Category Archives: Reforming schools

Creating New Schools: Regression To the Mean (Part 2)

In 2003, Microsoft Corporation went into a partnership with the Philadelphia public schools to build and staff a brand-new high school called “The School of the Future” in the middle of a West Philadelphia low-income, African American neighborhood. Microsoft would supply the technological expertise and the district would staff and operate the school. The mission: prepare youth to go to college and enter the high-tech information-saturated workplace prepared to get entry-level jobs and launch careers.

In 2006, this shining new eco-sensitive, high-tech school, adjacent to a large park and the city’s zoo,  costing $62 million opened for 750 students. Students were chosen by lottery. The founders and district leaders were committed to educating students–called “learners”–to use software-laden laptops using a Microsoft developed portal rather than printed textbooks. A shining new media center, science labs galore, and especially equipped classrooms supported interdisciplinary projects and team-driven projects driven by students’ interests. The facility sparkled. As did the hopes and dreams of the teachers, “learners”, and parents.

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In 2012, School of the Future graduated its first class of 117 seniors–three years after it opened and every single one was admitted to college. But it was a rocky ride for these largely poor and African American graduates and subsequent classes.

Frequent changes in principals, unstable funding from district–the state had taken over the Philadelphia schools–mediocre academic achievement, and troubles with technologies–devices became obsolete within a few years–made the initial years most difficult in reaching the goals so admirably laid out in the prospectus for the school.

In 2018, the School of Future remains in operation but even with its surfeit of technology devices and software SOF has slowly become similar to traditional schools elsewhere in its district in its goals, policies, and practices (see here, here, and here).

As Richard Sherin, principal or “Chief Learner” since 2014 said:

At one point this school functioned very much through technology….Where our innovation is now is to get back to the fundamentals of what an educational academic program is supposed to be like, and how you get technology to mirror or augment that.

Part of those “fundamentals” is having a regular school day of seven 56-minute periods like most high schools with an 11-minute hiatus for what used to be called “home room.” Textbooks have returned as have paper and pencil. While project-based learning occurs in different academic subjects, state standards, yearly testing, and accountability have pressed both administration and faculty to focus on getting better-than-average test scores and graduating most of their students–SOF exceeds other district high schools in the percentage they graduate.

This slippage from grand opening of a futuristic school to one resembling a traditional high school is common in public schooling as it is in other institutions.

Why is there this slow movement back from a school built for the future  to the traditional model of schooling as seen in New York’s Downtown School (Part 1) and here in Philadelphia’s School of Future?

I have one but surely not the only answer. Designers of future schools and innovations overestimate the potency of their vision and product and underestimate the power of the age-graded school’s structure and culture (fully supported by societal beliefs) that sustain traditional models of schooling. That see-saw of underestimation vs. overestimation neatly summarizes the frequent cycles of designers’ exhilaration with a reform slowly curdling into disappointment as years pass.

The overestimation of a design to alter the familiar traditional school has occurred time and again when reformers with full wallets, seeing how out of touch educators were as changes in society accelerated, created new schools chock-a-block across the country in the 1960s such as “free schools” and non-graded schools  (see here and here).

Within a decade, founders of these schools of the future had departed, either  burned out or because they had ignored politically the two constituencies of parents and teachers who had to be involved from the start but were not. These well intentioned reformers also ignored how the structures and culture of the age-graded school have been thoroughly accepted by most parents and teachers as “real schools.”

Designers of reform seldom think about the inherent stability of the institution that they want to transform. They seldom think about the strong social beliefs of taxpayers, voters, teachers, and parents who have sat in age-graded schools and who sustain generation after generation the “grammar of schooling.”

From daily schedules of 50-minute periods to the fact that teachers ask questions far more than students during lessons to the use of textbooks, homework, and frequent tests–these features of the “grammar of schooling” or what Seymour Sarason in The Culture of the School and the Problem of Change,  called the “regularities” of schooling–persist generation after generation. While they exaggerate the reform they champion, they neglect  the influences of organizational structures and cultures.

Some designers give up. They realize that their grand visions cannot be accommodated by public schools quickly so they create schools of the future in private venues such as “micro-schools” or  the Khan Lab School and the like.

The notion of mindful incremental change over a lengthy period of time in the direction of gradually building a “school of the future” is anathema to fired-up, amply funded designers who see their visions enacted in one fell swoop. Thus, disappointment arises when futuristic schools slip back into routines that designers scorned. Regression to the mean smells like failure to these reformers who underestimated the power of the “grammar of schooling.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Bottom-up Reform: Teachers (Part 2)

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First, West Virginia teachers in February 2018 went on strike and lobbied state legislators for higher salaries and more money for public schools. These protests were then followed by teachers in Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona and Colorado. In full view of the nation, low-salaried teachers struck to get higher pay and lobby legislatures to allocate more money to public schools.

 

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These states (except for Colorado) barred unions from collectively bargaining with district school boards; they were right-to-work states–there are 28 that ban unions. Still these teachers organized walk-outs from schools and bus trips to state capitols to persuade legislators to increase funding for public schools. Enough was enough, these teachers said to those who make educational policy for state systems.

These state-wide protests bubbled up from classrooms, schools, and districts and spread like a flash fire. Most of these legislatures increased spending for salaries and allocations for districts–see article about Oklahoma. Teacher-led flash fires, yes. Unions involved? Not directly, because collective bargaining was banned in these states. But indirectly through  the American Federation of Teachers (under one million members) and the National Education Association (nearly three million members) which had organizations in these states.

