A Blogger’s Reflection

Five years ago, I started the SchoolsRetooled blog and began to gather my thoughts on the US PreK-12 Education Delivery System and, more specifically, urban education. Periodic stints back in the classroom have put the blog on hiatus, and it flagged quite a bit after a family tragedy a couple of years ago. But I stand by my initial vision for education reform, not as a call for competition but, rather, a renewal of the system itself to create the capacity to fully integrate 21st Century innovations and continue to evolve toward excellence.

In December 2011, near the end of my first year of blogging on SchoolsRetooled.com, I published Seven Keys to Education Reform. In this 10-page summary of my approach to system reform, I identified seven levers of change that could improve the system’s functioning by getting more information from data systems, taking a broader view of pedagogy, streamlining organizations around the mission of educating the children, and providing incentives for common ground among educators and between educators and the communities they serve. Beyond organizational dynamics, my thesis presumed an absence of fault on behalf of any of the participants in the education system and, in particular, an end to ageist scapegoating.

In the years since then, policy conflicts defined by political affiliation have shaped the conversations among educators, much to my dismay. My biggest disappointment has been the extent to which the goals of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) were allowed to slip away and the 2014 deadline passed unnoticed. The Obama Administration relaxed the accountabilities, pushing for the Common Core State Standards and advancement of teacher evaluations. Conservatives renewed their support for competition for public schools, choosing incubation of ideas in charter schools, often with private bankrolling.

By the time ESEA was renewed late in 2015 bipartisan support was achieved in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) with very little prescription for how this would be ensured. The clearest policy directive was the prohibition on any further Federal intervention in accountabilities that the legislation defined as states’ rights. The legislature was ruled by Republicans in both houses; the Obama activism in lieu of overdue ESEA renewal was over.

I continue to believe in system reform. The quiet period after the passage of ESSA allows me to reflect here on progress made with my own agenda as well as initiatives needed in the future.

On no-fault education reform

Education reform has evolved such that rhetoric is less about frenzied reactions to missed targets for student achievement on high-stakes tests and more about opportunities for concrete system improvements and real school transformations. However, the worst performing districts often remain trapped in blame-based failure cycles. They will not be able to get out of their own way until they become more inclusive in their solutions, recognizing their allies and working in concert rather than with antagonism and derision.

On a student-centered data system

Data systems have shown great strides within education, but they are not student-centered. ESSA authorizes a limited number of districts to experiment with student-centered accounting, but they focus only on the revenue stream, not really addressing matching of revenues to expenses at the student level. I continue to believe that we will not be able to manage student outcomes effectively until both sides of the equation are in synch. Once the money is at stake, school systems that are reluctant to embrace the challenge of student-centered accounting will realize its necessity. Data on student outcomes and teacher effectiveness will follow logically.

On broad-based pedagogy

Software is beginning to catch up with the structural changes in hardware and data. This bodes well for implementation of blended learning, which balances digital resources with tradition methods. In addition, personalized and competency-based learning can be realized with greater potential for educators and students to share management of the learning process.

Educators are accepting technology that combines attendance, assignment completion, and grading in databases that can also support student portfolio development. In addition, these same platforms support collaborative projects that can be pursued and documented on shared platforms. Textual content is available digitally, and learning is becoming an interactive, multi-media experience. Student support is routinely enhanced with multisensory digital options and close-reading strategies.

On alignment to mission and benchmarks

There have been many experiments in school transformation; however, reorganizing the actual schools has not been a priority yet. I believe this will happen organically as data systems provide better information on student outcomes.

On performance incentives for Special Education

New Special Education guidelines from Federal regulators have shifted emphasis toward student outcomes. This promising development should help to accelerate progress toward grade-level proficiency. I continue to recommend earlier student involvement as members of their education planning teams, but there has not been much movement in that direction. For now, younger students tend to be present more so if they have disciplinary hearings than for prospective planning sessions.

On school leadership and general management

A couple of years ago, the time seemed ripe for two trends to deepen. The first was the emergence of empowered parents demanding a voice in troubled schools. The second was the trend toward education schools entering joint ventures with their management school counterparts within major universities.

Threats of parent trigger interventions have given way to mayors and school district leaders joining to speak with one voice, a more politically savvy voice that recognizes the importance of community members proactively. The university-based collaborations have gotten caught up in concerns about educators finding a back door to access to highly competitive MBA programs. I suspect the long-term solution will be dual degree programs that require admission to graduate programs in both the business and education schools.

