iPads and Teachers: a Response (Matt Chandler)

Matt Chandler is CEO of 4.0 Schools. He responded to Peg Tyre’s post in Bright, April 6, 2015. I offer my thoughts on the Tyre post and Chandler’s response below.

I loved reading Peg’s piece, especially her take on effective personalized learning at Bricolage Academy — a school I’ve watched grow from an idea in Josh Densen’s head to a thriving community fulfilling many of its promises.

While I agree with Peg’s frustrations about personalized and blended learning overall, her focus on myth-busting stops short of explaining how innovative schools like Bricolage actually get the way they are. Valuing teachers is important, but there’s much more to effective innovation than that.

In particular, I think what makes Bricolage and other innovative communities so disruptive is a focus on mindset before resources.

Here are three techniques great innovators use to create communities like Bricolage — techniques that will make your use of personalized and blended learning better tomorrow. For way less than the $1.3B that Los Angeles spent on iPads.

Good innovators start cheap and iterate.

As we’ve seen in manufacturing, software, and even the restaurant business, waterfall methods (spend tons of time and money to plan the perfect solution, then push it over the waterfall) are losing ground to agile development (start small, iterate quickly based on lots of smaller tests) in schools like Bricolage.

This simple reordering — mindset first, resources second — allows members of innovative communities to make tectonic shifts in traditional approaches by making lots and lots of little bets instead of massive $1.3B gambles that inevitably prove unfulfilling.

This is where I wish Peg dug in more in her explanation of Bricolage culture. It’s not the lack of bells and whistles that makes Bricolage special. What makes Bricolage special is investing in a mindset of creative confidence before picking the bells and whistles.

Look at the tools Diana Turner’s using: homemade YouTube videos (free), cell phone or tablet cameras (probably free) and Google Docs (free). Look at how she’s using them; they make her so human, so real. And she’s modeling for kids how to solve their own challenges in a more creative, efficient way.

This focus on making things seeps into everything at Bricolage. You won’t see many bake sales or book fairs at the school; rather, you’re more likely to get an invite to New Orleans Mini Maker Faire.

Good innovators listen to their users.

Starting cheap and iterating only works if you adjust to user feedback in between each iteration.

Before Josh Densen wrote the application to start his charter school, he started doing “pop-up classrooms” at music festivals around town. He’d cleverly set up his table close enough to the blow-up bounce house that all music festival organizers worth their salt set up — so close that you almost wondered if he was the guy who’d paid for it. He had no brochures, no propaganda. He’d just stand there next to his own kids as they played with some really cool new learning tools he wanted to test. Families would wander in to the festival and do a double take. There Josh would be, smiling, ready to talk with parents about school — what they liked, what they didn’t, what they dreamed of in a school.

A diverse mix of families started showing up at the pop-ups, and Josh felt it was time to test his ideas at a deeper level. He struck a deal with Samuel Green Charter School: he would to show up at the school a few times with some of the pop-up kids, and have them join Green kids in a test run of his design thinking class.

The best entrepreneurs do this consistently; they make high frequency attempts at new solutions — each repeated attempt an improvement based on what they learned from users.

Good innovators steal.

Josh stole his early-stage pop-up ideas from food truck operators. There was a big fight going on at the time between old-line New Orleans restaurants and a bunch of cooks working out of food trucks serving more diverse food. We talked about this fight at 4.0 Schools, where I serve as CEO; one of our teammates, Cambria Martinelli, worked with the food truck coalition on the side.

Steven Johnson, in Where Good Ideas Come From, explains how common this stealing — what he calls “exaptation” — is among innovators. Exaptation occurs when someone crosses the membrane between one domain and another, extracts something that’s serving one purpose there, and then adapts it in the original domain for a different purpose. Josh’s application of the food truck concept in schooling is a great example.

We could use more of this in schooling. Teachers — even the good ones Peg raves about — are often too out of touch with the world around them. In a 2012 study, McKinsey found that only 45% of kids and 42% of employers thought schools were doing a good job preparing students for the world of work. Meanwhile back in our schools, when teachers were asked the same question, 72% said they were doing great.

We’ve created a profession that’s entirely too isolated from the world around it. Shoving tools — hardware or software — into that world won’t do nearly as much as changing the mindsets of the people doing their level best to serve kids within it.

My latest exaptation candidate is twitch.tv. Twitch.tv lets experts in World of Warcraft (or any other game) teach others how to play, hack, and win. Seth Stevenson explained the learning that’s actually happening: “Well, those viewers are finding a community of like-minded souls, they’re engaging over a shared interest, and they’re getting tips from superior gamers on how to win at the games.”

On Twitch, I see more than the 24% engagement Peg mentions as the state of ed-tech today. These platforms aren’t perfect, but I’m inspired by the engagement and curious about how we could exapt this kind of platform into schooling. What if a group of kids tried a low-tech version of twitch.tv for an hour in their own classrooms? How fast could we build on those little experiments to truly rethink engagement? What role would the teacher have in that scenario? What could happen if we really mixed what we know about teaching with examples from completely unexpected places?

Peg got this dialogue going with some myths that deserve busting. But we shouldn’t stop there. We can start making personalized learning better right now. We can start by making many more, much smaller bets. This is better for our kids and for our collective wallet. And we should start listening to our users — students, families, and yes, teachers. Doing so will lead to innovation that’s much more fulfilling. I promise.

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After reading both Tyre and Chandler, I had these thoughts.  First, Chandler deals with what “ought to be”about innovation and technology in public schools while Tyre deals with “what is” when it comes to technology-assisted personalized instruction (a.k.a. blended learning).  The difference between having a dream of a better future and getting through the day well in an urban school is the difference between wearing rose-colored glasses and seeing the world as it is.  Nothing wrong about dreaming–it can be a beginning point to a finer world–but unanchored in the daily (and gritty) realities of school life, Chandler’s “should” becomes seriously detached from any workable strategy of urban school improvement.

