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E Pluribus Pluribus?

It’s not even Noon, and nine-year-old Harvey is already back on the floor.

His three tablemates, their efforts at independent reading on hold, watch and wait for Ms. Serber to arrive and restore order. Harvey’s pear-shaped body writhes on the floor, animated by neither malice nor mischief. He chews absent-mindedly on his silver necklace and gazes at the ceiling until she arrives.

“Let’s get up and get back into it,” Ms. Serber implores, her hand gently rubbing his back to coax him up to the table. After a few minutes, Harvey picks his book back up, and Ms. Serber resumes scanning the faces of her other twenty-eight 3rd graders to assess their needs. Mid-morning light cuts across her eighty-year-old classroom from the large windows that line the west wall, casting strips of shadow on the homemade plates to which each child attaches a clothespin to register his or her daily mood: sad, angry, worried, frustrated, frightened, excited, bored, happy. This morning – most mornings – most pins clasp the same plate: sleepy.

Nearby, a reed-thin boy named Elliott keeps working. Pale and quiet, his hair still bearing the shape of last night’s sleep, Elliott is an avid reader; this summer alone, he finished more than twenty books, from The Hobbit to The Trumpet of the Swan. Ms. Serber observes him working quietly, and then transfers her attention to a different table where her presence is more sorely needed.

Elliott’s reading list is among the many things displayed proudly on the back wall of room 121, where each student has identified what he or she hopes to learn about in third grade. Some of the preferences are predictable: Harvey, for example, wants to “lrn abto sharks”; others wish “to learn about weather systems,” or “go to the Baltimore museum and see the dolfin show.”  Taken together, the children’s goals reflect just how varied their levels of engagement and readiness are. One student outlines an admirable goal with nearly unintelligible spelling: “I hope to lun to slpel wrs because a m ging to go te colejig.” Another merely outlines something unintelligible. “Matlattrusala is big. You like Matlatirusla.”

At 12:30pm, Serber and her co-teacher, Ms. Creagh – whose shared first name has led them to be known as “The Two Sarahs” – get their first break in five hours. In that time, they’ve taught the students about reading the date and time; reading content for mood and rhythm; differentiating between fiction and non-fiction; writing reflectively and creatively; sounding out phonics; practicing addition and subtraction; and solving mathematical word problems. As their students head for the lunchroom and descend the school’s weathered marble stairs in a winding line of spasmodic energy, their teachers take their first bathroom break, unpack their homemade lunches, and use the quiet time to fine-tune their afternoon lessons.

A few miles away, at a different school, Cassie Hurst is contemplating her own classroom’s eclectic set of needs. A first-year kindergarten teacher in a first-year charter school, Cassie is tall, slender and kinetic. When she speaks, whether it’s to a five-year-old or an adult, she uses her long limbs expressively – and often – to animate her words. Her intelligent eyes jump out from behind her black Jill Stuart glasses.

The school year is barely a month old, yet Cassie already feels energized professionally – and exhausted personally. “I think we’re doing a really good job of reaching different kids and differentiating our instruction,” she explained on a sunny October afternoon. “At the same time, I’m worn out. I hadn’t expected to feel this strained this early in the year. But I’m with my kids every day from 8:30 to 3:30, without any breaks; that’s a long time to be “on” every day. And the needs of my kids are so varied. For example, a lot of our students came to us from the same play-based preschool; they are the sweetest boys, but they didn’t spend a lot of time on academics so they don’t know their letters at all. Then there are other kids who bring with them such complicated family and emotional issues. We assess everyone every four weeks to make sure we’re keeping track of their progress, and we’re grouping kids by ability in different “learning teams” within each classroom – but even within those groups, the highest-achieving kids have such different strengths and weaknesses, and for so many reasons, and the same is true for the lowest-achieving ones. It’s a lot, and it’s a constant challenge, and I work in a team of three. Thinking about trying to do that work on my own gives me chills at night. I just don’t think it would be possible.”

*  *  *

Is it possible? Can one, two or even three teachers in a classroom of twenty to thirty children not just diagnose the needs of each child, but also meet those needs, consistently and measurably?

In theory, such a goal has always directed America’s efforts to improve its public schools; after all, the first major federal legislation affecting public education was part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s equity-oriented “War on Poverty.” But the goal was never explicitly stated – and incentivized – until 2002, when the 107th U.S. Congress rechristened Johnson’s legislation as the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, and President George W. Bush heralded the dawn of “a new time in public education in our country.  As of this hour,” he said, just before signing the bill at a public high school in Ohio, “America’s schools will be on a new path of reform, and a new path of results.”

Under Bush’s new path, schools receiving federal funding were now required to annually test every child in certain grades in both reading and math. The students’ scores would be broken down and reported by subgroups – both as a way to highlight the progress of historically under-served groups of children, and to ensure that no single group’s performance could be concealed amidst a single, all-encompassing number. “The story of children being just shuffled through the system is one of the saddest stories of America,” said Bush. “The first step to making sure that a child is not shuffled through is to test that child as to whether or not he or she can read and write, or add and subtract . . . We need to know whether or not children have got the basic education . . . And now it’s up to you, the local citizens of our great land, the compassionate, decent citizens of America, to stand up and demand high standards, and to demand that no child – not one single child in America – is left behind.”

A decade after its passage, President Barack Obama and members of the 112th Congress were aggressively pursuing a re-write of NCLB before the end of the year – and opinions remained split about whether it had been more helpful or hurtful to American schools. On one side, critics decry that the bill’s narrow focus on reading and math scores has had the unintended effects of squeezing other subjects out of the curriculum, and stifling the creative capacity of teachers to engage their kids in different ways. On the other side, advocates celebrate the ways NCLB has forced America to publicly confront just how poorly some students have been served in the past. No Child Left Behind shone a data-drenched light on the actual academic differences between kids, they argue, and sunshine is a powerful disinfectant with the potential to highlight the most necessary reforms.

Across the same general time frame, an equally seismic policy shift had occurred: the virtual disappearance of “tracking” – or the process of assigning students to classes based on categorizations of their perceived academic potential. In its place, today’s teachers are increasingly expected to “differentiate” their lessons – and not merely to each class, but to each child, every day, all year.

By the start of the 2011-2012 school year, this constellation of forces – the dawn of high-stakes testing, the death of tracking, and the desirability of differentiated instruction – had resulted in a perfect storm of reform that had dramatically recast the daily experiences and expectations of teachers like Cassie and the Two Sarahs. And once again, education experts remained split over whether the forces at play were ultimately for the better.

“We are shortchanging America’s brightest students,” argues education scholar Frederick Hess, “and we’re doing it reflexively and furtively. A big part of the problem is our desire to duck hard choices when it comes to kids and schooling. Differentiated instruction — the notion that any teacher can simultaneously instruct children of wildly different levels of ability in a single classroom — is appealing precisely because it seemingly allows us to avoid having to decide where to focus finite time, energy and resources. Truth is, few teachers have the extraordinary skill and stamina to constantly fine-tune instruction to the needs of 20- or 30-odd students, six hours a day, 180 days a year. What happens instead is that teachers tend to focus on the middle of the pack. Or, more typically of late, on the least proficient students.

