Saturday, May 12, 2012

Real change, not "better sameness" #edreform #edchat


A few days ago my friend Dave Murray, writer for The Grand Rapids Press and (no, I’m not kidding, I consider Dave a friend even when we disagree on issues, which is quite often) reported on Michigan’s plan to change its school accountability grading system from the traditional A, B, C… to a color-coded system (Parents understand an 'A,' but what about a 'yellow' on a school report card?). Dave’s article focuses primarily on the potential for confusion in the general public understanding what the colors mean. Usually when I read his articles I get angry primarily because he has a “monopoly” on communicating his ideas while I have to depend on word of mouth, blogging, and other means. I wanted to shout out to all who were reading it that, “The very idea you can’t change to a new system of reporting IS the reason public education doesn’t change!” First it was the inability of our neighboring Grand Rapids Public Schools to successfully change to a report-card system that focuses on student’s actually learning course content, not student failure, and now it was this. We’re stuck in an 1890’s rut and can’t get out of it because of the lack of support from Dave and others who appear to advocate “better sameness” as the only acceptable form of change.


I’m tough on Dave (and he has no problem giving it right back) because he puts himself out there when he writes in a manner that reveals how he feels about an issue. That’s his style and I admire him for his writing skills even when I want to stand on his front lawn and scream at the top of my lungs. But if public education is truly going to change for the benefit of kids, we need the help of the media and not just more hurdles thrown on the track.


We need to once and for all face up to the only logical conclusion: Educational outcomes are not going to significantly change until the practitioners of education ignore the overwhelming societal urge for sameness (i.e., I want schools for my kids that were the same as when I went to school) and abandon the industrial model of education, a.k.a., the factory-style graded school.


We are averse to change because we fear it. We build or hold on to structures that make us comfortable and reduce our fears. Embracing change has potential for putting us in the spotlight as if we were living in a house made of glass, and we fear uncertainty, risk and failure. Adding to that, we also tend to be a bit on the lazy side and not wanting to invest time in the hard work of change including having to learn something new. It’s likely one of the reasons so many of us Americans – particularly my generation – only know one language (bad English) and rarely travel through foreign countries. To do so requires change that can be stressful and hard work. We’d rather remain within the comfort of the American way because it involves less change.


But schools MUST change for the sake of this and future generations. Our system of education, while tended to by professionals with the highest degree of care and concern for their charges, is outmoded and cannot be improved on enough to produce the different results needed. We can test our kids until the cows come home and it won’t make a damned bit of difference if we don’t actually change to a learning system that meets their needs for a 21st century technology-driven world economy.


The industrialized mass nature of school goes back to the very beginning, to the common school and the normal school and the idea of universal schooling. All of which were invented at precisely the same time we were perfecting mass production and interchangeable parts and then mass marketing.
Large-scale education was not developed to motivate kids or to create scholars. It was invented to churn out adults who worked well within the system. Scale was more important than quality, just as it was for most industrialists.
Of course, it worked. Several generations of productive, fully employed workers followed. But now?
As long as we embrace (or even accept) standardized testing, fear of science, little attempt at teaching leadership, and most of all, the bureaucratic imperative to turn education into a factory itself, we’re in big trouble. ~ Seth Godin, Stop Stealing Dreams


Here are just some of the outdated structures and habits that inhibit real change in public education:


1.     Schedules – a nine-month calendar filled with class schedules based on a rigid length of the school day that’s divided up by bells (or the more modern tones), that serve primarily to teach our students that learning is only accomplished during certain months of the year and hours of the day. And you only learn math for this hour and English for that hour, etc. In the meantime, like Pavlov’s dogs, wait for the calendar page to turn or the bell to signal a class change. But summer and weekends are sacrosanct and parents expect order in their children’s schools, so don’t change these structures, even though I believe they can be shown to be some of the worst forms of child abuse there is.

2.     Buildings – a rectangular structure labeled a school is the only place real learning should ever occur. Heaven forbid that learning takes place at a shopping mall, a beach, the bowling alley or even in the comfort of one’s own home. This is the source of constant friction instead of cooperation between teachers, parents and students over homework, summer bridge activities or even summer school itself. Learning spaces can be anywhere but unfortunately we think such things weaken the physical boundaries between the school building itself and the rest of the world. We can’t have that! School is, after all, for school.

3.     Grade levels – it’s sadly pathetic that we still believe grade levels were designed to provide a structure that improves student learning. What’s more, we reinforce that belief by dividing up the curriculum into age groups and then test everyone each year to see if they are progressing or failing. We tend to ignore mountains of evidence that says physical, emotional, and intellectual development can vary as much as 2-3 years between children who by virtue of sharing the same year of birth are grouped together, for better or for worse, for thirteen years of schooling, and pushed through year after year regardless of whether they learned it or not. Add this to my list of child abuse.


