Posts filed under ‘Design Concepts’

In Favor of a Robust Design for Collaborative Instruction

Collaboration and teamwork are such great concepts. So why do educators feel the need to put them in strait jackets? Broad-based pedagogical awareness and ongoing support of diverse learning styles are essential in any classroom. The rewards are great…as long as educators take their feedback from the children rather than each other. Otherwise, we risk getting caught up in group think and regulating one another instead of relaxing constraints to get more flexible classroom dynamics.

Collaboration in education has become synonymous with all members of a team using the same short list of strategies in parallel while sharing an abridged vocabulary to create context for the students. It is the stuff of lowered expectations for teachers and students. Yet anyone who deviates from the plan is challenged for not being a team player. The rallying cry is that if the students hear the same thing from all of us…they will have to get it. We fail again and again but think that we only have to try harder.

A team is a collection of players with divergent skills brought together to solve a series of problems based on their complementary talents. Individual achievement and excellence get each member a place on the team; their ability to recognize one another’s strengths and weaknesses and choose to lead or to follow in any given situation makes the team function. Collaboration means handing the ball off to another player no matter how hard one feels he or she needs the score personally. Natural rivalries create demand for a coach.

Okay, so team teaching is not a run and gun sport…even if we move really fast there will not be time for each of us to be the star, nor will there be a likely win under such circumstances. The good news? Whether working sequentially or in parallel, anyone matching the right strategy to a child’s learning style can become a vital part of the winning solution.

We already seem to agree with the goal that each child achieve competence in essential skills and demonstrate critical thinking and problem solving across a large range of applied challenges. The trouble is that how we achieve these results cannot be set in stone in advance. And, in an industry that values classroom management, control freaks (and I use that term with endearment) tend to rule.

Of course, there are benefits to shared classroom practices that create structure and reinforce effective organizational strategies. However, these form the matrix for the learning milieu, not instruction itself. And teachers must plan every session to define the short-term goals and lay out the group’s common lesson, along with the flexible options for students as they engage in self-directed exploration or practice style. Then the kids get to take over.

Beyond the traditional classroom, learning labs can include online instruction or digital problem-solving opportunities as well as low-tech hands-on models. The key is to break down processes to a level at which the component parts can be mastered, then to facilitate learning opportunities that can be either synthetic or deductive. Frequent feedback is particularly helpful in the early stages of learning, but intrinsic ways to validate one’s own result should be built into each student’s expectations.

This may seem like a confusing a blend of competency-based instruction, multiple-intelligence-based design, and quiet chaos in the classroom. Hopefully the teachers are down with MIT’s kindergarten for grown-ups and the students have internalized Maria Montessori’s habit of putting things away after play. Sounds half-baked? We better collaborate to see who does what well.

September 10, 2015 at 7:15 AM Leave a comment

Dear Boston: You Need a Multilingual Exam School

Let’s begin at the top. A Grade 7-12 exam school for students who excel in linguistics would be a great way to meld cultures and celebrate language arts. The service gap to Latino students has persisted through a number of school transformations across the public schools in the City of Boston. Instead of searching for universal exemplars in English Language Learning, perhaps students would be better served by delving deeper into their strengths in World Languages.

The Boston Public Schools have been challenged to do a better job teaching Latino students. Law suits have led to a series of citations for poor service delivery with English Language Learners. The problem has persisted despite a number of initiatives to improve equity in education. A vision for under-served students has focused on pulling them up from the bottom in academic achievement, which by definition places a problematical label on Latino students. And it overlooks the strength they could bring to a multicultural world.

A few years ago I wrote about Charter Americas, a community-based idea for students transitioning to English language schools. A cornerstone of the plan was to reverse English Language Arts (ELA) and Foreign Language courses to reflect each student’s strongest native dialect. Essentially, English would be taught as a foreign language. Meanwhile, our ELA standards would be applied to the student’s own language with rigorous grade-level instruction in reading, writing, and speaking with depth in grammar and vocabulary development as well as genre studies. A broader humanities perspective would pull in elements of history, culture, and the arts.

This earlier program was conceived as a community center for multicultural activities that would transcend the primary goal of assimilating students into the Boston Public Schools. It would be a place for lifelong learning for non-native speakers of English to which students and their families could return to celebrate their heritage, for example, in the arts, oratory, or other cultural interests. To take the idea to the next level, however, would require bilingual rigor across a college-preparatory curriculum, essentially a multilingual exam school.

English language learners often have faced an ironic blend of excessive challenge with immersion courses while being bored by content that was necessarily superficial. Diverse learners have been frustrated with a standard program that seemed not to fit anyone. And there has been nowhere for advanced students from other cultures to achieve continuity in their studies in the US. Further, the bottom-up approach to newcomers has cost them their identities as high achievers.

