Wednesday, December 19, 2012

December 14, 2012

I have not written about the Newtown massacre because there is nothing to say. Safety, gun laws, mental health services--blahdy blahdy blah. Whatever. There are no "issues" here, only mute, gaping grief.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good. 

--W.H. Auden

Yeats wrote that "the centre cannot hold;/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,/ The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/ The ceremony of innocence is drowned."

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Uncommon Denominators

Bobby Jindal is on the warpath in the wake of his school choice legislation being struck down by a Louisiana court as unconstitutional. I'm not writing this blog, actually, to talk about this particular legislation, about which I see nothing good and which it seems to me had better be struck down by the Louisiana and Supreme Courts as well, as it baldly seeks to divert public moneys to private entities. I'm writing it to talk about the weird obsession with school choice in regards to education reform.

There are lots of things politicians, policy-makers, and school leaders might mean when they talk about "school choice," or parents' access to free/ low-cost schooling options other than their neighborhood school. They might be talking about vouchers for private schools, as in the recently struck-down Louisiana legislation. But there are also various kinds of public schools, such as charter schools, magnet schools, online schools, and home-schooling options.

There are differing, and strong, opinions about the effectiveness and merit of some of these public options, but I'm not going to get into that either. What struck me about this most recent school choice article is just how thoroughly the entire discussion about updating and upgrading our school system has boiled down to school choice. Well, that and testing of teachers and students. Why?

There are so very many systemic upgrades needed whose successful application we know would  buoy each and every school: eliminating stark inequities in school financing; funding and supporting whole-family services at school sites where needed; renovating crumbling and outdated building structure and infrastructure; revamping teacher education, compensation, and working conditions to match today's workforce; improving the relevancy and responsiveness of curriculum development. Of course, those things would all take a tremendous amount of money and cooperation on the part of our nation's leaders. Asking citizens to fix these deep, enduring problems themselves requires phenomenally less money, attention, political will, or courage.

I'm not against experimenting with different formats and delivery systems in schools. I believe that innovating forces are generally good and necessary in a healthy society, all the more so when major inequities are present; and, moreover, I believe that one-size-fits-all approaches to children's learning and communities' success don't work. But for the conversation to be meaningful and effective, it simply must get larger and braver.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Three Takes on Branding

There's been a lot of talk lately related to issues of branding and marketing K–12 education, though the term is used differently in different contexts and readers or listeners are expected to take away entirely different messages.

At a recent City Club of Chicago lunch (and elsewhere) Karen Lewis decried the ed reform policies  championed by Arne Duncan and Rahm Emanuel and supported by large funders such as the Gates Foundation as empty marketing schemes that hide the truth, hinder effective and fair solutions, and cede control to privateers. (Here's a summary, though its tone implies a great deal less warmth of reception than I witnessed, and here's some paraphrasing along with a clip to the video of her speech.  I also live-tweeted the speech here.)

Meanwhile, some folks writing for Co.Exist (I can't figure out the writers' relationship to the site; they're not listed as contributors or editors) argue that K–12 education would actually benefit from some re-branding. Their argument is that education should be far, far higher on the American public's list of Interesting and Urgent Things To Engage With. "If we could devise a provocative and ongoing message--" they say-- "a relevant pitch that appeals to people's immediate lives and illuminates the possibilities rather than the problems in education--we could unify businesses, teachers, communities, and political leaders around a single goal."

And I recently heard a piece on Marketplace about the dramatic difference a Cincinatti school's renovation has made in student engagement. Certainly, much of that is related to physical comfort, access to conditions needed to focus, and resources such as new science-lab equipment. But there is also an enormous psychological element. Says a Kansas State prof in the story, "A poor building imparts a poor attitude, and it has an effect on learning;" a school building with well-lighted hallways,  clean floors, upgraded plumbing, and temperature control is a place "where children feel valued, where teachers feel valued, and where the environment and the surroundings don't get in the way." That's a pretty important sort of branding.

