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Reaction to “Waiting for Superman”

Waiting for Superman is a great call-to-action regarding the state of our nation’s public schools.  

I agree with many of the arguments within the movie.  For instance, it points out that good policies to improve education include: 

  1. focusing on good teaching with merit-based systems – incentivizing good teaching and good teachers, and maintaining an ability to fire poor teachers.
  2. allowing innovation “outside” the existing systems – promoting independent charter schools with innovative practices.
  3. building strong feeder programs that start really early and carry the relationship through the development of the child.

However, the film does not acknowledge that successful charter schools are actually rare, and many charter schools fail at either creating superior outcomes or building an organization that is functional and sustainable.  That’s a messy reality that the film totally omits.  I’m not suggesting that charter schools are bad, on the contrary I’m an enthusiastic supporter of the movement for charter schools.  I’m suggesting that the conversation about charter schools will have to get deeper than policy and strategy, it will have to get tactical and technological.  

“Waiting for Superman” also does not go any deeper than these aforementioned broad best practices in policy.  There are many innovations and improvements buried in strategies and tactics that can be implemented at schools, departments, within classrooms, or for individuals that create better outcomes.  The film doesn’t seem to acknowledge that these exist – it’s as if the only path for improvement are in these big policy shifts and school improvement cannot be addressed in smaller details.  

The film, in pursuit of building a set of heroes, presumes that their heroes have “found what works,” as if these truths have not been “known” for long.  This is not true.  Setting high expectations, focusing on children and great teaching, and innovating outside the system have long been discussed within education – long before KIPP and the Harlem Children’s Zone were ever dreamed up.  

KIPP and the Harlem Children’s Zone are so successful because these are organizations with good execution and strong leadership, and they have been successful because they did so much more than just talk good talk.   There are a million things they did right, a lot of it buried in technocratic details.  But, we have to acknowledge, that these million details were right only in an environment where visionary leadership is possible – in charter schools.  It’s harder to be a visionary leader in public institutions, it’s too political.  It’s possible, but wherever politics is involved, building a culture of achievement is extremely difficult.  

So, while I support the film and it’s recommendations, it’s not a good prescription necessarily.  To add my own agenda, it’s not really focused on tactical innovation – the pursuit of my life.  But then again, the film-markers objective is to influence voters and donors, and in that regard I think this film is going to achieve more in engendering and focusing our national conversation on education more than anything we’ve seen in our recent history.

OMG, a Good Idea: Educational Value-Added Assessment System

Good Ideas in education are hard to come by. People in Education like Lofty Ideas – ideas that sound good but have vague execution plans and no difficult choices or dirty work, and thus no results.  Good Ideas have difficult, politically challenging implementation processes and actually produce results.  Good Ideas don’t just sound nice, but they have guts and teeth.

I knew about EVAAS (Educational Value-Added Assessment System), but I didn’t KNOW about EVAAS until, at a BBQ in San Francisco, I met Claire Robertson-Kraft, a Penn/TFA alum who works at Operation Public Education. OPE has formed a team of leading experts across the country to develop a compehrensive approach to school reform. One of their consultants is Bill Sanders, who apparently invented EVAAS with his own two bare hands.

Claire sent me an insider’s look at Operation Public Education’s Comprehensive School Reform Model, which is a Good Plan (as opposed to a Lofty Plan).  (It has to be with Gates Foundation bankroll and love.)  They’ve got a fair and comprehensive method to determine value added from state assessments (which, I acknowledge, are limited) coupled with a killer Observation Framework for instruction developed and operated by Charlotte Danielson.  Add a little Administrator Evaluation as robust as the teacher observation.  Give it some incentive pay to get people moving towards the goals, and give it support with peer review and remediation.  Finally, give it teeth with mandatory remediation and ultimately dismissal with underperforming teachers.  Oh WAIT, new teachers also start as Apprentices and have to move up; if they can’t in five years, they are dismissed.  Yeah, like I said.  Its a Good Plan.  With a capital G and a capital P.

But, of course, to make it politically feasible there’s even a “Grandfather Clause” that allows existing teachers to keep the old compensation model.  Fine.

I know, critics argue that the assessments are non-comprehensive and a mere end-of-year, 3 hour clip of a summative assessment that students don’t even really care about.  True.  Alas, it’s better than nothing: the state tests are, for the most part, disastrously easy for well-educated children, and you gotta start somewhere.  OPE is already thinking about the next level of assessments, integrating comprehensive, varied, and authentic assessments is one of their chapter-worthy goals.

This is what I’ve been looking for: a plan that couples comprehensiveness and noble direction with guts and teeth.  Thank goodness.

Education 3.0 (What Web 3.0 means for Education)

For those not privy to internet futurism, Web 3.0 is a term encompassing fledgling developments in the internet that will most likely become mainstream trends over the next decade or so; the gist is that web applications will be able to greet you as if they know you and go get information for you they don’t already have by cooperatively sharing or intelligently finding data; the components include the Semantic Web, web Operating Systems, mobile and geographic integration, and heavy identity-based services coupled with data and identity portability.  If I missed anything for internet gurus, comment below.  The impact on education that I am betting on are primarily threefold.

1) Interoperability and Data (liberation) Portability:  Course data such as title, time, credits, instructors, etc, and personal data such as education history, learning preferences, instructional modifications, etc, will become transferable across applications and software.  This will increase the number of services that schools can provide with marginal additional expense, as well as the services’ ability to integrate with each other to cooperate to provide a cross-platform, integrated learning environment.

2) Identity-based Services:  Services can take that data and cooperate to create distributed, adaptive learning environments and learning management systems, as well as give information to instructors that can help them scale data-driven, adaptive instruction.  These services will seemingly take anonymity out of computer services and personalize learning.

3) Mobile device Integration: Services will be integrated across devices, with particular emphasis on mobile offerings that fill a void in both frequent off-site, low-commitment interactions, as well as synchronous solutions for in-class instructional support tools.

A little background.  I give the Semantic and Data Operability aspect of Web 3.0 considerable thought as I build Standardissimo, a standards-based content publishing, discovery, planning, formative assessment and data analytics tool still in private alpha.  (Comment if you’d like to be included in the alpha).  We’ve been grappling with the inconsistencies of the data model for state standards and the lack of anything close to a Resource Description Framework across states and subjects.  States don’t even try to tag their HTML so that you can easily do something with the data.  They treat it like text, obliviously creating barriers for people trying to improve education through technology!   I just found Academic Benchmarks, a company that solves this problem by affordably offering national database with an abstracted data model and publishing standards in XML to subscribers potentially in all 50 states for all subject areas.  Life saver.  Check them out if you’re looking to create solutions around state standards.

At Inigral, our biggest challenges have been getting hold of and using data sets that should, from a pragmatic perspective, be public and easily integrated into web services; particularly course and enrollment data.  IMS Global and SIF are the organizations devoted to developing data, metadata, and data transfer standards to increase the interoperability of software systems for education; and I’ve found the movements they represent particularly inspiring even if the development of these universal standards are bureaucratic, boring, and mindnumbingly complicated.  (Thanks to Jason Wrage for trying to make sense of SIF on his blog.)

For the instructional version of Education 3.0, Derek Keats seems to have given it a bit of thought here.

If you work in education or educational technology, think about how you can help position your organization to take advantage of and contribute to moving toward Education 3.0….  Namaste.