Category Archives: how teachers teach

Donor Fails Policy 101 (Valerie Strauss)

Education reporter and editor for the “Answer Sheet” at the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss published this piece June 29, 2018. For other views on donors’ initiatives and mishaps, see here and here.

A major new report concludes that a $575 million project partly underwritten by the Gates Foundation that used student test scores to evaluate teachers failed to achieve its goals of improving student achievement — as in, it didn’t work.

Put this in the “they-were-warned-but-didn’t-listen” category.

The six-year project began in 2009 when the foundation gave millions of dollars to three public school districts — Hillsborough County in Florida (the first to start the work), Memphis and Pittsburgh. The districts supplied matching funds. Four charter management organizations also were involved: Alliance College-Ready Public Schools; Aspire Public Schools; Green Dot Public Schools; and Partnerships to Uplift Communities Schools.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation pumped nearly $215 million into the project while the partnering school organizations supplied their own money, for a total cost of $575 million. The aim was to create teacher evaluation systems that depended on student standardized test scores and observations by “peer evaluators.” These systems, it was conjectured, could identify the teachers who were most effective in improving student academic performance.

This, in turn, would help school leaders staff classrooms with the most effective teachers and would lead more low-income minority students to have the best teachers — or so the thinking went. Schools also agreed to boost professional development for teachers, give bonuses to educators evaluated as effective and change their recruitment process.

The 526-page report titled “Improving Teacher Effectiveness: Final Report,” conducted by the Rand Corp. says:

Overall, the initiative did not achieve its stated goals for students, particularly LIM [low-income minority] students. By the end of 2014-2015, student outcomes were not dramatically better than outcomes in similar sites that did not participate in the IP [Intensive Partnerships] initiative. Furthermore, in the sites where these analyses could be conducted, we did not find improvement in the effectiveness of newly hired teachers relative to experienced teachers; we found very few instances of improvement in the effectiveness of the teaching force overall; we found no evidence that LIM students had greater access than non-LIM students to effective teaching; and we found no increase in the retention of effective teachers, although we did find declines in the retention of ineffective teachers in most sites.

Why didn’t it work? The report’s authors couldn’t say:

Unfortunately, the evaluation cannot identify the reasons the IP initiative did not achieve its student outcome goals by 2014-2015. It is possible that the reforms are working but we failed to detect their effects because insufficient time has passed for effects to appear. It is also possible that the other schools in the same states we use for comparison purposes adopted similar reforms, limiting our ability to detect effects. However, if the findings of no effect are valid, the results might reflect a lack of successful models on which sites could draw in implementing the levers, problems in making use of teacher-evaluation measures to inform key HR decisions, the influence of state and local context, or insufficient attention to factors other than teacher quality.

The project began at a time when the newly elected Obama administration was supporting school reforms that used student test scores to evaluate teachers, despite warnings from assessment experts of big problems with doing so. Gates and Arne Duncan, who was education secretary at the time, were on the same page, believing that test scores were valid measures for high-stakes decisions.

The Obama administration, through its Race to the Top initiative, dangled federal funds in front of states that agreed to establish teacher evaluation systems using test scores to varying extents. And Gates funded his “Empowering Effective Teachers” project with the aim of finding proof that such systems could improve student achievement.

Some assessment experts were concerned from the start that the methods used to link student test scores to teacher evaluations were largely unfair and lacked statistical validity. Some educators noted that there were already effective evaluation systems for teachers that did not give weight to student test scores, including in Maryland’s Montgomery County and Virginia’s Fairfax County.

But the Gates project and Race to the Top continued, and most states adopted test-based teacher evaluation systems. In a desperate attempt to evaluate all teachers on tested subjects — reading and math — some of the systems wound up evaluating teachers on subjects they didn’t teach or on students they didn’t have. Some major organizations publicly questioned them, including the American Statistical Association, the largest organization in the United States representing statisticians and related professionals. And so did the Board on Testing and Assessment of the National Research Council.

But the Gates project continued. What happened in Hillsborough County is illustrative of problems that many warned about early on. Teachers who initially supported it came to realize its weaknesses. The project required district and union leaders to work together, which happened — but not for long. In 2015, Hillsborough County gave up on it, after more than $180 million was spent there. This is what I wrote in a 2015 post:

Under the system, 40 percent of a teacher’s evaluation would be based on student standardized test scores and the rest by observation from “peer evaluators.” It turned out that costs to maintain the program unexpectedly rose, forcing the district to spend millions of dollars more than it expected to spend. Furthermore, initial support among teachers waned, with teachers saying that they don’t think it accurately evaluated their effectiveness and that they could be too easily fired.