“Focusing on the neediest students, even at the expense of their peers, is not unreasonable,” Hess explains. “After all, we can’t do everything. But self-interest and a proper respect for all children demand that we wrestle with such decisions and pay more than lip service to the needs of advanced students.”

Carol Ann Tomlinson, a nationally-known expert on issues of differentiation, defines the core issue differently: “Is the primary goal a separate room for students with particular needs, or should our primary goal be high-quality learning experiences wherever a student is taught? The range of students in schools indicates the need for a range of services. Since most students have always received most of their instruction in general education classrooms, it’s quite important that differentiation in that setting be robust. There are some very bright students whose academic needs are quite well addressed in some “regular” classrooms, some who require extended instruction in a specific subject, some whose need for challenge suggests specialized instruction in all content areas — perhaps even outside the student’s school. Effective differentiation would serve the student in each of those situations.”

*  *  *

Of course, there are theoretical conversations about school reform that take place at 30,000 feet. And then there’s the daily reality teachers must experience and negotiate on the ground.

One afternoon after school, over the din of the few remaining students’ voices still bouncing off the room’s ten-foot-high brick walls, the Two Sarahs pause to reflect on the question, and their work.

Sarah Serber speaks first. Her face is expressive and illustrative – the sort of visage her students rely on to gauge how she feels at any given time. Small and compact, Serber has the gait of a gymnast, more powerful than delicate: one imagines her approaching a pommel horse like the young Mary Lou Retton – focused, confident, fearless. “I don’t think it would be possible for me not to teach in this way,” she says. “Before, in my first and second years of teaching, I did a lot more whole-group lessons, and although they took less time to plan, they ended up taking much more total time because of all the follow-up work I had to do with different kids. So I’ve adjusted my own sense of where my time is best invested. And now we know that those late nights of breaking down not just the different activities, but also the different goals for the different students within each activity, is the only way we can realistically do our job.”

Sarah Creagh agrees. Tall and blonde and in her fifth year of teaching, Creagh has a quieter, softer air about her. She also shares her co-teacher’s passion about both her decision to teach in a public school, and her conviction that it’s possible, even in a class as big as theirs, to identify and meet every child’s needs.  “I feel a social justice calling in this work – or, maybe that’s too corny, but I feel very personally a need to contribute to our larger commitment to equity and equality.”

Creagh’s own conversion occurred one summer, when, after graduating from college with a major in psychology and women’s studies, she followed her parents to DC and haphazardly got a job with a reading research company. Up to that point, Creagh had never seriously considered teaching. “But then I found myself working intensively with children who simply could not read, and watching them make phenomenal progress. It was amazing to see that power – and it occurred to me that the real place this needed to be happening was not in some summer program, but in their full-time, yearlong classroom, day in and day out.”

After their last remaining students exit the school’s red front doors to head home down different leafy streets, past houses and housing projects, the Sarahs spend the last minutes of their work day examining the latest iteration of the DCPS report card to assess which standards they will address before the first quarter comes to a close.

The form reflects the efforts of city administrators to provide greater clarity about what all students are expected to learn. Most of the standards are in the two tested subjects – reading and math – but other categories exist for science, social studies, music, art, health, and work habits. To review their efforts, Creagh and Serber check the standards they have addressed thus far, from “comparing and recognizing that plants and animals have predictable life cycles” to “speaking in complete sentences when appropriate to task and situation.”

Another section of the report card addresses “personal and social development” – fitting, since on most days it’s this sort of attention most 3rd graders most acutely need.  Of the section’s five benchmarks, four place a value on children following the rules; the other is about self-regulating emotions and behavior. It’s ironic, since even a casual visitor to room 121 would quickly see that in order for Serber and Creagh to create the sort of environment that can support the desired intellectual growth of their students, they must first construct a complex web of interpersonal trust, expectations, and empathy.

What would happen if such skills were weighted equally, and identified more specifically? Would teachers’ daily efforts at differentiating their instruction become more or less difficult?

The next morning, Harvey enters the classroom, hangs up his jacket, and sits down at his table to eat the breakfast provided by his city to its schoolchildren – an egg burrito, banana, and milk. He finishes, lumbers up to a visitor stationed near the back wall of the room, and points to his personal goals for the year, which feature a colorful drawing of the sharks he hopes to study. “That’s my name there!” he reports excitedly. Moments later, Ms. Creagh asks the class to help clean up the trash from breakfast. Harvey returns to his seat, and resumes gazing out the large windows in front of him.

It’s a new day.

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How Many Sacred Cows Does It Take to Sustain A Movement?

How do we transform the quality of teaching and learning in America?

Like a lot of people, I’ve been wrestling with that riddle for the bulk of my career. And this month, three separate events are making me wonder in a new way about how to bring about such a shift – and sustain such a movement.

The first two were meetings that represented parallel, powerful constituencies and ideas – an Imagination Summit hosted by the Lincoln Center Institute in New York City; and an Empathy in Action working group, hosted by Ashoka in Washington, DC. At each gathering, I heard stories and insights from some of the world’s most influential thinkers – from Sir Ken Robinson to Deepak Chopra to Kiran Bir Sethi. I heard compelling cases for helping our education system become more effective at ensuring that all children become empathetic, and develop the ability to think imaginatively, act creatively, and behave innovatively. And I left feeling impressed by the energy and the motivation that was driving each group to push its work forward.

In a few days, I’ll also be attending the Save Our Schools (SOS) March, a grassroots-led movement of teachers and parents from across the country that disagree with the Obama administration’s current reform path – and plan to peaceably assemble in DC to indicate their displeasure. Since I’ll also be covering the march for CNN, I’ve been reflecting on the goals of those private meetings, the goals of this public march, and the essential questions that must be answered for any movement to be successful: Who or what is the movement’s opponent? What is its core idea, and how can that idea be expressed as simply and compellingly as possible? And how can a complex network of individuals, organizations and alliances come together to forge a common agenda?

Our own history tells us just how possible, and difficult, it is to turn ideas and energy into transformational change. That’s because reforming a system requires not just the capacity to know your enemy and forge a compelling narrative, but also a systemic approach to the problem – an articulation of the whole. Too often, what happens instead is we lose sight of the whole out of our preference for a specific piece of the puzzle – I call it the sacred cow syndrome. Instead of a unified movement, we get a cacophony of parallel efforts. And instead of paradigm shifts, we get Groundhog Day.

If you’re a principal, you know this all too well. In addition to everything else you do, you have to regularly sort through the literature from a range of school-improvement approaches and programs that, to your eyes, seem to have similar objectives and research bases: is it a service-learning focus you want to adopt, or a character education program? Is civic education where you will choose to hang your hat, or will you double down on social and emotional learning?

To be certain, each of these field’s approaches to learning is distinct, and each field has its own unique advantages. Each would also clearly benefit from a larger movement that brings about a shift from our Industrial Age model of schooling to one that is suited for the Democratic Age. And yet for years the different leaders of these different fields have sought, genuinely, to unite their efforts – only to fall back, eventually, on their respective sacred cows.