If there is one clear example of teacher-led changes that was bottom-up, incremental, and political–no political actions occurred in the spread of student interactive notebooks in Part 1 of this series–then these state-wide protests resurface the late-19th century’s efforts of teacher Margaret Haley’s campaign to organize Chicago teachers.

The decades surrounding the beginning of the 20th century were when Haley and a cadre of fellow teachers organized the Chicago Teachers Union to stop administrators’ arbitrary dismissals of teachers, raise salaries, and make pay equitable between male and female teachers (see here and here).

Teacher unions spread across the country with states in the Northeast and West eventually becoming the most organized regions. The NEA, however, had admitted administrators to their ranks since its founding and initially frowned on teachers copying private sector industrial unions of the day; in the late-1960s, however, NEA barred administrators from the organization moving gradually to become the largest U.S. union representing teachers.

A bottom-up reform? Yes, here are mostly women teachers who dominated the profession listening to “Maggie” Haley in the early 20th century and Al Shanker later in the century to organize into unions that would fight for equitable salaries, better working conditions and the right to bargain with school boards over policies affecting teachers and their classrooms. While NEA and AFT were private organizations supported by dues-paying teachers, union lobbying–and state and federal legislation–got many states to recognize the right of teachers to collectively bargain with boards of education–Wisconsin being the first to do so in 1959. Over time, unions became an actor in formulating and adopting state and district policies that raised pay, improved schools as both workplaces and places to learn, and established due process in district decisions about firing teachers.

Incremental? Yes, throughout the 20th century, unions gained collective bargaining in bite-sized chunks, made advances in securing protections from capricious dismissals, gained a single salary schedule for teachers–elementary school teachers earned less than secondary school teachers–and equal pay for male and female teachers. Slow but steady progress occurred over the decades amid threatened and actual strikes (in many states teachers strikes were prohibited). In some instances, unions retreated and in other cases, lost out to state decisions that banned collective bargaining but teacher unionism became a mainstay in state and local school policymaking (see here, here, and here).

Political? Yes. With extensive lobbying of school boards, city councils, and state legislatures—unions mandate that new members must pay dues that permit political activity–states and districts modified policies involving teacher pay, educational funding, school improvements, and due process in evaluating teachers’ performance. And state legislatures and district school boards have changed policies over time. Unions also acted politically through running slates of local and state candidates who endorsed union agendas, protests and strikes–even in states that banned work stoppages–to secure their rights and particular changes.

So bottom-up, teacher-led reforms that seek incremental policy changes toward desired goals combined with political action capture the origin and growth of teacher unions  over the past century.

In part 3, I turn to another teacher-led, bottom-up reform that involved political action and ended up providing safer schools for both teachers and students.

 

 

 

 

 

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Bottom-Up School Reform: Teachers (Part 1)

So easy to forget that teachers have changed incrementally how they have taught in their classrooms.

So easy to forget that in the age-graded school, teachers have discretion to decide what they will do in organizing the classroom, teaching the curriculum, and encouraging student participation.

So easy to forget that once teachers close their classroom doors, they put their thumbprints upon any top-down policy they are expected to put into practice.

In the constant drumroll of criticism that teachers and schools are stuck in the Ice Age and have hardly changed, the facts of teacher autonomy and incremental change are often forgotten in a state’s or district’s pell-mell rush to embrace the reform du jour. Historically there is much evidence that teachers –essentially conservative in their disposition– have changed (and do alter) classroom routines bit-by-bit including both the format and content of lessons even within the straitjacket of the age-graded school (see here, here, and here).

Over time, in response to personal, community, and social concerns, most teachers add to or delete from the content and skills they are expected to teach. Additionally, they try out ideas that colleagues have suggested, a principal recommended, or ones that have come from their reading or that they saw in someone else’s classroom or heard at a conference. The classroom has been a venue for teachers’ steady change over the past century.

And so too has the school been an arena for incremental change often mirroring changes in the local community and larger society. Groups of teachers anxious about deteriorating discipline in their building approach the principal with a draft plan for the entire faculty to put into practice. Collaboration among teachers and with the principal emerge as a few teachers decide to pilot a piece of free software in behavioral management of their students. Some teachers form a reading group to explore a particular teaching innovation they have heard about. Of course, politically astute principals identify teacher leaders in their school and persuade them to investigate a school-wide change that she believes will help the school improve (see here, here, and here).

Both the classroom and school as venues for steady change can be the beginning of  what I and others have called bottom-up reform, that is, changes bubbling to the surface with district leaders embracing the initiatives crafted in classrooms and schools and adopting  changes in practice as new policies.Bottom-up is the opposite of top-down policies authorized by those federal, state, and local officials who make decisions.

Every U.S. and international reader of this blog knows what top-down change is. Even in a decentralized system of schooling in the U.S. with 50 states, 13,000-plus districts, over 100,000 schools, three and a half million teachers, and over 50 million students, most policies aimed at classrooms–new curriculum standards, taking standardized tests, buying brand-new laptops and tablets–come from federal, state, and district policies. Top-down not bottom-up policymaking has been the rule.

In acknowledging the rule, however, it is wise for policymakers and practitioners to recognize and remember that classrooms and schools are also crucibles for smart changes tailored to students in the here and now. Putting policies into practice is the teacher’s job. Teachers are the gatekeepers who determine which policies or parts of policies get implemented, a fact that too many decision-makers fail to get.

