Category Archives: Reforming schools

How Technology Integration Has Altered Doctor/Patient Care in Hospitals (David Rosenthal, M.D. and Abraham Verghese, M.D.)

Over the past few years, I have compared physicians and teachers because even with so many differences in preparation and the nature of their work, they share two core principles. Both professionals belong to helping professions where their success, in part, is dependent upon the patient and the student. And success, however defined, depend upon each professional developing close relationships with their patients and students. The degree to which labor-saving devices have increased the efficiency of both physicans and teachers in carrying out their daily work, there are, nonetheless, tradeoffs that have become apparent as professionals practice in hospitals and schools.

The following article, “Meaning and Nature of Physicians’ Work,” appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine, November 16, 2016. To see citations, click on footnote number in NEJM article.

….Typically in our field, internal medicine, residents arrive at the hospital at 7 a.m., get sign-outs from nighttime residents, and conduct “pre-rounds” to see patients they have inherited but don’t know well, before heading to morning report or attending rounds. Attending rounds often consist of “card-flipping” sessions held in a workroom, frequently interrupted by discharge planning and pages, calls, and texts from nurses and specialists. Finalizing discharges before noon can feel more important than getting to know new patients. Increasingly, the attending physician doesn’t see patients with the team, given the time constraints.

No longer are there paper charts at the bedside. The advent of the electronic era, while reducing the time required for tracking down laboratory or radiology results, has not substantially changed the time spent with patients: recent estimates indicate that medical students and residents often spend more than 40 to 50% of their day in front of a computer screen filling out documentation, reviewing charts, and placing orders. They spend much of the rest of their time on the phone coordinating care with specialists, pharmacists, nutritionists, primary care offices, family members, social workers, nurses, and care coordinators; very few meetings with these people occur face-to-face. Somewhat surprisingly, the time spent with patients has remained stable over the past six decades.1

The skills learned early by today’s medical students and house staff — because they are critical to getting the work done — are not those needed to perform a good physical exam or take a history, but rather the arts of efficient “chart biopsy,” order entry, documentation, and sign-out in the electronic age. When a medical team gets notice of a new admission, it seems instinctive and necessary to study the patient’s record before meeting him or her. This “flipped patient” approach2 has advantages, but it introduces a framing bias and dilutes independent assessment and confirmation of history or physical findings.

In short, the majority of what we define as “work” takes place away from the patient, in workrooms and on computers. Our attention is so frequently diverted from the lives, bodies, and souls of the people entrusted to our care that the doctor focused on the screen rather than the patient has become a cultural cliché. As technology has allowed us to care for patients at a distance from the bedside and the nursing staff, we’ve distanced ourselves from the personhood, the embodied identity, of patients, as well as from our colleagues, to do our work on the computer.

But what is the actual work of a physician? Medical students entering the wards for the first time recognize a dysjunction, seeing that physicians’ work has less to do with patients than they had imagined. The skills they learned in courses on physical diagnosis or communication are unlikely to improve. Despite all the rhetoric about “patient-centered care,” the patient is not at the center of things.

Meanwhile, drop-down menus, cut-and-paste text fields, and lists populated with a keystroke have created a medical record that (at least in documenting the physical exam) at best reads like fiction or meaningless repetition of facts and at worst amounts to misleading inaccuracies or fraud. Given the quantity of information and discrepancies within medical records, it’s often impossible to discern any signal in the mountains of noise. Yet our entire health care system — including its financing, accounting, research, and quality reporting — rests heavily on this digital representation of the patient, the iPatient, and provides incentives for its creation and maintenance.3 It would appear from our hospital quality reports that iPatients uniformly get wonderful care; the experiences of actual patients are a different question.

It’s clear that physicians are increasingly dissatisfied with their work, resentful of the time required to transcribe and translate information for the computer and the fact that, in that sense, the work never stops. Burnout is widespread in the workforce, and more than a quarter of residents have depression or depressive symptoms.4 In response, health care leaders have advocated amending the “Triple Aim” of enhancing patients’ experience, improving population health, and reducing costs to add a fourth goal: improving the work life of the people who deliver care.

