Monthly Archives: January 2017

The Myth of “Failed” School Reform, (Part 1)

Were the “Open Space” schools of the 1960s and 1970s a reform failure?.

Instead of self-contained, four-walled classrooms of about 900 square feet holding one teacher and 25 students that opened up into long hallways, school boards hired architects to design schools without walls with large open spaces—sometimes called pods– where teams of teachers would teach multi-age children, collaborate with one another nearby and come up with innovative lessons that would engage students and sustain academic achievement. The newly designed physical structure would alter traditional age-graded schools in organizing students (e.g., multi-age groups rather than separating children and youth by age) how teachers worked together (e.g., team teaching rather than teachers assigned to separate classrooms) and how they taught the required curriculum by tailoring instruction and learning to the differences among students in abilities and their needs (e.g., small groups, individual work, and crossing subject boundaries with thematic units rather than whole-group instruction, textbooks, homework, and tests). Student-centered teaching, not the familiar teacher-centered lesson–would become the norm, open space reformers assumed.[i]

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Open space architecture and enthusiasm for innovative grouping of children, teaching, and learning customized to individual students spread rapidly across the U.S. In the Washington, D.C. area, for example,

The District of Columbia schools spent $163 million in the 1970s to build 17 open space schools. In the same decade, Arlington County (VA) spent $25 million to convert 13 traditional schools into open space facilities. Montgomery County (MD) spent $32 million to build t 21 open space schools and Fairfax County (VA) spent $48 million on 13 buildings that combined both open and closed space. [ii]

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Yet within a decade, these open space schools had put up partitions, built walls and went back to self-contained classrooms where again traditional lessons reigned. By the end of the 1980s, open space schools were a prime example of a seemingly “failed” reform. [iii]

Fast forward to the second decade of the 21st century. Open space architecture in brand new building and refurbished older buildings has reappeared. Fueled by the ubiquity of computer devices and rhetoric about new technologies in practice such as “blended learning” and “personalized instruction” new schools have been erected that have flexible space—common areas for clusters of classrooms, small conference rooms, and space for individual students to read alone, work on devices to see exercises and do exercises and write. Multiple-sized spaces have returned in many buildings for both students and teachers to use new technologies in daily lessons. These new spaces again promised that teachers would shift from traditional lessons to student-centered ways of teaching that differentiated instruction and involved children and youth in daily activities. [iv]

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Does this historical recounting of the once innovative open space architecture in schools in the late-1960s mean that it was a “success” for a brief moment in time—a shooting star—but eventually “failed” because walls and self-contained classrooms returned by the 1980s? Or have open space schools “succeeded” in that they returned and have been adapted to the technological context of the 21st century?

This example of a once highly touted school reform disappearing and returning–and I can name many others including “new” technologies–raise serious questions about the time scale policymakers, researchers, and practitioners use to judge reform “success” and “failure.”

Subsequent posts take up how the concept of time itself prompts premature judgments of “failure.”

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[i] Open space schools refers to the interior architecture of the school where large , medium, and small spaces can be used to accommodate large-group, small-group, and independent work by students and teachers. Often confused with open space schools are “open education” and “open classrooms.” Although these pedagogical reforms are linked, they are independent of one another.

Open education surged in popularity in the late-1960s as a British import of progressive way of teaching primary and upper-grade children through small-group and independent work, much student decision-making in choosing the “learning centers” they would move through during the school day in traditional age-graded classrooms. The role of the teacher was closer to a coach and guide rather than engaging in teacher-directed lessons, using textbooks, administering quizzes and exams, and assigning nightly homework. Many advocates of “open education” also promoted open space schools to get rid of the age-graded school thus linking the two reforms. See Larry Cuban, “The Open Classroom,” Education Next, 2(4), 2004, pp. 69-71.

[ii] Judith Valente, “Open Space Classes: Results Doubtful?,” Washington Post, December 11, 1979 at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1979/12/11/open-space-classes-results-doubtful/40c6e267-0287-4e56-89ca-d18ea82ef2c3/?utm_term=.594263c9f3c8

Howard Libit, “ ‘Innovation’ Still Besets Some Schools: 1960s Trend to Open Space Failed Quickly,” Baltimore Sun, October 8, 1995 at: http://articles.baltimoresun.com/1995-10-08/news/1995281062_1_open-classrooms-teachers-open-schools

[iii] I served as superintendent in the Arlington (VA) Public Schools between 1974-1981. I visited schools and classrooms a few days each week and by the end of my first year, I noticed that in at least a half-dozen open space elementary schools built in the late-1960s and early 1970s, partitions made of book cases, newly installed accordion separators, and plastered walls had been erected to re-create separate classrooms for K-6 teachers.