Historically, then, there have occasional bottom-up changes originating in classrooms and schools–often affected by external events–that have trickled upward to inform district and state policymakers. But most classroom changes stay localized in a particular school or network of schools rather than spreading across the educational landscape.

Three examples of teacher-led changes, however, come to mind in this three-part series of posts.

First, is an unnoticed classroom tool called the “interactive student notebook” developed by a few San Francisco Bay area teachers in the 1970s and 1980s that has spread into many U.S. classrooms.  When I entered “interactive student notebook” in a Google search I got over 40,000,000 hits (June 1, 2018).

The over-riding purpose of ISNs is to have students organize information and concepts coming from the teacher, text, and software and creatively record all of it within a spiral notebook in order to analyze and understand at a deeper level what the information means and its applications to life.

In an ISN, students write on the right-hand page of a notebook with different colored pens and pencils information gotten from teacher lectures, textbooks, videos, readings, photos, and software. What is written could be the familiar notes taken from a teacher lecture or the requirements of doing a book report or the steps taken when scientists inquire into questions. These facts and concepts can be illustrated or simply jotted down.

The left-hand page is for the student to draw a picture, compose a song, make a cartoon, write a poem, or simply record emotions about the content they recorded on the right-hand page.

The ISN combines familiar information processing with opportunities for students to be creative in not only grasping facts and concepts but also by inventing and imagining other representations of the ideas. Both pages come into play (the following illustrations come from teachers and their students’ ISNs that have been posted on the web.

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A student studying pre-Civil War politics over slavery put this on the right-hand page.

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A student taking science put this on the right-hand page.fee9361f6eb82cbbb167a0e270032cd4--interactive-science-notebooks-science-journals.jpg

And for the left-hand side, a student studying North American explorers did this one:

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And another student drawing and diagram for the road to colonial independence in

America on the left-hand side looked like this:

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Origins of ISNs

While there may be other teachers who came up with the idea and developed it for their classes, one teacher in particular I do know embarked on such a journey and produced an interactive student notebook for his classes. Meet Lee Swenson.

A rural Minnesotan who graduated from Philips Exeter Academy and then Stanford University (with a major in history), Swenson went on to get his masters and teaching credential in a one-year program at Stanford. He applied for a social studies position in 1967 at Aragon High School in San Mateo (CA). Swenson retired from Aragon in 2005.

Beginning in the mid-1970s and extending through the 1980s, Swenson, an avid reader of both research and practice, tried out different ways of getting students to take notes on lectures and discussion, and write coherent, crisp essays for his World Study and U.S. history classes. He worked closely with his department chair Don Hill in coming up with ways that students could better organize and remember information that they got from lectures, textbooks, other readings, and films and portray that information in thoughtful, creative ways in their notebooks. They wanted to combine the verbal with the visual in ways that students would find helpful while encouraging students to be creative.  Better student writing was part of their motivation in helping students organize and display what they have learned. Swenson and Hill took Bay Area Writing Project seminars. Swenson made presentations on helping students write through pre-writing exercises, using metaphors, and other techniques. It was a slow, zig-zag course in developing the ISN with many cul-de-sacs and stumbles.*

Both he and Don Hill began trying out in their history classes early renditions of what would eventually become ISNs by the late-1980s. In each version of ISN’s Swenson learned from errors he made, student suggestions, and comments from other teachers in the social studies and English departments in the school. Swenson made presentations at Aragon to science, English, and other departments, schools in the district, and social studies conferences in California and elsewhere.

By the mid-1990s, Swenson had developed a simplified model ISN that he and a small group of teachers inside and outside the district were using. The model continued to be a work in progress as teachers tweaked and adapted the ISN to their settings. By the end of that decade, a teacher at Aragon that Swenson knew joined a group of teachers at the Teacher Curriculum Institute who were creating a new history textbook.

Teachers Bert Bower and Jim Lobdell, founders of TCI, were heavily influenced by the work of Stanford University sociologist Elizabeth Cohen on small group collaboration and Harvard University’s cognitive psychologist Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences. They wanted a new history text that would have powerful teaching strategies that called for student-teacher interactions. They hired that Aragon teacher who had worked with Swenson to join them; the teacher introduced them to the ISN that was in full bloom within Aragon’s social studies department. They saw the technique fitting closely to the framework they wanted in their new history textbook. TCI contacted Swenson and he became a co-author with Bower and Lobdell  for the first and second editions of History Alive (1994 and 1998).

By 2017, TCI had online and print social studies (and science) textbooks for elementary, middle, and high school classrooms. One of the many features of the social studies books was “[T]he Interactive Student Notebook [that] challenges students with writing and drawing activities.” On their website, TCI asserts that their materials are in 5,000 school districts (there are 13,000-plus in the nation), 50, 000 schools (there are over 100,000 schools in the U.S.), 200,000 teachers (over 3.5 million in the country), and 4.5 million students (U.S. schools have over 50 million students).

From teacher Lee Swenson and colleagues’ slow unfolding of the idea of an interactive student notebook in the 1970s in one high school, the idea and practice of ISNs has spread and has taken hold as a technique that tens of thousands of teachers across the country include in their repertoire. Classroom change from the bottom up, not the top-down.

That is the first example. However, what’s missing from ISN is the political component where districts and states ask all teachers to implement ISN. This political piece added to the habit of incremental classroom changes makes bottom-up approach a powerful force for widespread change.