Which returns us to the present. What will the future hold for these nascent Imagination and Empathy networks, and for this weekend’s DC protest? Since all three tribes talk of movement building, will one be able to craft a big-enough umbrella to unite the aspirations of the many? Will we develop the capacity to understand the whole? And is it possible to sustain a movement of sacred cows that, by definition, no one is willing to eat?

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The Three Most Important Questions in Education

It’s graduation season again – yet nobody seems to be celebrating.

On college campuses, graduates are entering an economy in which the stable career paths of yesteryear are disappearing – and the specialized job opportunities of tomorrow have yet to appear. And in communities across the country, parents and young people are left wondering what exactly those past four years of high school were in service of – and how much, if any, truly transformational learning occurred.

Something’s gotta give. The Industrial-Age model of schooling, which benefited 20th-century generations by serving as a legitimate ticket to the middle class, has clearly run its course. In its place, we need a model for a new age – the Democratic Age. And we need strategies for ensuring that young people learn how to be successful in the 21st-century world of work, life, and our democratic society.

We can get there, but to do so we need to start asking – and answering – the three most essential questions in education reform:


 

1. How do people learn best?

Over the past several years, a slew of research from a range of fields has helped illuminate a much deeper understanding of what powerful learning actually looks like – and requires. We know the ideal learning environment is challenging, engaging, relevant, supportive, and experiential. And we know that learners of all ages are more motivated when they can apply what they are learning to do something that has an impact on others – especially their local community.

The bad news is that too many schools are still crafting environments in which learning – if you can even call it that – depends less on these attributes than on obedience, memorization, conformity, and a set of requirements first deemed important a century ago.

The good news is that we already have schools across the country lighting a different path. At High Tech High in San Diego, for example, all learning opportunities are hands-on, supportive, and personalized. As school founder Larry Rosenstock explains, “Students pursue personal interests through projects. Students with special needs receive all the individual attention they need. And facilities are tailored to individual and small-group learning, including project rooms for hands-on activities and exhibition spaces for individual work.”

Best of all, the High Tech High model isn’t so precious or rare that our only hope is to remake every other school in its image. Instead, the rest of us can create our own success stories by doing what Larry Rosenstock did – heeding what we now know about how people learn, and operationalizing those insights into an actual school.

It’s environmental standards for learning we need – not a standardization of content or teaching practices.

2. What are the essential skills of a free people?

Whether we intend them to or not, every school is structured to value a different type of citizen. In China, for example – the site of my first teaching experience – the needs of the community are valued more than the needs of any individual. As a result, in the school in which I taught, free expression was discouraged, conformity was encouraged – and China got the citizens it sought.

In the America of the Industrial Age, one could argue we experienced similar alignment. After all, the early 20th century was characterized by exponential growth in its general and school populations, and a stable set of jobs for young people to fill. Today, however, the forces of globalization and democratization have elevated a different set of challenges and opportunities – and, by design, a different set of skills. Yet schools have not caught up to the shift, which is why so many of our graduates are emerging unprepared for the challenges and opportunities of the modern world.

What would happen if every school in America scrapped its current set of graduation requirements, and started over by identifying what it believes to be the essential skills of a free people – in work and in life?

One school in New Hampshire, the Monadnock Community Connections School (or MC2 for short), is already doing this. At MC2, students must demonstrate mastery in seventeen habits of mind and work in order to fulfill the school’s mission statement – “empowering each individual with the knowledge and skills to use his or her unique voice, effectively and with integrity, in co-creating our common public world.” These habits – which apply to every imaginable learning experience, from internships to classes to personal learning that occurs outside school – all have concrete indicators that are delineated in levels ranging from Novice to Expert. And not surprisingly, the habits reflect the skills most essential for the challenges of the Democratic Age – from self-direction and creativity to critical thinking and collaboration. As school founder Kim Carter explains it, “In preparing a student for their chosen post-secondary path, be it college or work, it’s critical to know what skills and knowledge will help to shape the decisions that impact their life.”

Makes sense, right? So what are the rest of us waiting for?

3.     What does it mean to be free?

In the end, our ability to answer the first two questions is in the ultimate service of the third. And yet the reality is that too many of us still understand what it means to be free in terms of the style of jeans we choose to wear, not the quality of ideas we choose to express.

The Founders certainly understood it differently, and so must we if wish to recalibrate our schools for the modern era.  In such a world, what it means to be free would mean having the space to discover one’s full worth – and developing the capacity to unleash one’s full potential.  Our schools and colleges would be places where we proactively created healthy, high-functioning learning environments. And our graduates would know, embody, and be able to apply the essential skills of a free people.

The answers we seek for creating such a system of schools are all around us. We just need to start asking the right questions.

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Don’t Believe the Hype (About College)

It’s not what you think.

I’m a proud graduate of the University of Wisconsin (and two graduate schools). I loved college. And it’s undeniable that the United States boasts some of the best universities in the world.

I’m also someone who flunked out my freshman year with a 0.6 GPA. In fact, I’d say it wasn’t until I flunked out that I had a chance of being successful. I simply wasn’t ready for what college was designed to give me (aside from the unsupervised social time).

Although my freshman-year GPA was surprisingly low, my freshman-year experience is unsurprisingly common. Too many young people simply aren’t ready for college, for a variety of reasons – meaning they either coast through four or five years and waste a ton of money along the way, or, if they’re lucky, they crash and burn so badly that they discover, for the first time, what it is they actually want to do with their lives – as opposed to what the adults in their lives have told them they should do.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently since reading Matthew Crawford’s bestselling book, Shop Class as Soulcraft. Crawford, as you may know, got his doctorate in political philosophy from the University of Chicago – and then left a cushy job at a DC think tank to open a motorcycle repair shop in Richmond, Virginia.

In this regard, Crawford is uniquely suited to comment on three inextricably linked aspects of modern society – our public education system, our modern economy, and our shared values. And, as Crawford puts it, the news ain’t good.

In some respects, the story starts in the 1990s, when shop class started to become a thing of the past, and educators started exclusively preparing students to be “knowledge workers” – and stopped valuing the ancient notion that our hands are what make us the most intelligent of animals. Yet the clearest starting point stretches back much farther, to the early 20th century, the rise of Industrialism, and the concerted effort to separate thinking from doing – and, in the process, to begin the degradation of “work” as we have come to know it.

Any historian is already familiar, for example, with Frederick Winslow Taylor and his 1911 book, Principles of Scientific Management. It was Taylor who wrote: “All possible brain work should be removed from the shop and centered in the planning department.” It was Taylor who suggested that the modern workplace “will not have been realized until almost all of the machines in the shop are run by men who are of smaller caliber and attainments, and who are therefore cheaper than those required under the old system.” And it was Taylor whose ideas led people like Ellwood Cubberly, a former head of Stanford University’s Department of Education, to recommend in 1920 “giv[ing] up the exceedingly democratic idea that all are created equal. . . . Our schools are, in a sense, factories in which the raw products (children) are to be shaped and fashioned into products to meet the various demands of life.”