By the way, Marketplace has done several heart-warming pieces on this particular school's  smart, caring, and systematic approach to revitalizing itself and its community, which you can access here. I am very curious about the renovation's funding sources. There are so many school buildings in terrible physical shape! I emailed Marketplace with the question but have not heard back.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Finland's Model: Do the Opposite of What We're Doing

There has been a lot of talk about using Finland's education system as a model for our own. Their highly successful and much lauded system is the result of carefully planned and executed reform efforts in the '70s and '80s. This brief Atlantic article by Anu Partanen highlights the key principles that Finland decided were important, as detailed in the writing, speeches, and other tireless communication efforts of Pasi Sahlberg, the director of the Finnish Ministry of Education's Center for International Mobility. It's a pretty telling series of things, because they are all things the U.S. summarily ignores or outrightly rejects. To whit:

  • The driving force behind Finland's reform efforts was, and remains, equity, not excellence. Therefore all schools from kindergarten through university are public, and all children receive health care and adequate nutritious meals.
  • Teachers are embued with responsibility, not held to accountability. Correspondingly, teachers are highly educated and highly trained. teaching is a prestigious and well-paid profession, and teachers assess students when and how they see fit. They also have ample time to collaborate with their colleagues, as described (along with a ton of other well-researched information) here.

Partanen summarizes how others have addressed concerns about the difference in our country's size--we have local and state school control, not federal--and in demographics--not as large a difference as one might think. As an aside, while the local-control thing is true, I don't think it is fruitful to minimize our
astounding ethnic and cultural diversity, nor our country's unique and powerful history of multiculturalism and immigration. That said, though, I feel we face a far greater challenge to developing and executing Finnish-inspired change: our insane attachment to signposts of individuality, to the point that we fear baseline health and nutrition provisions and prefer to cultivate our own ignorance rather than accept others' knowledge.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The "R" Word: Summing it up and Breaking it Down

This review, from way back in 2010, of Diane Ravitch's book is the best summary thus far of the lessons learned from recent education initiatives.

This Edweek blog is the best breakdown I've read yet of where we should go from here (though I'd add to his list of ideas to discuss a no-b.s. look at funding sources for schools, and an intelligent and serious look at teacher training and pay).

11/28/12 Update: I fixed the link to the EdWeek blog; it should point to the correct article now.

Friday, November 9, 2012

After the Election, a Welcome Complexity

As outlined here and here, Tuesday's election results make clear just how much the education currents are churning. Republican states voted down Republican sponsored bills related to imposing stringent evaluation systems on teachers and limiting collective bargaining and other rights, but charter schools generally did well, too. Folks seem to not know which way they're supposed to stand on Common Core; and, in Indiana, voters elected a Democrat to the office of state superintendent over the incumbent Republican--a Republican who has been a supporter of our Democratic president's education initiatives. Dogs and cats, living together...mass hysteria.

But maybe not. Could it be relatively non-partisan consideration of issues and viewpoints? That would be a refreshing switch from the angry hunkering-down that has characterized the last ten years of politics and the last zillion years of education.

Am I being naive? Is it too much to hope that these issues can be talked about outside of our silos? The force of If You Think This You Must Also Think This Sweeping Array Of Other Things is so terribly tiresome and energy-sucking.

On a sort of related note, I am realizing and accept that I must give in and leave behind the term "reform." I must call what I want something else. The term is too loaded. The co-opting has been complete and successful. This is unfortunate. Diane Ravitch is a harsh critic of "reformers" but calls for real ingenuity and creativity. Well, yes, please; that would be awesome. Can I be a part of that? What word shall we use?

Monday, November 5, 2012

Instead of "No," how about "Yes And."

It's been a long time. I've been winding down my curriculum work and trying to prepare my home and myself for this edu-switch. But I've also hit pause a bit on the blogging as I process the Chicago teacher's strike and speak to teacher-friends about policy and politics, charters and parents--and my  interest in school reform.

It is unfortunate that "reform" and "innovation" and "improvement" have become dirty words among many educators. When I mention my interest in K–12 education reform to my teacher-friends, a tense, expressionless curtain drops over their features (and how many of you either shivered or snarled when you read that phrase?) But I think most people who feel dedication to and passion for  public education have similar goals. It's disappointing that phrases become slogans or buzzwords and eliminate, rather than encourage, communication.

I think excellent teachers are the key to excellent learning outcomes, but it's nonsense to hold them solely responsible for making changes--they are within a system and a paradigm that requires dramatic change and over which  they have little control. Evaluating the hell out of them won't help, and is mostly a way for policy-makers to avoid the hard decisions and for politicians to look like they care about their constituents' children.

That said, I think there's nothing wrong with setting up accountability structures to track performance and growth. All places of employment should have this. It's just that doing so without setting up sensible, thoughtful support structures, and without providing the time needed within the workday and throughout the school year, is unfair and will not work.

I think teachers' ideas, opinions, and efforts are essential, monumentally important components in real change--but they're not the only components. Bigger-picture observations and considerations related to conditions outside of the school building are also essential, and there are systemic things that have to happen to support, replicate, and institutionalize the sort of success individual schools have built.