Existing ELL programs would benefit from a program that identified students with the highest academic potential and channeled them into appropriate pathways for advanced studies. A multilingual exam school would stratify students initially, an undemocratic approach in the short term. However, it would inject high expectations and empowerment into a system that is struggling to realize equity in education. And it would create an incubator for an under-served population to teach educators how better to serve the larger population of English Language Learners.

May 17, 2015 at 11:20 AM Leave a comment

Of Apples and Oranges – Privatizers Eye Bridge International Academies

Bridge International Academies in Africa and Asia are making a big splash among philanthropists and digital educators as a result of their brilliant success. Now the venture investments have begun to pour in. The bare bones schools have grown rapidly with a good combination of local market penetration and geographic expansion due to their low-cost, scalable model. Kudos to Bridge…but please don’t try to translate a good plan into profiteering, privatized schooling elsewhere. Especially not in the US.

I love the Bridge International Academies for what they are doing for the children of Africa and Asia who were not being educated. It is fabulous that they have the technology to leapfrog traditional textbooks to use tablets for content knowledge. And their pricing allows families to educate their children for pennies a day in a place where any more than that would be cost prohibitive. The founders are doing the right thing, and they are doing it with private money.

Despite the many reasons to celebrate Bridge…the model is not ready for prime time in the US, nor is the business ready to start delivering on profits. The schools are fledgling enterprises that have added a grade, sometimes two, each year since inception. They go through 7th grade now, and they have been adding schools at a break-neck pace on two continents. Challenges lie ahead as they fully assimilate their service mix at each location and achieve managerial effectiveness at the top. Growing beyond the middle school level may be stymied as teenagers are needed by their families for work or childcare. From a corporate perspective, quality assurance and entrepreneurship make odd partners as the business achieves a critical mass of customers.

Bridge International Academies offer a modest modular product, one size fitting all, and its services for diverse learners will need to evolve. Bridge Academies have great new tablet computers, but many of their tools date back to the abacus. For instance, younger children use slates and learn base 10 math using bottle caps and egg cartons trimmed to 10 wells, but that should not remain the state of the art. The worst news for Bridge would be profit-taking instead of continuing development of educational standards, services, and access.

Ten framesGeoboardsMapsScience kits

Back in the US, conservative politicians and policy wonks are citing Bridge to bolster privatization strategies, but they are not equivalent concepts. Education reformers find the option of throwing out our entire system and starting over to be alluring, but we are not ready to go back to primitive games with a ball and stick. We would be devolving backwards to little more than the one-room schoolhouse. The Bridge plan would not clear the markets in the US. They are winning in Africa and Asia where there is no public education to compete with. They are not comparable to US schools, and the cause of educational equity would not be advanced by stripping even the lowest performing rural or urban schools down to the Bridge basics.

Bridge International Academies blend the old and the new in a unique success story. It is a great work in progress…and a cause for reflection to benefit its own development. In the meantime, save the plan to import it to the US for the day when the children in Africa and Asia are given the educational opportunity of the best schools in the US suburbs. But by then I hope we are doing the same in our formerly troubled schools here.

March 20, 2015 at 12:07 PM Leave a comment

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 SchoolsRetooled.com. 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,  SchoolsRetooled.com

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

How to Create a Legacy in Education…for New and Returning Mayors

Yesterday we honored our nation’s democracy as voters in state and local elections across the country. As we congratulate new or returning mayors, why not set aside politics and offer a few guidelines for education leadership? 

1.  Align schools to mission and benchmarks…

  • PreK through 3rd grade
  • Grades 4 through 8
  • Grades 9 through 12

2.  Manage education for balance between supply and demand…

  • Students organized around equitable access to education and bridges to their communities
  • Academics organized around student needs and  instructional effectiveness

3.  Streamline business functions around the mission of education…

  • Student-centered funding and resource allocation – school as locus of control
  • Information systems that integrate finance, teacher effectiveness, and student outcomes
  • Matching of support services to student needs

4.  Develop results-oriented approach to services for outliers in the system…

  • Accelerated progress toward grade-level proficiency in Special Education
  • Two-pronged approach to ELL with growth in literacy in 1st language translating into more rapid assimilation into English language content
  • Level playing field in academics for students at risk

5.  Reward leadership that…

  • Achieves successful student outcomes
  • Values continuous growth for professional staff
  • Attracts voluntary enrollment
  • Is responsive to all community constituencies
  • Monitors key indicators of student satisfaction, service delivery, culture, and safety to anticipate disequilibrium and address it proactively
  • Allocates resources effectively and efficiently

6.  Seek alignment with evolving standards of information and technology to…

  • Get the best data on student outcomes, teacher effectiveness, financial management
  • Transcend the evolution from traditional media to digital tools for learning, communicating, and managing educational efforts
  • Create a vision for achievement that relegates regulatory compliance to the lowest common denominator among educators

With achievement of each of these strategies, mayors could spend more time creating a legacy in education and far less time dealing with NCLB failures, Parent Trigger campaigns, union battles, or random disruptions to the business of running their cities or towns.