A 2013 study commissioned by the American Medical Association highlights some of the factors associated with higher professional satisfaction. Perhaps not surprisingly, the investigators found that perceptions of higher quality of care, autonomy, leadership, collegiality, fairness, and respect were critical. The report highlighted persistent problems with the usability of electronic health records as a “unique and vexing challenge.”5

These findings underscore the importance of reflecting on what our work once was, what it now is, and what it should be. Regardless of whatever nobility inhered in the work of physicians in a bygone era, that work was done under conditions and quality standards that would now be unacceptable. We practice in a safer and more efficient system with measurable outcomes. Yet with the current rates of burnout, our expectations for finding meaning in our profession and careers seem largely unfulfilled.

We believe that if meaning is to be restored, the changes needed are complex and will have to be made nationally, beginning with a dialogue that includes the people on medicine’s front lines. Perhaps the greatest opportunity for improving our professional satisfaction in the short term lies in restoring our connections with one another. We could work on rebuilding our practices and physical spaces to promote the sorts of human connections that can sustain us — between physicians and patients, physicians and physicians, and physicians and nurses. We could get back to the bedside with patients, families, and nurses. We could get to know our colleagues from other specialties in shared lunchrooms or meeting spaces.

In addition, we believe that in the coming years, the U.S. medical community will have to rethink the human–computer interface and more thoughtfully merge the real patient with the iPatient. We have an opportunity to radically redesign electronic health record systems, initially created for fee-for-service billing, as our organizations shift toward bundled payments, capitation, and risk sharing. Perhaps virtual scribes and artificial intelligence will eventually reduce our documentation burden.

But technology cannot restore our professional satisfaction. Our profession will have to rebuild a sense of teamwork, community, and the ties that bind us together as human beings. We believe that will require spending more time with each other and with our patients, restoring some rituals that are meaningful to both us and the people we care for and eliminating those that are not.

Solutions will not be easy, since the problems are entangled in the high cost of health care, reimbursement for our work, and obstacles to health care reform. But we can start by recalling the original purpose of physicians’ work: to witness others’ suffering and provide comfort and care. That remains the privilege at the heart of the medical profession.

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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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Beyond the Classroom and School: District Technology Integration

Over the years, I have written about differences between complicated and complex (see here). I pointed out the differences in those top-down, command-and-control organizations that launch rockets into space and keep cities safe and those open, loosely-coupled organizations that provide health care, administer criminal justice, and offer public schooling that are vulnerable to their political and social environments,  heavily dependent upon relationships, and individual discretion.

For the past year, I have described best cases of classrooms that I have visited where technology integration was in the background, not the foreground (see here, here, and here). I have also posted descriptions of schools identified as exemplary in integrating technology across all of their classrooms such as the Summit network of charter schools.

But I have not yet profiled districts that have integrated technology on a systematic basis. In Silicon Valley, including most of the Bay area, there are 77 school districts. All have technology plans for their schools. These districts buy lots of hard- and software, wire and WiFi schools, provide classroom carts of laptops and tablets, offer teacher workshops and then cross their fingers that teachers will step up and use what the district has provided for daily lessons.Voluntary participation is the rule which means that great variation exists not only in every single school but across these districts heralded as embracing high-tech.

Only a few districts, however, have gone beyond a plan, buying devices, and crossing their fingers that teachers will use all of the available hardware and software. Only a few districts adopted policies that nudged all teachers in every school to use new technologies, blended learning, and personalized lessons.  Only a few districts have built a systematic infrastructure of broadband and WiFi, incorporated newly-developed software, sponsored professional development, and provided technical assistance to support (and push) teachers to integrate technology into their daily lessons. In Silicon Valley I found two such districts: Mountain View-Los Altos and Milpitas.

In the Mountain View-Los Altos district I profiled two of its schools and described 10 classroom lessons I observed in these schools (see, for example, here and here) . In Milpitas, a dozen miles away, two principals invited me to observe their primary and upper-elementary classrooms and interview teachers. I did observe classes and interview teachers at each school as well as interviewing a district administrator.

Knowing that each level of schooling–classroom, school, and district–contains its unique complexities and knowing that districts are not command-and-control organizations, using a tri-focal lens one can come to appreciate, if not understand, that changing what classroom teachers do, altering how schools operate daily, and improving  district performance  is no easy walk in the park.

Each of these three systems are nested in one another. Each level affects the other as teachers go about doing what is expected in classrooms, school staff wrestle with instruction and curriculum, and both individual teachers and school staffs connect to the district school board, superintendent, and administrators from which policies and resources flow downward. These three levels of schooling are Siamese triplets that are separate and interactive but cannot be severed.