I’ve just touched on some of the structures, including my earlier mention of report cards, that limit our creativity in building an educational system that’s based on the needs of kids, and not of the adults. School should not be primarily about efficiency, order, control, low-cost conformity, and separation of learning from real life. It should be a system of support for learning 24/7 regardless of when, where or how it occurs. Technology is just one tool that can help us leverage wholesale change.


I think it’s clear that school was designed with a particular function in mind, and it’s one that school has delivered on for a hundred years.
If school’s function is to create the workers we need to fuel our economy, we need to change school, because the workers we need have changed as well.
Changing school doesn’t involve sharpening the pencil we’ve already got. School reform cannot succeed if it focuses on getting schools to do a better job of what we previously asked them to do. We don’t need more of what schools produce when they’re working as designed. The challenge, then, is to change the very output of the school before we start spending even more time and money improving the performance of the school.
The current structure, which seeks low-cost uniformity that meets minimum standards, is killing our economy, our culture, and us.
School’s industrial, scaled-up, measurable structure means that fear must be used to keep the masses in line. There’s no other way to get hundreds or thousands of kids to comply, to process that many bodies, en masse, without simultaneous coordination.
And the flip side of this fear and conformity must be that passion will be destroyed. There’s no room for someone who wants to go faster, or someone who wants to do something else, or someone who cares about a particular issue. Move on. Write it in your notes; there will be a test later.
A multiple-choice test. ~ Godin


Let’s begin anew by ending our propensity for inhibiting real change and simply improving on the same thing. Get over our fears and get on with creating a whole new educational system, one free of industrial-age structures and personal bias, a system of learning for the age of real-time communication and collaboration.


A real school.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Real Reason for NCLB Waivers #edreform


Eric J. Ban left the corporate headquarters and took over as principal of a large suburban high school. In 2008, he published a work about the lesson learned during his experience titled, College Acceleration: Innovating Through the New American Research High School.

It's a great read and I recommend it to everyone concerned about the American high school and our desire to hold onto an outdated and ineffective school model. But this post is more about Ban's prediction that eventually forces would begin to sweep away NCLB as we know it. He made this prediction prior to the Obama-Duncan era and sure enough, it was based mainly on his personal experience and understanding of how affluent forces primarily found in suburban areas really control our political agendas. There was absolutely no way suburbanites were going to stand for their schools being labeled failures once the 2014 requirement of all students scoring proficient grew near.

The leaders of corporate America live in suburbia. The traditional suburban high school serves the needs of their already well-served kids. Their image is important in the most confident country in the world. As NCLB begins to label their schools as failing, NCLB will be quietly whisked away [emphasis added] like the mimeograph machine after Xerox developed the copier. There are too many problems with the current federal accountability picture for high schools. High schools are a complicated animal for oversimplified state accountability systems to be applied in a fair and relevant way. Corporate and political leaders will redirect the focus and embrace a new acronym to beat up urban education [right again -- it's now called PLA or persistently low achieving], and the cycle of reform that ignores suburbia will continue indefinitely. (p. 6-7)

Affluent suburban schools have been for the most part able to skirt the entire NCLB debacle, only joining in occasionally with the cacophony of concerns over the tremendous amount of time wasted on high stakes testing. But for the most part, the testing had little impact on their image since the vast majority of suburban students scored relatively higher than their urban poor counterparts. Only as 2014 loomed did it become apparent as Ban points out that suburbia's image would soon be tarnished by a flawed accountability system. Just in the nick of time, Mr. Obama and Mr. Duncan came along and have recently begun to kick the can down the road to protect that image.

Poor urban school districts have been shown to have little voice or power in the halls of Congress and state legislatures compared to their suburban neighbors. They'll continue to carry the water for America's public school reform movement.

You Can't Replace a Teacher #edchat

I couldn't have said it better than David Brooks did when he recently wrote about The Campus Tsunami of online learning in The New York Times:

“The most important and paradoxical fact shaping the future of online learning is this: A brain is not a computer. We are not blank hard drives waiting to be filled with data. People learn from people they love and remember the things that arouse emotion. If you think about how learning actually happens, you can discern many different processes. There is absorbing information. There is reflecting upon information as you reread it and think about it. There is scrambling information as you test it in discussion or try to mesh it with contradictory information. Finally there is synthesis, as you try to organize what you have learned into an argument or a paper.” 

On this National Teacher Appreciation Day, be thankful you have had wonderful opportunities to learn from real flesh and blood throughout the years. I don't remember a thing about my first game of Pong (or subsequent games for that matter) or what I might have learned by playing it, but I do remember every one of my teachers and that says a lot about the impact they had on my life.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Is your school's technology just more litter on the same battlefield?