November 6, 2013 at 2:43 PM Leave a comment

STEM – The Old One-Two Punch

Future scientists, engineers, and mathematicians should be found among our fifth graders at the latest to realize their greatest potential. Only then will we be able to nurture their abstract thinking, the seeds of which should already be apparent, during middle school. To finish the job, all of our high schools must be ready to deliver them the rigor and the freedom to explore new frontiers in STEM.

Last night, President Obama introduced a competition that will challenge educators to develop advanced STEM programs within our nation’s high schools. At first blush, I shook my head. High school is too late. We should be talking middle school. But then I realized…why get these young people all smarted up with nowhere to go?

To be truly ready to join the ranks of scientists and mathematicians in liberal arts or engineering disciplines, students need to have their natural talents for abstract thinking recognized and developed early. College prep should begin in middle school for them. However, too few of our high schools are genuinely ready to offer students the springboard needed for access to the nation’s top university STEM programs.

STEM readiness will mean an exciting combination of academic development within high schools, mentoring from the field, and partnerships with universities for extracurricular enrichment opportunities. And who knows what else? Let the games begin…

February 13, 2013 at 10:34 AM Leave a comment

Child Find as the Catalyst for Success in STEM and PreK

Never watch the State of the Union speech in your cranky pants – not just good advice for John Boehner. As an urban educator, I thought I was looking forward to the President’s address with a positive attitude. But I kept going negative…Universal pre-kindergarten? Wasteful and wrong. STEM competition in high school? Too little too late. Then I realized there was a missing link. Child Find will be the key to success with either initiative.

My preferred approach to pre-kindergarten is to dedicate free public access to children who are at-risk. I truly believe that universal access will dilute the child-find efforts of the program, and that the most-needy children will continue to fall through the cracks. That’s where they live and where their parents are trying to eke out a life for them. Comfortable families already preparing their children for school will get a free ride, less fortunate children will continue to be left behind, and deficit spending will result in a net loss to the system.

That said, the child-find clause in any PreK legislation must have some real teeth in it. Our vulnerable populations must be served first.

Similarly, I worried about the President’s competition for high school STEM programs because so many talented children in troubled schools would have lost their way long before then. Efforts to set up springboards for STEM education in high school would be hamstrung with the need for re-engagement and remediation programs before accelerated STEM instruction could begin.

However, there are many emerging STEM programs that target older elementary and middle school children. In a better world, many more of these children will be found as they enter adolescence. Their interests and abilities will be nurtured through opportunities for exploration and placement in programs that offer appropriate stimulation and challenge. But where, in this new world order, would there be enough seats for all of them in high school? More on that in my next post…

February 13, 2013 at 10:25 AM Leave a comment

Dual Enrollment and Its Promise

My brother taught me a lesson about offering a promise at the end of goal achievement. It may just be the missing link for many high school re-engagement programs. Dual enrollment can take a student from his or her return to high school through access to a college degree. Going back to high school for that diploma is hard, and the reward it offers is limited. But a college degree means forever on a resume…clearing a hurdle for access to the middle class.

A while ago during a failed job interview for a position in student re-engagement, I totally blew it on the HR rubric. I went outside of the box and cited my brother, Tom Wright, as one of my personal heroes. Tom had spent the last 20 years creating and developing a market for home mortgages for Native Americans. My link to work with high school drop-outs must have been a bit too obtuse, but it’s still a story about keeping an eye on a prize.

Tom’s work began in an era when much of the housing stock on Indian reservations was below code, and home ownership eluded many Native Americans due to missing or low credit ratings. However, he recognized that there was a market and a dire need for access to both credit and safe housing. He just needed a method.

Tom developed a two-year course of credit counseling for Native Americans with weak financial backgrounds that promised approval on a home mortgage if they finished the program with a successful payment history. Paying ones bill could lead to 1st time home ownership, a rarity at the time. Possession of a plywood shack on tribal land was all many of his clients could hope for as they dodged their creditors.

The financing of the risk for mortgage lenders was the rub, but Tom saw a solution in money set aside for Native American housing awards through the Wounded Knee Treaty. A clause in the agreement funded a housing lottery that awarded homes to a small number of winners in Indian Nation each year. He went to tribal elders across the Midwest and Western reservations and discussed redeployment of that money to fund a risk pool that would cover a larger number of people. In short, rather than giving ten people houses, they could cover the default risk on mortgages for dozens of people. Eventually, Tom won program adoption, and a housing boom began.