Part 2 describes a second teacher-led, bottom-up change that was both incremental and political becoming a national teacher union movement that trickled upward to reshape relations between teachers and district officials across the U.S.

Part 3 is a post describing a third teacher-led change, beginning in the 1970s, that was both incremental and political reshaping district and state policies about the treatment of particular groups of students and teachers in U.S. private and public schools.

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*Lee Swenson and I have known each other since the mid-1980s. As an Aragon teacher, he attended workshops sponsored by the Stanford/Schools Collaborative. In 1990, Swenson and I began team-teaching a social studies curriculum and instruction course in Stanford University’s Secondary Teacher Education Program. We taught that course for a decade. Since then we have stayed in touch through lunches, dinners, long conversations on bike rides, and occasional glasses of wine. He has shared with me his experiences and written materials in how he and Don Hill developed  ISNs for their courses.

 

 

 

 

 

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How Design Thinking Became a Buzzword at School (Jessica Lahey)

Jessica Lahey is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and an English teacher. She writes “The Parent-Teacher Conference” column at The New York Times, is a commentator for Vermont Public Radio, and is the author of The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed.”

This article appeared on The Atlantic Online January 4, 2017.

 

At a recent teaching conference in Richmond, Virginia, a session on “design thinking” in education drew a capacity crowd. Two middle-school teachers demonstrated how they had used the concept to plan and execute an urban-design project in which students were asked to develop a hypothetical city or town given factors such as population, geography, the environment, and financial resources.

The teachers in the audience were enchanted by the details of the project; and if the photographs in the presentation were any indication, the students who participated in the lesson enjoyed it, too. The presenting teachers were bubbling over with enthusiasm for what they saw as the potential inherent in teaching design thinking.

Many of the teachers in attendance were flummoxed, however. As we filed out of the room and headed toward our next sessions, I overheard one woman remark to another that while the urban-design project looked like something she’d like to try in her own classroom, “I think I missed something. I still don’t understand what design thinking is. Do you?” The other teacher shook her head and said, “I think it’s a curriculum, but I’m not really sure.”

Confusion around the precise definition of design thinking is understandable, said Neil Stevenson, the executive portfolio director at IDEO Chicago, one of the best-known purveyors of design thinking. “Design thinking isn’t one thing,” he told me in a phone interview, “but a bundle of mindsets and philosophies all wrapped up in one term, which obviously has the potential to lead to ambiguity and misunderstanding.”

While Stevenson spent plenty of time talking around a definition—explaining mindsets, the nature of creativity, and the evolution of design—even convincing him to offer a brief definition proved difficult. Finally, Stevenson outlined what he sees as the foundational aspects of design thinking as it relates to educators:

First, he emphasized, design thinking starts with empathy. When designing anything meant to be used by another person—whether that’s a lesson, curriculum, classroom layout, or an imaginary city—the designer must understand what that person (an “end-user,” in design lingo) needs. In the case of the urban-design project, for example, the students can’t just design a pretty building; they must think about the needs of the people who will live there, as well as the available resources, the budget, and the impact that building will have on the surrounding landscape. “The design-thinking philosophy requires the designer to put his or her ego to the side and seek to meet the unmet needs, both rational and emotional, of the user,” Stevenson explained.

Once the student designers have gathered all their research together, they must organize and make sense of it all. Again, in the case of the urban-planning project, after the students have gathered interviews and research about the needs of their city’s future residents, students must figure out what to do with all that information. If, for example, the future residents’ top priorities include affordability and opulence, the student designer is going to have to find a way to integrate the residents’ conflicting needs.

Finally, design thinking requires designers to generate ideas—lots of ideas—and prototype them. In order for this part of the process to work, students and teachers must be comfortable with failure. For many students, particularly those who want to look smart, this phase can be frustrating. “People tend to come up with an idea early on, and know that this idea is it, the perfect idea, and get emotionally invested in that one thing. Then, when their perfect idea fails, they fall apart,” Stevenson said. Design thinking forces students to keep their minds open, to try out lots of ideas early in the process before they let their egos or emotions get too invested in just one.

There will be a time to put spitballing aside, of course. Once ideas have been prototyped and tested, students begin to work toward one effective, final solution—an end product that can be assessed, presented, displayed, or put to work in their classroom or community. The beauty of the design process, proponents say, is that the value of the experience does not lie solely in the end product. Learning happens throughout the process, from the early research phase to the final presentation. This allows students and teachers to focus on what’s most important in learning: the process, rather than the product.

One scene from the film Apollo 13 provides a great illustration of the design-thinking process. After Apollo 13 is crippled by an explosion, the astronauts are stranded in the lunar module. The air filters in the lunar module are failing, so the engineers at NASA must find a way to make a square filter fit into a round hole using only the materials available to the astronauts. The engineers find a solution through design thinking: by understanding the needs and resources of the astronauts, organizing the resources available on the lunar module, then working together to develop and prototype many ideas. The ultimate solution may not have been pretty, but it was creative and it was effective. Their design saved the lives of the Apollo 13 astronauts.

This sort of step-by-step, formulaic approach to creative problem-solving was revolutionary and counterintuitive when it was first developed in reaction to the launch of Sputnik in 1957. When Russia leapfrogged ahead of the rest of the world in the space race, the U.S. needed to respond with a rapid and radical acceleration in technological innovation. The process of design thinking emerged as an effort to encourage all scientists—even the least creative, most inflexible thinkers—to be novel, brave, and innovative in their problem-solving.

