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Engage Learners with A “Do Something” Curriculum

This is cross posted at “The Innovative Educator”

The Innovative Educator’s popular post “Fix Boring Schools, Not Kids Who Are Bored” struck a cord with many readers. Add me to the list of bored, restless, and misbehaved children that fit in the educational system like a square peg in a round hole. In second grade, my school tried to hold me back for not being “developed” enough after consistent misbehavior.  As a result my mom took me to get some tests done and I tested into fourth grade. Weary of putting a scrawny ADHD dork into rooms full of boys three years larger my mom opted not to go this route.  By High School, I set a school record, but not the kind that makes a mother proud. By that time I wasn’t buying the whole scene. I got into punk rock and my record was for the most detentions served.  I was never engaged in school. My success as an adult, occurred despite, rather than because of my education. If not for reckless ambition following the onset of testosterone and political activism involved in the positive side of the punk rock subculture, I might have never reapplied myself.

The most irritating aspect about school for me was the focus on remembering fleeting knowledge.  The curriculum was content driven, and though there were some skills that came along the way – writing, mathematical, and analytical, – the daily practice of schools was in the  “do homework/take the test,” kind of vein.  I wanted dramatically to learn TO DO SOMETHING.

Even then, when the internet was still in its infancy, it was clear to me that content knowledge was almost always something you could look up and master quickly when needed, but that to learn to “do something” – to learn to produce good work, from scratch and of economic and social value – was what would be relevant in the world.

Today, I run an education focused start-up called Inigral in San Francisco.  Being an entrepreneur means having to immediately learn (and hire and support others in learning) a range of skills and procedures. I need people on board that can do things and/or throw themselves into something and learn full competency quickly.  Contract law, finance, design, product development, engineering, etc.  The world of work makes it painfully obvious that the school curriculum is not aligned to the world outside school.

Some people are fortunate to find programs where they can pick up these kind of skills in college, and there’s some validity that the core curriculum in part sets the basic platform for later economic contribution.  But, mainly, I see that people figure this out how to “do something” DESPITE the schooling system rather than because of it.  For example, in my own company our Chief Technology Officer taught himself software engineering in high school, and an intern I hired taught himself video production.

School can effectively prepare students if they don’t focus on “procedural knowledge” – the act of mastering and employing a skill to attain value.  School must start teaching that life is a series of new processes and skills you will have to master, therefore the operation of acquiring new skills is perhaps the most important skill of all.

Just as important is the ability to anticipate what kind of skills will be relevant, to adapt, and to proactively learn from them.  After all, the necessary skill set in the workforce transforms rapidly.

This is not a new idea.  We have seen trade-based courses and non-core electives that focus on skills.  We have also seen the rise of Project-Based Learning and other models of instruction.  However, I have yet to see a “do something” curriculum or school design. Somehow the American conversation on education actually devalues approaches without a singular focus on core content.  It’s that strange obsession that, I feel, has us barking up the wrong tree altogether.

The Class Size Debate Continues

Many people have put forward data on the fact that reducing class size will create better learning outcomes.

There is data that smaller classrooms can lead to more de facto “tracking:”

This may be true, but in the words of an internet entrepreneur: it won’t scale.

With lecture capture, video, and interactive content, content delivery can scale.  With computer delivered assessments, assessment can scale.  This means that teachers are now liberated from the workload related to content delivery and writing and delivering assessments, which used to take up much of their job.

If you scale content delivery and assessment, as in making functional classes for content and assessment BIGGER, you can liberate teachers to focus on other matters – like the process of learning that happens in between.

Show me that new school design.

Reduced Class Size: An Inefficiency in School Improvement

I got a chance to chat with with a successful former Yahoo! manager the other day at a VC in Palo Alto; the discussion focused almost exclusively on school improvement at the k12 level.  Of particular energy was our conversation on class size.  My perspective, confirming Dan Meyer, is that class size is more or less besides the point and not worth pondering too much as a school improvement tool; but worth pondering, no actualy highly concerning to me, is that the movement to push down class size is probably the most inefficient, least cost-effective way to improve our schools.  To boot, the backbone of the movement is based on controversial and misappropriated research that kind of resembles Mortgage Backed Securities (it’s meta-analysis of less than scientific studies, like divvying up the findings of so many research projects that even the authors can’t keep track of where their data comes from or what’s in it).