Second, Tyre’s focus is on the centrality of a knowledgeable and skilled teacher who understands when and how to use available technologies. Chandler’s focus mentions teachers, of course, but unrelentingly directs the reader’s attention to innovation and what’s in the heads of those innovators–their “mindset.” No word about the conditions on the ground, the context in which school and classroom innovations are birthed and nurtured.Not a syllable mentioned about the abundance of inexperienced teachers visited upon urban children and youth.

Third, Chandler’s takes the one example of Josh Densen, founder of the New Orleans Parish charter called Bricolage, and shows how Schools 4.0, an organization Chandler founded, helped incubate the charter to where it is now. Bricolage opened two years ago and now has 150 students in kindergarten and first grade. It is a fine, worthy example. But Bricolage or similar instances of schools cannot do the serious cooking in the kitchen necessary to understand deeply the work facing teachers seeking to improve urban schooling. Tyre’s analysis of myths points to a stronger meat-and-potatoes (or vegan) technology-enhanced diet that can improve urban schools. Chandler’s offers bytes of cotton candy.

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iPads and Teachers: Why Technology-assisted Learning Will Never, on Its Own, Solve Our Education Crisis (Peg Tyre)

Peg Tyre is a journalist. This article appeared in Bright, April 6, 2015.

At the Carpe Diem-Meridian School in Indianapolis, row after row of students are wearing headphones and staring into computer screens. Although they look like employees at a call center, they are actually fifteen-year-olds tackling algebra concepts. Their lessons were delivered earlier in the day by a software program offered by Edgenuity and reinforced by an instructor. Now the students are working through problems on their monitors, to show they have mastered it. Their results will be quickly fed back to their instructors, who will use it to shape the next day’s instruction.

Two students finish quickly and check the overhead monitor for their next task. Others are sweating through sophisticated problems. A few, who are struggling with the material, are working on problems that a software algorithm has determined are simpler but will help build the foundational skills they need. And, as in any classroom, some students are using ancient technology that has become less central at Carpe Diem schools — a notepad and a pen — to make abstract doodles.

Improvements in public education, we are told, are going to be accelerated, disrupted, and finally transformed by technology-assisted personalized learning (also known as blended learning). For the first time in the history of schooling, kids can interact with their teachers through personal computers or iPads. With adaptive assessment, continuous feedback will create a constantly changing portrait of what kids know, allowing algorithms to recalibrate lessons to fit students’ needs.

The promise is this: all children, particularly those in isolated rural communities and those in chaotic schools with inexperienced teachers, will be able to get the kind of education that was once reserved for the elite.

Technology will create private tutors that are masters of their subjects. But unlike human teachers — who are expensive and time-consuming to train, have variable levels of talent, and leave the profession in droves — the electronic versions will be cheap, top-notch from the very start, easily updatable, and available 24/7.

In theory, it should work. Kurt VanLehn, a researcher at Arizona State University, conducted a meta-analysis of more than 80 studies of “intelligent,” computer-based tutoring systems — ones used to teach physics to college students, physics, or medical students about cardiovascular physiology — and found that the best of these systems can nearly match the performance of human tutors.

Schools like KIPP Empower, Carpe Diem, and Rocketship, along with sites like Khan Academy, show anecdotal evidence that given the right circumstances, blended learning works. Enticed by incentives from the federal government and deep-pocketed philanthropy, superintendents all over the country, from Tulsa to Ann Arbor, are recasting budgets and issuing bonds in order to invest in the hardware needed to bring blended learning to their struggling districts.

Blended learning models, which were pioneered for corporations and the military, have been around since the 1990s. The rush to add blending learning in classrooms, though, began in earnest about a dozen years ago. Thus far, however, solid research on the effects of K-12 blended-learning is thin. Smaller studies, most often conducted with older students, suggest that blended-learning can produce a modestly positive effect on learning — although researchers warn the uptick is just as likely to be a product of extended learning time and focus, rather than any alchemy of teaching and technology. It seems to work best when students are learning math, which relies in part on students learning, practicing, and applying procedural knowledge.

Still, everyone wants the magic bullet that will help all kids — especially poor kids — learn more with less.

There have been some high profile setbacks. In Los Angeles, the $1.3 billion effort to give iPads to 650,000 public schools students went up in flames. The software was incomplete, and many students used the tablets to play Candy Crush rather than watch historic presidential speeches. Within a few months, the superintendent was out of a job and the entire initiative was under investigation by the FBI. Across the country, the school district in Guilford County, North Carolina, once held up as a model early adopter, struggled and hit the reset button on their program, too.

To be sure, schools are successfully using education technology for targeted tasks, like streamlining parent-teacher communication, collecting homework, disseminating grades, filing permission slips, and letting teachers share lesson plans. But efficient, low-cost, sustainable blended learning in the classroom is turning out to be hard to do right. And in many cases, it is freighted with hidden costs: replacing broken hardware, updating software, retro-fitting old buildings for WiFi, and providing adequate training to new teachers.

These days, it’s common to find schools obtaining impressive student gains with technology-assisted learning — but it may be equally common to find schools where it was announced with great fanfare but died a quick, quiet death. Those classrooms are now littered with racks of unused iPads and broken Chromebooks.

Teaching kids, especially those who lag behind, is hard. It requires focus, energy, deep knowledge and resources. Technology changes the equation — but perhaps not as dramatically as blended learning evangelists want us to believe.

Here are four observations that ground the conversation about personalized learning in the messy realities of educating young people — and especially our vulnerable learners.

1. There is no magic device that helps kids learn more.

When you hear about some grand new initiative to give every student an iPad or smartphone, be very skeptical. No single piece of technology has yet to change the basic nature of teaching and learning. Radio, television, CDs, Smartboards, and personal computers were all hailed as transformative educational innovations in their day. They were not. iPads won’t be either. There is a big difference between finding new ways to deliver information and true educational innovation, which a far more complicated endeavor. Yes, an iPad can make an endless supply of images, books and instructional videos available to students any time, anywhere. But learning is about engaging with that material in deep, essentials ways that help build, extend and ultimately create new knowledge. It takes more than swiping.