Historically, creativity has been portrayed as a mysterious, elusive force—a gift from the gods or the muses. Creativity can’t be summoned, the thinking goes, let alone taught to the mentally inflexible, unimaginative, muse-less masses. Design thinking upends that perception and assumes that anyone can be a creative problem-solver.

At its best, design thinking incorporates proven-effective teaching techniques such as self-directed inquiry and collaborative problem-solving, and dovetails nicely with social-emotional learning curricula that emphasize interpersonal skills such as collaboration and empathy. And the end result of a design-thinking project is often a tangible product, such as a model city, a robot, or a better mousetrap.  It’s no surprise, then, that many educators are eager to adopt design thinking as a way to plan their own teaching and as a strategy for helping their students learn through solving real-world problems.

The popularity of design thinking, however, might be precisely what’s contributing to the confusion I witnessed in Virginia, says Stevenson:

It’s been extremely gratifying for all of us practicing design to see the ideas taken on by so many people. There’s a downside, though, which is that when something becomes popular, now suddenly everyone wants to learn it and lots and lots of people will spring up and teach it. For the sake of communication, we tend to define design thinking as A followed by B followed by C, but in doing this, we are guilty of oversimplifying.

As teachers seek to learn more about design thinking and its application in their classrooms, conference sessions and certificate programs have emerged to accommodate demand. Stanford’s D-School and IDEO offer two popular courses, but there are many flavors, colors, and brands of design thinking for educators to choose from.

In other words, the lack of a clear definition makes explaining, evaluating, and studying design thinking a challenge. And some teachers at that conference in Virginia—myself included—were skeptical, and attended the design-thinking session to better understand whether the concept is actually an effective learning strategy or simply another education trend gone viral despite scant objective data regarding its effectiveness for learning.

When executed with a clear understanding of its purpose as a method for fostering empathy, creativity, and innovation, design thinking can be a powerful tool for learning and change. If it is hastily and inexpertly implemented by educators with a weak or incomplete understanding of its principles, however, it is likely to be a waste of energy and precious classroom time.

Design thinking, like Carol Dweck’s work on fixed and growth mindsets and Angela Duckworth’s research on grit, are best understood in context, as a complex and nuanced approach to learning rather than a checklist of executable tasks. Dweck was so alarmed by the rampant oversimplification of fixed and growth mindsets that she wrote an article for Edutopia to clear up common misconceptions about her work. Just as Dweck’s work can’t be conveyed adequately in a Life Hack infographic, and Duckworth’s research is apt to be misunderstood when reduced to a listicle, design thinking seems likely to fail as an educational tool when communicated in terms of “Five Simple Steps.”

Mindsets, grit, and design thinking are all victims of their own massive popularity, and in the rush to incorporate these concepts into existing lesson plans, have sometimes been reduced to checklist items on teachers’ overcrowded to-do lists. When treated as a classroom culture, however, rather than an action, design thinking (as well as mindset and grit) may revolutionize the way teachers and students think about failure, creative problem-solving, and teamwork.

Ultimately, design thinking is not a curriculum, advocates like Stevenson say, but a process for problem-solving, a strategy to elicit creativity rooted in empathy and comfort with failure. Teachers can use design thinking to create a classroom layout that conforms to the needs of their students, they say, or to plan lessons that will work best for the students in a given school or classroom. Entire school districts are embracing design thinking to create spaces and curricula around the intellectual and emotional needs of their students. Teachers are also helping students use design thinking to apply what they’ve learned to real-world problems, such as the urban-design project described by those middle-school teachers in Virginia.

While there is not a lot of data to support any particular brand of design thinking as an effective teaching or learning strategy, the key elements of design thinking will be familiar to any teacher well-versed in the basics of effective teaching: start with empathy, move ego to the side, and support students in the process of failing often and early on their way to learning.

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Whatever Happened to Effective Schools?

Nothing. They are still around but with many aliases. As a label for a movement that began in the late-1970s to demonstrate that urban schools can overcome the ill effects of poverty, a coalition of researchers, practitioners and policymakers distilled the features of a small number of schools with largely low-income and minority students that exceeded predicted levels of academic achievement into a recipe for “success” for all schools. That was then. Effective Schools  exist today but has switched labels.

When did the idea of Effective Schools originate?

In the mid-1970s, a small number of researchers began working to disprove the then mainstream policy wisdom that what largely determines students’ academic performance—as measured by standardized achievement tests—is family background. Research studies on the inability of public schools to overcome the effects of poverty and race had led national policymakers to call for reduced federal funding of programs (see here, here, and here)

Within this social milieu of pessimism about the failure of public schools to make a difference in the lives of poor minority children, the Effective Schools Movement was born. Believing deeply in the value of equity and expecting that urban schoolchildren would be especially harmed were such a prevailing consensus of opinion among policymakers to persist, this small band of activist researchers led by Ron Edmonds identified a handful of big-city schools enrolling large numbers of low-income minority children who scored higher on standardized achievement tests than would have been predicted by their socioeconomic status (see here, here, and here)

These researchers-cum-reformers extracted from these schools certain factors (e.g., clearly stated academic goals, principal’s instructional leadership, concentration on basic academic skills, strong emphasis on maintaining order in school, frequent monitoring of academic achievement, connecting what is taught to what is tested, etc.) that they believed were linked to the students’ higher-than-expected academic performance on standardized tests.