I think teachers are treated horribly. I think they are not regarded as or paid as professionals or as practitioners of one of the most important arts in a society. But I also think the union does not protect teachers from indignities. The union fights hand-to-hand combat, beating out tiny victories while the whole ship on which those battles are taking place is sinking.

I think the whole model needs to change. Teaching should be a highly competitive profession, but equally highly paid and respected. Teachers should spend many years in a residency learning to teach with excellence, artistry, and rigor, and be coached regularly there--and, once they make it through the residency, they should be trusted with their students like the professionals they are. They should be provided with the resources they need and the time for research, study, collaboration, and grading outside of the classroom.

The immediate response to this Finland model idea is often that it could never work in a country like ours, a gigantic, sprawling place with an unbelievable richness of demographic texture. First of all,  we haven't tried it, so we don't know; of course we will need to make it our own, but there must be many valuable concepts and processes we can take form that model. And secondly--okay. Great. I'm game: so what ARE  you thinking? Let's do it. Let's not just stop at saying No. Can we take a note from improv artists? Instead of "No," let's try "Yes, and."

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Strike

I have weeks of backlogged blogs to catch up on, but in the meantime Andrew Rotherham and Rick Hess have some insightful and articulate things to say, as usual--this time about the teacher's strike happening in Chicago. I highly recommend these two postings, here and here.

It's amazing how consistently very smart policy makers make very stupid policy, or they make foolish and untenable implementation decisions about potentially good policy. But I'm also so, so sick of the teachers' union fighting the wrong fights and expending its voice and human capital to protect a lousy, to say the least, status quo. As usual, this fight is about the adults, not the kids, and you're not a teacher-hating Mr. Monopoly if you think that. I like teachers. I want teachers to have the job they should have-- a coveted, highly respected, highly paid, correspondingly challenging to attain job--and the union, among a great many other powerful stakeholders who benefit from the status quo, is obstructing the path to teachers getting that.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Another Dream: Nature Schools

I've recently (here and here) talked about two touchstones of inspiration for me: Atul Gawande's writings about the notion of checklists for hospital protocol, and Tom Horn's amazing school in Oregon. Here's a third: Cedarsong Nature School and its kin.

Human beings are experiential beings, and children are especially so. And as we increasingly lose touch with our place in the natural world, we are increasingly in danger of destroying ourselves, and everything we're connected with--which is everything. My ideal school would, like Erin Kenny's Cedarsong,  have children outside--rain or shine, snow or heat--exploring, measuring, comparing, reflecting, listening.

Cedarsong right now is a part-time kindergarten, its set-up closer to daycamp than to K-12 schooling. Students spend all of their time at Cedarsong outside, but that means at most three hours, a few times a week. My questions are:
  • Will our nation's obsession with academic development, to the detriment of all other kinds of development, keep these schools to kindergarten only? Or deter their growth all together?
  • Aside from the standards quandary, could this concept extend past the baby grades, into more academic grades, maybe continuing with the three-hours-outside rule?
  • How about all the way up to high school? How about culminating in an outward-bound sort of project-based program that combined academic concepts with experiential wilderness ones?
  • Can this concept work outside of a "quirky" bedroom communities, as Fox calls Vashon Island where Cedarsong is located, and other regions already strongly predisposed toward producing Nature Children? Could acknowledging the existence nature become at all mainstream again?

Here is a blog that has a list of other nature schools near Seattle. All quite will be exciting to watch them grow.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

What is K–12's checklist?

In my last post I mentioned  Atul Gawande’s article* detailing how many lives a  simple checklist system has saved in ICUs—and how astonishingly difficult it is to widely implement this humblest of processes. Here it is. I have returned again and again to this article over the years, and to similar pieces about how we in the United States are so dazzled by technological complexity that we neglect process. We therefore entirely overlook elegant solutions to  seemingly unsolvable problems.

What are some of the “checklists” that can help schools? That is a guiding question for me. They may not be literal checklists: what I mean is, What are the simple, elegant solutions that, while they can’t solve everything, can unobstruct a least one or two major arteries of dysfunction?

*Gawande later turned this article into a book. Stay tuned for a review.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Living the Dream: Kennedy High

This is the story that has been inspiring me the most the past couple months. Principal Tom Horn pulled together all of the elements of my ideal school and made it a reality at Al Kennedy Alternative High School (also called Kennedy School of Sustainability).

You've got your project-based format, you've got your dedication to getting out from under the six sides of the classroom, you've got your conservation focus and your community focus (combined, just as I've been envisioning, and involving partnerships with area organizations, so those organizations are engaged, too--another piece of my vision). You've got a student population that has not responded to traditional schooling becoming engaged and successful learners.