[iv]Michael Horn, “Tear Down This Wall! A New Architecture for Blended Learning Success,” EdSurge, June 29, 2015 at: https://www.edsurge.com/news/2015-06-29-tear-down-this-wall-a-new-architecture-for-blended-learning-success

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The Analog and Digital Lives We Live

Did you know that new calendars, appointment books, and planners had increased sales of nearly 10 percent over 2014-2015 amounting to nearly a half-billion dollars?

Did you know that over a half-billion print books were sold in 2015, nearly four percent more than the previous year while e-book sales fell?

Did you know that the sale of vinyl records, board games, film photography and paper journals have increased annually over past few years?

The resurgence of analog products in the midst of a digital revolution in how we now live is a marker, an early sign of millions of people (and I include myself) figuring out what’s important in living a life fully in a world that has become increasingly digital.

Feeling the pages of a book, having a watch with numbers and a sweep second hand, playing Monopoly and chess on an actual board with others, taking family photos with an actual camera– while easy to dismiss as whiny nostalgia–are signs of many people figuring out pathways to a life that mixes the analog and digital.

The persistence of the analog also means that interacting with people at work, at Costco, in a hospital and home care, in churches, playgrounds, in bars and at home matters a great deal. Face-to-face relationships are analog. They are the bonds that bind each of us to one another in families, among intimate friends, neighborhoods, and workplaces. They matter far more than Facebook “friends.”

Consider the helping professions (e.g., doctors, therapists, nurses, ministers, social workers, teachers). Doctors and nurses have patients; therapists and social workers have clients; ministers, rabbis and imams have congregants, and teachers have students. Each of these professionals is immensely aided by new technologies they use daily yet their work depends upon human interaction and unfolding relationships. And in these relationship-bound professions is where the analog and digital intertwine. Not either/or, one or the other–analog and digital easily mix in these helping professions. And it is in schools especially where face-to-face contacts occur daily, where relationships begin and mature, where the analog and digital world come together.

Because schools are relationship-driven, where adults interact daily with children and youth, they are basically analog institutions in democratic, market-driven societies. They won’t go away. Bricks and mortar schools will be around for the rest of the century because communities need them to convey to children and youth knowledge, values, skills and attitudes essential to that society and becoming adults who will contribute to their communities. Schooling is as much about the head as it is about the heart. A fact often forgotten by those avid reformers (and parents) who see schools as efficient escalators to the workplace, who see children and youth as brains on a stick.

The head and heart come together in schooling through adults interacting daily with children and youth in and out of classrooms. Digital tools, hyped as they are, have surely entered  teachers’ repertoires to reduce administrative work, increase efficiency while enriching instructional preparation. But the digital will not (and cannot) replace teachers with online schools, robots, virtual reality goggles or similar fantasies. Those schools that work best socialize the next generation into thinking, feeling, and acting beings who work in communities, thrive in workplaces, and learn to live fully in a digital world.

How can I be so confident of schools as analog places where relationships are central and not be replaced by the brave new digital world?

My half-century of experience in schools, awareness of the central role of schooling in a democratic, market-oriented society, and awareness of classrooms across the nation but especially in Silicon Valley have convinced me that schools as analog institutions will persevere and outlast the magical thinking that technologically-driven reformers peddle.

In the past year, I have observed scores of teachers integrate new technologies in their classrooms in the heart of Silicon Valley. These teachers and the schools in which they work have blended the analog and digital into a mix of activities and personal interactions that are both familiar and new.

Familiar in that teachers work in age-graded schools–a two-century old institution–where daily lessons, teacher/student relationships, and classroom situations echo school practices from earlier generations. Yet overlaid with the familiar is the new, the device-driven activities during the school day, the mix of digital and analog. In a  first-grade room, students work in whole groups, small groups, and individually over the course of a six-hour day. For part of the day, they move to different learning stations (e.g., math, reading, science, art), some of which are device-driven while other children settle into independent work, and even other stations where pairs of six year-olds figure out a task together. And the teacher? She would be working one-on-one with students who were plowing ahead of the lesson, falling behind, or just keeping up with the work. The digital and analog come together easily such classrooms.

No one observing these first-graders during a school day would say that schooling has become a digital institution.

With the current resurgence of analog devices and activities noted above, adults also are learning to combine the analog with the digital to live their lives fully.