Now, back to education…how can a mortgage plan for a small demographic group relate to the broad population of American drop-outs? I would form a different question…what does a high school diploma offer? It has become a serious hurdle for millions of drop-outs who cannot get access to even low paying jobs. However, a high school diploma no longer ensures access to the middle class. One needs a college degree for that. And I see that college credential to be very much like the mortgage for the highly indebted denizen of substandard housing.

Going back to high school is very difficult. It means returning to a scene of failure and, often, a place that has left students under-served in the past. Just more of the same is small incentive for participation. There has to be more, and that may account for the higher success rates seen with dual enrollment in community college systems for high school drop-outs. The prize for successful effort is an Associate’s Degree, professional certification, and, in many systems, guaranteed access to a four-year state college.

Overcoming inertia to break a failure cycle is not its own reward. The prize needs to be real and change lives. We can do that.

Tom’s story is still in progress, but I asked him a year or so ago what he considered to be his legacy. He stated quite simply that twenty years ago Native Americans had no access to traditional home mortgages, and today they are treated like any other American at the bank. Quite an accomplishment…but there’s icing on the cake. When the real estate market began to collapse a few years ago, his programs were still experiencing a default rate of about 1%. People who earned their way into a new standard of living seem to treasure it.

November 15, 2012 at 9:43 AM Leave a comment

The One Thing I Would Do

Inspired by John Merrow’s blog asking educators to share their absolute 1st step to improve public education…My choice would be to align transition grade levels to mission and benchmarks.

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 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.

Related blog entries…

  • My Theory on Math, Puberty, and Emerging Abstract Reasoning…and why Middle School Should Begin with Grade 4 read more…
  • Finding the Best Split for Neighborhood K-8 Schools read more…
  • Middle School Conundrum response read more…
  • 3rd Grade on the Line read more…

November 1, 2012 at 9:23 AM Leave a comment

My Theory on Math, Puberty, and Emerging Abstract Reasoning…and why Middle School Should Begin with Grade 4

Puberty undermines the identity of middle school-aged children and initiates their exploration of a variety of possible adult personas. Paradoxically, it is also a time when their need to fit in seems to hit an all-time high. As a result, the simple act of getting dressed in the morning actually may require students to solve a daunting set of simultaneous equations. Their intellectual development in the years leading up to that time is crucial to their successful academic and psychosocial transition to more sophisticated abstract reasoning. However, the question is when, not if, they can handle the mental gymnastics of exploding possibilities.

The psychosocial exigencies of puberty may be as important as education as a driver of need for abstract thinking in young adolescents. The baffling combination of the search for a new identity and the peer pressure for conformity sets up the conundrum; intellectual strength can be the advantage or the goal. However, the mere act of living in the body of a pubescent child will stimulate cognitive ambition. As educators, we need to give the pre-adolescent as much reasoning ability as possible to face the task. He or she will get to a higher level with or without us…but the less confident student may try to hold off the challenge through social dysfunction and academic avoidance.

The math problem: suppose, in a class of 25 students, each child is trying on three unique personas at any given time. Then the number of possible combinations in that one class is 325. That would be a bit hyperbolic, so the children solve part of their problem by limiting the number of options that qualify as cool. Then, they begin the iterative process of arranging themselves in groups with similar attributes. Leaders will emerge as trend-setters, and controlling behavior will define many friendships. Best friends will become enemies, for example, if a group member forgets to make sure the blouse she promised to wear to school was laundered the night before. (Yes, her mother really *did* ruin her life.)

Students will find temporary comfort in groups that offer options that best match their coping strategies. However, precocious children may be excluded because of their tolerance for ambiguity and may seek adult approval through individual excellence in academics, sports, or the arts. At the other end of the spectrum, insecure children may opt out socially and need safe harbors to protect them from predatory groups, the most extreme being street gangs. Alternately, in the digital age, kids may take solace in virtual worlds.

So, my theory is that the 4th and 5th grade math teachers could help us understand why one child joins a gang while another joins a choir or a study group. Or why middle school friendships can be so fleeting. Or why kids who played computer games in isolation through puberty might emerge more socially adept in high school than the most popular kids in middle school – or at least make better social choices.

And it is not just about the math. Students need the vocabulary to express themselves and journals to document their inner lives, a sense of history and perspective, and methods for exploring cause and effect. And each needs a distinctive competency that becomes the backbone for an emerging identity that transcends the social turmoil. I would go beyond visiting the K-5 faculty to gain insight on behavior to making the 4th and 5th grade teachers a part of the team with shared accountability for readiness for the middle school mission.

I believe middle school should be redefined as grades 4-8. Research suggests that the trauma of the grade 6 transition to middle school has the most negative impact on academic outcomes for children. A grade 4 transition would ease the social and intellectual leaps for the child, who will not enter puberty until later. In addition, it would allow for vertical alignment of curricular and psychosocial goals as well as continuity for faculty members and the children through this tumultuous developmental phase.