2. For the most part, education software is worse than you think.

Teaching may look easy, but great teaching is complicated.

Master teachers are something like NBA stars; they have a seemingly endless supply of tiny, almost gestural moves that can have a big impact on a kid’s cognition. They make split-second choices about how to introduce new ideas, speak in a way that resonates, order concepts for maximum comprehension, and reinforce ideas and skills. Those choices depend on the teacher’s reading of the subtleties of a specific situation.

Technology-assisted personalized learning has come a long way, but it’s hard to get software to replicate what teachers do. And too often, it ends up being a simple lesson and an electronic worksheet buried among some zippy graphics.

Getting it right will require continual investment on the part of many software designers. What’s the holdup? It’s not clear what the financial incentive will be. Great teachers aren’t likely to buy into the vision of any single ed tech company. They want to integrate ideas — likely from several sources, designers, and companies — into their own creative processes. Schools that are trying to move from terrible to so-so might grab hold of a one-size-fits-all software package. But until education entrepreneurs develop easy-to-use, software than can be splintered in many different ways, great teachers won’t use it and the promise of technology-assisted personalized learning will be unfulfilled. “It’s like the printing press has been invented,” said one teacher in New Orleans wistfully. “But the great books have not yet been written.”

3. Tech-assisted personalized learning is not going to be the answer for every kid.

For those in the education reform community, making a visit to a Carpe Diem schools is like the hajj. You are strongly advised to do it once. And for good reason. Carpe Diem schools, which exist in Arizona, Indianapolis, Ohio, and soon Texas, look and run differently than the high school you probably attended: no gym, no lockers, no pep rally. Instead, Carpe Diem instruction is delivered through computers and supplemented by face-to-face instruction. Their tasks are directed by overhead airport-style monitors. There are no ringing bells to mark the end of class. Students advance at their own pace.

Since adapting the blended-learning model in 2006, results at the first Carpe Diem school in Yuma, Arizona have been strong. The sixth graders there were first in the state in math in 2010. Other Carpe Diem schools have boasted similar results. The per-pupil cost is lower than at traditional public schools, too.

Carpe Diem schools are not for every kid, though. Founder Rick Ogston cracked that he opened Carpe Diem to provide kids with a great education — but many of the initial applicants had exactly the opposite idea in mind. “They took one look at the computers, the lack of supervision and oversight, and thought it would be good way to avoid getting a great education,” he said. “And that’s what we have to watch out for.” He’s joking, of course, but there’s a grain of truth there.

Indeed, in a recent survey by the education tech company TES Global, only twenty-four percent of 1,000 U.S. teachers who used their products agreed that technology “improves student engagement.”

In other words, three-quarters of teachers using educational technology — remember, these are not Luddites but teachers that are already logging in — believe it has no effect, or worse, is a distraction.

4. Technology-assisted personalized learning is not going to get rid of a central problem in American schooling: We are not training and retaining nearly enough great teachers.

Everyone wants a plug-and-play school, with cheap, portable, high-quality lessons originated by a single instructor and delivered to thousands of students. It’s a vision — think Khan Academy on steroids — that promises to resolve what has become a seemingly intractable problem in American public education: we aren’t producing that many great teachers. One charter network in Ohio is experimenting with robot teachers — four foot plastic towers topped with a video image of the (off-site) teacher’s face.

Up close, technology-assisted personalized learning doesn’t seem to reduce the need for great teachers; in fact, the most successful programs seem to rely on them. In the Bricolage Academy, a charter school in a middle-class neighborhood in New Orleans, first grade teacher Diana Turner uses technology to amplify what she does best: explain and reinforce complex mathematical concepts so that six-year-olds can grasp and retain it. She then provides the children with opportunities to use that knowledge in a variety of different ways.

It looks like this. First, Turner gives her full class a high-energy lesson on how to add two digit numbers in their heads. “What does 54 plus 24 equal, Ce’ Leb?” she asks. Ce’ Leb knits his brow. She waits for the answer. “88,” he says finally. “Why do you think that?” she asks. While explaining how he broke the numbers down into tens and ones, he realizes his mistake and amends his answer.

By her students’ facial expressions and body language, Turner can tell which kids are getting it (most) and which kids aren’t (four kids in particular seem a little foggy on the whole idea.) She puts the bulk of her class to work on a simple pencil-and-paper worksheet and quickly reteaches the concept to two of the laggards.

After a few minutes, she reformulates her class again. A group of eight kids begin representing a list of two-digit numbers by counting beans into tens and ones cups, giving them a physical sense of place value. Five others grab chunky plastic covered iPads, don headphones, and listen to Turner via some homemade videos she posted to YouTube. In the videos, she is coaching her students to add two digit numbers on a dry erase board, photograph their results, and send it to her Google Docs account. With fourteen of her students learning with iPads and YouTube or Dixie Cups and dried beans, Turner is free to give a quick private lesson to two students who need it re-explained.

Bricologe principal Josh Densen believes blended learning is great “because it allows us to enhance the teacher’s effect. But it only works so well because we have a great teacher who is running it.”

Can technology-assisted personalized learning work with sub-standard teachers or teachers who work remotely and never meet their students at all? “I’ve seen schools try that,” said Densen, with a shrug. “It’s not something we think is viable.”

School staffing is notoriously unstable. Superintendents come and go, principals are increasingly on the move, and most teachers leave the profession in five years. What happens when superstar teachers like Turner move on?

Densen’s formula is to make sure technology enhances but doesn’t replace the relationship between teacher and student, which from his perspective, “needs to be at the center of every kid’s learning experience.” And that means investing in technology for the classroom but also investing in coaching to help Bricolage teachers grow.

Finding and growing great teachers is devilishly hard. Retaining them is very expensive. Without them, though, technology-assisted personalized learning is just not a way to do more with less. Rather, it is a way to deliver less with less. And that would be a promise unfilled.