What has this legacy begotten? According to Crawford, it has given us a society where the production of credentials (e.g., knowing how to graduate) matters more than the cultivation of anything real (e.g., knowing how to think). It has led us to devalue the specific skills of the craftsman, and overvalue the general knowledge of the office worker. And it has engendered the gradual WALL-E-fication of our culture, in which the larger goal becomes the creation of passive consumers whose assembly-line work environments – be they the actual assembly line or the assembly-esque world of modern office work – can only be cured by the illusory freedom we exercise when we choose different products to purchase.

The bigger concern, and the one that relates to my own skepticism about whether everyone should go to college, has to do with the changing nature of the workforce. As Princeton economist Alan Blinder has written: “The critical divide in the future may instead be between those types of work that are easily deliverable through a wire with little or no diminution in quality and those that are not. And this unconventional divide does not correspond well to traditional distinctions between jobs that require high levels of education and jobs that do not.”

In other words, it’s easier to imagine outsourcing your need for legal advice than your need for an electrician. But the point is not that no one should go to law school and everyone should become an electrician – just that the goal of our schools, our economy, and our society should be to help people find work that engages their human capacities as fully as possible. And that’s not happening. And that’s a really big problem – and one that will never be solved if our knee-jerk reaction is to urge every young person to go to college.

“The best sort of democratic education,” says Crawford, “is neither snobbish nor egalitarian. Rather, it accords a place of honor in our common life to whatever is best [for each individual].” Amen, I say. So let’s stop pretending that college by itself is a cure-all for every person. Let’s start recalibrating our schools in ways that will help children discover their worth – and acquire the skills they’ll need to unleash their full potential on the world. And let’s keep searching for ways to help people understand, in the deepest, fullest sense, what it means to be free.

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What’s Your Declaration of Education?

Those pesky EduCon folks are at it again.

Earlier this year, I wrote about a small, networked, eclectic tribe of educators who attended a conference at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, and who, with great energy and determination, pledged their shared commitment to bring about a different type of public school system by agreeing to the following core values:

  1. Our schools must be inquiry-driven, thoughtful and empowering for all members.
  2. Our schools must be about co-creating — together with our students — the 21st Century Citizen.
  3. Technology must serve pedagogy, not the other way around.
  4. Technology must enable students to research, create, communicate and collaborate.
  5. Learning can — and must — be networked.

For me, EduCon was a Come to Jesus moment – a time when I found adults who shared my fidelity to a language of possibility that was solution-oriented, relationship-driven, and future-focused. And now I see that they/we are at it again, this time via a drive “to remind ourselves and our students that citizenship means asking questions, finding answers and standing up for what you believe in . . . and that education must mean that too.”

The vehicle for this lofty goal is something known as The Great American Teach-In and, if it works, the result will be, on May 10, thousands of classrooms, students, and schools drafting their own Declarations of Education.

The Teach-In website has useful resources for anyone who wants to structure a conversation that results in an actionable set of aspirational goals toward the creation of healthier, higher-functioning learning environments. And the conversations will all be framed by a core set of essential questions:

1.     When and where do I learn best?

2.     What does an ideal learning environment look like?

3.     How closely do our current places of learning resemble our ideal learning environment?

4.     What barriers to learning/growth exist within our current learning environments?

5.     What will we do to make our current learning environments more perfect places to work and learn?

What I love about this idea is it assumes the best people to change the landscape of public education are those closest to the day-to-day workings of our nation’s schools – educators and students. After all, although there is much to dispirit us with the state of our school system, it does educators no good to assume these ills have merely been “imposed upon them”, and that they have no choice but to keep hoping, as passive victims, that better days lie ahead.

As the great quantum physicist David Bohm once said, “Thought creates the world and then says, ‘I didn’t do it.’” So, too, is it with the current state of public education in America – and all of us have a choice: remain complicit, and passive, in the acceptance of a system that denies us the ability to create truly transformational learning environments; or become active agents in solving our own most intractable problems – and creating spaces for people to reflect on their ideal learning environments, and then think together about how to create those environments as soon as possible.

Sound like a good use of your time? Check out http://declarationofeducation.com/ to learn more and get involved. We can do better – and it is up to us to make sure that we do so.

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What If Learning — Not Fighting — Were the Focus?

As accusations fly back and forth over the reported DC cheating scandal – the latest in a series of battles between America’s two dominant Edu-Tribes – I can’t help but wonder what would happen if we stopped spending so much time focusing on what is broken or who is to blame, and started focusing instead on how people learn, and how we can create better learning environments for everyone.

This week, as part of an effort to spur such a conversation, a coalition of individuals and organizations is doing just that — envisioning a movement of adults and young people in search of better places to work and learn, and highlighting powerful learning experiences to make a larger statement about how and when transformational learning occurs.

I am proud to be a part of the campaign, which is called Faces of Learning, and which aspires to help people understand we are all effective learners, with differing strengths and challenges. Kim Carter, executive director of the Q.E.D. Foundation, a non-profit organization that is a member of the coalition, explains: “We want to elevate four essential questions that are, alarmingly, almost completely absent from the current national conversation about school improvement: How do people learn? How do I learn? What does the ideal learning environment look like? And how can we create more of them?”

To help provide the answers people need, Faces of Learning is asking people to share personal stories of their most powerful learning experiences; attend and/or organize public events at which people think together about how to improve the local conditions in which people learn; and use a new interactive tool called the Learner Sketch, which invites users to explore their own strengths and challenges among the various mental processes that influence learning. Rather than just categorize the user as a certain “type” of learner, the Learner Sketch feedback actually suggests strategies users can try to help them become even more effective learners. Users can also explore what research is teaching us about how we learn, and find resources that help improve the overall learning conditions for children (and adults).

Ideally, of course, a campaign like this would be unnecessary. And yet, when one looks back at the last 15 months – a period in which school reform has been at the forefront of American life, from “Race to the Top” to Waiting for Superman to the endless coverage of Michelle Rhee or the union fight in Wisconsin – what becomes clear is that we haven’t been having a national debate about learning; we’ve been having a national debate about labor law. And while that issue is important, it is a dangerous stand-in for the true business of public education – helping young people learn how to use their minds well.

What if our efforts were squarely focused on the true goal of a high-quality education, instead of the hidden goal of a well-funded few?

What if each of us could identify our own strengths and weaknesses as a learner?

What if each of us had the chance to discover – and contribute – our full worth and potential to the world?

What if all of us came to both expect and demand high-quality learning environments throughout our lives?

It’s a great and worthy vision. And before any of those things can happen, we all need to work together to see more clearly what powerful learning actually looks like — and requires.

Join our efforts – and share your voice – at www.facesoflearning.net.

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What’s the Deal with Smaller Classrooms?

There’s an Op-Ed in today’s Washington Post by Eva Moskowitz, the successful edu-preneur of the Success Charter Network in New York City, about the overall value of having smaller or larger classrooms. And, true to type, it’s a piece with numerous useful insights about the bottom-line business of crafting successful schools — and precious little about the foundational human element that undergirds any truly transformational place to work and learn.

