Open Letter on Newton Public Schools Capacity Issues

March 16, 2014

The Honorable Setti D. Warren, Mayor of the City of Newton

Dr. David A. Fleishman, Superintendent of Newton Public Schools

Mr. Steven Seigel, Newton School Committee Member

Dear Sirs:

This is in response to the school capacity issues driven by rapid growth in school enrollment and addressed by school renovation plans in the Newton Public Schools. I am a Newton resident and an education reform analyst through I wish to change the conversation.

For reasons discussed below, I believe that the children of Newton would be better served in a model that created a new and improved split between Early Elementary grades PreK-3 and Middle School grades 4-8. This solution would allow existing schools to accommodate more children in a smaller number of grade levels. Also, it would allow for the assessment of buildings such that grade levels could be matched to building design, and the cluster of students who were less well-served by existing structures could then define the needs to be addressed in any new architecture.

A couple of years ago, when asked what I would do if given the chance to change one thing in education, I wrote the following:

I would reorganize elementary schools into a PreK-3 school and an adjacent school for grades 4-8. The mission of teaching children in a way that reflects their social, emotional, and intellectual development would be better served with this grouping. In addition, the crucial benchmarks for literacy and numeracy would coincide with graduation from a phase of education.

With the younger children, the whole team would work together to ensure every child [by grade 3] could read for comprehension, tell a story through writing, reason numerically, and be familiar with patterns and geometric shapes. They would be able to work interdependently with other children and resolve minor conflicts. In addition, they would show independence in managing their own resources for school and have personalized strategies to start solving a problem while waiting for assistance.

A new intermediate school defined as Grades 4-8 would create a safe harbor for kids in puberty that avoids the disruptive grade six transition and still clusters the kids with alignment for intellectual development. Schools need to be adjacent to allow for important mentoring and connectedness across age groups. In addition, facilities could be shared, such as library, cafeteria, PE, and playground.

I continue to believe strongly in this innovative design solution. Separate PreK-3 and 4-8 learning communities are better aligned to mission, as defined by 3rd and 8th grade academic benchmarks. The children would be more appropriately clustered for physical and psychosocial development. And, where possible, building proximity would support inter-age connections and underwrite shared facilities for libraries, cafeterias, and physical education.

In particular, this plan would eliminate the troublesome grade 6 transition, which has been shown to be the more disruptive to academic performance than even that of the grade 9 transition to high school. A school for grades 4-8 would recognize the movement from basic skill building to applied learning that is most significant in grade four. In addition, it would shift the change in schools to an age that is less complicated physically and emotionally. Children could solidify their identities in the context of emerging intellectual strengths prior to tackling the upheavals inherent in the onset of puberty. By grade six, their introspection and social development could occur in a safer and more familiar place.

Early intervention programs have already begun to expand the elementary school mission on the front end. This trend should only increase with growing advocacy of universal prekindergarten. And Newton’s concern for aging school buildings has not addressed issues at the middle school level yet. I feel my approach makes good sense for pedagogy, matches structures to mission, and proactively draws the middle school issues into the current conversation.

I appreciate your consideration of my suggestion and would be happy to open a dialogue with members of the Newton school community.

Best regards,

Kathleen T. Wright,

March 16, 2014 at 11:26 AM Leave a comment

Turning Leadership to a Young Man’s Best Advantage

I am a believer in Girl Power…but today’s reflection is on empowering young men, something of a lost art among feminists who seem to have forgotten how much women depend on men who no longer behave badly. We have neglected our young men, especially children of color, and we owe them a chance to feel the power of being good men armed with only their minds, their hearts, and their best intentions as leaders.

For several years, I taught advanced algebra in a small Special Ed classroom in an urban high school. The class typically comprised 10-12 young men of color between 17 and 19 years old. There may or may not have been a young woman in the class, never more than two. The students were typically quite astute in their ability to size up a situation, find their best interests, or cut their losses. Learning the math was rarely a problem.

Students who had been taught in relative isolation for up to 13 years often had a strong behavioral component to their learning style issues. One of the more striking aspects was the ability of cohorts of students to organize themselves around the mission of undermining instruction. And the usual mistake was to attempt to resolve the problem through punitive disciplinary measures…more isolation, more conflict with the ruling regime of adults.

