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Is a Free Education a Fundamental Right?

Should your zip code determine your access to the American dream? Or is the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee to provide “equal protection” a principle we have silently agreed to uphold in theory – but not in practice?

I’m starting to wonder after reading about Tanya McDowell, the Connecticut mother facing felony charges for lying on her five-year-old son’s registration forms so he could attend a better school. McDowell’s story is painfully reminiscent of Kelley Williams-Bolar, the Ohio mother who made a similar choice earlier this year – and is now a convicted felon.

These two stories of civil disobedience come against the backdrop of an ongoing national conversation about our public school system – and how it must be improved. They also provide an unsettling irony in lieu of tomorrow’s 57th anniversary of Thurgood Marshall’s historic victory in Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision that triumphantly reaffirmed a core American principle: “In the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place.”

If Marshall were alive today, he would urge us to stop celebrating our symbolic victory in Brown, and start accepting our actual responsibility for tolerating a public education system that is, clearly, still separate, and still unequal.

Marshall said so himself, in a lesser known 1973 Court opinion, San Antonio v. Rodriguez. But this time he was not the lead lawyer, arguing the case, but the Court’s first African-American justice, issuing a ruling. And this time, he was on the losing side.

The case began when a group of poor Texas parents claimed that their state’s tolerance of the wide disparity in school resources – much of which were determined by the value of local property taxes – violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. A state court agreed, but the U.S. Supreme Court, in a narrow 5-4 decision, reversed.

Gone from the Court’s 1973 ruling was its 1954 contention that “education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments.” Gone, too, was its assertion that “it is doubtful any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity,” wrote a unanimous Court in Brown, “where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”

Instead, the five-Justice majority in Rodriguez wrote simply that while the Texas school system “can fairly be described as chaotic and unjust . . . it does not follow that this system violates the Constitution.”

“Though education is one of the most important services performed by the state, it is not within the limited category of rights recognized by this Court as guaranteed by the Constitution.” If it were, the majority conceded, “virtually every State will not pass muster.”

For Justice Marshall, that was precisely the point. “The Court concludes that public education is not constitutionally guaranteed,” he wrote, even though “no other state function is so uniformly recognized as an essential element of our society’s well being.”

Marshall understood that without equal access to a high-quality public education, democracy doesn’t work. “Education directly affects the ability of a child to exercise his First Amendment rights,” he explained. “Education prepares individuals to be self-reliant and self-sufficient participants in society. Both facets of this observation are suggestive of the substantial relationship which education bears to guarantees of our Constitution.”

So here we are, nearly thirty years after Rodriguez – and nearly sixty after Brown – and yet parents like Tanya McDowell and Kelley Williams-Bolar feel compelled to break the law to ensure that their children receive a fair shot at the American dream. Meanwhile, income inequality has reached unprecedented levels, the nation has simultaneously grown more racially and ethnically diverse, and massive spending disparities remain between schools.

In today’s America, when it comes to public education, have we allowed our five-digit zip codes to become the equivalent of a lottery ticket to a better future? Is this really who we wish to be?

After so many years and so little real change, something new – perhaps even something drastic – needs to be done.

What if we took away the legal ambiguity that resulted in a 5-4 Supreme Court decision? What if we made the guarantee of an equal opportunity to learn our nation’s 28th Constitutional Amendment?

(This article originally appeared on cnn.com.)

What do YOU think? Is a Free Education a Fundamental Right?

a)    NO. A public education is extremely important. It’s also not listed as a fundamental right anywhere in the U.S. Constitution. It may be imperfect, but the Supreme Court got it right in the Rodriguez case.

b)   YES. The 14th Amendment’s guarantee of “equal protection” under the laws is sufficient grounds for recognizing the unique value of a quality education. It’s time to reinterpret the Rodriguez case!

c)    NOT YET. Reinterpreting Rodriguez is not enough. It’s time to make equal access to a quality education an undeniable right. It’s time for the 28th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution!


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!


Education Nation & Finland

I’m playing catch up with all the programming NBC is producing this week as part of its Education Nation series, but I want to highly recommend one of those videos, an interview with NBC’s Andrea Mitchell and Finland’s Minister of Education, Pasi Sahlberg.

