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.
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?
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
When I started kindergarten in the early 1980s, the “face” of the average teacher was Caucasian, female and in her mid-50s. When I walk into my old schools today, the faces that fill the classrooms remain consistently female (with some exceptions) and Caucasian, but they undeniably skew towards young individuals. While there is nothing to indicate that age is correlated with teacher quality, there is significance to the demographic change we see.
The teachers I grew up with were on the tail end of several generations of teachers who entered the teaching profession when the career options of college-educated women and most minorities were largely limited to nursing, secretarial work and teaching. As Marc Tucker noted in Standing on the Shoulders of Giants, “There is reason to believe that the problem with the American teaching force is not that it has long been of low quality and must now be raised, but rather…the American public reaped the twin blessings of a highly capable teaching force willing to work for below-market wages under poor working conditions. Those who accepted that deal are now leaving the classroom in droves.”
I wrote this piece as an op-ed but got feedback that it is too vague and doesn’t have a clear policy change articulated. But I still like it, and it felt like the right tone with which to kick off this site. Welcome to The Third Rail Blog!
It is that time of year when those of us tapped into the world of schools and education feel the frenzy and mixed emotions that herald the start of a new school year. Harassed parents (like me) finish back to school shopping. Students enjoy the last days of summer before homework, afterschool activities and the social dynamics of school engulf them. School leaders and teachers prepare for new content, new tests, new demands and new opportunities. It is that time of year when we would ideally pause and focus intentionally on what should be at the center of the upcoming academic year: the joys, the challenges and the excitement of learning.