Moskowitz is right to urge our collective caution in rushing to assume that small classrooms, by themselves, lead to better learning conditions for kids — and she has a wealth of vivid examples to share.  “Add just one more student per class schoolwide,” she writes, “and Harlem Success Academy gets another $300,000 in total. With that, we can afford headhunters to find the best principals in the country, business managers to handle the non-instructional administration that would otherwise distract these great principals from driving high-quality instruction, ample professional development for teachers, museum trips for students, etc.” These are significant investments — and denying them because of an inherent fundamental allegiance to class size is foolish from a big-picture perspective. As we all know, size matters — but only to a point.

Unfortunately, Moskowitz’s piece is typically technocratic, as has become the de rigeur of the “reformer” crowd. Not once does she acknowledge that the primary motivation behind smaller class sizes — to increase both the quantity and quality of meaningful relationships between adults and children — is a desirable, indeed, essential, goal. Worse still, I am certain Moskowitz believes in the value of these relationships deeply — I can guarantee her network of schools would not be successful without them. Why, then, would she purposely avoid mentioning this fundamentally human element of teaching in a piece that is otherwise, and importantly, about distinctly non-human factors, from Smart Boards to laptops to headhunters?

The only reason I can come up with is the one that explains the root of our deeply polarizing national conversations about school reform: our two major EduTribes have become so entrenched in opposition to each other that they have lost the ability, both individually and as a tribe, to acknowledge the merits of the other side’s observations. In short, you either believe in the power of small classes or you don’t.

As anyone who lives and works in this space knows, that is a stupid argument, whichever side you choose to pick up. We deserve better in spaces as influential as the Op-Ed page of the Washington Post.

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What Joel Klein Doesn’t Understand About Teaching — and What We Should Do Instead

In case you missed it, former NYC Schools Chief Joel Klein had an Op-Ed in this weekend’s Washington Post in which he, rightly, urges us to do what it takes to establish a true long-term teaching profession. His recipe for doing so, however, reveals the extent to which he has misdiagnosed both the problem and its potential solutions.

Klein begins by noting the ways teachers have become “unfairly vilified” in the current conversations about education reform, and then, after celebrating the heroic few in the profession who are “America’s heroes,” dedicates equal space to calling out the teachers who “work by the clock.” According to Klein, “the problem is that our discussion too often fails to distinguish between these very different types of teachers, treating them all the same.”

I would counter that the bigger problem is when we speak of any profession in such binary terms — are you a hero or a laggard? — and expect that such rhetoric will do anything other than alienate the core constituency we are trying to support and celebrate.

Let me be clear: there are teachers who work by the clock, and who need to be in a different line of work. I have seen them with my own eyes, and worked with them, frustratingly, over the years. They are a minority of the profession — as are the “heroes” who are already working at the highest levels of mastery. Any strategy for creating a true profession, therefore, needs to be concerned less with these stereotypes and more with the overwhelming majority of people teaching our kids every day — the people who could, with the right supports and measures, become master educators, or, without such supports, struggle to stay afloat and then, like so many before them, abandon the field, burned out and discouraged.

Unfortunately, Klein misses the mark on that point as well. Indeed, not once in his entire piece does he mention the core focus of school — learning. Instead, Klein (rightly) bemoans current aspects of labor law, and (wrongly) suggests that all we need is a system that “looks at how much student progress each teacher gets.” I understand the motivation here, and it’s certainly appealing to imagine a neat linear process by which we measure what adults have been able to put into their students. It’s just not possible.

On this point, let me also be clear: rethinking how we evaluate and provide feedback to teachers is an essential part of any long-term reform, and it makes sense that part of those evaluations come via student assessments — be they quantitative or qualitative. To do that well, however, requires a much deeper understanding of the deeply nonlinear, highly individual continuum on which teaching and learning unfolds. As Mr. Klein has shown repeatedly, that is a world with which he has had little direct interaction, and about which he seems to have little interest.

Simply put, student achievement, as we have come to define it, may or may not mean actual learning. That’s wiggity wack. And teacher excellence, as Klein intends to define it, will do little more than guarantee a heightened emphasis on that current, myopic method of evaluation. We can, and must, do better than that.

In that spirit, and since there’s nothing worse than criticizing someone’s plan and offering nothing in its place, check out this set of proposed teacher policies, thanks to my former colleagues at the Forum for Education & Democracy, and share your reactions — good, bad and/or ugly — in the comments section below:

Standards for Teaching

An equitable and adequate system will need to address the supply of well-prepared educators – the most fundamental of all resources – by building an infrastructure that ensures high-quality and continuously improving preparation for all educators and ensures that well-trained educators are available to all students in all communities.  If students are to be expected to achieve higher standards, it stands to reason that educators must meet higher standards as well.  They must know how to teach in ways that enable students to master challenging content and that address the specific needs of different learners, including new English language learners as well as students with special education needs. As Ted Sizer noted back in 1984: “While our system of schools contains many consequential characteristics—for example, the subjects of the curriculum, the forms of governance, the uses of technologies and teaching aids, the organization of programs for special groups—none is more important than who the teachers are and how they work.  Without good teachers, sensibly deployed, schooling is barely worth the effort.”

Investing in skilled educators is also critical to local school innovation. If schools are to be trusted to make good decisions about educational matters, teachers and school leaders must be deeply knowledgeable about teaching, learning, curriculum, and school improvement. When the public lacks confidence in the professional judgment of educators, legislators increase bureaucratic straitjackets, even when these reduce, rather than increase, school effectiveness. Our failure to build a strong profession and to ensure that all educators have the preparation and supports they need has gradually reduced teachers’ voices in how our children are educated. From the details of teaching children to read to rules for grade promotion, we have turned over more and more decisions to centralized authorities.

The problem with bureaucratic solutions is that children are not standardized; hence, effective practice cannot be reduced to routines. By its very nature, standardized practice is incapable of providing appropriate education for students who do not fit the mold upon which all of the prescriptions for practice are based. To be effective, teachers must be able to adapt instruction to students’ individual needs. Ironically, prescriptive policies created in the name of public accountability can ultimately reduce a school’s responsiveness to the needs of its students and the desires of its parents. Students and families become the scapegoats for school failure, since no one person in the system takes responsibility for the collective impact the system has on the learning opportunities for all children.

Unlike high-achieving nations, the U.S. leaves the supply of good teachers to chance, with no systematic approach to recruitment, preparation, evaluation, development, or retention in most states. Consequently, with few governmental supports for preparation or mentoring, teachers in the U.S. enter:

  • With dramatically different levels of training — with those least prepared teaching the most educationally vulnerable children;
  • At sharply disparate salaries — with those teaching the neediest students earning the least;
  • Working under radically different teaching conditions — with those in the most affluent communities benefiting from small classes and supportive working conditions, while those in the poorest communities often teach large classes without the necessary books, materials, supplies, and supports;
  • With little mentoring or on-the-job coaching to help teachers improve their skills.

In many states, schools serving the highest-need students experience continual turnover of teachers, which undermines both student learning and school progress, contributing to the long-term failure of both.