Part 2 of this guest post will be a response to this post from Matt Chandler, CEO of 4.0 Schools.

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Charter Schools, Politics, and Democracy (Part 3)

Yes, publicly-funded charter schools in the U.S. are here to stay. More than 6,400 exist in the U.S. with most located in big cities (there are 100,000 regular schools). Charters enroll over 2.5 million students (over 50 million attend U.S. public schools). No, charter schools will not become the majority anytime soon. But they will be an important albeit small fraction of U.S. schools in 2050.

The “charter wars” over whether they are efforts to “privatize” public schools or whether charters are more effective than regular public schools or whether they are really “public” will continue to be fought by pundits, politicians, and warring factions but they will be skirmishes that won’t even deserve a footnote in the next generation’s doctoral dissertations. For better or worse–I believe better–the political invention of charter schools a quarter-century ago has been one of the legacies left by market-based school reforms, a movement dating back to the early 1980s. Largely located in urban districts, charters have offered hope to highly motivated parents trapped by poverty and circumstance that their children can escape the ravages of imposed economic inequality. The next generation of publicly-funded charters extending into the middle of the 21st century will be better monitored than they are now but, as before, will be largely found in urban districts unless major changes in the socioeconomic structures of the U.S occur to rid cities of residential segregation and severe economic inequalities.  Minority parents in 2050 will continue to be stuck and publicly-funded charters will, as they do now, offer a rung to grab climbing the ladder out of poverty .

Why am I so sure about charters being around mid-21th century?

Because the history of public schools in the U.S. has been a gradual stretching of the word “public” when it comes to schooling the young. Few remember or consult the history of U.S. education to note that nearly all schooling in the 18th and early 19th centuries was private. There were a handful, at best, of tax-supported public schools. Sure, the Puritans in New England mandated that communities with at least 50 families had to establish a school funded by property holders. Few were established, however. Those parents who wanted their children to read the bible, compute numbers, and write had to pay tuition to send their children to private academies and “dame” schools. For the urban poor in early 19th century cities like New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, philanthropists organized “charity” schools where young children could learn to read, write, and do arithmetic. Still, most children went unschooled.

The mid-19th century  “common school” movement established tax-supported public schools for children (none, however, for slaves or free “colored” of those times) across the Northeast and Midwest. Taxes went to school the young, both male and female, to make them literate and law-abiding adults who would contribute to their communities and the nation. Reformers of that generation saw public schools as the “balance wheel of the social machinery” and making democratic citizens. They were political institutions.

After the Civil War, the idea of tuition-free public schools was stretched again to include ex-slaves. The establishment of tax-supported public schools, legally segregated by skin color, lasted until the late-20th century. Then the idea of “public” stretched to include other minority children and youth previously relegated to segregated schools or who went unschooled such as children and youth with disabilities.

Private schools–those earlier academies–run by religious and non-religious groups, of course, continued over two centuries expanding and contracting as time passed. The success of tax-supported public schools can be seen in the 90 percent of U.S. children attending those schools (2011). But as any reader knows, the quality of those public schools vary tremendously, especially across and within urban, suburban, exurban, and rural districts.

Toward the end of the 20th century, another stretching of the meaning of “public” occurred, again, aimed at mostly under-served urban minority children in the nation. Alternative schools (magnets, “open” and “free” schools proliferated from desegregation and challenges to the K-12 structures), began in the 1960s and spread. An in the early 1990s, publicly-funded chartered schools opened in Minnesota, one of the first being City Academy High School in St. Paul where three teachers welcomed 25 high school dropouts. Since then more charter schools have spread across the country, mostly in cities. Charters are now 6 percent of all public schools (24 percent of the nation’s schools are private).

Looking through the telescope rather than the microscope permits me to take the long view when it comes to publicly-funded charter schools. I see 2015 as part of another stretching of the term public to include charter schools. And that is why I believe charter schools are here to stay.

 

 

 

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Charter Schools, Politics, and Democracy (Part 2)

Deborah Meier offered her views on the purposes of publicly-funded charter schools in Part 1. Part 2 offers views of others who have supported and opposed charters over the past decade. Before offering their views, however, I would like to frame the overall back-and-forth on charters historically–a debate that has been ongoing since their origin in Minnesota in 1991 but stretches back to the beginnings of compulsory, tax-supported public schooling.

1. Compulsory, tax-supported public schools are political inventions. They have been established to achieve political, social, and economic purposes. Publicly funded charter schools are the most recent incarnation of this fact. Current political debate contests the different purposes of schooling in a democracy. So in Part 1 Deborah Meier says: make all public education less selective, less tracked, and more consciously democratic. That is a political purpose for public schools. The political split among charter supporters and opponents, many of the former pushing an economic, marketplace-driven purpose for schooling and some of the latter a democratic, civic engagement one, tries to elevate one historic purpose of public schooling over another. Politically contesting the purposes of compulsory public schools is neither new nor transient: it is constant.

2. Charter schools are here to stay. After every reform movement in the history of U.S. public schools, some reforms have disappeared (e.g., the Platoon School and the Dalton Plan) and some have stuck (e.g., age-graded schools, kindergarten, standardized tests and accountability). Charter schools will stick. In expanding parental choice, publicly-funded charter schools have found a niche (currently six percent of all public schools) in urban districts. As long as there are urban and suburban schools that fail their students (as measured by test scores, graduation rates, well-being of students, etc.), charter schools will flourish.

3. Variation among charter schools in quality–however measured–is similar to variation in regular public schools. Whether the yardstick is test scores, graduation rate, college attendance (all three, or add one of your choice), there are high performing, middle range, and low-performing charters and conventional public schools. Percentages may go up or down but the variation remains constant in each realm.

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I use these statements to frame the initial post by Joe Nathan on March 26, 2015, part of Deborah Meier’s response (Part 1) and then other comments that were posted to a threaded discussion by a group of Meier’s colleagues. First, Joe Nathan.