In the context of a school system that resolved basic literacy and numeracy needs in a PreK-3 early elementary school, the Grade 4-8 middle school could give students a more solid academic readiness for puberty, safe harbor in a familiar place when it hits, and greater opportunity to develop academic and psychosocial readiness for high school.

October 9, 2012 at 9:45 AM 1 comment

Response to Middle School Conundrum

To the Editors of the New York Times:

The Middle School Conundrum debate, published on 6/18/2012 on NYTimes.com, left room for another conversation. While each author addressed emerging adolescence, any policy on elementary education must consider younger children as well. I propose a neighborhood campus solution based on adjacent PreK-3 early elementary and grade 4-8 upper elementary schools.

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 building proximity would support inter-age connections and underwrite shared facilities for libraries, cafeterias, and physical education. This plan is superior to either grade 6 transitions, which are disruptive to academic performance, or K-8 schools that are already being overloaded with the addition of pre-kindergarten students from early intervention programs.

Very truly yours,
Kathleen T. Wright
Executive Director
SchoolsRetooled

June 25, 2012 at 6:59 AM 1 comment

The Seven-Period High School Day

A creative solution to the short school day and the conflicting biorhythms and agendas among school constituencies could be the seven-period high school day. Some could come early, some could come late, and a few motivated participants could do both.

A consensus is forming about the school day being too short. However, resources are short as well. In addition, there are many conflicting interests to address in school timing. Teenagers stay up late and need to sleep later in the morning. Teachers accustomed to early start times may not wish to move their lives back an hour. Sports, after-school jobs, and family commutes may not allow for an altered school day. As a result, a seven-period, flexible school day may be the best way to solve at least part of the problem.

Some thoughts on the details….

  • A seven-period school day would begin at the usual time but end an hour later.
  • Faculty and staff could express preferences for starting their days with first or second period.
  • Students would be allowed to attend all seven periods, but they would only need to attend six or even five if they had accumulated enough credits.
  • Students could come later, for example, if they wished to sleep later or needed to help siblings get to school before they started their own days.
  • Some special scholastic or extracurricular activities could be planned for first or seventh period, and faculty staying later could support community volunteers offering extended day services.
  • One period for peer study support, virtual courses, or unstructured time could be proctored by ancillary staff for students attending seven periods a day.
  • Many opportunities for electives, dual enrollment, or extracurricular activities would be available for students.
  • Teachers wishing to explore a new course or engage in common planning time would have more flexibility in their schedules.

Of course, there would be the added duty for administrators in the building. However, some of that time could be found by talking less about instructional leadership off site and spending more time engaging in it within the building…might even help cut some of that costly district overhead.

May 16, 2012 at 9:20 AM Leave a comment

Subsidize PreK for Children at Risk

The kinds of practices seen with Early Intervention and PreK programs would probably be good for all children. That does not mean that the government needs to subsidize them for everyone. Good things already happen in most US homes. Save scarce government funding for the children for whom disability, language barriers, or poverty interfere with their early childhood development.

Pre-kindergarten is becoming a feature of elementary education out of necessity in pockets of need across the nation. In the meantime, it has long been a purchased service for many children whose parents choose to give their children a head start in education or to combine education with needed daycare services. The latter cases need not be subsidized by the US government. In fact, doing so would probably add to the achievement gap for children who are at risk.

Adequate nutrition, stimulating play activities, and listening to stories and music would seem to be a birth right for every child; likewise, a warm, safe bed for sleeping. For the fortunate, they are. However, the number of children who are at risk is growing in trying economic times. In addition, a disturbing number of children are demonstrating devastating disabilities that seem to have at least part of their foundation in the language acquisition process. Many continue to be challenged by attention disorders or specific learning issues. Early intervention with food, supportive play, and targeted therapies offer the greatest hope in the long run. Introduction of early education services that cannot happen at home are part of the solution as well.

Services to young children have enormous lifelong benefits, but they are very expensive. Also, the children with the greatest need are the most likely to fall through the cracks. Often their parents are overwhelmed in life and cannot advocate well for them. The delivery system for Early Intervention continues to need to develop in the direction of creating access through awareness for families in dire need. Similarly, PreK offers a lifeline that may be invisible to the most crucial beneficiaries.

Generalizing free public access to PreK programs would distract service providers from the necessary work of finding and enrolling the neediest children. Billions would be spent on children whose parents were savvy users of services, and populations for whom the program was initiated would continue to fall through the cracks. Government subsidies must be based on need. Our mission must be clear: eliminating the achievement gap for at-risk children by finding them early and serving them as often as needed until equal access to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness is theirs, too.

December 16, 2011 at 8:45 AM Leave a comment

Finding the Best Split for Neighborhood K-8 Schools

Early intervention programs have overloaded K-8 schools. But the model for educating children in neighborhood schools through puberty remains a fine idea. Movement to adjacent schools offering PreK-3 and Grades 4-8 seems like a better idea than going back to the old middle school concept.