In creating the Effective Schools’ ideology and model programs, Ron Edmonds and others prized four values: All children, regardless of background, can learn and achieve results that mirror ability, not socioeconomic status; top-down decisions wedded to scientifically derived data can improve individual schools; measurable results count; and the school is the basic unit of reform.

What problems did Effective Schools aim to solve?

Primarily, the problem was that in the late-1960s most policymakers, practitioners, researchers, and taxpayers believed that largely minority and poor children because of where they lived could not learn or achieve what their white peers learned and achieved. Even though President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society” included the path-breaking law–the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965)–that sent money into districts across the country enrolling poor and minority children and youth, this social belief held by most national, state, and local policymakers, reinforced by research studies in the late-1960s, permeated educational decisions. Ron Edmonds and colleagues across the country and in Europe identified high-achieving elementary and secondary schools enrolling mostly poor and minority students to undermine that belief.

What is an Effective School?

The common definition of an Effective School in the 1970s through the 1990s was one that possessed certain features extracted from those schools that exceeded predicted levels of achievement on state standardized tests. These common features, of course, are correlates–they are associated with test score success not what causes a largely minority and poor school to become a “success.”

These correlates expanded and changed over time. For example, Larry Lezotte, a staunch advocate of Effective Schools and colleague of Ron Edmonds, added one feature to Edmonds’s list:

  1. Instructional leadership.
  2. Clear and focused mission.
  3. Safe and orderly environment.
  4. Climate of high expectations.
  5. Frequent monitoring of student progress.
  6. Positive home-school relations.
  7. Opportunity to learn and student time on task

The amending and deleting of these common elements to Effective Schools occurred time and again as the movement spread from elementary to secondary schools, became targeted on middle-class white venues, and traveled to Europe.

Did Effective Schools work?

According to advocates who focused on rising test scores in inadequately resourced minority and poor schools that year after year posted higher-than-expected results, the answer was “yes.” Such results led to a rapid spread of the nomenclature and common features throughout U.S. urban and rural low-performing schools in the 1980s and 1990s. The federal government began using the vocabulary and by the end of the 1990s the U.S. Congress had passed the Comprehensive School Reform Act  that embraced fully the rhetoric and features of the Effective School movement.

Researchers, however, began to raise serious questions beginning in the 1970s and since about the constantly shifting features of supposedly “effective” schools, the definitions used, the demographics of schools labeled, and the stability of those schools initially labeled as “effective” but in a few years lapsed back into low test scores (see here, here, and here)

What has happened to Effective Schools?

If Edmonds’s work in the late 1970s spawned a cottage industry of Effective Schools aimed at ensuring equity for low-income, minority students, the linkage of public schools to the economy with the report, A Nation at Risk (1983), in effect, nationalized the Effective Schools movement while dropping the brand name. Federal and state policymakers, believing in education as the engine for the economy and using the same Effective Schools research, sought a broader and speedier impact on the nation’s schools than the slower school-by-school approach. They called for national goals, curriculum, and tests.

Throughout the 1980s, U.S. Secretaries of Education William Lamar Alexander and William Bennett talked about “good schools” and “effective schools” in the same breath. Assistant Secretary of Education Chester Finn spearheaded the production of a popular pamphlet called “What Works” that drew directly from the effective schools research.

President Bush and his policy advisers organized the nation’s governors to endorse six national goals in 1989. A movement toward national goals, curriculum, and tests received the stamp of approval from a Republican president who styled himself the “Education President.”

When administrations changed, top policy advisers to Democrats also drew from the same well of Effective Schools ideology and research. Within an article that became a script for national and state policy elites, for example, Marshall Smith and Jennifer O’Day (1990) made clear that the ancestry of “systemic reform” was in the Effective Schools movement. “The most effective schools,” they said, “maintain a schoolwide vision or mission, and common instructional goals which tie the content, structure, and resources of the school together into an effective unified whole” (p.235). Moreover, the school mission provides the criteria and rationale for the selection of curriculum materials; the purposes and the nature of school-based professional development, and the interpretation and use of student assessment.

Smith later served in the Bill Clinton administration as Deputy Secretary under U.S. Secretary Richard Riley. Smith drafted many of the Clinton administration’s bills on national goals and testing and accelerated the shift toward nationalization of the Effective Schools movement without once using the phrase “effective schools.”

The Comprehensive School Reform Act (1998) leaned heavily on the ideology of Effective Schools and the strategy of whole-school reform, that is, changing one school (rather than district or state) at a time.

The bipartisan reliance of policy elites on Effective Schools research continued into President George W. Bush’s administration with the No Child Left Behind Act (2002) that laid out clearly that all schools, regardless of neighborhood, could become “good” schools without once mentioning Ron Edmonds or the Effective Schools movement three decades earlier.

Under President Obama, NCLB was enforced and efforts to turnaround “dropout factories” into “successful” schools continued, often invoking features trumpeted by the Effective Schools’ literature.

With parental choice expanding since the 1990s and the spread of charter schools, the label Effective School seldom appears. What does show up are “No Excuses” schools and networks of charter schools that embrace many of the features listed by an earlier generation of Effective Schools champions such as KIPP, Aspire, Success Academy, etc. These are the present day aliases for the half-century old Effective Schools movement.

 

 

 

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Khan Lab School (Part 2)

The old classroom model simply doesn’t fit our changing needs….It’s a fundamentally passive way of learning, while the world requires more and more active processing of information.