Deb, we’ve agreed to discuss what I call “chartering” and the “charter public school movement” represents. Here’s what I see, both good and bad.  As Ted Kolderie, one of the founders of chartering explained, it’s a “simple yet radical idea: allowing enterprising people — including teachers and other educators — to start innovative public schools.” I’d add that chartering permits people to create new public schools within some limits. The schools must be non-sectarian,  open to all, no admissions tests permitted, and required to have a contract (also known as a charter) specifying results to be achieved over a set period. In exchange for explicit expectation for results, charters receive waivers from many state requirements. Charters are required to use buildings that meet state requirements, take state assessments, and follow federal laws.

Thus, chartering does not represent any single curriculum, instructional approach, or philosophy about the best way to organize learning and teaching. There’s no “typical” chartered school.

Charter laws vary, but these expectations are included in the model state law that some of us developed, and which has been refined by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

At best chartering provides:

1. Opportunities to help youngsters like Pierre and Alia. These were high school students who had not succeeded in traditional high schools.  They blossomed at High School for Recording Arts, a terrific charter in St. Paul that St. Paul that helps youngsters use their love of music to create videos, as develop stronger academic and social skills. This school doesn’t have a terrific four-year graduation rate or high test scores.  But it has helped hundreds of previously unsuccessful youngsters “find themselves,” graduate and enter some form of further education or work. 

The same is happening in many charters.  I’ve charter all over the nation, such as Grizzly Prep in Memphis and Codman Academy in Boston.  Both are great inner city schools promoting character development, arts and academic excellence. Among many other examples are the Yes Prep group of schools in Houston.  This is a group of junior/senior high school charters with many youngsters who report they are doing far better than they did before. Yes Prep also has encouraging statistics about the percentage of their students from  (mostly) low income families who are continuing and graduating from some form of higher education.

I’d say the same for several of the KIPP schools that I’ve visited. In many, art and music are strong promoted, along with strong academics and a belief that young people can succeed.

2. Opportunities to create professional opportunities for educators.  For example, Minnesota New Country School,  and EdVisions. This group developed to support MNCS and more than 30 other schools, are great examples. (Full disclosure – EdVisions serves as our fiscal agent). At Minnesota New Country and other “teacher led” or “teacher powered” schools that MNCS has helped develop, teachers are a majority of the board that runs the school. They set their salaries, hours and working conditions. A poll last year found that a majority of teachers would like the opportunity to work in such a school.  There are other examples of conversions from district to a chartered school.   For example, Yvonne Chan and Vaughn Next Century Learning Center converted from a Los Angeles United district school. Educators were able to obtain equipment and supplies much more quickly and sometimes less expensively by negotiating directly with companies, rather than through the complex district process.

3. A new environment in which sometimes districts respond to chartering by providing e new opportunities to their own educators. For example:

* Boston (District) Pilot schools, initially suggested by the Boston Teachers Union and rejected by the local school board. But when Massachusetts’ legislature adopted a charter law, the local board reconsidered and approved the Pilot idea. The Center for Collaborative Education
has done a wonderful job documenting what’s happened with Pilots.

* A Minnesota law suggested by teacher unions allowing them to create new district options. We’re currently working with unions to obtain startup funds.

* Traditional districts that asked their educators to create, for example, Montessori or Core Knowledge options after parents proposed them, were rejected and discussed creating charters.

4. Interest in broadening how student growth is assessed.  Some charters use, for example, portfolios, performance and other, broader approaches along with state tests. This is in part because they have contracts for performance and are expected to show progress with students. Responsibility for results beyond anecdotes helped produce a recent report on how to assess “alternative” public schools. Another is the effort to assess persistence and goal setting, called the “Hope Survey.” 

5. Support for two deep, important beliefs:  First, that a wide variety of youngsters, regardless of background, can do better. I think this is one of the reasons chartering has grown so far in the last

twenty years. It’s not a belief that schools can solve all of society’s problems.  But it’s a belief that we can do better. Second, a belief that educators should have opportunities, within some limits, to create the kinds of schools they think make sense. Teachers legitimately complain that they are being held accountable for results but often are not given opportunities to organize schools as they think the schools should operate.

6. Alternatives in rural communities to school consolidation. Some of the finest charters are in small, rural communities which were threatened with, and in some cases, had their local school(s) closed by school boards that bought into the “bigger is better” or “bigger is less expensive” ideas. Often, neither is true.

Those are good things. Now here are a few of the things that concern me:

1. Failure to skillfully, successfully monitor how some charters operate.  You’re familiar with scandals involving charters.  Some people have exploited opportunities. This happens in some traditional schools and teacher unions too.  But it is infuriating, wherever it happens.  We are learning more about how to monitor schools.  But there have been scandals and unacceptable exploitation of opportunities that chartering provides.  

2. Abuse of freedom to sometimes make huge profits and pay unseemly salaries.

3. Some over-reliance on traditional standardized measures.   You and I have agreed on the importance of multiple measures.  Some involved with chartering agree.  Others promote their schools primarily on the basis of test scores and/or graduation rates.

4. Unwillingness in some cases to work creatively with students with special needs.  Again, I see this in the district sector as well, with creation of district or regional magnet schools with admissions tests that exclude many youngsters with special needs.  Public schools, district or chartered, should be open to all.

5. Unwillingness, sometimes, to learn from some district school successes, and previous efforts to improve schools.  There are some great district schools and educators.  We all need to respect and learn from them.  So a big “shout out” to Educators for Excellence-Minnesota.  They regularly convene district and charter educators to learn from eachother.

6. Unwillingness by some charters to share information about public funds are spent. Most state laws requre yearly financial audits, made available to the public. But some schools resist providing information about how they are spending public funds.

These are not my only concerns. But any fair assessment of chartering ought to acknowledge strengths and shortcomings.

My apologies, as I’ve gone on too long. But you asked important questions.  So I wanted to try to give comprehensive answers. 

On balance, I think chartering is a lot like America.  Freedom provides great opportunities for creativity, innovation and progress.  However, among our biggest challenges are to maximize constructive use of freedom, and minimize abuse. 