But the reality of the situation was that there were true leaders among the students. They had realized that they were being underserved academically, but they were not prepared to fail quietly. So how does a school community come together to turn an emerging adult child’s natural leadership to his (or her) best advantage?

Some of the issues I encountered…

  • Gaining the trust of my students that I was on their side.
  • Reflecting on student choices to help them become more self-aware.
  • Getting beyond the survival mode and the solipsism that attends it.
  • Acknowledging the leadership inherent in self-directed behavior regardless of its positive or negative outcomes.
  • Engineering enough successes to break failure cycles.
  • Giving up my own ego needs for being the most visible leader in the room.

That last one was a revelation. I still led my classes, and I overheard one of my toughest customers whispering to a classmate, “Never mess with Kathleen on the math.” That was a relief, but I also sometimes heard, “Okay, it’s just us guys in the room…” Receding into the background was not a problem so long as the learning happened. Leaders needed a chance to choose their audiences and to get frank feedback to see themselves as other saw them.

Consequence-based discipline sounded right, but it had as a prerequisite that students have a vision of being successful. Young men trapped in failure cycles did not benefit from another chance to see the negative consequence of their actions or choices. In fact, such plans often motivated frustrated leaders to cut to the chase…to hurry up and fail and get on to the next item on the agenda. They could not see success as an incentive if they hadn’t experienced one in recent memory. I had to sort of drag a few students toward their own best interests.

In addition, manifestations of egocentric behavior tended to be more diagnostic of despair than indicative of an older child’s maturity. However, the two often went hand-in-hand. I was dumbstruck once when I encountered one of my students diligently moving through the school posting notices of a one-on-one basketball contest he had organized for later that day….WHILE THE SCHOOL WAS IN A LOCKDOWN  OVER A GUN SIGHTING! Basketball was his one strength, but he was not a team player. The contest was his one chance to show his stuff, and a stupid gun was not going to ruin his big day, He was still furious with me later for interrupting his progress. I finally found the words, “Being in the halls made you look like a suspect…and I do not want that for you.” He started to get it.

March 8, 2014 at 11:41 AM 2 comments

Finding the Gestalt in Competency-Based Learning

Experience gets rewarded with cynicism…but that does not mean one has to discard visions from pedagogical ivory towers. A total program of competency-based learning, for example, would inevitably lead to tracking of students based on ability. And, more importantly, students moving more slowly could have a natural tendency toward inertia, identifying with their peers at the slow table and losing motivation. That is not what the literature promised. But don’t throw out the book…just close it before it becomes a problem.

The doctrine of manifest destiny is the dark underbelly of educational inequity. As educators we must guard against elitism and learning strategies that sort out winners and losers in predictable ways. Competency-based learning theory seems sound, but untamed by counter-balancing efforts to sustain heterogeneity, it may do damage to the very group it was supposed to protect.

Competency-based learning has been touted as a safeguard against serious knowledge gaps for students. In its purest form, students work at their own speed through sequential tasks and explorations, unhampered by the need to catch up with or wait for students progressing at different paces. In actual practice, there would be fluid cohorts of students working together at any given time. However, it is likely that a seemingly natural divergence of students could occur based on a blend of ability and motivation – both of which could be influenced by out of school experiences as well.

Now, competency-based learning is supposed to keep students on a path to proficiency, which is great. However, time would become the enemy of educational equity. It is true that no student under the plan should experience the cumulative effect of being allowed to remain unclear on so many concepts that they begin shut down academically. However, they still would be able to survey the classroom and know how they ranked among their peers.

Suppose, however, that there were a moment of Gestalt when a student working off-track began to grasp a concept so completely as to be ready and able to independently seek missing data without needing to be excluded from the rest of the group? That is, in fact, part of the promise of competency-based learning. But the diverse learning groups must be within reach of one another for this to happen. Otherwise, the service done to the learner who falls behind may begin to feel like another elitist ploy.

Enter the hybrid solution: parallel pedagogical approaches and flexible scheduling. Suppose a subset of competencies could be determined to be ubiquitous. Further, consider that these could be developed and assessed over time in a sort of lab setting which ran concurrently with heterogeneous classwork. Labs could be personalized for students, allowing a range from remedial skill-building to content enrichment. The linear development of skills would be secured and, back in a mainstream setting, diverse groups of students could explore concepts with relatively equal cognitive readiness.