Meanwhile, higher-achieving countries that rarely experience teacher shortages have made substantial investments in teacher training and equitable teacher distribution in the last two decades. These countries routinely prepare their teachers more extensively, pay them well in relation to competing occupations, and provide them with time for professional learning. They also distribute well-trained teachers to all students — rather than allowing some to be taught by untrained novices — by offering equitable salaries, and sometimes offering incentives for harder-to-staff locations. They provide:

  • High-quality teacher education to all candidates, completely at government expense, including at least a year of practice teaching in a clinical school connected to the university;
  • Mentoring from expert teachers for all beginners in their first years of teaching, coupled with other supports like a reduced teaching load and shared planning;
  • Equitable salaries (often with additional stipends for hard-to-staff locations) which are competitive with other professions, such as engineering;
  • Ongoing professional learning embedded in 15 to 25 hours a week of planning and professional development time.

While we worry about the supply of doctors, engineers, and technicians, we seem to ignore the supply of teachers who will educate the highly skilled workers and thoughtful citizens of the future. We lack a national policy to increase the supply of good teachers, to support teachers while on the job, or to distribute good teachers to all our children. When we do not tend to those who will nurture our young in the skills and abilities that make engaged citizenship possible, we put our future as a democracy at risk.

We can do better.

To start investing in a long-term teaching profession – and stop tolerating a short-term teaching force – our current ad hoc approaches to teacher and principal recruitment, preparation, licensing, hiring, and ongoing professional development must be reshaped so that all students will have access to teachers and school leaders who can be professionally accountable.  This will require a serious overhaul of preparation and licensing standards so that they reflect the critical knowledge and skills for teaching, evaluated through high-quality performance assessments demonstrating that prospective teachers can actually teach effectively. Indeed, the knowledge teachers need to reach all students in today’s schools has increased considerably. Teachers not only need deep and flexible knowledge of the content areas they teach, they also need to know:

  • how children learn at different stages so they can create a productive curriculum that will build on students’ prior knowledge and experiences;
  • how to adapt instruction for the needs of students with special needs;
  • how to identify and shape practices that build upon the linguistic and cultural assets of emerging bilingual learners;
  • how to assess learning continuously so they can identify students’ needs and respond with effective teaching strategies; and
  • how to work collectively with parents and colleagues to build strong school programs.

While the risk we face today is self-imposed, the lesson we learned nearly half a century ago still applies — we can make a national commitment to a high-quality teacher corps. Federal leadership in developing an adequate supply of well-qualified teachers is as essential as it has been in providing an adequate supply of physicians, developing teaching hospitals, and improving medical education for more than 40 years.

Specifically, the federal government should:

1. Create incentives for recruiting teachers to high-need fields and locations.

Most high-achieving nations completely subsidize several years of teacher preparation for all candidates, so that the most talented will enter and all will be well-prepared. The U.S. should, at minimum, provide service scholarships that underwrite the full preparation of teachers who agree to teach in shortage areas and low-income schools for at least four years, the point at which most will continue in the profession. Those who prepare to teach mathematics, science, special education or bilingual education, and those who prepare to teach in inner city schools should be prepared completely at government expense in high-quality programs. Virtually all of the positions currently filled by unqualified teachers could be filled in this way for only $800 million a year.

In addition, incentives should be put in place to attract to these schools expert teachers who can serve as mentors and curriculum leaders. These incentives should address the key factors found to affect recruitment and retention: principals who are strong instructional leaders; colleagues who are like-minded and similarly committed; supportive teaching conditions — including reasonable class sizes, plentiful materials and equipment, time for collaboration, and input into decisions; and adequate compensation. Experience shows that changing these conditions in hard-to-staff schools transforms their ability to recruit and retain teachers. Additional pay that rewards the commitment of teachers willing to take on these challenges should be part of the mix, and it must be paired with these other elements, as teachers are most strongly motivated by working in settings where they are enabled to succeed with students — the reason they entered the profession in the first place.

An annual allocation of $500 million, matched by states and localities, could award $10,000 to each of 100,000 accomplished teachers annually, recruiting them to high-need schools to serve as mentors and coaches. An additional $300 million, also matched, could be used to improve working conditions so that these schools become attractive places to teach and learn.

2. Strengthen teacher preparation.

Studies show that teachers who are fully prepared when they enter the classroom stay in the profession longer and are more effective in promoting student learning.Yet the quality of both traditional schools of education and alternative route programs is highly variable. While there are some extraordinarily effective preparation programs, there has been no mechanism to spread effective practices to others and to upgrade the quality of the enterprise as a whole. This important mission should be launched through incentive grants to schools of education to strengthen teachers’ abilities to teach a wide range of diverse learners successfully, including students with exceptional needs and English language learners.

Investments should focus on the establishment of professional development schools which, like teaching hospitals in medicine, partner with universities to offer top-quality learning settings for children, prospective teachers, and veteran teachers alike. These school-university partnerships create the opportunity for those entering the profession to learn best practices and to develop their skills under the wing of experts while taking coursework on teaching and learning that is tightly integrated with clinical practice. Evidence shows that well-implemented professional development schools improve both teachers’ skills and student learning and are part of a necessary strategy for ensuring that teacher education is grounded in good practice. A total allocation of $300 million, with incentives tied to accountability for performance, would enable major improvements in the quality of preparation.

These kinds of programs are most needed in communities where they are often least available and where schools have often been difficult to staff. Rather than bringing in teachers with the least training to teach the students with the greatest needs, the federal government should invest in high-quality teaching residency programs for candidates who will prepare in and commit to these districts. As piloted in cities like Chicago, Boston, and Denver, teaching residencies place prospective teachers in the classrooms of expert teachers — often in schools designed to exemplify high-quality practice for high-need students — for a full year, with a salary or stipend, while they complete tightly linked course work for certification and a master’s degree from partner universities. Candidates learn sophisticated practices from the best urban teachers, and they pay back this investment by pledging to teach for four or five years in the district. Research shows that more than 90 percent of the graduates of these programs continue to teach in the districts where they were trained.

Such programs can prepare prospective teachers to integrate seamlessly into the environments where they will likely hold their first jobs — and not only to survive but also to thrive and become leaders in the districts where their expertise is so needed. Further, schools of education can collaborate with local school systems to ensure that the professional learning from these residency programs and other professional development schools is made available to educators in others schools. Finally, these partnerships help train veteran teachers to provide mentorship to novices, to collaborate effectively with their peers, and to develop the skills necessary to participate in the continuous reflection and improvement efforts that improve student learning. The costs of such an initiative would be modest. To create 100 such programs located in the nation’s largest cities, for example, by allocating $1 million to each program for each of five years, the annual  cost would be only about $100 million — a small fraction of the cost of poor education and high attrition these cities normally experience.

3. Make teacher education performance-based.

Federal investments should also include support for developing and implementing teacher performance assessments that evaluate whether prospective teachers can actually teach successfully in classrooms. Current tests used for licensing and program accountability usually measure basic skills and subject matter knowledge in ways that demonstrate little about teachers’ abilities to teach effectively.  Several states, including Connecticut and California, have incorporated performance assessments in the licensing process. These measures of performance – which can provide data to inform the accreditation process – have been found to be strong levers for improving preparation and mentoring, as well as determining teachers’ competence. Federal support for the development of a nationally available performance assessment for licensing would not only provide a useful tool for accountability and improvement, but also facilitate teacher mobility across states by creating a portable license.