Joe Nathan has been an urban public school teacher, administrator, PTA president, researcher, and advocate. He directs the St. Paul, Minn.-based Center for School Change, which works at the school, community, and policy levels to help improve public schools

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Next is Joseph “Jay” Featherstone, professor emeritus of teacher education at Michigan State University. He was for years faculty co-leader of one team in the MSU teacher certification program. He is the author of Dear Josie, Witnessing the Hopes and Failures of Democratic Education (TC Press, 2003), and co-editor with others of  Transforming Teacher Education, Reflections from the Field (Harvard Education Press, 2007). This appeared April 6, 2015 in response to Joe Nathan’s post and Deborah Meier subsequent email.

I’m a critic and  opponent of the national charter movement,  but I also worked for three years to start a k-8 arts oriented charter serving a population that included special needs and free lunch kids  in Mass.     I know  there are outstanding charter schools serving what I think of as genuinely public functions (teaching poor kids,  special needs kids, experimenting in curriculum and other useful and promising ways),  but I am also dismayed by the growth and power of a charter movement nationally that is  privatizing,  anti-union, anti-public school, promoting further segregation, and so on.   The real damage from  charters  to public education places like Philadelphia is evident.  I also know there are some states where charters are carefully regulated (Mass, where I live, is one) and other states where charters have been tossed out like candy bars  to for-profits, religious schools, and anyone else,  with a complete disregard for competence, honesty, or any public purposes. (Michigan, where I ran a school-based teacher education program at MSU is a sad example of the latter.)  I also see that the charter movement nationally fits in all too well with the resurgence of right-wing, privatizing anti-government, anti-public education  politics in extreme form. I don’t think we can ignore the way that charters have become integral to the more general campaign on the part of wealthy and powerful interests to roll back government and public services in politics more generally.  Republican governors around the country have a list that invariably includes expanding charters at the expense of regular schools, and is invariably a version of teacher-bashing—and invariably has the same list of big donors. 

            One way to begin a dialogue within the charter movement and maybe with educators more broadly would be to revisit the role of charters and try to get clear about who deserves to get a charter from the state.  I go back to Al Shanker and Ted Sizer who proposed a vision of charters that would fulfill public purposes in two ways:

 1. Serve populations not now well served by the district public schools, and or

 2. Experiment in some way that might further open thought and possibilities in education and practice,  e.g. curriculum or educational design.  

By these two public standards, many current charters would flunk, I believe.

Next is Diane Ravitch:

I agree with Jay Featherstone. 

 Charters have something to contribute if: 

 1) They stop boasting about test scores

2) They take the kids with the greatest needs

3) They collaborate with Public Schools instead of competing

4) They were not allowed to push out kids who have low scores

5) For-profit charters were banned

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The language and emotion contained within these excerpts do show clearly the political conflict over the purposes of compulsory, tax-supported public schools in a democracy. Charter schools has been a top-of-the-agenda item on Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama’s list of things to do in education. Moreover, the charter  school political coalition includes Republican governors, the Walton Foundation and other donors, U.S. Business Roundtable and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. And I did not even include the American Federation of Teachers or National Education Association as longtime opponents. Those contending coalitions only underscore the current political contest over charters.

Some supporters and opponents, however, not only call for less competition and more cooperation between charters and regular public schools, but actually do it (see here, here, and here, here. Toning down the “charter school wars” and getting past the rhetoric is a crucial next step in the political process. Another is to reframe the question of which purposes of U.S. public schools should guide charters to another question:

The relevant question today is no longer whether charter schools are good or bad as a group. Rather we ask, can charter schools be taken in a better direction—one that finds inspiration in the original vision of charters as laboratories for student success that bring together children from different backgrounds and tap into the expertise of highly talented teachers?

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Charter Schools, Politics, and Democracy (Part 1)

As public charter schools have grown across the country since the early 1990s to more than 6,400 still largely located in big cities (there are 100,000 regular schools) , the debate over their existence, quality, and direction has continued unabated. Charters, enrolling over 2.5 million students (over 50 million attend U.S. public schools) continue to expand mostly in urban districts. Most charters are non-union, a few have joined teacher unions.

As public schools receiving funds from a district’s budget, charters span the universe of schooling. From for-profit cyber charters to company-managed chains of non-profit charters to ones established and operated by teachers, these schools have given low-income and minority parents choices they have not had when the only school available was the neighborhood one.

In the U.S., charter schools vary considerably in test scores. Some studies of charters claim that children do better in these schools.     Other studies reject those claims and point out that students in public schools outscore those in charters. Headlines such as “Charter Schools: Two Studies, Two Conclusions”—offering contradictory outcomes—give little confidence to those interested in whether these schools help, harm, or don’t make a difference in student achievement. For the immediate future, even with the most recent CREDO study (2015), no clear answer to the question of whether charter schools are better–that is, score higher on standardized tests than traditional public schools–  can be found in research.

Some have gone bankrupt academically and fiscally. About 15 percent of all charters that opened since 1992 have closed for financial, academic, and other reasons (2011).

Then there is the question of whether districts that established charter schools responded to the resulting competition by reducing the number of low-performing schools and increasing the high-performing ones? Here again, the evidence is mixed. Some researchers claim that district officials, fearing the loss of state funds, have introduced novel programs to stem the flow of students to newly chartered ones. Other researchers have found little evidence of districts with many charter schools and Educational Management Organizations (e.g., Aspire, Green Dot) launching initiatives to retain students in existing schools.

Over the past two decades, I have supported charter schools because as someone who has spent a quarter-century working in urban schools as a teacher and administrator and another quarter-century researching urban schools, I want low-income parents and students living in urban districts to have choices among schools that parents with more resources already have. I have visited many charter schools over the years to see how they are run and how teachers teach in them. To learn more about charters, I served for three years on the Board of Trustees of a Northern California organization called Leadership for Public Schools that operates four charter high schools. I was most impressed with my colleagues on the Board and CEO Louise Waters. I also know some the glaring shortcomings of charters across the county–Joe Nathan’s recent post in Education Week crisply lists them.