I believe attention to competencies is essential. Without them, for example, my high school math students in Special Education always had knowledge gaps, and those gaps often led them to get most problems wrong all of the time. By high school, they all knew they must be bad at math, some even hating it. However, growth in competency could allow them great leaps in achievement, getting many of the answers right simply because they could successfully complete one formerly missed step in problem-solving.

Empowering students with procedural basics often compensated for a mismatch between their executive function issues and pedagogies that favored student who could synthesize algorithms more easily. Of course, this is the most superficial aspect of competency, not true mastery. Still…wouldn’t those same students have been better served years earlier with mainstream instruction that was both sensitive to learning style and supplemented by competency supports?

February 19, 2014 at 12:09 PM Leave a comment

Achieving Mastery without Pedagogy Wars

One of the keys to education reform, in my humble opinion, is to bring an end to pedagogy wars, those binary arguments that have resulted in fads in pedagogy that swing like a pendulum. Not only is the winning style guaranteed to miss the mark for some of the children all of the time…any solution that limits the approaches to teaching and learning has been rendered obsolete by technological innovation.

The new darling of pedagogy seems to be competency-based learning. And I am glad to hear it, hope it is here to stay…as an essential element in the mosaic of hybrid approaches to teaching and learning.

Competency-based learning has been overlooked by educators for too long. Proponents of project-based learning have actively eschewed its methods, presuming that it does not align well with their more synthetic approach to algorithms. Grade-level organizations have neglected it more passively in search of a common denominator among students. And technology-poor learning centers have been overwhelmed by implementation worries. Unfortunately, the result has been to frustrate many students as they attempt critical thinking without tools that may be essential to their success, undermining their motivation and persistence as problem-solvers.

So where does competency-based learning fit into a student-centered practice? It can form the backbone of a system for students in alternative education programs – students who truly have their own pathways to mastery. It would seem like a great segue back to the classroom for students re-engaging in school. It could be used diagnostically to inform grade level instruction, or as a program for development of prerequisite knowledge as students move apart to pursue individualized goals, then, come together again with diverse styles empowered by knowledge. Or it could exist within a mosaic of learning opportunities, a hybrid model of learning that blends traditional classroom learning, personalized interactive online lessons in or out of school, and social engagement for group problem-solving.

Just promise, please, please, please, that we will not toss aside everything else we know to be good for student learning. Thank you.

February 12, 2014 at 12:04 PM Leave a comment

A Vision for Information and Pedagogy

A little over a year ago, I offered a proposal for a systems integration project in education that would redefine our approach to school finance, student outcomes, and teacher effectiveness. Today, I would back off from the notion of cloud-based data. Rather, the missing element in this system is the interface with the pedagogy cloud in which each district would privately invest. However, I believe the core of the plan remains quite viable and present it here more publicly for discussion.

SchoolsRetooledTM                                                                                 Confidential Draft

Sytems Integration Proposal

A crucial problem in the management of public K-12 education in the US is a mismatch between information systems and mission. Existing systems evolved from a regulatory compliance model centered on federal exigencies and do not support the mission of delivering high quality education services to all children locally. Essentially, $500 billion is spent annual without sound microeconomic analysis of the process or a clear understanding of the outcomes.

I am proposing that we create a model that starts with individual students and builds up to an integrated finance, student outcome, and educator effectiveness system. The three main components of the systems would include…

  • Finance: Unit funding of students would be based on formulas built around cohorts of students with similar educational needs. Total funding would depend on actual enrollment and collective intensity of service need.* Financial reporting would be developed for each student education center, which could run the gamut from online programs to residential schools. District services would be demand driven and funded by the education centers.
  • Student Outcomes: Each student would have a multi-media portfolio, including an educational profile and evidence academic progress, psychosocial benchmarks, and individual accomplishments over time. Student records could be uploaded from school activities as well as remote diagnostic and learning resources.
  • Educator effectiveness: Each educator would have a professional development record with details of employment, credentials and evidence from professional practice. Effectiveness reports would be developed from narrative, audio/visual, and survey data collected from student portfolios as well as relevant supervisory, peer and consumer input. This information would link to merit pay files in the finance system.