There are so many moving parts in these loosely-coupled system called a district.  So much interaction and overlap in these nested communities nonetheless depend on continuity in student/teacher relationships, principal/staff cooperation, and school board/district administrators working closely together. Sure, there are top-down directives that flow into schools and bottom-up actions that trickle upward in the organization.

Furthermore, there are constant search for resources and support from groups inside and outside the system. Include, then, among the moving parts, the ever-changing political interests that have their own ideas of what is a “good” teacher, what is a “good” school, and a “good” district. Enacting public schooling is political drama with conflict, tears, hurrahs, and disappointment. And that is what makes school reform a complex endeavor. District work is not for the faint-of-heart or those who fail to grasp that complexity across and between three organizational levels.

The fact is that classrooms, schools, and districts are open systems with permeable boundaries that can be easily crossed by outside groups such as single issue advocates, state officials, national lobbies, etc. It is one fact that policymakers, researchers, and parents have to not only grasp but also know it in their actions.  If  educational decision-makers cannot give up their vision of command-and-control organizations and wrap their minds around open, loosely-coupled places established to help students (not customers), these top decision-makers will continue to stumble their way through school reform.

Consider, for example, all the factors and constraints teachers face putting a planned lesson into practice.  In a 50- or 60-minute lesson, teachers make hundreds of decisions, some planned, many unplanned, anchored in the content and skills to be learned, the technologies used, relationships among students and between the teacher and students, and the norms and rituals  within the class (e.g., teacher counting from 10 to 0 to get quiet, rhythmic clapping of teacher and students to get attention, students listening to one another and taking turns).

The deep knowledge teachers have of subject matter, cognitive and social skills, details about their students all come to the surface in the questions teachers ask, how they determine who will be with whom in small group activities, and when–clock watching is an occupational tic with most teachers–to segue from one part of the lesson to another. The inexorable unpredictability of student response to a lesson often calls for instant decision-making, for example, when a student unexpectedly rants or cries; when snow starts falling outside the windows and students get restless. Or an assistant principal enters the room to observe the lesson. Or an incident of bullying during recess that spills into the class, and on and on. Teacher’s tacit knowledge of all of the above forms the bedrock of the relationship with students which is the core of their learning both in and out of classrooms.

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As one teacher told me “just managing the complexity of teaching a lesson can be overwhelming.” Looking at all of the above factors that come into play when a teacher improvises or goes ahead with a planned decision is often what staggers newcomer to teaching and researcher.

So too the complexity deepens when one moves from the classroom as the unit of analysis to the school. Grasping the sheer number of factors that influence a school’s  organization, culture and relationships among adults and with students is tough enough. Schools with 10 to 100 classrooms, credentialed and non-credentialed staff, diversity of students, parental involvement, and dozens of other factors come into play. Then consider that one school is multiplied by 1o to 50 to 100 to form a district and how the complexity of each level multiplies when one considers the cross-cutting factors that come into play when the district is the unit of analysis. Each level embedded in the other has a structure, culture, and entwined relationships. Look at the figure below that tries to capture just a fraction of myriad moving parts.

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All of this discussion of complexity brings me to the Milpitas Unified School District a system of just over 10,000 students (45 % Asian, 21% Filipino, 21 % Hispanic, 7% white, 3% black) distributed among 14 schools from pre-K to senior high school. Thirty three percent of the students qualify for free and reduced price lunches.  Nearly 800 staff strive to reach the goals that the school board and superintendent seek to achieve (see here, here, and here).

Thus, Milpitas is a system of embedded organizations (e.g., classrooms, schools, and district office) interacting daily with one another often in loosely coupled arrangements. Then consider how the city of Milpitas (over 100,000 residents), Santa Clara County in which the city is located, the state of California, and the federal government also interact in small and large ways with the district. Yes, this is complexity with a capital C.

In the next post, I will describe how one superintendent, Cary Matusoka, spent five years  (2011-2016) trying to move an entire district to redesign the way its teachers taught and students learned through integrating new technologies.

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The Palimpsest of Progressive Schooling (Part 4)*

Palimpsest: “A manuscript, typically of papyrus or parchment, that has been written on more than once, with the earlier writing incompletely erased and often legible (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, fourth edition, 2000, p. 1265).