Now the new superintendent of schools in Hillsborough, Jeff Eakins, said in a missive sent to the evaluators and mentors that he is moving to a different evaluation system, according to this article in the Tampa Bay Times. It says:

Unlike the complex system of evaluations and teacher encouragement that cost more than $100 million to develop and would have cost an estimated $52 million a year to sustain, Hillsborough will likely move to a structure that has the strongest teachers helping others at their schools.

Eakins said he envisions a new program featuring less judgmental “non-evaluative feedback” from colleagues and more “job-embedded professional development,” which is training undertaken in the classroom during the teacher work day rather than in special sessions requiring time away from school. He said in his letter that these elements were supported by “the latest research.”

From the start, critics had warned about using a standardized test designed for one purpose to evaluate something else — a practice frowned upon in the assessment world. The Rand report affirmed those concerns and said problems with using test scores as a metric were significant:

Teacher evaluation was at the core of the initiative, and the sites were committed to using the measures to inform key HR decisions. But, as we described in Chapters Three through Eight, the sites encountered two problems related to these intended uses of the TE measures. First, it was difficult for the sites to navigate the underlying tension between using evaluation information for professional improvement and using it for high-stakes decisions. Second, some sites encountered unexpected resistance when they tried to use effectiveness scores for high-stakes personnel decisions; this occurred despite the fact that the main stakeholder groups had given their support to the initiative in general terms at the outset.

The findings revive questions about whether the country is well-served when America’s wealthiest citizens choose pet projects and fund them so generously that public institutions, policy and money follow — even if those projects are not grounded in sound research. Such concerns have been raised most often about Gates, because he is the largest education philanthropist by far, and because he was a key player in Obama administration education reforms.

Gates, though, was pushing his own ideas for school reform before Obama became president, and he has since acknowledged that none of them turned out as well as he had hoped. In 2014, he gave a nearly hour-long interview at Harvard University, saying, “It would be great if our education stuff worked, but that we won’t know for probably a decade.”

In 2000, his foundation began investing in education reform with an expensive effort to turn big dropout high schools into smaller schools, which he abandoned, writing in hisfoundation’s 2009 annual letter that the results had been unimpressive. Instead, he said he would focus on teacher effectiveness and the dissemination of best teaching practices. He spent hundreds of millions of dollars to help create and implement the Common Core State Standards, which became highly controversial.

Now, Rand has declared his massive teacher effectiveness project to have fallen short of his goals. The Rand report does say that “the initiative did produce benefits, and the findings suggest some valuable lessons for districts and policymakers.” What lessons? Well, the report’s authors say some teachers reported learning how to improve from the observations. They also said the project had succeeded in helping schools “measure effectiveness” but not how to “increase it.” Of course, that is a loaded finding, given that there are many definitions of “effectiveness.”

Some school reformers are reluctant to say the project was a waste of time and money. They say the project taught us what doesn’t work. That ignores the fact that some education experts warned from the start that some of the premises on which it rested were not sound.

The bottom line: School reformers, led by Gates and supported by Duncan, felt the need to spend $575 million to prove their critics right.

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Lessons I Have Learned about School Reform and Technology

 

On June 13,  2018. I was a member of a panel held at Mission High School during San Francisco Design Week. Software developers, and others who see themselves as designers of ed-tech products that will improve schools attended this panel discussion. The moderator asked each of us to state in 7-8 minutes “what hard lessons have you learned about education that you’d like to share with the ed-tech design community?” My fellow panelists were two math teachers–one from Mission High School and the other a former teacher at Oakland High School, three product designers (one for the Chan/Zuckerberg Initiative, another for Desmos, and the lead designer for Khan Academy) who have been working in the ed-tech industry for years. In attendance were nearly 60 young (in their 20s and 30s) product designers, teachers, and ed-tech advocates .

Elizabeth Lin, a designer for Khan Academy, organized and moderated the panel. She began with a Kahoot quiz on Pokemon and Harry Potter. Audience members had the Kahoot app on their devices and entered the pin number to register for the quiz. For the record, I knew none of the answers having have never played Pokemon or, as yet, cracked a Harry Potter book. 