The K-8 elementary school model created continuity for children as they evolved from concrete learners to more complex thinkers, keeping their core identities intact as they came of age as young adolescents. The milieu provided a wonderful blend of physical and intellectual growth within the context of a nurturing community of educators, families, and other supporters who knew each child well. However, early intervention programs have front-loaded elementary schools with crucial new programs for younger children who are at-risk for developmental and learning disabilities. The schools are straining under the burden of too many missions.

Some have advocated for a retreat to the middle school model for the upper grades. However, new information suggests that grade six may hold too great of a transition challenge for the children. Indeed, a study from Harvard University found that movement into middle school in grade six had a greater negative impact on student outcomes than the transition to high school in grade nine. The middle years clearly need special attention, but existing models no longer fit.

A win-win for elementary children could be a neighborhood-based solution that splits schools in fourth grade. The buildings could be physically adjacent and continue to share resources such as libraries, playgrounds, cafeterias, and athletic facilities. Still, the smaller learning communities could address the unique needs of divergent age groups. Communication across faculty groups would be facilitated, and the children could continue to benefit from interaction through programs such as mentoring between younger and older students.

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 school to an age that is less complicated physically and emotionally. Children could solidify their identities based on emerging intellectual strengths prior to tackling the upheavals with the onset of puberty. By grade six, their introspection and social development could occur in a safer and more familiar place.

December 15, 2011 at 10:18 AM 2 comments

Zero Tolerance for Abuse

Revisiting the issue of abuse…

My earliest explorations into teaching occurred in the late 1990s in the Public Schools of Brookline, Massachusetts. It was a happening place for pedagogy, models of success, and attention to the whole student. There was a strong spirit of collaboration with local universities that really kept Brookline schools on the leading edge. Recent issues with cyber-abuse reminded me of an anti-abuse program from the high school that was particularly ahead of its time.

Brookline High School had a policy of zero tolerance for abuse that was defined in four categories:

  • Physical
  • Verbal
  • Emotional
  • Sexual

Physical, verbal, and sexual abuse seemed to be intuitive, but the issue of emotional abuse delved into new territory. Serving up automatic suspensions for rumors, notes, phone harassment, controlling relationships, or social ostracism or embarrassment addressed real issues that had been long overlooked. The school culture had no room for these violations of personal rights or their disruption of a safe learning environment.  To make the program more effective, the student body owned it.

Students entered into a contract with the school each year to support and comply with the anti-abuse policy. A team of student leaders worked together to endorse the policy, provide peer education on abuse, and engage in continuing evolution of their abuse prevention program. Each spring, student mentors from the high school visited all the eighth grade classes in the district to provide orientation on abuse to the upcoming freshman class. The middle schoolers were often surprised or amused by content in the presentations, but their mentors assured them that it was serious business. They also demonstrated that solid citizenship was highly valued in the more sophisticated world of high school.

Cyber-bullying has raised the ante on emotional abuse with speed and magnitude of impact. However, an effective policy that has prevented less wired forms of abuse remains relevant. This precedent-setting program continues to deserve consideration.

May 19, 2011 at 2:11 PM Leave a comment

The New Urban Academic Campus

Heresy…today’s small high schools are building blocks for our future, crucial transition elements that, like scaffolding, must fall to reveal the 21st century high school.

Future shock? Large urban high school campuses will comprise at least a few small schools, athletic facilities, an arts complex, a tech center, and various culinary enterprises. Students will have options off campus for dual enrollment in college, distance learning, and work study. Community service will be mandatory, and civics lessons will transport students to government centers. Students will engage in exploration, but the pursuit may be a thesis, not necessarily hands-on learning. Small learning community leaders will have reinvented the assistant principal role. The campus will have a general manager running the operation.

Small high schools are helping to address the achievement gap in urban education. They seek to ensure that students are no longer falling through the cracks, and that they are getting smarter through exploration-based learning.  However, pedagogically, they are too close to very good middle schools. This strategy must be temporary by design. In addition, small schools keep class sizes low by limiting administration to a small number of micromanagers with a yen for multitasking. Electives and extracurricular activities often depend on the skill set resident in the core content faculty, not student choice, and team sports are cobbled together with partnering schools in borrowed or substandard facilities. Sacrifices are made to preserve academic priorities.

Failure is not an option. Important investments are being made for our children to achieve equity in college preparation and access to the American dream. What, then, with success?

What key elements of this experiment must be preserved? Surely, a personal connection to school is a must for every student. Small school nurturing and student-orientation must survive. But is the pedagogy that has bridged the achievement gap equal to the task of taking students to the next level in high academic achievement? Strong mathematical and scientific thinking depends on algorithms and abstract thought. Writing for college must be quick and carefully composed, not formulaic or endlessly edited. Broad knowledge of culture and historical perspective set students apart. Facility with technology and spatial navigation must be assumed.