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Personalized learning, i.e.,tailoring knowledge and skills to the individual student, has been the dream of Progressive educators since the early 20th century and put into partial practice then, in the 1960s, and in the second decade of the 21st century.

Recent posts on the AltSchool (Parts 2 and 3) and different contemporary versions of online and teacher-student interactions–-a sub-set of what many call “blended learning“–-have written over the original Progressive rhetoric and actions of a half-century and century ago. Knowing that Progressive under-text about past efforts to educate Americans–the “earlier writing incompletely erased and often legible”–could bring a sharper perspective (and deeper understanding) to the contemporary claims that champions of personalized learning–however defined–bring to policymakers, parents, and teachers. That resurrecting of the under-text highlights  the pedagogical and efficiency-driven wings of the Progressive movement then and today.

Earlier Progressive movement, 1890s-1940s

In these decades “progressive education” was the reigning political ideology in U.S. schooling. There were two main ideas, anchored in what was then emerging as a “science of education,” that spurred and divided U.S. progressives. First, student-centered instruction, small group and individualized learning (adherents were sometimes called “pedagogical progressives“) and, second, business-oriented advocates of “scientific management” (sometimes called “administrative progressives”) who sought to prepare children and youth to fit into work and society far more efficiently than the traditional schooling of the day. Both wings of the progressive movement drew from the writings of John Dewey and Edward Thorndike and their embrace of a science of education.

School boards, superintendents, and researchers of the day glommed on to “scientific management.” Proud to be called “educational engineers” during these years, these “administrative progressives” created lists of behaviors that superintendents should follow to strengthen district performance and principals could use to evaluate teachers. They measured buildings, teacher performance, and student achievement. These efficiency-minded progressives triumphed politically in shaping schools in the early decades of the 20th century. “Pedagogical progressives” and their yearning for student-centered, individualized learning figured large in the words and imagination of advocates but made a small dent in school practice.

Neo-Progressive Reforms, 1960s 

Revival of Progressive educational ideas occurred during the 1960s amid desegregation struggles, the war in Vietnam, and cultural changes in society. Neo-progressive reformers, borrowing from their earlier efficiency-driven “administrative progressives,” launched innovations such as “performance contracting.”   Corporations took over failing schools in Texarkana (AR), Gary (IN), and 100 other districts promising that their methods of teaching reading (e.g., new technologies such as programmed learning) would raise test scores fast and cheaply. Partial to the corporate managerial strategies in running schools, these reformers sought accountability through the contract they signed with district school boards. By the mid-1970s, school boards had dumped the contracts.

As for the pedagogical wing of the Progressive movement interested in student-centered classroom activities, small groups, and more interaction with the “real” world, there was Individually Guided Education and “open classrooms“(also called “open education” and “informal education”).

The story of how a British import called “informal education” became the reform du jour in the U.S. begins with critics’ heavy pounding of schools in the mid-1950s. Across the political spectrum, critics flailed U.S. schools because education, they believed, could solve national problems arising from Cold War competition with the Soviet Union, caste-like treatment of black citizens, and a pervasive culture of conformity that suffocated imagination. Richly amplified by the media, “open classrooms” in its focus on students learning-by-doing in small groups and as individuals resonated with vocal critics of creativity-crushing classrooms. Thousands of elementary school classrooms–out of a few million–became home-like settings where young children sitting on rugs moved individually from one attractive “learning center” for math to other stations in science, reading, writing, and art. Teams of teachers worked with multi-age groups of students and created non-graded elementary schools. Both the efficiency and pedagogical wings of the Progressive movement surfaced in the mid-1960s, spread its wings, but plummeted swiftly within a decade as a new generation of reformers promised “back to basics” (see here).

Personalized Learning Today

The pumped up language accompanying “personalized learning” today resonates like the slap of high-fives between earlier Progressive educators and current reformers. Rhetoric aside, however, issues of research and accountability continue to bedevil those clanging  cymbals for “student-centered” instruction and learning. The research supporting “personalized” or “blended learning” (and the many definitions of each) is, at best thin. Then again, few innovators, past or present, seldom invoked research support for their initiatives.

But accountability in these years of Common Core standards and testing is another matter. As one report put it:

Personalized learning is rooted in the expectation that students should progress through content based on demonstrated learning instead of seat time. By contrast, standards-based accountability centers its ideas about what students should know, and when, on grade-level expectations and pacing. The result is that as personalized learning models become more widespread, practitioners are increasingly encountering tensions between personalized learning and state and federal accountability structures.