So I do have a sense of what the major questions about charter schools are, the contested answers to those questions, and the simple fact that charter schools are a political invention. And that is the point of this post.

Public schools from their very origin two centuries are (and have been) political institutions. Primary purposes for tax-supported public schools have been shaping citizens, preparation for jobs, improving society and the well-being of students in school. Political support for one or the other of these multiple (and conflicting) purposes have shifted over time. For the past thirty years, the over-riding goal for public schools has been better preparing the nation’s youth for the labor market and to strengthen the economy. This to-do item has been on every U.S. President’s agenda beginning with Ronald Reagan and continuing through Barack Obama. So charter schools are political innovations.

Yet, and this is a big “yet,” public schools in a democracy, juggling these multiple purposes, are expected (and have been for two centuries) to also conserve national and local traditions, beliefs, and values and, at the same time, help students to grow and change those very traditions to improve the community and nation. To conserve and change at the same time ain’t easy to do in a democracy. Nor is it for charter public schools. The political character of schooling becomes clearer when advocates for one or the other purposes of schools  overlook the complex tasks facing all public schools in a democracy.

In an exchange of recent posts and emails, I have read what both champions and opponents of charter schools have written. I want to quote from one of these exchanges between Deborah Meier and Joe Nathan and other strong supporters of charters. I received permission from Deborah to quote what she wrote recently to nearly two dozen of her friends, some of whom support and some of whom oppose charters.

If charters were only what [charter advocates] have had in mind what a wonderful world we’d be in!  But they are not that–or just that.  They are ALSO something quite different which is neither innovative nor democratic nor compatible with the idea of a public and democratic educational system–and that is happening in many countries (western democracies).   

 Maybe half the US charters–which is a major accomplishment–are what you both hoped for.  But half (and I believe the half who are in the driver’s seat since they have the money, influence and power to represent charterdom)  have other motives and beliefs, including eventually replacing public education with a completely “free” market of private institution, ideally for profit, aided by public funds.   They believe in this not merely out of greed but out of conviction that the market place is at the heart of democracy, it’s essential core.  And that, in the long run, it’s best for everyone.  They probably wouldn’t argue that it leads to equality, or anything like it, but that’s an honest disagreement since they do believe that it will overtime lift all boats.

 I wish wish wish that those like you, and so many others would find a way to separate yourselves from “the charter movement” which speaks loudly “on your behalf” and is funded largely by ALEC-style groups and individuals, plus well-meaning liberal foundations.  You might even get funds from some of the latter as a token contribution toward another view of charters.

Or, at the least, I wish you’d issue a statement at some time, with as many charter names as you could, stating an alternate view–one that excludes vouchers and profiteering and selectivity and privatism.  And, in fact, that represents part of its task to make all public education less selective, less tracked, and more consciously democratic.  That  together you represent an interest in demonstrating the many successful ways (plus some lessons from failures)  in which schooling can represent a form of democratic governance serving democratic purposes including the preparation of the young for active engagement in the politics of their worlds.  

A divided house…and all that–hardly helps our shared vision.    And we are often brutally divided now, denouncing each other, looking for gotchas.  That’s a prescription for our mutual failure.

Forgive me for preaching.   I am probably over-emoting–at least in part because god-knows how much longer I will be able to emote!!!!  I wish you guys could put together a gathering of maybe a few dozen charters to discuss these kinds of ideas–and invite me.  Parker–Ted Sizer’s baby–is one.  I’m on the board of a charter in NYC started by Todd Sutler that I love.  My ally and Mission Hill co-founder Heidi Lyne is a principal of a fine charter in Boston.  Paula Evans, and now former CPE graduate Caleb Hurst run one in Cambridge, and on and on.   

A number of Coalition [of Essential Schools] are charters.  As are many of the MET and Expeditionary Learning network schools.   Many urban districts are not open to what we did within the system in Boston or East Harlem, etc. because  many are “in bed” with the spread of charters, including some of the most offending ones.  [Governor Andrew] Cuomo (NY), [Mayor of Chicago ]Rahm Emanuel, [former Mayor of New York City Michael] Bloomberg, [former Chancellor of New York City schools Joel] Klein, et al. hardly share our vision of MORE democracy.

Let’s start a broader discussion about how we might lower the temperature of warfare between “our” side and up the temperature effectively against real enemies.  

In part 2 of this post, I offer some responses to Deborah’s points and my own reflections on charter schools.

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The Exhilaration and Mystery of Writing about School Reform

I have been writing about school reform, technology, and the history of teaching for nearly four decades. I have found the act of writing satisfying but never easy. A few nights ago something happened that puzzled and exhilarated me. It was not the first time that what I experienced at 3:30AM occurred. And it probably won’t be the last.

I am in the midst of finishing a first draft of a book called “Teaching History Then and Now.” It is about my teaching history at two urban high schools in the 1950s through 1960s. I reconstruct what history I taught and how I taught it. Then I push the fast-forward button and return to those very same high schools and describe the seven teachers I observed teaching history in 2013-2014. In my blog, I have tried out early drafts describing some of the classes I saw  (here and here). For the past two weeks I have been working on the last chapter of the book where I finally answer the central question that drives the entire study: Over the past-half-century, what has changed and what has remained the same in the content and pedagogy of high school history? In that last chapter I draw together conclusions of what I found in teaching history then and now while teasing out implications for reform-minded policymakers, practitioners, researchers, and anyone else interested in improving schools.