When my turn came to speak, I looked around the room and saw that I was the oldest person in the room. Here is what I said.

Many designers and school reformers believe that in old age, pessimism and cynicism go together. Not true.

As someone who has taught high school history, led a school district, and researched the history of school reform including the use of new technologies in classrooms over the past half-century, I surely am an oldster. But I am neither a pessimist, nay-sayer, or cynic about improving public schools and teachers making changes. I am a tempered idealist who is cautiously optimistic about what U.S. public schools have done and still can do for children, the community, and the nation. Both my tempered idealism and cautious optimism have a lot to do with what I have learned over the decades about school reform especially when it comes to technology. So here I offer a few lessons drawn from these experiences over the decades.

LESSON 1

Teachers are central to all learning.

I have learned that no piece of software, portfolio of apps, or learning management system can replace teachers simply because teaching is a helping profession like medicine and psychotherapy. Helping professions are completely dependent upon interactions with patients, clients, and students for success. No improvement in physical or mental health or learning can occur without the active participation of the patient and client—and of course, the student.

Now, all of these helping professions have had new technologies applied to them. But if you believe, as I do, that teaching is anchored in a relationship between an adult and a student then relationships cannot be replaced by even the most well designed software, efficient device, or virtual reality. There is something else that software designers often ignore or forget. That is that teachers make policy every time they enter their classroom and teach.

Once she closes her classroom door, the teacher decides what the lesson is going to be, what parts of top-down policies she will put into practice in the next hour, and which parts of a new software program she will use, if at all.

Designers are supposed to have empathy for users, that is, understand emotionally what it is like to teach a crowd of students five or more hours a day and know that teacher decisions determine what content and skills enter the classroom that day. Astute ed-tech designers understand that, for learning to occur, teachers must gain student trust and respect. Thus, teachers are not technicians who mechanically follow software directions. Teaching and learning occur because of the teacher’s expertise, smart use of high-tech tools, and the creation of a classroom culture for learning that students come to trust, respect, and admire.

Of course, there are a lot of things about teaching that can be automated. Administrative stuff—like attendance and grade books—can be replaced with apps. Reading and math skills and subject area content can be learned online but thinking, problem solving, and decision-making where it involves other people, collaboration, and interactions with teachers, software programs cannot replace teachers. That’s a rosy scenario that borders on fantasy.

LESSON 2

Access to digital tools is not the same as what happens in daily classroom activities.

In 1984, there were 125 students for each computer; now the ratio is around 3:1 and in many places 1:1. Because access to new technologies has spread across the nation’s school districts, too many pundits and promoters leap to the conclusion that all teachers integrate these digital tools into daily practice seamlessly. While surely the use of devices and software has gained entry into classrooms, anyone who regularly visits classrooms sees the huge variation among teachers using digital technologies.

Yes, most teachers have incorporated digital tools into daily practice but even those who have thoroughly integrated new technologies into their lessons reveal both change and stability in their teaching.

In 2016, I visited 41 elementary and secondary teachers in Silicon Valley who had a reputation for integrating technology into their daily lessons.

They were hard working, sharp teachers who used digital tools as easily as paper and pencil. Devices and software were in the background, not foreground. The lessons they taught were expertly arranged with a variety of student activities. These teachers had, indeed, made changes in creating playlists for students, pursuing problem-based units, and organizing the administrative tasks of teaching.

But I saw no fundamental or startling changes in the usual flow of a lesson. Teachers set lesson goals, designed varied activities, elicited student participation, varied their grouping of students, and assessed student understanding. None of that differed from earlier generations of experienced teachers. The lessons I observed were teacher-directed and revealed continuity in how teachers have taught for decades. Again, both stability and change marked teaching with digital tools.

LESSON 3

Designers and entrepreneurs overestimate their product’s power to make change and underestimate the power of organizations to keep things as they are.

Consider the age-graded school. The age-graded school (e.g., K-5, K-8, 6-8, 9-12) solved the 20th century problem of how to provide an efficient schooling to move masses of children through public schools.  Today, it is the dominant form of school organization.

Most Americans have gone to kindergarten at age 5, studied Egyptian mummies in the 6th grade, took algebra in the 8th or 9th grade and then left 12th grade with a diploma around age 18.

The age-graded school was an organizational innovation designed to replace the one-room schoolhouse in the mid-19th century—yes, I said 19th century or almost 200 years ago. That design shaped (and continues to shape) how teachers teach and students learn.