See for yourself on the video below, but here are a few highlights worth underscoring:

  • Finland’s focus has always been on “building a system which is attractive to young people, and morally purposeful.”
  • In Finland, teachers “enjoy a certain prestige.”
  • In Finland, “poor performance is not punished,” and teachers are entrusted with the authority — and provided with the training and support — to administer all assessments locally.

In short, Finland recognized a generation ago that if it wanted to create a world-class education system, it needed to invest deeply in the long-term creation of a highly competitive and well-trained teaching profession, not the short-term acceptance of a highly-volatile and rapidly-trained teaching force. As Linda Darling-Hammond writes in her newest book, The Flat World & Education, “Finland shifted from a highly centralized system emphasizing external testing to a more localized system in which highly trained teachers design curriculum around very lean national standards. The logic of the system is that investments in the capacity of local teachers and schools to meet the needs of all students, coupled with thoughtful guidance about goals, can unleash the benefits of local creativity in the cause of common, equitable outcomes.”

Couldn’t have said it any better myself . . .

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy


The Science of School Renewal

(NOTE: This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post.)

There’s a revolution underway in the scientific community, and it’s changing the way we understand both the structure and the inner workings of the universe. These insights have far-reaching implications for all of us – and none of them are being heeded by the leading voices of our current efforts of transform America’s antediluvian public education system.

This is a serious problem.  Here are three examples of what I mean:

1. The Relativity of Learning – Almost everyone is familiar with Albert Einstein’s game-changing theory of relativity – an insight that, overnight, overturned an idea that had governed human thought for more than 200 years. Fewer among us can explain the theory in any depth, but we know this much: Einstein demonstrated that time itself is not, as had been assumed by Isaac Newton and others, a fixed construct that is experienced uniformly, but rather a malleable construct that is experienced relative to something and/or someone else. This seismic development in human thought moved us away from the Newtonian notion of absolutes, and toward a deeper understanding of just how fully we experience the world in particular ways.

The lesson to be learned from this seems clear enough: we should be wary of absolutist thinking in our own lives (and, certainly, in our organizations). Yet contrast this insight with the K-12 education landscape, which is still working in absolutes, and still basing its biggest decisions on a single, standardized measure of success: basic-skills reading and math scores. This doesn’t mean our interest in these subjects is unimportant – literacy and numeracy matter greatly – but it does mean we’ve failed to learn something essential about the nature of things. Otherwise, we’d be asking a different question when it comes to school accountability: If learning, like time, is relative, how can we develop less standardized (and more customized) assessments that will help us know if we’re being successful at helping children learn to use their minds well?

2. The Quantum Mechanics of Motivation – As you may know, although our general rules for understanding the workings of the universe on a macro scale – a.k.a. classical physics – work quite predictably and neatly, those same rules mean absolutely nothing at the messier micro level – a.k.a. quantum mechanics. What quantum mechanics reveal is that relationships are the key determiner of everything. Subatomic particles cannot exist without the presence of another, and the more we try to observe and codify their nonlinear behavior into a series of linear “if/then” statements, the less relevant our insights become. It’s just too complicated – even for quantum scientists.

Similarly, we humans are nonlinear beings, and the relationships we form (or don’t form) are the key determinants of everything in our personal and professional lives. Yet contrast this insight with the K-12 education landscape, in which both elected officials and philanthropic leaders are pursuing if/then incentive programs based on the belief that pay for performance will be the missing tonic our educators need. It’s the difference between a Newtonian view of the world – which views things in straightforward terms of cause and effect – and a Quantum Mechanics view of the world – which recognizes the inherent unpredictability of the entities it is observing.

The good news is we don’t need to be so abstract. Check out these insights from three different studies of human behavior and the human responses to programs, like performance pay, that are based on extrinsic rewards:

  • “When money is used as an external reward for some activity, the subjects lose interest for the activity.” (Deci 1971)
  • “Intrinsic motivation is conducive to creativity; controlling extrinsic motivation is detrimental to creativity.” (Amabile 1996)
  • “People use rewards expecting to gain the benefit of increasing another person’s motivation and behavior, but in so doing, they often incur the unintentional hidden cost of undermining that person’s intrinsic motivation towards the activity.” (Reeve 2004)

Why aren’t we paying attention to this? Or, more to the point, why aren’t we asking a different question when it comes to issues of motivation in the workplace: How can we move from a culture of extrinsic compliance to a culture of intrinsic commitment?