Salman Khan, The One World Classroom (2012)

 

From Francis Parker to John Dewey to Ella Flagg Young, to Vito Perrone to Deborah Meier to Theodore Sizer, complaints about the “old classroom model” have echoed through university lecture halls, academic monographs, oodles of conferences and, now, in education blogs. Criticism of existing public schools has spawned generation after generation of reformers looking for ways to alter the dominant “factory model,” “assembly line,” or “batch processing” way of schooling over the past 150 years.

Their target has been the historic structure of the age-graded public school with its  buildings divided into hallways lined with box-like classrooms where teachers distribute slices of curriculum grade-by-grade using whole and small-group instruction, homework, tests daily. The regime ends in June with either students being promoted to the next grade or being retained in the grade for another year.

Imported from Prussia in the late 1840s, that generation of reformers touted it as an innovation that was superior to the one-room schoolhouse. And it was. Between the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, the age-graded public school took in millions of immigrants from western, eastern, and southern Europe. These immigrants became Americanized through schooling and the workplace.

But there were critics of the age-graded school then and now. In 1902, John Dewey warned educators that “the manner in which the machinery of instruction bears upon the child … really controls the whole system.” That “machinery of instruction” is what David Tyack and I called the “grammar of schooling” in Tinkering toward Utopia.

So Salman Khan joins a queue of reformers targeting the “old classroom model” in starting a brand new school unlike traditional public schools. There is a direct line from John Dewey’s Lab School (1896-1904) to progressive public and private schools in the 1920s to small “free” schools popping up in the mid-1960s, the small schools movement in the 1990s and now currently micro-schools gussied up with new technologies . The lineage is anchored in the quest to create settings where students learn from one another regardless of age, pursue their intellectual curiosity and passions at their pace, and where knowledgeable and skilled teachers  guide students to reach their individual potential.

Consider micro-schools. The one-room schoolhouse of yesteryear is the model for micro-schools. Small—anywhere from 25 to 150 students of mixed ages–with a few teachers committed to integrated content and skills such as multi-subject projects on climate change, answering big questions on why countries go to war, producing a newspaper, and connecting daily to the world outside of the school. Learning is active occurring in small groups and independent (a.k.a. “personalized learning”).

Dispensing with grade levels, traditional pedagogy, tests geared to state curriculum standards, and using space and furniture differently than in regular schools. Micro-schools vary in their origin–public (charters, school-within-a-school to free standing ones) and private. Most, however, are largely private and charge tuition in the tens of thousands dollars (see here, here, and here).  They also vary in their challenge to the “grammar of schooling” ranging from individually paced mastery-based learning to wholly project-based and experiential programs–some schools even combining these features.

New York and San Francisco-based Alt/Schools, for example, are privately-funded micro-schools that charge tuition and create schools with different systems unlike those found in nearly all public schools. No “machinery of instruction” in Alt/Schools (see here, here, and here). The policy Nirvana of “going to scale,” that is, creating more Alt/Schools and lowering the cost of schooling per student, however, has stumbled.

Is the Khan Lab School also a micro-school? Yes it is.

KLS is a Lab School in the tradition of challenging the dominant “grammar of instruction” in public schools going back to the first one operated by John Dewey (and later wife, Alice) at the University of Chicago at the beginning of the 20th century.

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The Dewey Lab School was committed to active, social, and individualized learning–all without laptops and tablets.  Organizing the school day into group and individual projects located inside and outside the rooms of the school under the guidance of teachers, John and Alice Dewey believed that education needed to balance children’s interests with disciplinary knowledge. Such an education was instrumental to building a strong democracy and would lead to positive societal change. Highly touted at the time as the premier challenge to traditional public schooling, conflicts between the University’s leadership and the Deweys led to their departure in 1904 (see here and here)

While KLS is not affiliated with any university as was Dewey’s Laboratory School–it is an extension of private, non-profit Khan Academy–KLS remains committed to both “research-based instruction and furthering innovation in education” and, at the same time, putting into practice the ideas of its founder.

The tradition of challenging the dominant structure of the age-graded school and its “grammar of schooling” continues to this day with micro-schools in Silicon Valley and elsewhere illustrating anew that such reforms to the traditional “machinery of instruction” have resided, for the most part, in private schools where tuition runs high and students bring many economic and social advantages school. In a profound way, the high cost of these private schools and the resources available to their founders in experienced teachers, aides, technologies, space, and materials show clearly the prior conditions necessary not only to operate such schools in public venues but also what is needed to contest the prevailing “grammar of schooling.”

 

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The Khan Lab School in Silicon Valley (Part 1)

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Thomas is nine years old.* It is 9:45 AM during Advisory time, one of the first blocks of time in daily schedule (there are seven such blocks in the Lab School day that runs from 9AM-4PM). In a large open space, he, like 18 other students scattered across the ample room, is sitting alone at a desk typing on a Chromebook. Three adults– they are teachers but called in KLS argot, “Advisors”–are working with individual students a half hour at a time reviewing their daily “Playlist” (see below) and Goal Tracker (see below). The other students are reviewing their daily “Playlist” that need attention. During this block of time, individual students arrive at and depart from the three “Advisors” for their one-to-one review of their work, ideas, and what’s on their minds.

I approach Thomas who is in Independence Level 2 (there are currently six such levels at KLS) and ask if I can sit down and find out what he working on. He says “yes.”

Thomas tells me that he is working on the school newspaper and he volunteered to write an article about student responses to a proposed school rule concerning email among students. The proposed rule is that students will look at email once a day and when they do they can only keep two tabs open at the same time. His deadline, he tells me, is tomorrow morning.