As an organization, the age-graded school distributes children and youth by age to school “grades. It sends teachers into separate classrooms and prescribes a curriculum carved up into 36-week chunks for each grade. Teachers and students cover each chunk assuming that all children will move uniformly through the 36-weeks, and, after passing tests would be promoted to the next grade.

Now, the age-graded school dominates how public (and private) schools are organized. Even charter schools unbeholden to district rules for how to organize, have teachers teach, and students learn are age-graded as is the brand new public high school on the Oracle campus called Design Tech High School.

LESSON 4

Ed Tech designers are trapped in a trilemma of their own making.

Three highly prized values clash. One is the desire for profit—building a product that schools buy and use. Another is to help teachers, students, and schools become more efficient and effective. And the third value is that technology solves educational problems.

Many venture capitalists, founders of start-ups, and cheerleaders for high tech innovations cherish these conflicting values.

I’m not critical of these values. But when it comes to schools, product designers with these values in their search for profit and improvement underestimate both the complexity of daily teaching and the influence of age-graded schools on teaching and learning. Those who see devices and software transforming today’s schooling seldom understand schools as organizations.

I don’t believe that there are technical solutions to teaching, to running a school, or governing a district. Education is far too complex. These are the “hard” lessons I have learned.

 

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Legacy of a Teacher (Peter Greene)

Few educators capture clearly and thoughtfully what it is like to teach for decades in a school in which they attended as students, retire from teaching, and consider the legacy of such a career. Peter Greene does precisely that and in elegant prose. I wish him well in the years to come.

Peter Greene writes the blog “Curmudgucation.” This post appeared May 25, 2018

I walked into this building as a seventh grader in 1969. I’ll walk out of it as a retiree in less than two weeks.

You get asked a lot of questions when you retire, many of which have the unintended consequence of poking you right in the feels. (I’m definitely not  crying at least once a day, but if I did, I would at least manage to do it when I’m not in front of anybody.) Some are pretty basic (what are you going to do with that filing cabinet) and some dig a little deeper, like the comments about my legacy. Some folks have even offered to watch after my legacy, to preserve it, and I just don’t have the heart to tell them that I have no legacy in this building.

I’m the longest-serving member of the current faculty, which means that I’ve seen a lot of people head out the door, and I know exactly what kind of mark they leave behind them.

Teachers are not billionaires or politicians. We don’t generally get to build giant structures and slap our own names on them in hopes that some day we will leave a mark behind us. We don’t generally get honored with statues and monuments, not even in a broad Tomb of the Unknown Teacher way, let alone as specific individuals. Nobody is out there carving his third grade teacher’s face into the side of a mountain.

A teacher in a school is like a post driven deep into the bed of a river. The current bends around her; maybe it cuts into the bank and certainly it carries river traffic along paths affected by that post. Even the bed of the river will be cut and shaped by the current as it bends around that post. People even start to navigate by the post, as if it’s a permanent part of the river.

But something happens when the post is one day removed.

Maybe folks are so impressed by the post that they put a special commemorative marker in place of the post. Maybe some big boulders rolled into place against the post and stay in place long after the post is gone, even when folks don’t remember how they ended up there.

But mostly there’s a momentary swirl of dirt, a quick rush of water and then, after a brief moment of time, the river bed is smooth again and the river flows as if there was never any post at all.

I don’t imagine I will leave much of legacy here, and what little there is will be worn away over time, and that’s okay. I do have a legacy, but to see it, you have to look downstream.

I figure that I’ve worked with, roughly, 5,000 students. Some of them are still carrying around bits of skill or knowledge that I passed on to them, or parts of their lives that grew out of something I passed on to them. They grew up to be living, breathing, growing, active men and women who worked at finding how to be their best selves, how to be fully human in the world. Undoubtedly some of those students didn’t get much out of being in my class, and some have less-than-positive memories of me, but I have to believe that some got something out of their time in my room.

That’s my legacy. People who felt just a little better about reading, or just a little better about riding. Here and there some students who actually pursued writing or teaching as careers. Some students who built a foundation of confidence in an activity. Some I hear from now and then, some I talk to regularly, and some whose lives took them far from here, and I have no idea how their stories have unfolded.