Except for  AltSchool and other private schools, tensions arise in public schools over end-of-year testing, meeting annual proficiency standards, and judging academic performance on the basis of student scores. Few policymakers and present-day Progressive reformers eager to install “personalized learning” in their schools have yet faced these conflicts in the DNA of this popular reform.

So current innovations such as “personalized instruction,”  “student centered learning,   and “blended learning”  are written over the underlying, century-old text of Progressive education.  Efficiency in teaching students (faster, better, and at less cost) while teachers individualize instruction through use of digital tools combine anew the two wings of the century-old Progressive education movement.

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*This post is an updated version of the one that originally appeared June 9, 2015.

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The AltSchool: Progressivism Redux (Part 2)

[Progressive schools] as compared with traditional schools [display] a common emphasis upon respect for individuality and for increased freedom; a common disposition to build upon the nature and experience of the boys and girls common to them, instead of imposing from without external subject-matter and standards. They all display a certain atmosphere of informality, because experience has proved that formalization is hostile to genuine mental activity and to sincere emotional expression and growth. Emphasis upon activity as distinct from passivity is one of the common factors….[There is] unusual attention to …normal human relations, to communication …which is like in kind to that which is found in the great world beyond the school doors.

John Dewey, 1928

Were John Dewey alive in 2016 and had he joined me in a brief visit to the AltSchool on October 20, 2016, he would, I believe, nodded in agreement with what he saw on that fall day and affirmed  what he said when he became honorary president of the Progressive Education Association in 1928.

The AltSchool embodies many of the principles of progressive education from nearly a century ago–as do other schools in the U.S.  Just as Dewey’s Lab School at the University of Chicago (1896-1904) became a hothouse experiment as a private school, so has the AltSchool and its network of “micro-schools” in the Bay area and New York City over the past five years (see here, here, here, and here). Progressive schools, then and now, varied greatly yet champions of such schools from Dewey to Francis Parker to Jesse Newlon to Alt/School’s Max Ventilla believed they were already or about to become “good” schools.

One major difference, however, between progressives then and now were the current technologies. Unknown to Dewey and his followers in the early 20th century, new technologies have become married to these progressive principles in ways that reflect both wings of the earlier reform movement (see here).

In this post, I want to describe what I saw that morning in classrooms–sadly without the company of Dewey–and what I heard from the founder of the AltSchool network, Max Ventilla.

Alt/Schools

There are five “micro-schools” in San Francisco. I visited Yerba Buena, a K-8 school  of over 30 students whose daily schedule gives a hint of what it is about. I went unescorted into three classes –upper-elementary and middle school social studies and math lessons (primary classes were on a field trip to a museum)–which gave me a taste of the teaching, the content, student participation, and the level of technology integration. I spoke briefly with two of the three teachers whose lessons I observed and got a flavor of their enthusiasm for their students and the school.

For readers who want a larger slice of what this private school seeks to do (tuition runs around $26,000 for 2015-2016) can see video clips and read text about the philosophy, program, teaching staff, and the close linkages between technology in this and sister “micro-schools” (see Alt/school materials here)

Since I parachuted in for a few hours–I plan to see another “micro-school” soon–I cannot describe full lessons, the entire program, teaching staff or even offer an informed opinion of Yerba Buena. For those readers who want such descriptions (and judgments), there are journalistic accounts (see above) and the AltSchool’s own descriptions for parents (see above).

Yet what was clear to me even in the morning’s glimpse of a “micro-school” was that theoretical principles of Deweyan thought and practice in his Lab School over a century ago and the evolving network of both private and public progressive schools in subsequent decades across the nation was apparent in what I saw in a few classrooms at Yerba Buena. One doesn’t need a weather vane to see which way the wind is blowing.

But there was a modern twist and a new element in the progressive portfolio of practices: the ubiquitous use of technology by teachers and students as teaching and learning tools. Unlike most places that have adopted laptops and tablets wholesale, what I saw for a few hours was that the use of new technologies was in the background, not the foreground, of a lesson. Much like pencil and paper have been taken-for-granted tools in both teaching and learning over the past century, so now digital ones.

What I also found useful in looking at a progressive vision of private schooling in practice was my 45-minute talk with the founder of these experimental “micro schools.”