No, actually, I can think of an equally inefficient use of money: one-to-one computing and the One-Smart-Board-per-classroom movement.  But, back to class size.

Smaller class sizes show a correlation with increases in performance, sure.  But it’s teachers 1) having control over the classroom and 2) building relationships with students that are behind the performance increases.  There are simply more cost effective ways to achieve these same elements of a good education.

My major thesis about class size is that it totally depends on the point in the lesson cycle the students are in.  Students benefit from effective, relevant delivery – but this could happen in groups of hundreds, through a textbook or through programs like Sesame Street.  Students benefit from rigorous, diverse, and differentiated activity – but this can happen in small groups and independently as long as there is focus and guidance.  Students benefit from cooperative, creative activities with analytical problem solving – but that’s more likely to happen in the performing arts.  And students benefit from formative assessment, re-teaching, and performance and content evaluation – but this can happen with a combination of an adaptive learning environment, a learning journal, and a college-student grader.

Really now, I think the conversations in education should move away from expensive diamond-studded, silver-bullet ideologies (based on opinionated research) and move towards outside-of-the-box, common-sense thinking.  Is that too much to ask?

School Reform Ideas and Michelle Rhee: Bankrupt on Big Ideas?

Well, I’ve been following this Michelle Rhee dictatorship for some time with much interest. With all the buzz lately – the article in the Atlantic and Time Magazine for instance – I figured I might lay down some commentary IMHO.

Michelle Rhee doesn’t have any ideas. At least she hasn’t revealed any yet. Or, most likely, the press doesn’t care enough to cover them. From what I see, her bold first move seems to be stuck in the bold first move phase.

With a long-run perspective, I’m interested in destroying the political structure that stifles school reform and allowing myriad beneficent dictatorships to bloom and comparing their results. In the short term, I’m remarkably skeptical until I see real Ideas (Ideas with a capital I) come out of DC.

Rolling heads and scaring the pants off everyone, generating resentment from most people you have to work with ( even with the applause of spectators ) isn’t an idea; it’s poor leadership and a hackneyed way to quickly get the allegiance of subordinates.

Leadership must invest in talent, must have a commitment to bringing in good talent, pushing out bad talent, and creating incentive structures that bring out the best in everyone. And in this, Michelle Rhee does have an operating principle that has been missing in education. One that, unfortunately, isn’t as revolutionary as people want to laud. Managers in the private sector have been complete champions in investing in talent, and the fact that it is so difficult to use this “must have” operating principle in more public sector services and institutions is deplorable. The fact that this operating principle has not been in use in public education is not an indicator of its revolutinonariness but is rather an indicator of a political system designed for stability and inclusion rather than efficiency and innovation. In the sense that Michelle Rhee wants to create a structure where leadership can invest in talent, I cheer Michelle Rhee on. If she has to do something with dramatic flare and uncompromising intimidation in order to shake up the system to get to where this operating principle becomes, well, an operating principle within our school system, I will be her fan boy.

The part where her lioness tactics come up short is twofold. First, dismissing hordes of people whose talent has been confined by the structures in which they work assumes that those individuals don’t have latent talent. I’ve worked with alongside hundreds of teachers, and for the most part they universally are committed and can be innovative when given the freedom and the wherewithal to do so. Second, axing people only generates allegiance when the entire community is given a coherent vision to work towards and each community member can clearly see their own role in the renaissance. Otherwise, it either quickly disintegrates into a disorderly herding of cats or behind the uncanny order is chronic dishonesty that leads to nice statistics but Great Leap Forward style mistakes.

My humble recommendations to Michelle Rhee:

1) Work with people to release their talent.
2) Publish a coherent vision with Big Ideas.

