we need".