 

My legacy– and every teacher’s legacy– is not here in this building. This building is just brick and mortar and rules and procedures and “traditions” that sometimes last less than a decade, all carried out by a constantly-changing cast of educators and students. Names and awards are created, but they carry on names even as the person whose name it is is forgotten. My legacy– and every teacher’s legacy– is out in the world, in those students who passed through this building, and it’s not for anyone to “preserve” because it has a life of its own– as it should.

If I can switch metaphors for a moment– as teachers, our job is to light a fire, to pass along a flame. Passing on a flame is a curious activity– the new flame is not a piece of the old one, but its own new thing, with its own new life, even as the old fire continues to burn. Spreading a flame multiplies it, but the new flame is not shaped or controlled by the old one.

If I walk back into this building ten years from now, I don’t imagine that I’ll find anything to indicate that I was ever here. But, “God help and forgive me, I wanna build something that’s gonna outlive me.” Teaching has always let me do that– but not here, not in this building. Not in this stiff structure of unliving steel and stone. Out there in the world, where the water carries us to the sea, new fires spring up to illuminate the world, and human beings full of life and breath roam and grow. If we’re going to have a legacy, that’s where it will be.

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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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Can You Be a ‘Good Teacher’ Inside a Failing School? (JennyAbamu)

This article appeared in EdSurge, April 2, 2018

“Jenny Abamu is an education technology reporter at EdSurge where she covers technology’s role in both higher education and K-12 spaces. She previously worked at Columbia University’s EdLab’s Development and Research Group, producing and publishing content for their digital education publication, New Learning Times. Before that, she worked as a researcher, planner, and overnight assignment editor for NY1 News Channel in New York City. She holds a Masters degree in International and Comparative Education from Columbia University’s Teacher’s College.”

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Here’s a popular movie plot: Great teacher goes into a troubled neighborhood and turns around a low-performing school. Educators love the messages from these films, and even children are inspired. Unfortunately, many school districts never find the Coach Carters or Erin Gruwells who bring such happy endings. In fact, in a broken district such as Detroit’s, schools in hard-bitten neighborhoods sometimes go from “turnarounds” to closure.

 

Fisher Magnet Upper Academy is a middle school located within one of the toughest neighborhoods in the city, stricken with poverty and crime. In 2013, local news reports named the area the third most violent zip code in America. In 2016, Fisher was named one of the 38 campuses at risk of closure after the Michigan legislature passed a bill saying any school ranked at the bottom 5 percent of state campuses for three years in a row would be subject to consequences.

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Despite a relatively new building, constructed in 2003 as part of a former superintendent’s turnaround project, Fisher has suffered from consistent low performance—falling far below state standards on exams and adjusted growth targets designed specifically for the school. During the 2015-16 school year, only 0.7 percent (3 out of 451) of students met state standards in math, and only 4.5 percent met English Language Arts standards.

Carl Brownlee, a former United States Marine officer, is a middle school social studies teacher at Fisher Magnet Upper Academy. He has been teaching at Fisher for over 10 years. He believes changes in academic performance can happen in a struggling school like Fisher but says he has only seen it happen in the movies.

“The only person I have seen that had the ability change this type of climate and culture was Joe Clark, or Morgan Freeman in that movie, ‘Lean On Me,’” says Brownlee. That doesn’t mean he thinks improvements are implausible, though. He says: “I think there were some good ideas that movie that you could translate into schools.”

Brownlee believes that he is a good teacher, in spite of what test scores may reflect. And he feels as though his students have been slighted by ineffective teachers in the past. So he plans to stay at Fisher, where he hopes to bring advanced teaching skills to students that other educators may ignore.

“My children are being cheated because they are not given the same experiences as their counterparts in other schools, and that’s not fair,” says Brownlee. “That’s one of the reasons I stay where I am at.”

As students trickle in Brownlee’s classroom on a Friday morning, he stands by the door to greet each of them. He instructs them to grab their work folders and get into groups. The 6th, 7th and 8th graders entering Brownlee’s class in their uniforms are respectful, quiet and—though naturally distracted from time to time with whispers and giggles—appear to be on task. They ask questions and support one another as they move around in groups through learning stations Brownlee has set up in class.