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Technology Trade-offs in a Physics Classroom (Alice Flarend)

“Alice Flarend is a National Board Certified Teacher and is the physics teacher at Bellwood-Antis High School in Pennsylvania.  She holds a B.S and M.S in Nuclear Engineering from University of Illinois and University of Michigan respectively. Alice caught the teaching bug while doing engineering doctoral work at the University of Michigan and has been teaching for over twenty years.  She is currently working part time on a Science Education Ph.D at Penn State.  She plans on remaining in her classroom to be a bridge between the worlds of higher education  and public K-12 schools.”

One of the first uses of computers in many physics classes decades ago was to graph data using Excel. This innovation prompted lengthy discussions among physics teachers at meetings and conferences about the trade-offs of having students use this aid rather than graphing by hand. Excel could make graphing so easy, but the students could lose the skill of creating axes, legends, and interacting with their data.

I have found these types of discussions distinctly lacking as we move more classroom activities onto the digital world. I want to call attention to the often overlooked trade offs between efficiency and quality of information that occur when classroom tasks are handled electronically. While the examples I present  are from my world of physics teaching, I have seen similar ones in my high school as we have moved through a 1-to-1 iPad initiative.

Physics classes are inherently hands on. We drop marbles and roll balls down inclines, usually with stop watches in our hands. Computer simulations and digital data collection for laboratory experiments are replacing those stop watches. Computers allow students to collect more and cleaner data than ever before. Calculations are done internally and instantly displayed graphically. Patterns are easier to discern. Multiple trials are accomplished with a click.

However, that simple click masks information about the data collection and processing. It hides the messy experimental and mathematical work that is the basis for the patterns. My students believe that any graph on the screen must be an accurate representation of a ball in motion, even the wildly inaccurate ones caused by ball being nowhere near the digital sensor. It is so easy for students to lose sight of the actual physical world as they analyze those pretty digital graphs.

My early experiences with an internet-based homework service were more positive than turning in paper homework. Particularly with difficult problems,  paper homework tends to be more of a “I didn’t understand this but at least I got something to turn in” type of experience. Internet-based homework gives students a particular number of attempts so they keep trying a problem until they get it right. I could give my students challenging work and their grades would not suffer terribly because they could keep working until they got it right. Because my homework service does not have a sophisticated “help” function, students would come to me for aid. They gained a deeper understanding as we talked and I gained valuable formative assessment feedback.

In the last few years, however, there has been a disturbing trend of students searching online for solutions. The problem is these online solutions are not educative solutions. They just give a bare-bones derivation and students then plug in their numbers into the final equation. Students get the problem marked correct but they do not actually understand the solution. With increased use of these online tools, I have more students who take only a single try to get each homework problem correct, but then fail the test.

This automatic grading, a feature of many digital products, saves me time and the students get immediate feedback. They can be used in real time in the classroom. For the most part, these grading programs are limited to multiple choice questions or numerical solutions. As an experienced teacher, I can create these types of questions to probe my students’ knowledge, but they are limited to more simple ideas and preprogrammed choices. I prefer open-ended types of questions where the students write a long enough answer so their misconceptions and uncommon ideas can emerge and be explained in unique ways. I can look at their work with mathematical problems. That is where I find the most useful formative assessment. With digital grading programs, I lose a lot of that valuable information.

Tools like Google Classroom are supposed to ease communication between teachers and students. They allow efficient dissemination of classroom materials to students and collecting their work. The perennial excuses of “I lost the handout” or “My printer ran out of ink” are no longer applicable when students can just download another copy or email me their documents. I can easily add comments to those documents submitted to me, helping students to improve their work. All of this can be done at any moment that the student or teacher wishes, at school or at home.

In my experience, I have seen little evidence that this ease of communication has increased the quantity or quality of my students’ work. Students who neglected to turn in paper homework also neglect electronic versions. Students who lose handouts do not download new copies. I can write many helpful comments on students’ work and they will receive a notification that a comment has been posted. Nothing in the program, however, makes the students read these comments and improve their work. Now the same can be said for comments written on paper, but in judging the large numbers of requests I receive for translation of my third-grade handwriting, my students do tend at least to read my handwritten comments.

Overall, this apparent ease of accomplishing classroom work has created a larger gap between the students. Students who work to understand the material and see a purpose in school, do take advantage of the affordances of the technology as they do all other supports.   Many other students disconnected from learning in school are not lured into learning because of screens, despite the promises of the tech literature. They do not take advantage of internet tutorials to increase their understanding. They do not look at my comments and do a rewrite of their rough draft. They do not open up lines of communication outside of classroom time, despite having a device and programs that will do this with only a few clicks. This gap has always existed, but the digital aspect has increased it, or at least made it more visible.