3. The Ecology of Organizational Culture – Finally, there’s the changing way scientists describe the principles of ecology, a word that literally means “the study of the house.” What’s becoming apparent is that order and balance in our house (whether it’s Earth or a country or an elementary school) are not achieved by complex, overly prescribed controls, but by a few clearly delineated simple structures, and with a healthy dose of freedom for individual entities to pursue what they feel is significant. As physicist and systems theorist Fritjof Capra puts it: “In recent years, biologists and ecologists have begun to shift their metaphors from hierarchies to networks, and have come to realize that partnership – the tendency to associate, establish links, cooperate, and maintain symbiotic relationships – is one of the hallmarks of life.”

Apply these insights once again to the K-12 education landscape and you see what to do immediately: move away from the Newtonian change model of “critical mass,” and toward a more modern model of “critical connections.” Educational scholar John Goodlad urged as much following his massive comprehensive study of schooling in America in the 1970s and 1980s: “Schools will improve slowly, if at all,” he wrote, “if reforms are thrust upon them. Rather, the approach having most promise is one that will seek to cultivate the capacity of schools to deal with their own problems, to become largely self-renewing.”

These insights have profound implications for how we structure the science of school renewal – as opposed to the business of school reform – in the years and decades ahead. Instead of a push toward greater standardization and absolute constructs, we should sharpen our assessment tools to become more finely attuned to the relativistic learning needs of children. We should create organizational conditions that nurture intrinsic motivation in adults and children.  And we should be more mindful of the networks and people we will need in order to do the difficult work of systems change, and begin asking ourselves the only question that really matters: Of all the things we can do together, what must we do?


Should She Stay or Should She Go? Michelle Rhee and the Upcoming DC Election

(NOTE: This article also appeared in the Washington Post.)

It’s almost election season in DC, which means I need to decide once and for all if Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee – and, by extension, Mayor Adrian Fenty – deserve another four years at the helm.

Here are the arguments as I see them:

On one hand, it’s incontrovertible that Rhee has sparked both local and national conversations that were long overdue. Her decision to show up at a DCPS warehouse, with cameras, and shine a light on a system so dysfunctional and disorganized that it allowed seemingly scarce resources to remain unused was both brilliant and galvanizing. Her determination to confront the fecklessness of our current teacher evaluation system placed the issue front and center in discussions of systemic reform, where it belongs. And her millennial focus on eradicating the generational injustices of our school system has turned the issue into a mainstream conversation-starter. Those are major accomplishments for which she is largely responsible. Shame on the rest of us for not figuring out, much earlier, how to inject this work with a similar, undeniable sense of urgency. And woe is we if she leaves after just four years and the city returns to square one, denying us all the chance to make a more detailed judgment on the viability of her strategies for lasting change.

On the other hand, Rhee’s primary weapon – a fierce, uncompromising rhetoric – has also been her Achilles heel. She has recklessly alienated a majority of the very people she most needs for lasting reform to occur: DC’s public school teachers. Her unwavering reliance on “data” – and a limited definition of data at that – is leading us toward a system where schools and educators are incentivized to relentlessly, and with great discipline, move the needle on a single measure of basic-skills proficiency in math and reading. This is an extremely effective political strategy for it locates a nebulous and Sisyphean effort in a single, easily trackable number. It’s also, I believe, a largely illusory effort that hinders our ability to identify truly aspirational standards for children, and apply the same level of discipline and determination toward the establishment of a school system that is aligned around what young people really need in order to be successful in college, throughout their chosen careers, and as active and responsible citizens in our democracy.

In sum, my chief concern is that Rhee will be unable to generate what noted school reform expert Michael Fullan has described as the single most important resource for bringing about systemic change – collective capacity, or the ability to “generat[e] the emotional commitment and the technical expertise that no amount of individual capacity working alone can come close to matching.”

As I’ve written previously, this does NOT mean Ms. Rhee is merely required to give people more opportunities to collaborate. What is required, though, is disciplined, strategically employed collaboration that fosters a shared vision of how to create the optimal learning environment for children (as opposed to the optimal testing environment). As Fullan writes: “The gist of the strategy is to mobilize and engage large numbers of people who are individually and collectively committed and effective at getting results relative to core outcomes that society values. It works because it is focused, relentless (i.e., stays the course), operates as a partnership between and across layers, and above all uses the collective energy of the whole group. There is no way of achieving whole-system reform if the vast majority of the people are not working on it together.