And, in case Michelle Rhee reads this, or in case you want to introduce me to her or anyone else going head first into school reform, I will list my Ideas below:

1) Scaffold skills and behaviors with more attention than academics. Once kids learn how to engage, the academic payoffs are gargantuan.
2) Streamline aligned multimedia content delivery and assessment, creating time for teachers to address real teaching and learning. Every teacher building content and assessments, stuck in continual delivery, is a complete inefficiency and wholly distracting.
3) Mandate comprehensive remediation using adaptive learning environments until every child is blue in the face or has the fundamentals to participate. Start this as soon as a child gets even a month behind. Children that don’t have the fundamentals ultimately hold back entire classrooms.
4) Build a schedule from scratch and alter building design around moments in the real lesson cycles: preview, delivery, reflection, assessment, content evaluation / activity modeling, monitored activity, individual activity, assessment, process evaluation. Hour or Two hour blocks provide no structure and make no sense.
5) Dramatically increase the number of hours engaged in school. All the data shows we lose them when they’re not in school.
6) Facilitate students relationships with authentic role models. Otherwise everyone can only imagine careers they see on TV.
7) Focus on health and fitness, the arts and creativity, and social, creative, and constructivist projects. It’s these totally neglected elements that create an environment for engagement.

I can go into more detail for anyone with the mind to chat.

Pain Point: College Level Remediation and the “Diploma To Nowhere”

A study recently published by the American Institutes for Research (AIR) revealed the near-embarrassing fact that twenty percent of students enrolled in 4-year institutions and thirty percent of students enrolled in 2-year institutions do not have the basic skills for post-secondary education or employment. Students surveyed could not understand basic computations, nor could they understand basic documents. Students’ crucial knowledge base is still lacking, and this should not be news to any educator.

The cost in real dollars of the failure of our education system is staggering.  Right now, I want to bring attention to the most direct cost: remediation at the college level.  In a current report, Diploma to Nowhere, by Strong American Schools, students’ educational shortcomings result in up to $2.89 billion spent on remedial courses, mainly in math and English. Fifty percent of 4-year students seventy-five percent of 2-year students could not even test to a proficient level of  literacy.

Placement in remedial courses is often shocking to students – 95% of remedial students reported completing most or all their work in high school, and most of these students had high school GPAs of above 3.0 and were enrolled in AP courses. As this signals an urgent need for genuine college preparation in high school, colleges should be preparing to accommodate these students as well.

There are wrong approaches to trying to turn this around.  Investing more money into these initiatives proved ineffective ten years ago , and the purse will prove to be the wrong approach today.  High schools are currently attempting to require high school exit exams in an attempt to ensure the readiness of their students. However, this issues falls back on the low expectations of their students, as the Center on Education Policy points out that many of the high school exit exams test at a 10th grade level. Elisabeth Barnett points out that high school exit exams and colleges require different things.

Support must come from internal focus and effective innovation at both the high school and college level. High schools must focus on challenging their students through rigorous and higher-order activities while raising their expectations of their students’ academics through difficult work rather than empty rhetoric. Speaking of, I’m working here internally to open source my College Readiness Curriculum, so I’ll speak more on that as it arises.

This problem is getting more and more costly, and I’m only talking about the direct costs.  The externalities (sagging skill base in the work force, a culture of ignorance, college dropouts, etc) are far more costly and incalculable.  According to the National Center of Education Statistics (NCES) in 1995, 35-40% of students in 2-year public institutions had to enroll in remedial courses. Today, that number is 43%. The same students – minorities, low-income students, and first-generation students – still make up the majority of the group.  We must absolutely rally around this disappointing news.  Innovators in this area please get in touch.

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.

What About the Early Grades?

In the A Nation at Risk, 25 Years Later edition of education week, I was happy to hear someone emphasize the early grades.  Ed Hirsch Jr. might as well have been a secondary insider.  His critique was this: we’ve done high school reform acrobatics since A Nation At Risk with no overall effect, so the reform arena should recognize that early grades matter.

I can confirm that many secondary teachers spend a considerable amount of time aghast and powerless in the face of forces they seem to have no control over – the child’s parenting, personality and energy, for example.  However, we feel particularly bitter when students arrive without the skills and background knowledge to participate in our class.  We inevitably curse their primary experience.

I’m not necessarily in agreement with his argument that elementary curriculum needs to have more actual content rather than a focus on skills, nor that there needs to by a unitary curriculum.  I’d instead focus on the raw talent, pay, respect toward and parent involvement with elementary teachers.  But, as a former High School teacher and victim of the secondary reform acrobatics, any efforts by foundations and think tanks towards primary school is a much appreciated endeavor.  They need you.