Rather than debating traditional vs. alternative routes, states should seek to expand effective programs for preparing teachers, based on evidence of candidates’ effectiveness when they become teachers of record, regardless of their path to certification. States should evaluate all of their programs and ensure that they include the features of programs found to increase teacher effectiveness, as well as producing teachers who are able to demonstrate, in a meaningful, valid, and reliable performance assessment, that they are prepared to teach competently from their first day in the classroom.  Programs should also be evaluated and approved based on how well their candidates succeed in the classroom after they are hired.

4. Support mentoring for all beginning teachers.

With one-third of new teachers leaving within five years and with higher rates for those who are under-prepared, current recruitment efforts are like pouring water into a leaky bucket. Yet research has shown that mentoring for beginning teachers sharply stems attrition and increases competence. For $500 million annually, a federal program that matches state and local investments in mentoring programs for novices could ensure coaching support for every new teacher in the nation, as is provided in every high-achieving nation as a matter of course.

Such a program would more than pay for itself, as the costs of teacher attrition are enormous. Current estimates suggest that most school districts spend close to $20,000 in replacement costs for every teacher who leaves, putting the national bill for teacher turnover at well over $7 billion per year — money that could more productively be spent on a range of pressing educational needs.

5. Create sustained, practice-based collegial learning opportunities for teachers.

As part of its school improvement investments under ESEA, the federal government should invest in the systems needed to provide teachers with high-quality, sustained professional development, ensuring that teachers continue to learn. The critical need for investment in teacher learning has been made clear over and over again in efforts at educational change. Those who have worked to improve schools have found that every aspect of effective school reform depends on highly-skilled teachers.

Recent research has made clear both the qualities and impact of successful professional development, which differs substantially from the “hit-and-run” workshops typically held for teachers after school. Teacher learning that enhances student learning is:

  • Focused on teaching specific students and specific curricular content,
  • Anchored by attention to students’ thinking and learning progress in relation to curricular goals, teaching strategies, and formative assessments, and
  • Embedded in long-term collaborative teacher planning, along with observation and analysis of classroom practice.

A recent study of high-performing, high-poverty schools confirmed these features, noting that such “turnaround” schools emphasize teacher collaboration and joint problem-solving that occurs when teachers work together to diagnose student learning needs through formative assessments, adapt instruction to meet these needs, and support each other in improving their practices. A review of well-designed studies found that teachers who received substantial professional development — an average of 49 hours on specific areas of practice across the studies reviewed — boosted their students’ achievement by more than 20 percentile points on average, a significant increase in performance. This kind of improvement in practice can occur through guided learning at the school site, through content-based institutes and coaching, and through vehicles like National Board Certification that focus on close analysis of practice.

If we want to improve the quality of learning in our schools, we need to direct incentives toward this kind of professional learning both by outlining the features of programs that will receive support in existing federal programs and by creating incentives for the rethinking of school schedules and organizational designs so they can routinely provide time for such collaboration to occur. Such incentives can be stimulated through grants — like the federal Small Learning Communities grants — that promote the redesign of the factory model schools we have inherited, as well as through incentives in professional development grants — which are part of most federal programs — prioritizing the design of school structures that can enable intensive study and improvement of teaching. Much of this work could be done by better focusing the funds for professional learning in existing federal programs. An additional $600 million could be used to triple the investments in Small Learning Communities grants and to provide $2,000 per teacher for job-embedded professional learning for every teacher in the neediest 25 percent of schools.

6. Develop teaching careers that reward, develop, and share expertise.

The current structure of the teaching career places teachers in egg-crate classrooms, doing the same thing on the first day they enter the profession as they do 30 years later, with little opportunity to share what they know with others. These systems create career pathways that place classroom teaching at the bottom, provide teachers with little influence in making key education decisions, and require teachers to leave the classroom if they want greater responsibility or substantially higher pay. The message is clear: those who work with children have the lowest status.

We can do better.

We need a different career continuum, one that places teaching at the top and creates a career progression that supports teachers as they become increasingly expert. Rewarding teachers for knowledge of subjects, additional knowledge for meeting special kinds of student and school needs, and ensuring excellence in the classroom — as well as a willingness to take on mentoring, curricular development, and other leadership responsibilities — would enhance the expertise available within schools. Creating stronger pathways for continuous teacher learning and  sharing of expertise — through vehicles like National Board Certification as well as high quality on-the-job evaluation and other professional development focused directly on practice — has been shown to improve overall school performance as well as classroom teaching. Federal incentives could support innovative districts where teachers take leadership in designing such career pathways that create productive and useful evaluation systems, enhance teacher compensation, help keep veteran expert teachers in the field, reward teachers for taking on tough assignments, provide supports for teacher learning, and enhance the opportunities for accomplished teachers to share what they know so that practice improves.

An initiative that encourages districts to develop career ladders should incorporate beginning teacher mentoring by expert teachers chosen for their effectiveness in the classroom, and enable other roles for expert teachers as well.  It should be accompanied by a performance-based teacher evaluation system that provides information about teacher effectiveness by conducting standards-based evaluations of teaching practices conducted through classroom observations by expert peers or supervisors, as well as a systematic collection of evidence about the teacher’s planning, instruction, and assessment practices, work with parents and students, and contributions to the school.  This collection of evidence could also include evidence of student learning and progress drawn from student work samples; classroom, district or state assessments, as appropriate; and teacher documentation.

A productive career development system should be organized around high-quality professional learning opportunities, including time for teachers to work and learn together during the school day.  It could include additional incentives for teachers to take on mentor and master teacher roles in high-need schools, and even, as part of a group of teachers, to take on redesigning and reconstituting failing schools so that they become more effective.

7. Mount a major initiative to prepare and support expert school leaders.

Studies find that the quality of the school principal — especially the extent to which he or she engages in instructional leadership practices — is the second most important determinant of a healthy learning environment, right after teacher quality. Furthermore, the single most important determinant of whether teachers stay in a particular school is the quality of the administrative support they receive from their school leader. In short, principals create the conditions that foster or undermine teaching quality — and either build or destroy the school culture that allows teachers and students to succeed.

Growing shortages of principals are a function both of the growing complexity of the job and the shortage of high-quality recruitment and preparation programs that enable principals to be well-prepared for the enormous challenges they face. While we have growing knowledge of the traits and skills that make principals effective — including their strong background as expert teachers of both children and adults — in most communities, we lack explicit strategies for identifying talented teachers with these traits and reaching out to them to cultivate their leadership abilities. One important role of the career ladders described above would be to consciously strengthen the principal preparation pipeline for those instructionally skilled teachers who also want to contribute to the management of the overall organization.