What I have learned from these experiences is to be vigilant in the use of technology. It offers many advantages in making tasks easier and more efficient. It does not, however, easily transform any classroom activity into one where deep learning occurs. In fact, it can easily do the opposite and mask difficulties in a flurry of correct answers and perfect graphs.

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Building More Affordable Housing Nearby (Mareesa Nicosia)

 

Mareesa Nicosia is a senior reporter at The 74. This post appeared December 4, 2016

This post offers another way to improve schooling for minority and poor children that acknowledges the strong links between neighborhood, housing, social services, and academic progress in schools. Patterned on a charter school in Atlanta, Kennedy Elementary School in Omaha needs not only additional funds (which they are receiving from donors) bu also a holistic (and generous) vision of what schools serving children of color require.

Class doesn’t start until 8 a.m. at Howard Kennedy Elementary School, but students line up an hour early every day, intent on getting in the doors in time for breakfast.

That’s how it’s been since school started in August, when Principal Tony Gunter poked his head out the front door around 7 a.m. and was startled to see a few dozen students standing on the steps, itching to get inside.

They’ve waited every morning since, Gunter told The 74 in a recent interview, until the doors open and staff welcomes them warmly inside, trading handshakes and high-fives as music courses through the halls.

Not long ago, though, there was little enthusiasm from students, their families — and staff, for that matter. The pre-K–5 school is located in North Omaha’s Highlander neighborhood, for decades one of the poorest, most segregated and most violent areas in the city of 440,000.

Roughly 97 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch; about 22 percent are English-language learners, and 29 percent are refugees, higher than the district average in each case, according to 2015–16 data. While students have made gains on state test scores in recent years, the school had long been one of the worst-performing in Omaha, which serves about 52,000 students, and one of the lowest-ranked in Nebraska.

Enrollment has dwindled since the city tore down two thirds of deteriorating public-housing projects nearby. Its population of slightly more than 200 students is well below the building’s 600-student capacity, officials said.

But this year, Omaha Public Schools officials and their nonprofit partners are pushing the reset button — and drawing on the success of a charter school in Atlanta for inspiration.

Kennedy Elementary is at the center of an ambitious neighborhood-redevelopment project run by the 75 North Revitalization Corp., an Omaha nonprofit backed by Susan “Susie” Buffett, of the Sherwood Foundation, and her father, Warren Buffett. The organization and its donors are pouring about $10 million over the next five to 10 years into an initiative to transform the school, said Othello Meadows, 75 North’s executive director.

Gunter, the principal, said it’s the beginning of a long-term effort at Kennedy Elementary to raise standards for academic success and provide the resources students and staff need to meet those higher standards.

In the months since students returned, they’ve seemed to welcome the new level of rigor, Gunter said.

“[The kids] are just so hungry for knowledge. They are enjoying school, and it’s not like it’s easy,” he said. “We’re pushing them to really persevere through the things that they don’t know … or in areas of weakness in literature and math. When they say, ‘I don’t know it,’ or ‘I can’t do this,’ we’re really pushing them through to keep trying, and once they get it, we celebrate.”

At the same time, a $90 million construction project is underway to create hundreds of new mixed-income apartments and homes within walking distance of Kennedy Elementary. A community recreation center, dubbed “The Accelerator,” is also in the works. The idea is to surround the school with safe and affordable housing, recreational space and access to job training and health care for adults. A holistic approach to supporting families, with a high-performing school as the hub, is how the neglected Highlander community can begin to thrive, Meadows said.

“The best neighborhoods are the ones that kind of catapult you to success, [to] self-actualization,” Meadows said. “Whatever it is that somebody brings for themselves or wants to pursue, the neighborhood is actually an asset to pursuing that, and a lot of times that starts with a high-quality early-learning and preschool experience, followed by high-quality K-12 and college experience.”

The project is modeled on the work of Atlanta’s Purpose Built Schools, a national nonprofit network of neighborhood redevelopment projects with schools at their core. The organization opened its flagship K-5 Drew Charter School in Atlanta in 2000 (it recently added grades 9–12); since then, it has spawned similar efforts in cities like New Orleans, Houston, Charlotte and Birmingham. Most recently, it partnered with a group in Tulsa, Okla.

Students at Drew Charter School largely outperform their peers in Atlanta Public Schools and throughout Georgia, state data from 2013–15 show. That success hasn’t gone unnoticed — in fact, it led the Atlanta Public School district to seek out the organization’s help. Purpose Built Communities started managing several of the district’s lowest-performing schools this year.

In Omaha, changes at Kennedy Elementary began with a staffing overhaul this summer. Just 23 percent of certified staff were rehired for the 2016–17 year, a district spokesperson said.

