Educating Potential

The Sense and Sensibility of Boarding School

I’ve been reading a lot about adolescent development behavior recently and the more I read, the more I am coming around to the idea of boarding school for middle and high school students.

A lot of expat kids come home to Singapore for the holidays. And I’m not talking about college students – I’m talking about middle and high school students. In the US the idea of sending your child to private boarding school is generally unheard of outside of a small subset of families. However, in much of the rest of the world boarding schools are a far more common phenomenon. It’s been interesting to chat with some of my nephews’ friends who have been at boarding schools for a large portion of their middle and/or high school career, and even more interesting to hear the perspective of these kids’ parents.

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Can we be virtually real?

Our family is spending the Christmas and New Year holidays in east Asia this year. One of my older brothers and his family live in Singapore and we not seen them in over two years. Given how often they come to the US, it seemed a good time to make the trip over. As it turns out, our trip has been a four for one deal.

We flew through LA to spend some time with another brother and his family. We arrived in Singapore to find that one of my cousins and her husband are doing a biking tour of Vietnam and that we are overlapping with them for a few days. And yet another cousin who lives in Australia is heading over to India for a work event and routed herself through Singapore to see us when she learned we were in the area/region.

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Do as We Say, Not as We Do

There is a fascinating trend in policy these days that is related to the “decision-based evidence making” that I wrote about a few months ago.  It appears that Texas, the state where standardized testing beatification began in the late 1980s (thanks to Ross Perot), reversed course.  

For better or worse, however, the “Texas miracle” led many other states, advocacy organizations and the federal government to make standardized tests the lynchpin of education reform efforts, most notable No Child Left Behind and other “accountability” systems at the state level.

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High school that works for all students

I just got back from a series of school visits for my book research. It is always re-invigorating to get back into schools, and these visits were particularly interesting because they were to schools that have instructional approaches which are fairly new to me. I was particularly struck by my visit to the MET Schools in Providence, RI, schools which approach learning in a very different way than traditional secondary schools.

The underlying philosophy is that human beings are situational learners, namely, that we learn things best when we learn them in the context in which we need to know them. Certainly, this makes sense. Young children learn by doing, and they learn to do whatever they need to do at any given moment in order to explore, navigate and master the environment they are in. If a child lives in a community where people speak only Mandarin, he learns Mandarin.

If she is in a household of people who are deaf-mute, she will learn to communicate in sign language. If children are provided with environments that require them to climb, read, weave baskets, ride bicycles, milk cows, or forage for food, they will learn these skills. This is how human beings have always learned.

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The real insanity of reform

I was excited when I opened the Denver Post op-ed page last week. There was an op-ed written by William Moloney, former Colorado Commissioner of Education, that was titled “Standards and assessments: Education reform’s bridge to nowhere.”

Sigmund Freud’s classic definition of insanity — doing the same thing over and over yet always expecting different results — seems not to have registered with American education reformers who endlessly propose look-alike standards and assessments they claim will really, really work this time.

So far, so good. American attempts at improving education since the early 1900s have centered on setting up content standards, assessing students on the amount of information they have retained, and rewarding teachers based on how well students perform. Yet, there appears to be a general consensus that we are not where we want to be. Our latest response is the current educational reform environment where Common Core State Standards and the aligned standardized PARCC assessments are experiencing a wave of opposition nationwide from parents, students, educators and a politically-diverse range of interest and advocacy groups. The response?

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Business and education

I was at the annual meeting of a local Chamber of Commerce last week and couldn’t help but be struck by the simplistic way in which business leaders talk about education reform. I am frustrated by the double standard adopted by the business community when it comes to shaping and, in many cases, driving education reform efforts.

Business leaders are vocal in opposing increased regulations on business generally and on all manner of specific industries. They argue that politicians and bureaucrats do not understand the complexities of business; that regulations create hurdles and uncertainties that stymie innovation and growth; and that the money used to comply with regulations could be better spent on core business enterprise.

Yet, when it comes to education, we see three growing trends among business advocates:

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Reformers as parents: the early years

I have to admit being wryly amused these days after conversations with colleagues who have been on the “reform” side of education policy conversations over the last four years. The reason? Many of them are now parents whose children are getting ready to enter preschool or kindergarten. People whose day jobs often entail wholesale advocacy of higher standards and accountability for schools, students and educators seem to forget these issues during conversations about the programs they are considering for their own children. A recent exchange at a social event is reflective of this general trend:

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What college prep charters can do

College prep charter school models like KIPP began as middle schools. The idea was to catch kids before they went to high school and to ensure that they were brought up to levels of proficiency in basic math and literacy. In other words, these schools focused on academic remediation. The fastest way to achieve this goal was to have teachers deliver a lot of content quickly and efficiently.

Not surprisingly, schools developed highly prescribed and scripted curricula, and focused on behavior management and routines that ensured teachers used time efficiently and all students covered the same materials. The push to expand these models was facilitated by an influx of enthusiastic but generally untrained college graduates into urban classrooms through Teach for America (TFA). A highly scripted curriculum allowed TFA Corps members to teach because it reduced the need for planning lessons and facilitating student-directed learning experiences.

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Separate but equal? (redux)

My 7-year old son just started at the Rocky Mountain School of Expeditionary Learning (RMSEL) in Denver this fall.  It is, as the name indicates, an expeditionary learning (EL) school model that is been recognized as one of the top-performing schools in the state.  One reason so many families enter the competitive lottery is the whole-child approach to education that the school takes.  RMSEL students explore a rigorous academic curriculum through a project-based instructional model.  This is combined with a strong Outward Bound focus on leadership and character development.  Parents and older students speak appreciatively about ways in which the small school environment allows for individualized learning and the development of authentic relationships between all members of the school community.

It was against the backdrop of this school environment that I found myself in a discussion about school choice in Denver with Tasha, the African-American mother of my son’s new classmate, who works at a local detention center.  I mentioned wanting to explore the social justice issues involved in the current push to replicate college prep charter school models within areas of the city with concentrations of poor and minority students.  (My use of college prep in this blog refers to what some also call high-performing charter school models including KIPP, STRIVE and a handful of others here in Denver; and networks such as KIPP, Aspire and YES Prep nationally).  Tasha’s voice got a little higher as she mentioned one local school she had visited which had been highlighted by DPS as a strong college preparatory model for students through the 5th grade.

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Evidence-based decision-making; or decision-based evidence-making?

I was interviewing a school network leader when we began talking about a funder he had met recently. He was asking the funder to invest in the school model’s expansion and had been turned down, not because the school was not getting good results, but because the funder said he did not believe there was enough of a research base to support the model itself.  During that conversation he used the phrase “decision-based evidence-making.” I loved it.

I was trained in social science research.  I am familiar with the range of research that exists in the educational space.  I know that education research is often disregarded because it is seen as less rigorous than what people perceive to be the gold standard of randomized, controlled studies in science.

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