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Technology has a role to play in Brownlee’s effort as well. Using the free version of tools such as Edmodo, Kahoot, and Google Forms, Docs and sometimes Slides, Brownlee varies his lessons on topics such as Chinese history and the Missouri Compromise. He opens up classes with hip-hop education from Flocabulary, then goes into worksheets, videos, group assignments, and desktop assignments—incorporating cell phone apps and music in the activities. He constantly walks around the room, refocusing off-task students and offering feedback on their work. His classroom does not fit the “before” image in most romanticized school turnaround stories.

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“The skill sets that I have, I like to use them with these young people instead of going to another school where you might get the test scores that people are asking for,” Brownlee continues, noting that he is not looking to teach the “ideal student” in an exemplary school. “My kids don’t come from that, so I try to hang in there and do my best. They need it. They deserve it.”’

By “doing his best” Brownlee means constantly learning, often looking for resources outside of the district for support. He is also trying to incorporate more personalization into his classroom, noting that the State Department of Education has embraced the implementation of such instructional models.

Since Fisher does not have enough Chromebooks for every student, teachers share a cart of laptops that travel from class to class. Teachers also combine technical and non-technical ways of personalizing instruction. For Brownlee, part of personalization means gauging the social and emotional well-being of students each morning, so he knows how to approach them throughout the lesson.

“Are they ready for school work? You might have [a student] come in who just had a loved one die the night before. We have had that on many occasions. They still come to school,” explains Brownlee. “You can’t just go into teaching when they come into the classroom if you don’t know where they are at.”

To meet students where they are, Brownlee has a couple of go-to tools. He uses apps such as Quizlet to encourage students to learn independently. In addition, he uses Edpuzzle when students are having a hard time with particular topics in class. The app allows them to rewatch annotated video lessons.

“I have done it with several of our resource students,” Brownlee explains, noting how one struggling 7th-grader has been showing improvement since using apps like Edmodo and Edpuzzle. “He comes to class every day, and you can see that he is trying. He wants to understand what is going on. He likes to look at the videos, and his effort is starting to show in his work. You get a little joy when you see them getting it.”

Brownlee also has digital portfolios that he uses to track student mastery and growth, something all teachers in his school incorporate. Yet, he notes that this method has yielded mixed results, particularly since many teachers serve a large number of students–and struggle to keep records up to date.

Brownlee works with 198 students daily and admits its difficult for him and other teachers to add student work to the portfolios consistently. “It’s just very difficult when you have so many students to try to personalize for each one,” he says. “You can tailor for each student, but only to a certain extent.”

Despite the difficulties, Brownlee has not given up trying to tailor instruction for his students. He makes time to celebrate the small gains he sees students making, like the lessons he teaches that students remember long after they graduate. But he admits that there are days that he gets tired, particularly noting the difficulties keeping up with changes in the district.

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His district has flipped between state and local control over the years and has had a number of different superintendents and principals; most of them bring new initiatives with them. This school year Brownlee has a new superintendent and a new school principal, but real-world challenges facing students in and out of his school continues. He is cautiously hopeful that things can in improve, but the familiarity of changes that don’t yield academic results is haunting— causing him to work overtime with his happy-ending out of sight.

“No matter what you do you are still going to be accountable for the test score. It does not matter if the students just came from another school or district. It does not matter if they came to you four grades behind, if that child’s family is impoverished, or if the child has any type of learning disability that may be undiagnosed,” says Brownlee. “It is more like a professional football team. If the team does not win, it is the coach’s fault, and the coach is fired.”

 

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America’s Best Charter School Doesn’t Look Anything Like Other Top Charters. Is that Bad? (Richard Whitmire)

“Richard Whitmire is the author of several books, most recently “The Founders: Inside the Revolution to Invent (and Reinvent) America’s Best Charter Schools.” Whitmire is a member of the Journalism Advisory Board of The 74.”

This article was in The 74; it appeared March 27, 2016.

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This is my second visit to the East Boston campus of Edward Brooke Charter Schools. During a previous stop,  I sat down with co-director Kimberly Steadman. She was helpful, but I’ll have to admit I walked away wondering: Why is this (arguably) the nation’s top-performing charter? I still don’t get it.

A year later I returned, still looking to answer that question. I arrived a few days after the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted to allow Brooke a high school so students from its current three schools can transition into a high school run with the same philosophy and results.

Said state Commissioner Mitchell Chester: “It would be hard to overstate the track record of educational performance (at Brooke).” Keep in mind, this green light to expand happened in Massachusetts, a state in the throes of the nation’s most bitter fight over charters.