Seven new positions have been created, including a social worker, a school psychologist, reading and math intervention specialists and a dean of literacy, according to a district spokeswoman. Another dean oversees science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM) instruction, which is the focus of the new, project-based curriculum.

The 75 North funding primarily supports salaries for Kennedy teachers to work extended hours this year under a contract variance approved by the union. Classes started August 10, a week earlier than other elementary schools in the district, and the school day runs 45 minutes longer.

Ashley Hawthrone, one of the handful of employees who stayed at Kennedy Elementary amid the transition this year, said the new layer of support staff will intervene earlier when the most vulnerable students show signs of distress — and not just with academics.

Many students come to class having witnessed violence in their homes and their community, said Hawthrone. She’s spent the past six years teaching first grade and sixth grade and started a new role as school counselor this year.

“I think we’ve created a climate conducive for learning. We’re teaching to the whole child,” Hawthrone said. “We recognize that our students come with a lot of baggage, and we’re able to address those academic needs as well as those social and emotional needs.”

The district is working with outside partners to set up a health center at the school next year so students can get vision screenings and dental services.

Outside the school, plans call for construction of 300 rental and for-sale units, including multi-family apartment buildings, single-family homes and townhouses to be completed by 2020. The first 30 rental units are expected to be ready for occupancy in early 2017, Meadows said, with dozens more opening later in the year.

Meadows, who grew up in Omaha and was practicing law in Atlanta when he learned about Purpose Built Communities, said his community’s collective challenge in the coming months and years will be to remain focused on improving student achievement — and keep complacency at bay when the “honeymoon phase” at Kennedy inevitably fades.

“We really want to focus on trying to build up this well of resolve so that when those disappointments happen, when things don’t go exactly as planned, the attitude, the belief, the strength that is there right now remains,” he said in an interview in October.

The Omaha teachers union is a key player in the buy-in. The Omaha Education Association was initially “very reluctant and very nervous” about the prospect of the charter-school-inspired changes, said Chris Proulx, a physical education teacher who was union president from 2010 through the summer of 2016.

(Nebraska is one of the handful of states that has no charter law — the result of sustained resistance by teachers unions and state school board members — though some parent advocacy groups are now pushing lawmakers to support a bill in 2017. Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts has also indicated his support for charter schools.)

After Proulx visited the Drew Charter School in Atlanta last year and shared his observations with colleagues, the 2,600-member organization eventually signed off on a one-year contract variance to cover the longer work hours, Proulx said.

For now, donors are providing $1 million to $1.5 million annually to cover the added labor costs, Meadows said. If all goes as planned, the contributions will trickle off over time and the school district will be fully responsible for sustaining the changes, should they prove to be successful.

“Kennedy only has the flexibility that the district’s willing to give it,” Proulx said.

During the past three and a half years under Superintendent Mark Evans, the district has largely supported reform initiatives like the Kennedy school partnership: In 2015, the board approved the project in an 8–0 vote, the Omaha World Herald reported.

How the tone from the top may change next year remains to be seen. Evans announced he will retire at the end of this school year, and several newly elected board members will help to select a new superintendent in the spring.

Gunter, meanwhile, is navigating the sometimes tricky task of making sure Kennedy’s veteran educators and the new, young teachers hired this summer learn from one another and work as a team, in an environment where differences in race and socioeconomic status might easily spark friction.

Gunter worked at Omaha Public Schools for 16 years before leaving to work as a development executive for K-12 education at Apple. He returned to the community he calls home when the principal position at Kennedy became available and spent much of the 2015–16 school year observing how Drew Charter educators worked in Atlanta.

In creating a new school plan, he drew on his own experience growing up in North Omaha, he said, where many of his classmates had absentee parents, caught up in drugs, alcohol and violence, who didn’t bother to ensure that their children made it to school each day.

His own parents valued education and pushed him to excel in school, Gunter said, but “it wasn’t easy.”

“As a kid, every choice that I made every moment every day [could] determine the outcome of my future.”

The odds still aren’t great for Omaha’s black youth. Far fewer black male students in Nebraska graduate from high school (50 percent) than white males (86 percent), according to a 2015 report by the Schott Foundation.

But there’s optimism about the future, in Gunter’s view. And he makes that known every morning as he and his staff cultivate the high-energy atmosphere that students walk into as they head to the cafeteria for breakfast.

“We set the pace,” Gunter said. “We set the tone, and everyone that’s walked in this building [this school year] has told me that ‘Man, this place is different.’ There’s just a sense of excitement here, that people want to be here.”

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