While at first glance the primary question for the entire study seems straightforward, it is not. In answering the question, others pour forth: Have changes in teaching history occurred as a result of policies made by decision-makers (the policy-to-practice journey that is all important to school reformers then and now)? Or have changes occurred as a result of teachers, acting as gatekeepers to their classrooms, making choices of what and how to teach? Or some combination of both? But that’s not all. Here’s is the kicker–I ask what does the teaching of history then and now have to do with how tax-supported public schools function in a democracy. All of that–what may appear as a jumble of unrelated questions to readers–has been circling in and out of my mind as I worked on the final chapter. In drafting this final chapter over the past few weeks I have been dissatisfied with my initial conclusions and implications for school reform. I felt there was little overall coherence in my argument; it was too fragmented and the chapters felt unrelated to one another. I was frustrated by the  lack of a satisfying connection that would tie everything together. I was stuck.

And then a few nights ago, the underlying connection that tied all of the separate pieces I had constructed about teaching history then and now, the different meanings of “change” and “stability,” the implications for decision-makers, teachers, and researchers, and the contradictory role that change and stability play in keeping public schools supporting democracy came together for me. At 3:30AM.

Rather than get into the substance of the flash insight I had in the middle of the night, I want to describe what I did and reflect on how solutions to problems seemingly come out of nowhere.

I know this to be true. Over the years, I have awakened in the middle of the night with ideas, turned to my night table and jotted down notes. Sometimes I went to the computer and wrote for awhile. The next morning, more often than not, I would read what I had written down and, you guessed it, I would toss it out. But not this time. I clicked away on my computer until 5AM, re-read it, and then went back to bed for a few more hours of sleep. After getting up, I read it again and liked it. I now had the spine and connective tissue that drew together what had been disparate chapters into what felt like an internally consistent and coherent book. Where did that flash idea come from that awakened me?

I am not a brain scientist. I am sure some readers know far more than I do about the different stages of sleep and how the brain consolidates the day’s experiences when sleeping. I am just as certain that neuroscientists and brain researcher, could explain where my insight came from and why I awoke. I cannot. It is a wondrous mystery to me. It also exhilarated me when I found all the pieces of my book falling together. The book is still a first draft and revisions will occur in the next few months but this experience left me both puzzled as to how it happened and thrilled that it did.

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Choosing Reform-Minded Urban Superintendents

If I had to choose an urban superintendent between Michelle Rhee in Washington,D.C.(2007-2010) and  John Deasy in Los Angeles Unfied School District (2011-2014), I would choose Christopher Steinhauser, Long Beach (CA) superintendent since 2002. Why? Because Rhee and Deasy were sprinters in a job that requires marathoners like Steinhauser. Both Rhee and Deasy knew that teachers were the linchpin to achieve any degree of success and both ended up alienating the very people they depended upon. Steinhauser and his predecessor, Carl Cohn, who had served a decade earlier built close ties with their teachers over two decades.

Why are there so few long distance runners among urban superintendents? Answer: Sprinters want 180 degree change fast; in doing so, they rarely gain respect and confidence of teachers; marathoners work with teachers steadily from day 1 of their tenure.

Boston’s former superintendent Thomas W. Payzant, Carl Cohn of the Long Beach, Calif., school district, and Laura Schwalm of California’s Garden Grove Unified School District served a decade or longer. To be sure, these long-serving chiefs were beset with problems that went unsolved and criticism that stung but all of them remained quietly and steadily effective. Their teachers, by and large, were supportive of their school chiefs’ efforts even when local teacher unions disagreed with parts of each one’s reform agenda. These superintendents sought incremental changes moving carefully and slowly toward their goals walking hand-in-hand with teachers and their unions.

Sprinter superintendents, however, embrace a reform agenda that assumed what existed in each of their districts when they became school chiefs was awful and had to be dumped. They refused to be identified with the status quo. Out with the old, in with the new. And fast. The “new” and “fast” meant swift fundamental change, especially with teachers and administrators. On the Richter scale of reform, fundamental change translated to major earthquakes of 7.0 and above. No changes that registered as tremors.

So Rhee, appointed by D.C.’s elected mayor, Adrian Fenty, fired both teachers and principals within the early months of her brief tenure in D.C. She pushed through new salary arrangements where experienced and effective teachers would increase their salaries dramatically but would have to give up tenure in exchange. As a former Teach for America alumna, she relied upon recruiting from that pool of new teachers and elevated other alumni to administrative posts.Her statements about teachers and administrators who had been in the D.C.  schools prior to her arrival were tinged with disrespect for their work in schools, particularly if these practitioners expressed how difficult it was to work with students who arrived in their schools from poor families with limited academic skills. Rhee was one of many new leaders that trumpeted the slogan of “no excuses”for low student performance. Schools could reverse low achievement. She designed a new system of evaluating teachers that included multiple observations of teachers by principals and “master educators” with one segment of the evaluation dependent upon how the teacher’s students did on district standardized tests. All of these actions occurred within the first two years of Rhee’s administration. To say that the hard-working, feisty Chancellor alienated the majority of teachers in D.C. would be accurate from one simple fact: Mayor Adrian Fenty ran for re-election in 2010 and lost. Many D.C. teachers worked for his opponent. And Rhee admitted her mistake in not gaining the respect and confidence of teachers. She resigned shortly afterwards.

John Deasy’s short three years in Los Angeles Unified School District differed from Michelle Rhee’s experience in that the school board that appointed him changed into one that became increasingly hostile to him including a former teacher getting elected.  Even the Los Angeles Times which supported his superintendency right up to the moment he resigned gave Deasy a parting editorial that sung his praises for his accomplishments in getting rid of ineffective teachers and raising student attendance and graduation rates but also pointed out his errors in alienating teachers–he testified in one law suit against teacher due process and seniority rights –and the massive iPad purchase from Apple in which the superintendent pushed unrelentingly and ended in a debacle.

Rhee and Deasy sought fundamental reforms, no holds barred and as swiftly as possible. Payzant, Cohn, Schwalm  knew  (and Steinhauser knows) that designing and persisting with incremental changes that barely toggled the Richter scale of reform. Marathoners worked slowly and patiently with teachers knowing that success with students would occur. Sprinters gain media attention fast. They revel in it mistakenly thinking that such instant snapshots means things are changing in classrooms. That is not the case. Marathoners see the big picture and fill in the dots gradually over the years.

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