This time I sat down with Steadman’s husband, and co-director, Jon Clark, who founded Brooke. Even an hour into the interview I was worried once again: Am I going to walk away and still not understand Brooke’s secret sauce (a horrible cliché, but it gets to the heart of it) that makes them the best charter school in Massachusetts, a state that boasts the nation’s top-performing charters?

Among charter founders, Clark is unique. Quiet, studious, not given to bragging, not out to conquer the world by sprinkling charters in every state or even outside Boston. He’s prone to crediting his wife more than himself and offers only general clues to watch for as I start my classroom observations. It’s all about the teaching, he advised me.

What school leader doesn’t say that?

At the moment, the advice didn’t seem particularly helpful. At the end of the day am I going to climb into a cab to head back to Boston’s Logan Airport still puzzling over how Brooke takes in a student population that’s almost entirely low income and entirely minority, and turns them into scholars with test scores that match students enjoying the privilege of growing up white in a wealthy Boston suburb?

 

1458920497_9289.jpgSome top charters talk about closing achievement gaps; Brooke actually does it.

Here’s the challenge about Brooke: It’s a group of K-8 schools, essentially a mom-and-pop charter, a creation of Clark and Steadman. Aren’t the nation’s best charters supposed to emerge from prestigious charter management organizations such as KIPP and Achievement First?

There’s more to the challenge. Unlike many top charters, especially Rocketship charters out of California, a blended learning pioneer (creating personalized learning by leaning on computer-based instruction) that I followed for more than a year while writing a book, “On the Rocketship,” Brooke mostly eschews computer learning. No blended learning to be seen anywhere.

Why? Clark has yet to find a software learning program that impresses him. Brooke’s entire emphasis is on teacher quality. Why would you subtract from teacher time by sending students off for laptop instruction?

The challenge goes on. Unlike many “no excuses” charter groups which adopt a highly scripted instructional style that could be set to a metronome, Brooke is pretty laid back. There’s no heavy “culture” pressure here.

“Our kids do well on tests because they love reading”

At Brooke, elementary students have carpeted squares they sit on for up-close-and-personal sessions with the teacher, but if a student happens to spill over into the next square there’s no command-and-control correction coming from the teacher, as I have seen in many “no excuses” charters. Yes, they file quietly through the hallways when changing classes, but nobody has to hold their hands behind their back or cupped in front of them.

In fact, if you suddenly forgot that every single student there comes from a non-privileged background, you could easily imagine you were in a private school where the students are somehow just naturally curious and well behaved, interested in every comment made by a fellow students.

Sounds intriguing, right? But how do they do it? I’m mid-way through my day-long stay here, and I still don’t have a real clue. Clark doesn’t make me feel any better when he advises me to watch classrooms for evidence of Brooke’s twin pillar philosophy in action: “challenged” and “known.” Challenged I get. But “known?”

The first insight into my unanswered question came as I tagged along with teacher Heidi Deck after she walked her fourth-graders across the street in very blustery conditions to physical education. One unique thing about being a Brooke teacher, she said, is that the instruction always starts with an unfamiliar problem, something the students haven’t seen before.

Deck went on to describe flipped instruction. In most math classrooms, teachers present a problem, demonstrate the solution and then have the students practice. It’s dubbed the “I do-we do-you do” method of instruction. Rinse and repeat.

Not at Brooke. Here, teachers start by presenting a new problem and then invite the students to solve it on their own, armed only with the tools from previous lessons. “We really push kids to be engaged with the struggle,” explained Deck.

Next, the teacher invites students to collaborate with one another in trying to solve the problem, which is followed by more individual attempts to solve it. Then there’s a classroom discussion about different ways students tried to solve it, with teachers doing their best to draw out solutions from the students. Ideally, they carry the weight of the instruction, learning from one another.

“The kids have to do the logical work of figuring something out rather than repeating what the teacher does,” said Steadman, who acts as the chief academic officer.

That posits math instruction more in the real world. Aren’t we always coming up against unfamiliar challenges, from calculating the wisest purchase to computing taxes?

And there’s another advantage: There’s no panic when Brooke students come across a math problem on the state exam they’ve never seen before. Instead they ask: What are the tools I already have to solve this?

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Here’s another intriguing feature about Brooke: The reading scores here are as high as the math scores. That may not sound unusual, but it is. At almost any other top charter I visit that serves high-poverty students the math scores tend to soar while the reading scores are barely any better than neighborhood schools.