A major federal initiative would underwrite talented candidates who are recruited to attend leadership programs that offer strong training in how to support instructional improvement, organize productive schools, and lead change — and that provide a full-time internship under the wing of expert principals who have developed successful schools. An average of 100 top-flight principals per state could be trained in state-of-the-art programs each year for $300 million, providing a pipeline of well-trained human capital to lead the reforms that are essential to our success. Federal investments through a new ESEA should provide another $300 million in funds for districts to develop strong professional development for principals, through learning networks and continuing engagement in instructional leadership training. And the federal government should set aside $100 million to create a top-flight School Leadership Academy — a “West Point” for developing  sophisticated expertise among the most able school leaders — so that they can take on the challenge of turning around failing schools in high-need communities with the all the knowledge and tools available to the profession.

These investments in educator quality will both develop greater excellence in our schools and address the federal role of ensuring equal access to high-quality education for all of America’s children. While the federal government cannot obliterate the long-standing educational debt overnight, it can enact policies that will provide qualified teachers for every child.

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NYC Learners — Go On a School Innovation Tour!

Those of you living in the NYC area have a cool opportunity worth taking advantage of this coming April.

IDEA, aka the Institute for Democratic Education in America, is a national nonprofit organization whose mission is to ensure that all young people can engaged meaningfully with their education and gain the tools to build a just, democratic, and sustainable world.

IDEA helps transform education by showcasing what works in education and equipping others to learn from it. And this April 3rd-5th, IDEA will shepherd a group of people through an “innovation tour,” during which participants will explore four exemplary NYC schools, with opportunities to see and experience classroom and school culture, discuss instruction, and meet with school leaders.

IDEA’s Innovation Tours offer an in-depth opportunity to really see and engage with the most innovative schools in the U.S.  The NYC tour will take participants through the NYC iSchool, Urban Academy, Calhoun School, and The Green School.

Tours are designed to offer participants a chance to see dynamic schools in action, to learn from school leaders about the challenges and evolution of their culture and instructional program, and finally, to discuss ideas and applications with other teachers, students, parents, school board members, business leaders, and policy-makers involved in the tour.

Tour participants will also attend Columbia University’s Seminar on Innovation featuring IDEA leaders Kirsten Olson, Scott Nine, and Dana Bennis on Monday evening, April 4th. Tour costs average $300 per person or $150 without housing.
Registration details, itinerary and further information can be found at www.democraticeducation.org/tours/newyork.

Check it out. And if you do, report back on what you discover!

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Let’s End the Battle of the Edu-Tribes

(This article also appeared in the Huffington Post.)

There’s a revolution underway – and no, I don’t mean in Egypt or Tunisia.

I mean the growing, hopeful, tech-savvy, solution-oriented tribe of educators who attended last weekend’s EduCon 2.3 in Philadelphia, an annual event that bills itself as “both a conversation and a conference, ” and a place where people come together, “both in person and virtually, to discuss the future of schools.”

Hosted by the Science Leadership Academy – an inquiry-driven, project-based high school focused on 21st century learning (what a concept!) – EduCon was as much a revival meeting as it was a conference. To spend time there was to bear witness to the development of a different sort of tribe – a confederacy of educators from across the country, united by inquiry, connected by social media, and committed to solving the intractable riddle of public education.

See for yourself – scroll through the #EduCon tweets and you’ll find two things in abundance: a communal language of potential and partnership; and a rapid-fire establishing of new relationships based on possibility and hope.

This is, in short, the essential recipe for bringing about a paradigm shift in any profession or organization – and it is painfully rare in contemporary conversations about public education. As Dave Logan explains in his must-read book Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization, “tribes emerge from the language people use to describe themselves, their jobs, and others. . . When a person looks out at the world, he sees it filtered through a screen of his words, and this process is as invisible to him as water is to a fish. . . Instead of people using their words, they are used by their words, and this fact is unrecognized.”

Logan goes on to characterize five tribal “stages” – informal groupings in society, a field, and/or an organization based on an individual’s predominant worldview (as constructed through the language s/he uses and the types of relationships s/he forms). The extreme stages range from a complete sense of hopelessness about the world and its possibilities (“life sucks”), to a transcendent space of endless possibility and collaboration (“life is great”). And, of course, the bulk of us fall somewhere in between.

I share this because when I returned from EduCon I was struck by the clear contrast in tone between tweets from EduCon attendees and tweets from the leading voices of the two main Edu-Tribes – also known as the “reformers” and the “status quo-ers”, although I tend to think of them more as the Old Guard and the New Guard.

As Logan would explain it, the EduCon Tribe is operating at the crossroads of Stages Four and Five. Its members pay almost no attention to organizational or regional boundaries; the only thing that matters is that people contribute meaningfully to the discussion. The language of this tribe is hopeful, solution-oriented, and obsessed with things like collaboration and communication. And its members are all aligned around EduCon’s five guiding principles:

  1. Our schools must be inquiry-driven, thoughtful and empowering for all members;
  2. Our schools must be about co-creating — together with our students — the 21st Century Citizen;
  3. Technology must serve pedagogy, not the other way around;
  4. Technology must enable students to research, create, communicate and collaborate;
  5. Learning can — and must — be networked.

The power of these principles is key; a high-functioning tribe always identifies and leverages a core set of values, and uses those values as guideposts to align around a noble cause. Yet contrast that clarity with the Old & New Guards, still engaged in bitter warfare to influence the mainstream media and shape the Obama administration’s federal education policy priorities – albeit at slightly different cultural stages.

To borrow Logan’s terminology, the Old Guard is operating at a Stage Two level – most simply described as a “My Life Sucks” view of the world. Logan describes people in this cultural stage as “passively antagonistic; they cross their arms in judgment yet never really get interested enough to spark any passion. Their laughter is quietly sarcastic and resigned. The Stage Two talk is that they’ve seen it all before and watched it fail. The mood that results is a cluster of apathetic victims, united in their belief that someone or something is holding them down and standing in their way.”

Any of us who live and work in education have seen – or been in – this stage throughout our careers. On Twitter, it’s reflected in a lot of negative, oppositional language: words like “skewer,” “dupe,” and “debunk.” And in articles and Op-Eds, it’s reflected in pieces that are primarily about what the other side is doing wrong – and only secondarily about what its own side is doing right.

Meanwhile, the New Guard is primarily made up of people operating at Stage Three – most simply described as the “I’m great, and you’re not” worldview. As Logan explains, “The gravity that holds people at Stage Three is the addictive ‘hit’ from winning, besting others, being the smartest and most successful.” Not surprisingly, the New Guard uses words like “innovation,” “scalable,” and “results.” Its members love the spirit of programs like “Race to the Top.” And because of its overreliance on intellect and the technocratic answer, its characterizations of schools, and of schooling, can come to sound dehumanizing for adults and children alike.

To be sure, these descriptions cannot provide full accounts of any individual or tribe. All of us defy such efforts at easy explanation, and the current debates about public education cannot simply be reduced to whether we’re pro- or anti-union, reform or status quo, or old guard and new guard.  Still, in Logan’s descriptions I see sufficient echoes of the world I inhabit and the conversations I observe, and I’ve become even more aware of the words I use and the types of relationships I form. For me, that means refusing to contribute to the cynicism and hopelessness of Stage Two, and insisting on an expansion of the “coldly cognitive” worldview of Stage Three.

I want more inquiry. I want less demonization of those I disagree with. I want more community. In short, I want my EduCon, and I want it all the time! Who’s with me?

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