Max Ventilla

The founder of AltSchool has been profiled many times and has given extensive interviews (see here  and here). In many of these, the “creation story” of how he and his wife searched for a private school that would meet their five year-old’s needs and potential and then, coming up empty in their search. “We weren’t seeing,” he said, “the kind of experiences that we thought would really prepare her for a lifetime of change.” He decided to build a school that would be customized for individual students, like their daughter, where children could further their intellectual passions while nourishing all that makes a kid, a kid.

In listening to Ventilla, that story was repeated but far more important I got a clearer sense of what he has in mind for Altschool in the upcoming years. Some venture capitalists have invested in the for-profit AltSchool not for a couple of years but for a decade. He sees beyond that horizon, however, for his networks to scale up, becoming more efficient, less costly, and attractive to more and more parents as a progressive brand that will, at some future point, reshape how private and public schools operate. And turn a profit for investors. Ventilla wants to do well by doing good.

His conceptual framework for the network and its eventual growth is a mix of what he learned personally from starting and selling software companies and working at Google in personalizing users’ search results to increase consumer purchases (see here). Ventilla sees the half-dozen or more “micro-schools” in different cities as part of a long-term research-and-development strategy that would build networks of small schools as AltSchool designers, software engineers, and teachers learn from their mistakes. As they slowly get larger, key features of AltSchool–building personalized learning platforms, for example–will be licensed to private (see here) and eventually public schools.

Ventilla mixes the language of whole child development, individual differences, the importance of collaboration among children and between children and adults with business ideas and  vocabulary of “soft vs. hard technology,”  “crossing the threshold of efficacy,” “effects per costs,” and scaling up networks to eventually become profitable.

Progressivism–both wings (see Part 1) are present in AltSchool’s collecting huge amounts of data about students and  engineers (on site) with teachers using that data to create customized playlists for each of their K-8 students across all subject areas . Efficiency and effectiveness are married to progressive principles in practice.

That is the dream that I heard from Max Ventilla one October morning.

Part 2 will describe my visit to a nearby micro-school, South-of-Market (SOMA) where 33 middle school students (6th through 8th graders) attend.

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Revisiting Progressivism: Then and Now (Part 1)

Since January, I have visited classrooms, schools, and districts in Silicon Valley to see exemplars of technology integration. Posts appeared regularly over the past months describing individual elementary and secondary school teachers teaching lessons that put technology in the background, that is, laptops and tablets were as mundane as paper and pencil, in order to reach the content and skill goals they have set.

I intend to complete all of my observations and interviews by early December. Then I will re-read everything I wrote, reflect on what I have seen, read about “best cases” elsewhere in the U.S., and talk to people across the country whose work intersects with mine, place all of this in a historical context, and finally begin tapping away on my keyboard.

Oh, do I wish that the process in the above paragraph were so linear. But it ain’t. I have thoughts and intuitions now that have accumulated with every visit to schools and classrooms. This blog is a place where I can try out these thoughts before getting hip-deep in my analysis of what I have observed over a year and tackle the writing of a book. So here goes.

Recently visiting the private San Francisco AltSchool and two public elementary schools in Milpitas (CA) have triggered my pausing to write down emerging thoughts. Those three schools pushed me to mentally scroll through all of the classroom lessons I have observed since  January. Those visits occasioned much thinking about John Dewey and Edward Thorndike intellectual leaders in the progressive movement that was the dominant reform between 1900-1950. I saw many parallels then and now between deepened interest and practice of student-centered learning and the persistent quest, again then and now, for efficient operations in Silicon Valley and elsewhere.

What I am thinking about is the periodic blossoming of yet another progressive reform surge anchored in the principles of student-centered learning and increasingly efficient schools of the earlier movement but this time fueled by new technologies and much money that make possible what has been considered impossible during recent market-oriented reforms concentrating on standards, testing, and accountability.

Since I have a blog where I can try out these intuitions and thoughts publicly, I will be writing a multi-post series  showing links that I see between past efforts of progressives to reform schools that were then thought to be “too traditional and teacher-directed” and increasing numbers of contemporary reformers operating again on progressive principles that the current “factory-model”used in public schools—need I point out these schools were a product of an earlier reform movement?–have to be replaced with child-driven, experience-laden, highly efficient schools connected to the real and ever-changing world.

So I begin with that earlier progressive school reform movement.