Collections of small schools will benefit from affiliation to underwrite expanded opportunities for their students. Personal choice is as important to academic motivation for students as the best intentions among their teachers and mentors. Once core competencies have been achieved, exposure to a menu of options will allow students to explore their interests and broaden their perspectives. For the more fortunate, it will unlock a passion for study in a newly discovered discipline.

This new high school exists in some wealthier suburbs today. I can only ask for at least as much for urban students. And it is not too soon to include this vision in our plans for their future.

April 28, 2011 at 9:29 AM 1 comment

Thoughts on English Language Learning

In the world of multiple intelligences, linguistics is NOT one of mine. However, I try to pay attention to any dialogue on language acquisition or management of English Language Learners (ELL). After many years of listening to proponents for bilingual education, full immersion, or sheltered immersion programs, I have designed a couple of hybrid models for 1st year ELL students.

The first, CharterAmericas creates a community center based charter school that assimilates the speaker of limited English with a very strong primary language. The program celebrates the intersection of the cultures of the Americas and provides a combination of bilingual and sheltered immersion learning. Further, it seeks to engage the local community in a shared value of multilingual language fluency.

The second, a Cultural Studies program, focuses on native language instruction of topics across the curriculum to students with very little understanding of English and significant gaps in knowledge from very significant absenteeism. In this latter program, the goal for students is to achieve foundation content knowledge and improve skill in language arts while studying their own culture and native tongue.

Common themes with both programs include…

  • Strong language arts studies in the student’s native language
  • English taught as a foreign language credit
  • Emphasis on native language for new academic content, English instruction for rehearsal of familiar concepts
  • Living arts content in English with vocabulary training and hands-on learning opportunities

Option 1: A charter school that serves as a one-year intensive academic transition program for newcomers with modest English proficiency. The school is part of a community center that serves the extended family as they adjust to life in an English-speaking world.

CharterAmericas

Languages of the Americas, Year 1 ELL program 

Language Arts – Primary language at grade level with learning standards comparable to ELA. This course is intended to develop deep knowledge and appreciation of reading with comprehension, writing by genre with appropriate mechanics, and vocabulary growth in the students’ native language.

Co-teaching at Grade level with interpreter – in English + primary language translations with after-school tutoring in primary language

  • Math
  • Social Studies
  • Science

Electives – bilingual with English vocabulary learning standards, oral and written assessments, and performance tasks for content

  • English I as a Foreign Language credit
  • The Arts – fine art, music, drama, dance
  • Living Arts – Culinary arts, fashion, woodworking, handyman
  • Technology – Keyboarding, Office Software, Graphics, Web Design,
  • Health and Physical Education

Community links

  • Lifelong learning – tutoring support after program completion
  • Whole family success planning (ESL, career counseling and training, adult education)
  • Leadership series – multilingual lectures, debates, cultural events
  • Part-time interpreters from community
  • Feeder schools in local district
  • Universities with cultural links – Latino and/or Caribbean studies
  • Performance series – student and community productions
  • Support services – counseling, health links  

Languages supported

  • Creole
  • English
  • French
  • Portuguese
  • Spanish

April 6, 2011 at 4:08 PM 2 comments

Middle School Remedial – Part 1: Mission

Many students who ultimately will drop out of high school demonstrate a similar pattern of absenteeism and academic failure by grade six. This program builds a cohort of seventh and eighth grade students who are overage, provides remedial education, and fosters new learning habits before they enter high school

Mission:           

  • To engage students who are overage in grade and/or underperforming due to significant absenteeism by grade six and prepare them for academic success in high school.
  • To diagnose knowledge gaps that may be contributing to academic performance and support remedial learning.
  • To provide accelerated access to age appropriate content through intensive content focus, learning across the curriculum, and social learning opportunities.

 Beliefs:

  • Students who have experienced academic failure and/or absenteeism are likely to continue to struggle unless this pattern is altered early in adolescence.
  • Access to academic success is the most effective path to behavioral change.
  • Adolescents grow intellectually as a result of group processes with their peers, families, and communities that is either social or academic in focus.
  • At risk students may benefit from more comprehensive chunking of academic content (as opposed to spiraling) and recover credit at a somewhat accelerated pace.
  • High school readiness is measured in academic, developmental, and social/emotional benchmarks.
  • Informed decision making depends on concrete evidence, analysis of facts and risk factors, and either democratic or independent choice.