The system could be built on existing platforms such as Google Plus, Google Docs, etc. However, the key distinction between emerging social networks and the education plan would be the context for sharing data. While social networking enables an explosion of data to be amassed and shared widely in consumer markets, public education data would be collected for very private internal use only, essentially an implosion of data that was harnessed for microeconomic analysis and internal quality improvement. Regulatory reporting would remain public and identities would be continue to be protected.

The long range vision would be to develop an education data cloud that comprised a series of intranets serving individual school districts across the nation. State and Federal regulatory compliance needs could be met; meanwhile, each local education authority would be the keeper of its own details. However, a major enhancement would be a shared data standard that would allow for periodic and ad hoc surveys of system-wide data to document the performance of the nation’s public education system. In addition, the movement of students and educators across schools, districts, or states could occur without loss of data integrity.

* This would entail a major redefinition of data standard for a government service. A precedent can be found in the shift from cost-plus to a case management model in healthcare services in the 1980s.

© 2013 Kathleen T. Wright



February 5, 2014 at 8:56 AM Leave a comment

Common Core Debate Misses Point

The Common Core State Standards are about interstate transferability of education. They do not tell a state how to do its job…only that children should be able to move about the country without having that property right that is education be devalued or burdened with inefficiencies related to deep knowledge gaps or redundancies. Unfortunately, however, they have a side effect of undermining progress to date in accountability.

The current debate about the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) has become politicized and presumptive of conclusions before full implementation. By mid-September 2013, reports of who was struggling under CCSS made headlines, less than three weeks into their beta-test year. The States Rights advocates decried implicit federalism, the straw man tossed aside too many times to recall. Then, a few educators began to fret about the assessments…perhaps their real concern. Waivers had all but eliminated the NCLB deadline of proficiency by 2014, but the testing would continue.

Sadly, the timing of CCSS has undermined achievements made over the previous decade in math and literacy. Instead of looking at a clear picture of progress with hard data, we have changed the experiment so as to eliminate comparability. All other things have no longer been held the same. We have entered a new base year for most states, and student outcomes have lost an important part of their meaning. Further, many of the very people who have failed to deliver adequate results for their students have found a wedge against future evaluations of student outcomes.

In addition to the temporary setback of resetting the base year for statistics, the Common Core has been heralded as a new higher standard for college readiness. This has confused their definition as floor versus ceiling. Any standard that applies to all students as a baseline is a floor. Yes, for a few states that had not entered the era of standards-based education before now, the standard may be higher. But this cannot be considered a real problem. The previous absence of such standards was the real deficit.

The Common Core State Standards are new…they can and should be evaluated and tweaked as needed over time like any other benchmark in evolution. And children need to be proficient in in math and literacy at a minimum for adult life readiness. We, as educators, should focus on these issues and welcome the objective evaluations of student performance along with the many data points we can develop to help us move beyond the basics for all children.

On the issue of the ceiling, there is none. There never should be.

January 16, 2014 at 9:21 AM Leave a comment

Pseudo-Capitalism…Where Money Goes to Die

Supply-side economics should have fueled a booming revitalization of our capital stock in the US. Instead the savings of a generation got invested in outsourcing, pooled in offshore profits, and used to reward 19th century working conditions in emerging producer-nations. And when too much money was still sitting around within our borders, it funded tech bubbles and financial risk games. Badly done, fiscal conservatives.

I am a fan of Occupy Wall Street. I believe that the keepers of capitalism have failed us. But I also believe that they have failed to practice capitalism. Instead of investing money in assets that create shareholder value, jobs, and an economic success cycle…Wall Street rewarded net divestiture of the of the supply function in the US. And they spent the proceeds on non-productive paper assets. This is pseudo-capitalism, where money goes to die.

Amazingly, we still have idle cash on the corporate books. We do not need more supply-side economic incentives. We won’t be fooled with that claim again. But we still have a great deal of uncertainty on 21st century capitalism. The trade deficit teaches us that we must develop our factors of production domestically. But we seem not to have a vision for private industry in the US.

As a nation, we can do almost anything well. But what can we do competitively while being clean and green and paying living wages? We really have got to figure this out.

(PS, Privatizing government services doesn’t count…might as well try paying for them with taxes on repatriated profits. And only getting a rare tax break on said profits after they turn into new industrial payroll dollars domestically.)

December 12, 2013 at 3:07 PM Leave a comment

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