There are many people I respect who believe this is exactly what Michelle Rhee is bringing about. I have just as many friends and colleagues who are equally convinced that Rhee will be unable to move the city any further on its overall reform efforts.

It may be clear which way I’m leaning, but what do you think? Does Rhee deserve four more years to make a true go of it and see if DC can achieve the impossible? Or is her relentless focus on test score data and an oppositional rhetoric a guarantee that any lasting change that comes about will not be the true change we seek?


A Sinking Ship?

During a week in which both Education Secretary Arne Duncan and President Barack Obama will publicly defend their education reform priorities – in response to severe criticism from the country’s leading civil rights organizations – I’m trying to figure out how a set of ideas that was so close to mobilizing a quiet revolution in public education has instead led the soldiers of that revolution to passionately (and loudly) take up arms against each other.

All I can come up with is they’ve gotten some lousy advice. And I think I see where they’ve gone wrong.

Take, for example, the issue of teacher evaluations, which is a major component of the Race to the Top selection criteria. First of all, anyone who doesn’t think our current system of teacher and principal evaluation needs to be completely remade is someone you should never listen to again on any issue of consequence. Teacher and principal assessments in this country are a joke – and do nothing to advance the quality of the profession or improve the overall learning conditions for kids. So the Obama Administration’s decision to shine light on this issue is spot-on.

Why, then, has that issue transmogrified into a bold push for using financial incentives to boost teacher motivation? Who thought that was a good idea, and why did anybody listen? As I’ve written previously, the leading thinkers in the business community have recognized for years the limitations of this strategy (Enron, anyone?). Dan Pink has posted a useful video in which he cites a study by, of all entities, the Federal Reserve, showing how cash incentives work well – as long as the desired behaviors are simple and non-cognitive. Yet this is an issue the administration continues to try and defend. They should drop it like it’s hot.

Similarly, there’s the push to adopt a common set of academic standards across all fifty states. This, too, is something I’ve written about previously, and this, too, is an issue I’m ready to support, provided the projected purpose for the use of the standards is in line with what other high-achieving countries around the world have used them for – namely, to provide guidance, clarity and quality control, not to enforce a strict set of restrictions that prescribe the actions of local educators. We need standards that are viewed as indicators of wisdom our students will need to be successful in college and the workplace, not shards of knowledge that make it easier to devise uniform tests and mandate standardized modes of instruction.

Is this the path the Obama administration and the National Governors Association seek as well? I’m not sure, but I can see why some people feel nervous.  We are, after all, still a culture intent on overvaluing the illusory certainty that basic-skills test scores provide us. We still seek linear progress in the most nonlinear of professions and experiences. And we still operate in a society where powerful forces driven by the bottom line have the capacity to steer policy decisions to their liking. So although the jury is still out on this one, I feel more nervous than confident.

Finally, there’s the issue of making federal money for states a competitive, rather than strictly a formula-driven, process. If you want to view this one purely by its ability to engineer massive changes in how states operate, it’s a runaway success. States have revised laws to lift caps on the number of charter schools, adopted the new common standards, and poured thousands of hours into finalizing their grant proposals. Initially, two states were awarded money in the first round. Today, 18 more states and the District of Columbia were named finalists for the remaining $3.4 billion in funding.

This aspect of the Obama administration’s proposals is what particularly rankled the civil rights groups. As Schott Foundation president John Jackson put it, “No state should have to compete to protect the civil rights of their children in their states.”