February 15, 2011 at 2:14 PM 1 comment

Targeted Solutions for Students Not Attending High School

I am interested in working on alternative education programs and gathering data to assess their effectiveness. The concept is summarized below…

 This proposal seeks to explore ideas for students who have experienced difficulty succeeding in traditional high schools. The model is more of a program than a school, but it might fit into a transfer school or borough center. Initially, my program would target one of three cohorts of high school students:

  • Students who have earned most of their high school credits but have one or two specific content area deficits preventing them from graduating (e.g., math or science),
  • Students who function below grade level as a result of cumulative absenteeism and would benefit from a period of remedial skill development to catch up with their peers, or
  • Students (ELL) who have delayed enrollment in high school and have little experience with national or local curriculum frameworks.

 While many students initiate their return to school, I am interested in developing a small collection of programs and recruiting students who have not been attending school to test their effectiveness.

Academic programs would comprise short cycles of full-time immersion in a content area. Each curriculum would be tailored for remediation and comprehensiveness to meet the needs of students. In addition to attending classes, students would have the option of spending part of each day either pursuing online course work and independent assignments or getting more individual instruction in a skills lab environment.

Students who have been caught up in failure cycles need multiple opportunities for success early in the change process. Compact course modules allow then to accumulate credits relatively quickly and to experience deeper understanding of content that once mystified them. From an instructional perspective, content focus allows for greater flexibility and creativity within the curriculum while meeting specific learning needs.

Both the remedial skills program and the ELL program would focus on universal skill sets for content areas. The first would create a bridge to the curriculum by honing prerequisite skills. The latter would introduce the overarching goals and common skill sets for each content area within the context of advanced cultural studies in the student’s native language.

My reasons for creating a program rather than a school are twofold. First, the immersion courses would target relatively homogeneous groups of students to solve specific needs – a model that would be unsound for education in general. Secondly, traditional high schools have more options for elective courses and fine approaches to college preparation. The goal of my program would be to set the students on a path to success that would allow them either to earn their diplomas relatively quickly or earn enough credits to return to high school in good standing to complete their studies.

February 14, 2011 at 5:26 PM Leave a comment

A proposal to re-engage students not attending high school

Mission Statement

 Our Mission: To create a learning environment that enables students who are overage and under-credited to re-engage in education, design a personalized plan for accelerated progress toward graduation, and chart a path for success after high school.

 We have the vision that every student should finish high school prepared for a bright future. To be successful, students must rediscover their voice within the community, their identity as lifelong learners, and their goals to continue their educations and pursue rewarding careers.

 We believe that change is not easy and that every students needs to participate in a precedent setting re-entry program in order to reset their expectations for achievement.

We empower students to define their own credit recovery plans based on their learning styles, program flexibility, and decision support systems.

We know that educational opportunities and mentoring experiences extend beyond the school walls and seek partners for virtual learning, dual enrollment in college, community service, and workplace training.

Together, we value diversity within our academic village and approach one another with a tone of decency, respect, and the presumption of good intentions. We strive to meet the needs of each student as an individual while celebrating success as a community.

Essential Aspects of the Program

The new high school or program will re-engage students and facilitate their successful completion of high school through

  • A unique full-immersion entry period for resetting expectations for student achievement,
  • A student-specific learning plan for accelerated progress to graduation, and
  • Advisory programs to enable students to reinvent themselves and facilitate decision-making.

Students will rediscover their voice within the community and their identity as lifelong learners. Each will graduate with access to continuing education and aspirations for a rewarding career.

Initially, academic programs would comprise short cycles of full-time immersion in a content area. Each curriculum would be tailored for remediation and comprehensiveness to meet the needs of students. In addition to attending classes, students would have the option of spending part of each day either pursuing online course work and independent assignments or getting more individual instruction in a skills lab environment. Diagnostic testing for learning issues or knowledge gaps would inform instruction as well.

Students who have been caught up in failure cycles need multiple opportunities for success early in the change process. Compact course modules allow then to accumulate credits relatively quickly and to experience deeper understanding of content that once mystified them. From an instructional perspective, content focus allows for greater flexibility and creativity within the curriculum while meeting specific learning needs.

Once students have developed new patterns for engagement in learning, they would have the option to modify their schedules to define course sequences, expand the curriculum, or pursue offsite learning opportunities. Ownership of their educations will be crucial for student success in this phase. Advisors would facilitate program development by helping students create pacing plans and apply for alternative learning options. Each course would be offered in at least two levels of intensity.

The Advisory program would address issues of identity, voice, and goal setting. Students who have stopped attending school demonstrate a paradoxical mix of leadership and inertia. Often, they have acted decisively and against the advice of others based on a limited view of their possibilities, choosing isolation and academic failure as self-fulfilling prophecies. The goal of the Advisory would be to allow the students to see themselves as leaders while giving them a way to find their voices back in a school community. Small group activities would give students opportunities to experience empowerment and seek a broader range of possibilities from which to make decisions, especially when they feel themselves shutting down. As their credits accumulate, students would shift their focus to plans for school and work after graduation.

February 10, 2011 at 12:30 PM Leave a comment