I'll try to keep this short and succinct. Suppose you were the commander of an early 20th century military unit mounted on horseback and a major war came along. Somebody, somewhere sees the utility of combining automotive technology with materials that protect you from enemy fire. So you trade your horses for these new-fangled vehicles but you line them all up in a row and advance on the enemy's positions just as the British did during the America Revolution. But alas, the other side rapidly discovered a new missile technology that pierces your armor protection and unleashes it on your advancing throng of vehicles. Nevertheless, you are a stubborn commander and don't change what you are doing because that's the way mounted troops have fought battles for centuries. When the shooting stops, the battlefield is littered with smoking hulks and dead soldiers all because you refused to see the new technology as a way to change your tactics and get more desired outcomes. You just replaced your horses with "faster horses."

Ok, that's a bit morbid so here's another analogy. What if when cell phones first came on the mass commercial market, all we did was purchase one simply to use in our homes or offices. We didn't take it anywhere with us and in fact, out of a sense of nostalgia or just fear of losing the small device (actually, they weren't that small back then), we chained it to a desk or wall. In this hypothetical example, despite the fact the cell phone was designed to provide mobile anytime-anywhere communications, we couldn't shake the tradition that talking on the telephone was only done in the sanctity of the home or office. If we had thought that way, personal and business communications would still be the same today.

My point in both of these analogies is that unless we use technology as a lever to significantly change what we do to get at a desired outcome, what good is it? If we merely use netbooks or other computer devices so that students can sit in rows of desks independently typing on word documents, is that using technology to change the learning process? If we drop iPads or other devices on our students so they can access e-texts instead of printed texts, but those texts are nothing more than digitized print is that really leveraging technology for change? If we're still chained to desktops in labs or media centers that are open only during school hours or restricting students to only use devices that schools provide in a designated location for computer use, is that adapting the learning process to the power and mobility of technology tools? I'd say the answer to all of these is a big fat NO.

Right now I would guess that most schools -- even those that claim to be 1:1 or BYOD schools (or a combination of both) -- are still nothing more than industrial-era models of learning. Instead of textbooks or paper on their desks, students have shiny toys that merely serve as replacements for yesteryear's tools but the structures (calendars, schedules, bells, teacher-student-ratios, assessments, classroom walls and furnishings, etc) haven't changed a bit. In the end, classrooms are littered with underutilized devices but the learning outcomes are the same because we didn't change our tactics.

We need to build a new education system that fully considers the learning needs of 21st century students and capitalizes on the power of technology to serve as a learning tool. Until then, we've just replaced horses with "faster horses."

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Moving from simply painting the Model T to real education reform


I've been reading Off the Clock: Moving Education From TIME to COMPETENCY by Fred Bramante and Rose Colby. It's a compelling read that causes you to question just about everything that contributes to our outdated education model.

The authors first take aim at decades of reform efforts that have been akin to "putting a new paint job on a Model T." We hang on tightly to the school structures and cultures we so dearly came to know during our own 13-plus years of experience as students. As parents, we are even more adamant about hanging on to the experiences we remember and wanting our children (and then grandchildren) to have the same. It's a debilitating mental model that prevents meaningful transformation of a system that was never even designed in the first place based on best practices for learning.

The 20th century model of delivering content inside of classrooms during specific times is so highly flawed that it will never work the way it needs to work, but we continue to put in an honorable yet futile effort into trying to make an outdated system better.

Until we deconstruct our current model of K-12 education, our efforts to reform teaching and learning will only produce incremental changes. The biggest obstacles to higher student achievement have little to do with the ability of teachers to teach or students to learn. They are grounded in the archaic (and abusive) structures that fall under schedules:

Schedules drive schools -- daily schedules, yearly schedules, and examination schedules -- all are part of the current framework. In order to move to 21st century learning, we must first begin by deconstructing the elements of the 20th century model of school structure and operation. We must deconstruct the elements of the framework that obstruct the natural process of teaching and learning.

To not address reform head on by first destroying an outdated system is foolish and a waste of valuable resources. 21st century learners learn differently by virtue of some very organic changes in their brains, according to the authors. We can continue to reform this 20th century model, but we shouldn't think that we will get different results.

This book suggests we rebuild schools from the ground up focusing on mastery rather than time and competency-based learning vs. the 20th century Carnegie unit as a measure of learning. That's where I'm at right now but it didn't take me long to realize that this work by Bramante and Colby is not for those who cling only to what they know.

A great read that I'm considering using as a book study with our administrative team and Board of Education this coming fall.