I asked Thomas why was this rule proposed. He said that students were looking at email too often during the day and keeping multiple tabs open and that distracted many students from tasks they had to work on. Thus far, he has interviewed 12 other students from each of the six levels in the school–there are no designations of 1st grade, 4th grade or 6th grade  just different ages running from 5 to 16.

Thomas showed me what he written on his screen thus far. I asked him what he thought of the rule. He said he liked it because it forced him to focus on what goals and tasks he expects to work on–he showed me his Goal Tracker. I then asked whether he would include his opinion in the article he was writing.

“No,” he said. I asked why. He said he was a reporter and reporters do not enter their opinions into what they are writing. He reports what fellow students said about the proposed rule. I thanked Thomas for his time in answering my questions.

I then walked over to meet Heather Stinnett,** a Lead Advisor who had just sat down with Nancy, a nine year old. Nancy said it was fine if I sat and listened to what they discussed. Heather starts the 30-minute discussion asking Nancy about her weekend and what she did. Then Heather segued to Nancy’s Goal Tracker, a digital way of tracking what Nancy is doing and how she is progressing in reaching her goals. Heather shows Goal Tracker on her screen and Nancy pulled out her Chromebook and clicked rapidly to have her Goal Tracker on screen. This constant self-assessment is built into daily schedule, i.e., Playlist, and time with each student’s advisor. (for a sample, see Goal Tracker)

 

Advisors also follow up on the other end by serving as accountability partners to ensure students accomplish their goals. Students reflect on their goals each week when they sit down for their one-on-one advisory meetings and they update their goals accordingly.

Then they turned to Nancy’s Playlist, a schedule that Nancy follows during the day (Here is what a generic daily Playlist looks like). They discussed where Nancy was on Zearn (online math software) and the written reflection Nancy had decided to do. She showed Heather the reflection and then read it to her. I watched while Heather took notes on paragraphs that Nancy read to Heather from the screen. Heather complimented Nancy on wording, grammar, and thoughtfulness. I left to visit another Advisor and student at work.

For student accounts of their day at KLS over the past three years, see here, here, here, and here.

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Khan Lab School is a private school with around 140 elementary and secondary school age students of whom 80 are in the Lower School. Tuition runs from $28,000 to $33,000 depending on whether child is in Lower, Middle, or Upper school.

Established in 2014 by Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy, it is an avowedly experimental school that Khan and colleagues built to transform traditional schooling into  experiences for children that mirrors the ever-changing world that they will enter. As Khan wrote in The One World Schoolhouse (2012), “The old classroom model simply doesn’t fit our changing needs….It’s a fundamentally passive way of learning, while the world requires more and more active (original italics) processing of information.”

As viewed by KLS leaders, the differences between regular schools and the Lab School look like this:

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Renting space set aside for business offices in Mountain View (CA), the school is furnished with modern office furniture adapted for children who spend most of their time in an open space yet can go to scattered nooks. Closed spaces for Content Specialists in reading, writing, math, world language, and computer science accommodate up to 8-12 students. How the space and furniture were arranged is intimately connected to pedagogy, mastery-based learning, collaboration among and between students and adults, and schedule (see here).

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In the Lower School, I spent one morning in early May observing one-to-one advising, Content Specialists teaching language arts and other subjects, and students working independently on the mastery-based curriculum and their projects (worked on during Studio block of time).  I also spent time with Orly Friedman,** Head of the Lower School and Interim Head of School, who oriented me to the space and the program that day (Friedman describes the school in a brief video here).

At KLS, teachers perform one of two roles. One is Content Specialist in a content area–math, writing, world language, reading or computer programming. The other is as Advisor–30 minute one-on-one conversations about student’s life, current work, issues that need addressing, and review of where student is on his or her Goal Tracker. This splitting of the teacher’s role is uncommon in private and public schools–most teachers have to do both at the minimum–and at KLS, I was told that it plays to what each teacher does best and likes to do.

I went into an English Language Arts Specialist’s small, snug room where Katherine James was already into the 45-minute session she is teaching with seven children, ages 7-9.

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Students are reading Ian Whybrow’s Little Wolf’s Book of Badness. When I arrived, each of the students was already reading in the book and Katherine was working one-on-one with students asking questions about the book and listening to each student’s answers.

As the session comes to an end, Katherine reminds students to work on their questions  reflecting on the section they read in Whybrow’s book. She lines up the seven children and then dismisses them one-by-one to go to the next activity. No bells ring to end a session with the Content Specialists.

Students’ self assessments and teacher judgments are frequent activities. There, are however, no report cards. Because KLS groups children by how well they demonstrate knowledge and skills in various areas–Independence Levels 1-6–rather than being first or third graders, the staff has developed rubrics or ways of knowing how well students are doing in a subject or skill and when individual children have reached a particular independence level (see here ). These KLS assessments go to parents twice a year.

There is much more to the KLS that can be captured in a description of one morning there. KLS has numerous digital documents describing their mission, beliefs, faculty, schedule, and activities at their website. In this post, I have included student and teacher accounts of their experiences in KLS. Additionally, others have written about the school that offer glimpses of it at different times since it was founded nearly five years ago (see here, here, and here).

Part 2 will deal with KLS as another example historically of private, micro-schools and their effort to break the “grammar of schooling.”

 

 

 

 

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*All student names are pseudonyms.

** I use actual names of Advisors, Specialists, and Head of Lower School.

 

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