In the decades between the 1890s and 1940s, “progressive education” in the U.S. was the reigning political ideology of schooling. There were two main ideas, anchored in what was then emerging as a “science of education” that spurred and divided U.S. progressives in those years. First, student-centered instruction and learning (adherents were sometimes called “pedagogical progressives“) and, second, advocates of “scientific management” (sometimes called “administrative progressives” who sought to prepare children and youth to fit into work and society far more efficiently than the traditional schooling of the day. Both wings of the progressive movement cited John Dewey and Edward Thorndike and their embrace of science as the royal road to achieving “good”schools, as defined by each wing of the movement.

Educators, including many academics, administrators and researchers of the day glommed on to “scientific management.” Proud to be called “educational engineers” during these years, these progressives created lists of behaviors that principals would use to evaluate teachers, designed protocols to follow to make a school building efficient, and measured anything that was nailed down. A “good” school was an efficient one, they said.

Academics, school boards, and superintendents–then called “administrative progressives” –adopted scientific ways of determining educational efficiency. These reformers were kissing cousins of “pedagogical progressives.” The latter wanted to uproot traditional teaching and learning and plant child-centered learning in schools. Their version of a “good” school was one where the “whole child” was at the center of curriculum and instruction and learning through experience was primary. These progressives made a small dent in U.S. schools but the efficiency-minded progressives triumphed politically in shaping schools in the early 20th century.

That efficiency-driven progressive crusade for meaningful information to inform policy decisions about district and school efficiency and effectiveness has continued in subsequent decades. The current donor and business-led resurgence of a “cult of efficiency,” the application of scientific management to schooling, appears in the current romance with Big Data, evidence-based instruction, and the onslaught of models that use assumption-loaded algorithms to grade how well schools and individual teachers are doing, and customizing online lessons for students.

Even though the efficiency wing of early 20th century progressives has politically trumped the wing of the movement focused on the whole child and student-centered pedagogy, it is well to keep in mind that cycles of rhetoric–wars of words–and policy action on efficiency-driven and student-centered progressivism have spun back-and-forth for decades. The point is that while most policymakers are efficiency driven and have succeeded in dominating public school policymaking for decades, that political domination has hardly eliminated educators and parents committed to holistic, student-centered schooling.

Even now at the current height of efficiency-driven, top-down standards and testing, schools committed to educating the whole child have persisted (see here and here) within regular public schools as well as charter schools that label themselves as progressive (see here and here). The progressive impulse with its two wings lives on in 2016.

Which brings me to the private AltSchool and two public elementary ones in Milpitas (CA) that I visited recently. In subsequent posts I will take up those schools.

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Bankers and Teachers: Scandals and Accountability (Part 1)

Wells Fargo, a bank that made more than $80 billion in revenue  and has a market value of $277 billion, was fined $185,000,000 by federal regulators for creating 1.5 million fake credit card accounts. In the plea bargain that regulators made with bank officials, Wells Fargo admitted no responsibility for the financial misconduct. The company had fired more than 5,000 of their lowest-paid employees but neither the senior vice-president for community banking where the fraud occurred nor the CEO lost their positions. CEO John Stumpf, named in 2013 as Morningstar’s CEO of the Year and earning about $20 million a year, did face U.S. Senate Banking Committee questions about the phony accounts last week. In testimony, the CEO did say “I take full responsibility for all of the unethical practices in our retail banking business.”A member of the Banking Committee, Senator Elizabeth Warren (Dem.-Mass) said what the bank did was a “scam” and that Stumpf “should resign… and you should be criminally investigated.”

Looking back at the fallout from the Great Recession of 2008 in lost billions of investors’ dollars, millions of home foreclosures, and crushed hopes of a generation of hard-working American retirees–apart from one senior trader at Credit Suisse who was convicted and served 30 months—not one single CEO of an investment house, bank or insurance company hip-deep in deceiving and defrauding Americans was indicted or served a day in jail.  Yes, federal regulators fined other banks like JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America billions of dollars but they like Wells Fargo admitted no unlawful conduct and took no responsibility for their actions (see here, here, here, and here). Contrast that with the savings-and-loan bank failure in the 1980s when over 1,000 bankers  went to jail for fraud and similar charges. That was then, this is now.

Immunity from accountability is currently widespread in the private sector. But not in the public sector.