It's my dream school. It's everything I've been gathering, prepping, percolating, stirring, seasoning, in my mind. This story is one of my touchstones right now (another is Atul Gawande's article from several years back, "The Checklist").

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Technology, Teaching, and TED

I wrote earlier about the value of riffing on, rather than condemning, the Khan Academy open-source content model. Others will no doubt take the idea and run with it, and who better than TED, the much adored clearinghouse of “riveting talks by remarkable people, free to the world”?

Ted has created a body of educational videos now available in Beta. At this point, most are TED footage of inspiring people giving talks and seem shoehorned in to this purpose; a smaller number are animated shorts illustrating  a smattering of interesting but decidedly noncentral concepts described in voice-over. The resulting selection is high quality, but odd--supplemental pieces to be used in the classroom to add dimension and whimsy to a topic.

TED gives kudos to Khan, as it should, but these videos, idiosyncratic as they are right now, are far more engaging and effective than the Khan ones. Their pedagogical surround is also excellent--especially the essay-answer style thinking prompts.  They ask for true critical thought, not irrelevant connections or evidenceless opinions that plague so much response work kids are asked to do. Viewers must think about the video, think about something else they know, and draw specific and thoughtful conclusions. And viewers can open and close the material seamlessly while watching the video, a sensible design that makes a fantastic difference in ease of thoughtflow and workflow.

If you register, you can “flip” a video, by which they mean, in this context, that you can customize it with  your own links and questions, and you can share your “flipped” video with other teachers. (It’s confusing that these proponents of "flipping the classroom"  are introducing a different use for the term “flip” here; I wish they’d thought of a different term.) You can also track the number of views, and kids get instant feedback on the multiple choice questions, though I'm unclear on the logistics of student interaction, such as log-ins and saving answers.

Really, it’s quite good. It’s exciting. And I’m not among the throngs of adoring TED boosters.
I’m a bit confused by TED. I like the talks. I don’t love them. They lack depth and…I don’t know. Substance? I know they’re supposed to be inspirational, visionary—not nuts and bolts—but they come off a bit like marketing to me, like the speakers are trying to sell an idea or a product. And I find the surround at once self-important and breezy.

That said, TED, dedicated to visionary ideas as it is, is ideally suited in many ways to participate in re-envisioning school, and TedEd seems an exciting, promising start. A bit random in topic—so far—it’s in beta—but substantial and thoughtfully crafted in content and usage. And! It’s all free.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Ups and Downs with the Khan Academy

Here’s a clear and interesting summation of the rise and (relative) fall of the Khan Academy. Sal Khan, a very smart and caring guy with no teaching background at all, created thousands of simple videos explaining or demonstrating various school topics, from math concepts to history lessons, and put them online for free use by educators, or anyone else. One goal was to “flip” the classroom—get the lecture out of the way via video (which has the added advantage of naturally individualizing instruction, as students pause and rewatch or fast forward as needed) and save the in-class time for focusing on specific areas of challenge or interest and on collaborative work.
Another goal was also to improve educational access--to circumvent expensive textbooks and other  proprietary paid content and content management. If you register as a teacher, you also get access to  tools for tracking student progress. Schools around the nation have been using these videos as another tool for their teachers and an accessible way to work with changing up the use of class time.

I love the idea of flipping classrooms, for a number of reasons (genuine use of technology the way adults and children in  RealLife actually use it, for one, and making more efficient use of time together, for another). And I'm very interested in the improvements open content will bring to paid content, in pricing, flexibility, and responsiveness. But, while I appreciate his effort and passion, Khan's teaching leaves something to be desired. The videos I looked at are confusing and frankly a bit dull, and sound pitched for an adult ear.

Hey, it’s a wide range of materials, freely accessible and readily adaptable to any educator, child, or curious person, and, while Sal Khan is not a teacher, he does seem to know his stuff, contentwise. The Academy is a reasonable, and gigantic, source for raw materials a teacher could integrate into his or her lesson. But I was a bit perplexed about the effusive welcome and Hallelujah surrounding the Academy, and surprised that the Gates Foundation backed it up with tons and tons of money given its nature as a one-man show of raw material.

So I’m glad to see the critiques about his pedagogy and a slowing down of the celebration. That’s healthy. That said, I find roundly rejecting the videos, and making fun of the premise, completely and totally unhelpful. Khan broke ground on a concept, and the publicity, fanfare, and money behind it will put wings on the process of repetition and improvement—very quickly, others will take the idea and run with it. I’ve already seen other examples from teachers who flipped their own classrooms beautifully—they use similar software to record their own lectures and demos, but they also know their students and their pedagogy.