Hard to argue with that point, but in the interest of moving forward, I want to offer three simple pieces of START STOP KEEP advice to the Obama team:

  1. KEEP focusing on teacher and principal quality and evaluation, but STOP doing it via the 20th century notion of carrots and sticks, and START investing deeply in quality teacher preparation programs and evaluation systems.
  2. KEEP emphasizing the utility of a stronger, clearer and leaner set of national standards that can guide instruction and provide quality control to a system that sorely needs it, but STOP viewing it as a way to impose more national standardized exams, and START heeding both the civil rights groups’ recommendation for common resource opportunity standards, and the need for a long term goal (once the aforementioned teacher preparation programs are up to snuff) of having national content standards provide guidance for teachers, who then devise locally-administered assessments based on their detailed knowledge of what they’ve taught and who they’ll be testing. (This is what many of the highest-performing countries in the world do, by the way.)
  3. KEEP saying that providing a high-quality public education to all children is the civil rights issue of our time, but STOP trying to do so by incentivizing competition that results in winners and losers, and START advocating for a Constitutional amendment that makes the guarantee of an equal opportunity to learn for all children something the states cannot ignore.

I think that would help a lot. What do YOU think?


How to Build a School System That Nurtures Creativity

In case you missed it, there’s an important new piece in Newsweek about the declining capacity of Americans to think creatively — and what we can do about it.

This is, of course, the primary issue that has driven Sir Ken Robinson’s work (if you’re among the few who haven’t yet seen his hilarious and insightful 2006 TED talk on the subject, check it out). As Ken puts it, the problem is that our current system of education is more apt to “mine our minds” of its most precious materials than it is to plant fertile seeds that can sprout new ideas and ways of seeing the world. The Newsweek piece picks up on this theme, noting that “around the world, other countries are making creativity development a national priority.” Meanwhile, our focus in the U.S. remains on clarifying what exactly we need to put into all children’s minds, rather than how we can best pull out their individual talents and passions.

In addition to what Newsweek outlines as constructive steps to address the creativity crisis (hint: cognitive science and a deeper understanding of how the brain really works), I’d like to remind everyone what Finland did to become the world’s leader in public education: an intensive investment in teacher education (NOT performance pay), and a complete overhaul of the curriculum and assessment system in order to create a true “thinking curriculum” for all students.

More specifically, teachers in Finland receive 2 or 3 years of high-quality training completely at state expense. The program is extremely competitive, and it is followed by a full year of clinical experience and studying under a master teacher. All teachers also engage in critical friends group work throughout their careers, ensuring that they engage in continual self-reflection, evaluation, and proactive efforts to improve the quality of their professional practice.

The result of this deep investment in teaching, and in a curriculum that is focused on inquiry (as opposed to facts)? A learning environment that encourages both students and teachers to try new ideas and methods, learn about and through innovations, and cultivate creativity in schools. As Linda Darling-Hammond says in her excellent new book The Flat World and Education, “Over the past 40 years, Finland has shifted from a highly centralized system emphasizing external testing to a more localized system in which highly trained teachers design curriculum around very lean national standards. . . . The logic of the system is that investments in the capacity of local teachers and schools to meet the needs of all students, coupled with the thoughtful guidance about goals, can unleash the benefits of local creativity in the cause of common, equitable outcomes.”

Why can’t we do this? WHY AREN’T WE DOING THIS?


What Gandhi Would Think of “The Lottery”

I just saw “The Lottery” – a documentary film about public education in general, and the charter school movement in particular – and I feel like I’ve been punched in the gut.

The film is beautiful, and deeply moving, It is impossible not to fall in love with the four children (and their families) whose bittersweet paths we follow in the lead-up to the lottery that decides who is admitted to Harlem Success Academy, a successful new charter school, and whose dream is (randomly) denied.

I’m equally struck by the way the film further entrenches the “us v. them” mentality that is, I believe, one of the greatest challenges to our establishing a new system of public education that can truly serve the interests of the families in the film.

Continue reading this post.


Is It Really All About the Benjamins?

As both a former teacher and a MBA, I’m struck these days by two things: first, the ubiquity of “business thinking” in today’s education reform strategies; and second, the complete absence of the sort of business thinking we actually need to be heeding.

Keep reading here . . .


Less Standardization, More Flexibility

Great piece by the New York Times‘ Bob Herbert two days ago, in which he writes the following: “When you look at the variety of public schools that have worked well in the U.S. — in cities big and small, and in suburban and rural areas — you wonder why anyone thought it was a good idea to throw a stultifying blanket of standardization over the education of millions of kids of different aptitudes, interests and levels of maturity. The idea should always have been to develop a flexible system of public education that would allow all — or nearly all — children to thrive.”

Indeed. The full article is at http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/18/opinion/18herbert.html.

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