Take the case of the Atlanta Public Schools and the cheating scandal between 2009-2015. Superintendent Beverly Hall led the district between 1999 and 2010. In 2009, she was named Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators. After an investigation by state officials in 2011 triggered by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution revelations in 2009 that nearly 180 teachers and officials in 44 schools raised students’ test scores, Hall  and 31 teachers and administrators were indicted and stood trial.  Most of these educators took plea deals; Hall died of breast cancer during the trial. Eleven educators accused of tampering with students’ test scores were convicted in 2015 and are now serving from one to seven years in Georgia prisons.

No immunity from accountability here.

Lawyers and historians say often that before rushing to judgment, one must become familiar with the circumstances, the organizational setting and the mind-set of those who committed the crimes. So what were the contexts for Wells Fargo’s fraud and Atlanta’s cheating scandals?

Wells Fargo

Beginning as early as 2009, individual employees, many of whom earned less than $15 an hour, were expected to sell Wells Fargo products (e.g., credit cards, over-draft protection, checking and  savings accounts) to existing customers in order to meet their monthly goals. If they  fell short, sales representatives were written up, reprimanded or let go. Managers put intense pressure on their employees to meet these targets. Rita Murillo, a bank manager who left the company said: “We were constantly told we would end up working for McDonald’s. If we did not make the sales quotas … we had to stay for what felt like after-school detention, or report to a call session on Saturdays.”

Wells Fargo quarterly profits continued to climb in the years following the Great Recession. Investors were pleased.

As the years passed, word of bogus credit cards, checking and savings accounts and angry customers leaked out. The Los Angeles Times published an expose of the practices in 2013. The intense race to meet monthly goals created a culture where sales staff were pushed again and again to meet their targets or else. Phone calls from bosses were dreaded. After newspaper articles appeared, managers fired employees. Even after the LA Times‘ revealing of these practices and the dog-eat-dog ethos at Wells Fargo, bogus credit cards and new accounts continued.  Then state and federal regulators entered the picture. Fines were levied against Wells Fargo but not one senior executive was either admonished or forced to resign.

This is the context for Wells Fargo (see here, here, and here).

The Atlanta Public Schools

The high-poverty, mostly black district had struggled for decades with low graduation and high dropout rates and state test scores near the bottom of Georgia’s public school systems. Within the segregated district–there are a few largely white schools and the rest are largely black–academic gaps between white and black have been large and persistent (e.g., majority white Grady High School graduates 82 percent of its students while majority black Douglass High School is 42 percent).

Pressure to raise state test scores and graduation rates rose and fell as superintendents came and went in the 1990s. With the appointment of Beverly Hall in 1999 and the passage of the federal No Child Left Behind law (2002), that pressure increased considerably. Rewards and sanctions accompanied goals of raising test scores across the district. All teachers in schools meeting 70 percent of their goal, for example, would receive bonus payments. The superintendent’s contract had a similar provision for increases to her salary. Sanctions for low test performance under NCLB led to closed schools, firing principals and reprimands for district office administrators not meeting state and federal goals under Adequate Yearly Performance (AYP).

Hall was determined to improve Atlanta’s student performance. And the numbers rose over the years. Bonuses went to many schools and the superintendent. Rumors of tampering with test scores circulated and were dismissed. A number of teachers reported principals fiddling with test score results. Nothing happened except strong district office messages to be quiet or leave. A culture of fear blanketed schools. Then the Atlanta Journal Constitution investigated the rumors and published their startling report in 2009 on how much adult cheating occurred on district tests. State officials then completed their investigation in 2011 (see here).

The results of that investigation led to charging the superintendent, principals and teachers in over three dozen schools with changing student test scores. The report pointed to the high-stress placed on raising test scores and the pervasive fear among school employees of retaliation if anyone reported abuses. Some quotes from the state inquiry:

*“Throughout this investigation numerous teachers told us they raised concerns about cheating and other misconduct to their principal or SRT [School Reform Team] … only to end up disciplined or terminated.”

*“[T] message was: ‘Get the scores up by any means necessary;’ in Dr. Hall’s words, ‘No exceptions and no excuses.’”

*“In sum, a culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation permeated the APS system from the highest ranks down.”

At both Wells Fargo and in the Atlanta public schools hard-driving managerial pressures created fear-strewn workplaces where success-filled data became the goal. Similar contexts in a public and private institution turned up.

Yet accountability for fraud in these two institutions differed greatly. How come?

Part 2 tries to answer that question.

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