The videos and other tools have been helpful for some. Those who don't like them can skip them. And maybe--certainly, really--the Khan dream will spark even better ways to combine technology, learning, and limited class time.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Online Education: Room to Grow

Discussions about technology in the classroom--especially blended learning models--yield consternation about the prospect of technology replacing teaching. Technology couldn’t possibly replace teaching. It is a tool and a medium; it’s like saying desk chairs replace teaching. Andrew Rotherham of Bellwether Education--and his commenting readers--wrote convincingly on this topic earlier this year.
More recently, Michael Horn of the Innosight Institute makes a concise case for this in this response to a recent NYT blog. However, I have to issue a caveat about this link: Horn also cites another posting about the op-ed by Steven Spear, which defends the role of online instruction. While I agree with Spear’s conclusion that online instruction can be valuable (and is here to stay regardless), his arguments are troubling.  Spear essentially says that, while online education is inferior to live instruction, “those with less opportunity” should be happy to settle for the online option as a good enough combination of value and reach. That position shortchanges the present and future of online education and obviously short-changes “those with less opportunity.” And it is folly to accept his argument that because a lot of people do something, it is automatically a societal benefit. And frankly when there are this many errors of syntax, mechanics, and usage in a posting, it’s difficult to buy that posting as the words of an expert.
"Online education" is a gigantic and as yet immature notion with a variety of formats, as laid out by  Horn and Heather Staker here. It is becoming more differentiated, and more sophisticated. It can be neither summarily dismissed nor roundly celebrated. We're just getting started here; some things will fall by the wayside and some will work, and we will slowly become experts at which ideas work best with which students for which purposes.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

A survey of inspiration

I’ve spent a lot of time the past year or two to researching inspiring or game-changing ideas and innovations in the classroom. Mapping them all out has helped me inductively conclude what sort of things apparently have been fascinating and inspiring me in K-12 education:
  • Project-based or inquiry-based learning
  • Environmental education/ experiences
  • Open source/ free educational content
  • Innovation incubators
  • Individually paced learning
  • Systems for communication between teachers and students
  • Professional learning and classroom management systems for teachers
  • Research and policy for school improvement
I also had a ninth category, called
  • Wow!!
In this category, I saw that I was putting initiatives built around authentic project-based learning, where students recognize a need in the actual world, analyze it, and interact with it—especially the ones related to conservation or the environment.

I don’t have an E for environment or C for conservation in my blog-acronym. Blogcronym. But I consider experiencing and interacting with the natural world a matter of relevance. And Necessity. N.E.A.R. to the Ground? That works, too.

Welcome to E.A.R. to the Ground

I am a Chicago-based education writer. My background is in teaching and curriculum development; my future is in education reform.*
By “reform,” I don’t mean “refurbishing.” I mean it’s time to start over. I thought about calling this blog Tabula R.A.T.A. because it’s time to wipe the K12 slate clean and start over, on four pillars: Relevance to the real world, Access for all children to an effective education, use of Technology to liberate and empower teachers and students, and Authentic learning experiences that have purpose and context.

But Tabula R.A.T.A. seems like a bit of a mouthful, and a bit…I don’t know, stark? So I’m calling it E.A.R. to the Ground. Equity, Authenticity, Relevance—three qualities around which the experience in the classroom must transform. Equitable access to a quality education for all students; Authentic learning, including a purpose and context; and experiences that have Relevance to actual twenty-first century life.

There are a lot of other things that need to be reinvented—financial and legislative processes, teachers’ training and working conditions—honestly, it’s all a mess. But this blog is going to focus, mostly, on the E.A.R.—Equity, Authenticity, and Relevance—of learning experiences.
So, I’ve been putting my ear to the ground and listening for the coming sea change. I want to be there when the tide rolls in. I want to be part of that tide, make it happen, direct its flow to maximize regeneration. It’s going to be fantastic. It’s going to get us places. It’s going to change the landscape. It might be a little scary, but we can prepare for it, ride it, roll with it, travel on it. We’re all part of it.

*UPDATE: As I write, I learn. Education reform--it means working to make things better, for teachers and students alike. But like so many other terms, like "values" and "family" and "life," and "freedom," "education reform" seems to have been co-opted by political forces. I don't consider "reform" to mean "forcing a narrow band of rigid measures aimed at reducing teachers' profile and autonomy and controlling money." I consider "reform" to mean, simply, changes for improvement.