Why? The explanation always offered is that math gets taught in classrooms; literacy is more rooted in home life. Plus, in charters that rely on using computerized blended learning, the math software is great; the literacy software usually mediocre or worse.

The reason the math and reading scores align at Brooke comes down to a simple-but-radical approach to literacy: Reading is taught not as something mechanical (you will never see a reading worksheet at Brooke) but as something to be loved. In a traditional school, including charters, a child struggling with reading gets special help in breaking down the process into small pieces, with teachers searching for deficits that need correcting.

Brooke emphasizes phonics as much as any school, but on a broader level. A struggling reader at Brooke first gets asked: Why don’t you love reading? To the Brooke teachers, finding a way to unlock that love is as important, or more important, than isolating mechanical deficiencies.

“The goal is to get kids to love text so they become lifelong readers,” said Steadman. “Our kids do well on tests because they love reading.”

 

Yet another observation about Brooke. Visit any school in the country, charter or traditional, and the classroom walls will be full of colorful posters, student work and the daily academic goals. It wasn’t until about the third classroom I dropped in on that I noticed something different: At Brooke, the walls have that regular art but slathered over that are huge, jumbled tear sheets revealing classroom discussions about math, religion, history, a novel, pretty much anything.

 

These posters are chock-full of teacher scribbles of student comments, kind of like those Hollywood movies about math savants who fill blackboards with calculations. It all feels rich and creamy.

 

Take Deck’s fourth-grade classroom: The back wall is covered with tear sheets revealing elaborate graphs created with orange, blue, purple and green markers. There’s one labeled: Comparing decimals. Another: Divisibility rules. Another: What do I do with a remainder? On a side wall, two charts that break down a novel’s inner workings are partially covered by a tear sheet spelling out the players in the underground railway.

 

The complex wall arts points to one thing: Some serious and enthusiastic scholarship took place here. Here’s something else you notice about Brooke: There are a lot fewer students walking through the hallways. Actually, this is a pretty big difference (I may have saved the best for last.)

 

Brooke does something with its middle school grades that few others do. They structure them on an elementary school model, keeping students mostly in self-contained classrooms with the same teachers throughout the day. All those in-school shuffles between math, reading and science, prompted by soul-deafening buzzers. Not happening here.

Interesting story how that happened, and it’s all about Steadman. Or, to put it more precisely, it’s all about her husband, Clark,  listening closely to Steadman, who arrived at Brooke in 2004 as a seventh-grade math teacher. Her prior experience had been as a fifth- grade math teacher. But really, she asked herself, how different could it be teaching seventh grade? As it turned out, a lot.

At that time Brooke’s older grades operated like a traditional middle school, where students changed classes to see teachers who specialized in math, reading or science. So Steadman taught nothing but math, class after class — and didn’t like it.

Aside from not getting to know the students that well, she missed the teacher collaboration she enjoyed in elementary schools where all the teachers who taught, say fourth grade, got together to plan what all fourth-grade classes should be studying that week. Wondered Steadman: Why should middle school be different?

After Steadman launched the elementary program, Brooke undertook an internal teacher survey that revealed something interesting: Elementary grade teachers reported more satisfaction than the middle school grade teachers. Why? Because of the teacher-to-teacher collaboration.

“It’s one of my big beliefs about how people work,” she said. “They like having thought partners, people they can talk to about the work they do. Being verbal about your work makes it more purposeful.”

So why not shift the middle school grades to the elementary school schedule? After a one-year successful pilot with fifth grade, Brooke flipped all its older grades  to the self-contained model. Thus, teachers instruct all subjects, drawing on heavy collaboration with same-grade teachers. That guarantees a deeper relationship with the teacher, and also cuts down on the time students spend shuffling from class to class.

But the biggest benefit may be teacher satisfaction. Said Clark: “If you ask any teacher at Brooke to name the biggest thing that pushes you to get better, I think they would answer it’s having a smart colleague to co-plan with and look at data with.”

That self-contained model also helps explain the “known” part of the Brooke twin pillars philosophy: All students should feel well known by Brooke teachers, something more likely to happen in the nurturing self-contained classrooms.

All the above factors, woven together, account for the high performance at Brooke. Which raises this question: If the nation’s top charter school is headed in a direction different from other high-performing charters, is that a problem?

My answer: Only if you think all charter schools are supposed to look alike.

 

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