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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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Cartoons on Teaching English

For this month I have turned to cartoonists who draw on their experiences in English, reading, and language arts lessons. Enjoy!

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Cartoons on Screen Time for Children and Adults

The amount of adults, children, and youth spend watching tiny screens–smart phones–medium screens–tablets and laptops–and big screens–television/cable have made a splash in social and mainline media in the past year. Too much time watching all sorts of screen, according to experts who use the vocabulary of “addiction,” “dependency,” and “passivity,” has led to claims that too much screen time leads to physical and mental dysfunction such as obesity and alienation from people and reality.

Of course, cartoonists have never been shy in probing at national obsessions . Here are some cartoons that get at technological obsessions. Enjoy !

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Whatever Happened to Direct Instruction? (Part 1)

Nothing.

It has been and is ubiquitous in teacher lessons. So why even mention it?

Because there is no one version of direct instruction (see here, here, and here) yet research studies and meta-analyses of Direct Instruction (note capital letters, please) have repeatedly concluded that students exposed to such a pedagogy outperform students receiving other forms of instruction, especially student-centered (e.g., project-based learning, “discovery learning”). Sounds like just another silly intellectual argument when it comes to the linkage between educational practice and research. Not so.

The research evidence that direct instruction (lower-case “d and “i”) and Direct Instruction (capital letters) have positive effects on student learning–as measured by standardized test scores–has been around for decades yet most educational researchers, policymakers, and practitioners who urge school and classroom decisions to be data-driven and evidenced-based have hardly popped champagne corks welcoming this clear direction for what teachers should incorporate in their classroom lessons (see here).

This is puzzling. I need to disentangle different reasons for the arm’s length distance from the research on direct instruction. One thread wrapped into this tangle of yarn is that direct instruction is and has been part of teachers’ repertoires since the mid-19th century founding of the age-graded schools. Historically, teachers have lectured, conducted demonstrations, and assessed students to see that they have learned the content and skills. It is ubiquitous among teachers then and now. Most teachers have a knapsack of techniques they use with their students that are hybrids of teacher- and student-centered approaches. Blending high student-participation in whole group activity from a discussion to a quiz game, small-group work, and lectures, say in a U.S. history or Algebra 2 class, is common. Mixed strategies of teaching is the norm among elementary and secondary teachers (see here and here). Yet lecturing, demonstrating, and oral or written questioning to ascertain how much has been learned has gained a negativity so is minimized as a standard part of most teachers’ repertoires.

And another thread to the puzzle is the confusion between upper- and lower-case direct instruction.

Lower-case “direct instruction” as noted above is prevalent among most teachers although a certain reluctance to admit it exists among most teachers. “Direct Instruction” (upper-case letters), however, has been associated with the original Follow Through experiment involving young children in the late-1960s where one of the pedagogical approaches had teachers using scripted lessons (called Distar or Direct Instruction System for Teaching Arithmetic and Reading).   Sigmund Englemann has continually promoted this form of Direct Instruction through generating new curriculum materials and conducting research on its effects on student learning. Other  similar programs using scripted lessons combined with other approaches would be Success for All and Open Court reading program.

And there is a final thread caught up in this tangle of yarn. Most university teacher educators and school practitioners–but not all– emotionally lean toward student-centered teaching (and far more student substantive student talk in lessons) but find it hard to implement on a daily basis given the constraints of the age-graded school, district and state curricular demands, testing,and accountability.

Thus, university teacher educators and practitioners accepting direct instruction (lower- or upper-case) openly as an evidence-based mode of instruction because of its superior performance in raising test scores would hold it at arms’ length; it would be a betrayal of their beliefs, and here is the kicker, even though on a daily basis they mix teacher- and student-centered techniques in their lessons.

In my study of teaching methods since the late 19th century, recent observations in classrooms, and many other studies of teaching, it has become clear to me that most teachers (and teacher educators) blend teacher- and student-centered techniques into their classroom repertoires. The mixes will differ by academic discipline, age of students, beliefs about how students learn, and other factors but hybrid approaches are dominant.

Nonetheless, even with a decided intellectual tilt toward student-centered instruction and the prevalence of hybrids of teaching techniques, teacher talk still exceeds student talk in classroom lessons–given the constraints of the age-graded school and policies concentrating on standards, testing, and accountability mentioned above. So one question is: what is the ideal ratio between percentage of teacher- and student-talk in a lesson. Is it 80-20? 70-30? 60-40? 50-50? Other questions spill out: what are the categories of teacher talk? What are the different kinds of student talk during a lesson? What are teachers’ verbal moves that encourage further student talk?

No one yet knows answers to these questions.  And this is where a conversation I had with an former teacher-turned entrepreneur enters the picture. See Part 2.

 

 

 

 

 

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Cartoons on University Teaching and Life

For this month, I gathered a bunch of cartoons that poke at higher education teaching, advising of masters and doctoral students, and the life of university students. Enjoy!

 

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What We Can Learn from Closure of [an All Girls] Charter School That DeVos Praised as ‘Shining Example’ (Claire Smrekar)

“Claire Smrekar is associate professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University. Smrekar earned her doctorate in Education Policy at Stanford University in 1991. She conducts qualitative research studies related to the social context of education and public policy, with specific focus on the impact of desegregation plans and choice policies on families, schools, and neighborhoods. She is currently studying the effects of private school markets and demographic trends on school voucher plans. Professor Smrekar’s work has been funded by the U.S. Department of Education, the Danforth Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, the W.T. Grant Foundation, and Peabody College.

Smrekar is the author of numerous journal articles, book chapters, and reports. She is the author of three books: “The Impact of School Choice and Community: In the Interest of Families and Schools (1996),” State University of New York (SUNY) Press; “School Choice in Urban America: Magnet Schools and the Pursuit of Equity” (1999), Teachers College Press; and “From the Courtroom to the Classroom: The Shifting Landscape of School Desegregation” (2009), Harvard Education Press.

Smrekar’s research interests include the social context of education and the social organization of schools, with specific reference to family-school-community interactions in public, military-sponsored, non-public, and choice schools.”

This article appeared January 15, 2018 in The Conversation.

 

When Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and first lady Melania Trump visited Excel Academy Public Charter School last spring, DeVos praised the school as a “shining example of a school meeting the needs of its students, parents and community.” Melania Trump called the charter school “an exceptional example of a school preparing young women both academically and personally so that they may succeed in a global community.”

The visit made international headlines due to the fact that it also featured Queen Rania Al-Abdullah of Jordan. In terms of publicity, a school could not ask for a better platform.

Unfortunately, we now know the praise the school got during its brief time on the world stage did not match its poor performance.

On Jan. 11, the DC Public Charter School Board voted unanimously, 6-0, to shut down the Pre-K-8, all-girls school at the end of the current school year. The board action wasn’t because of some sudden turn of events after Secretary DeVos, Melania Trump and Queen Raina paid their visit. Instead, records show, it was because the “trend for student performance over the past several years has been negative, despite any benefits that may have occurred from learning in an all-girl setting.”

Excel Academy charter school now joins the 200 to 300 charter schools that are shut down each year across the nation due to poor performance, financial shortcomings and low enrollments.

The Excel case magnifies how the cost of charter school failure is born by parents and their children, communities, educators and local residents. Indeed, many of the 700 or so girls who currently attend Excel must now scramble to find another school by next fall.

The closure of Excel represents a prime opportunity to focus on what we know about school choice and to move the discussion beyond ideological and partisan debates.

This is particularly crucial since between fall 2004 and fall 2014, overall public charter school enrollment increased from 900,000 to 2.7 million students. During this same period, the percentage of public school students who attended charter schools increased from 2 to 5 percent, and the percentage of all public schools that were charter schools increased from 4 to 7 percent. In addition to increasing in number, public charter schools have also generally increased in enrollment size over the last decade.

In 2017, the number of students enrolled in charter schools surpassed 3 million nationwide and the number of charter schools reached 6,900.

This past September, the U.S. Department of Education awarded US$253 million in grants through the Expanding Opportunity Through Quality Charter Schools Program to states and nonprofit charter management organizations. This level of funding is consistent with the level of federal support for charter schools in previous years.

Given all these developments, there is no better time for an honest discussion about what the research shows about charter school performance.

As the author of several books on school choice and a researcher who is currently examining the impact of choice policies on families, schools and neighborhoods, there are five points I would highlight that are based on the research on charter schools.

  1. The performance of charter schools as a whole varies widely. This is the most consistent finding across charter school evaluations. It serves to heighten the importance of continuous monitoring of how charters are authorized – and how they perform – as the number of charter schools continue to multiply across the nation.
  2. Similarly, the impact of charter middle schools on student achievement is a mixed bag based on various factors. In other words, you can’t say charter middle schools are better or worse than traditional public schools. It all depends. One study examined student performance in 36 charter middle schools across 15 states, and found that charter schools were “neither more nor less successful than traditional public schools in improving student achievement, behavior, and school progress.” The study also found that “charter schools serving more low income or low achieving students had statistically significant positive effects on math test scores, while charter schools serving more advantaged students – those with higher income and prior achievement – had significant negative effects on math test scores.”
  3. The first three years of charter schools predict academic performance, financial viability and sustainability. In other words, it’s pretty much do or die for new charter schools. This finding underscores the need to be proactive. It suggests charter authorizers should work with new charter schools at the start – actually, well before the doors open. The proactive approach stands in stark contrast to a “wait to fail” posture where a school lingers and lurches toward the final days of operation. Is this educational malpractice? Maybe so.
  4. The overall performance of charter schools has increased between 2009 and 2013. This increase was driven in part by the presence of more high-performing charters and the closure of low-performing charter schools. Thus, while the recent decision to close Excel may be unfortunate for its students, it might ultimately be good for the overall quality and performance of the public charter school sector as a whole.
  5. Students who attend charter high schools are more likely to graduate than students who attend traditional public high schools. They are also more likely go to college and earn a higher income. “Maximum annual earnings were approximately $2,300 higher for 23- to 25-year-olds who attended charter high schools versus conventional public schools across the state of Florida,” concluded one recent study conducted by Vanderbilt University, Mathematica and Georgia State University.

As new charter schools continue to open at a rapid pace while others are shut down, charter school operators and supporters should pay close attention to what took place at Excel, which first opened its doors in 2008. This is particularly true for new charter schools that may be struggling academically.

Darren Woodruff, chair of the DC Public Charter School Board, explained how many of the steps that Excel planned to take to turn things around were too little too late.

In a written statement, Woodruff said Excel’s recent changes – including the planned addition of a chief academic officer and a school turnaround plan – all represent “welcome steps that ideally would have been implemented when the first indications of decreased student performance became evident.”

“However,” Woodruff said, “without these steps more fully in place and clear data on their impact, this Board lacks convincing evidence that Excel represents the best opportunity for these young girls that we all care so much about.”

The lesson for charter school leaders and advocates is that these kinds of things need to be in place on day one. This is especially important since the research shows the first three years of a charter school are so crucial.

 

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