On portable pensions

The issues around underfunding of pension plans continue to dominate the conversation, and most actions are currently being focused around solvency. Unfortunately, the recommendations are more likely to be made by those who have mismanaged the programs historically. The pension beneficiaries have continued to be called out for reasons that baffle me – they are the only people who have given up their pay to the fund without fail through the whole fiasco – and ways to eliminate funding shortfalls that reduce obligations to the pensioners get more traction than ways for the government employers to pay back their missing contributions to their employees. This is particularly troublesome when government entities got holidays from making their contributions in lieu of Social Security, something that would never be allowed in the smallest of entrepreneurial businesses.

On financial incentives linking educators to performance

As I stated originally, validated educator effectiveness reports need to precede merit-based pay. There has been significant progress in teacher evaluations and leadership performance assessment. However, there is more work to be done, which necessitates postponing this objective for a while longer. The recent developments in technology cited above should offer greater options for multiple measures of educator performance, a key to getting beyond controversial value-added test scores as the proxy for overall effectiveness in schools.

On valuing people of all ages

The fervor has died down over targeting veteran teachers as the source of all evil in education, and the conversations around accountability for test scores alone have softened. That said, charters schools continue to be organized with an unwritten rule against hiring teachers beyond a fairly young age. Teach for America and other similar programs continue to be granted exemption from teacher prep rules, giving an edge to youth-oriented private organizations that funnel a revolving door of teachers into public systems. As these groups mature, they are demanding a greater role in leadership at the risk of stifling the voices of educators with a deeper commitment to schools and important insight into the issues.

January 22, 2016 at 12:44 PM Leave a comment

Using the IEP to Ensure Access to Grade-Level Curriculum

Several years ago, a US Department of Education memorandum announced a planned shift in Special Education policy to emphasize academic outcomes and progress toward grade level performance. This past November, a significant step toward such a benchmark was announced. Now that school is back in session after the holidays the reality is sinking in…this is kind of a big deal.

Late last year, the US Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services issued new guidelines focusing on access to grade-level curricular content for students with disabilities. These new guidelines suggest that IEP goals for students who, for example, are below grade level in Math or ELA should clearly address interventions at two levels:

  • Accommodations that would ensure access to the curriculum in relevant content areas with alignment with State standards at the grade level of the student’s enrollment, and
  • Interventions that should lead to accelerated progress, i.e., greater than one grade year of progress per education plan year, towards grade level competency in the primary Math or ELA disability.

This is good news for students with disabilities. The best intentions in Special Education often have been undermined by regulatory procedures emphasizing a student’s eligibility for services. For more progressive schools, this latest memorandum will reinforce existing commitment to inclusive practices for Students with Special Needs across the curriculum. However, other schools will need to rethink their programs and make adjustments in their…

  • Goal-setting process for IEP teams,
  • Instructional strategies for students,
  • Professional development for teachers, and
  • Ongoing assessment of students’ academic progress against IEP goals.

The Office of Special Education urged educators to continue to pursue high expectations for achievement for Students with Disabilities. Perhaps most significant is the Education Department’s effort to address some of the process that was missing from the strictly results-oriented NCLB. As such, it represents a strong step forward for educational equity.

January 8, 2016 at 9:19 AM Leave a comment

Adding the Education Delivery System to the Lexicon – Without Dualistic Tendencies

Addressing Education as a Delivery System is not new, but its potential cannot be expressed within the lexicon until we acknowledge it beyond the binary. The current attempts to reinvent the US PreK-12 Education Delivery System generally bundle everything old as bad and introduce a single idea or entity as its sole competitor. To be successful, however, the system must be allowed to exist in fluid form. The schoolhouse walls have been tumbling down for a while with innovative ideas arising from necessity, creativity, or some combination of the two in concert with a vision for truly strategic planning. It is not time to sort the winners or losers; the solution is inclusive.

The tradition public education system has become the straw man against challengers such as private for-profit systems, charter school chains, online programs, and other delivery modalities. Unfortunately, many delivery system innovators have adopted the binary approach – The Good (us) versus The Bad (them) – one of the saddest artifacts of weak management in education. Indeed, almost every argument has become mired in the mud of a rope pulling contest between the best bullies from either side of the fray. This attitude is not going to nurture truly ground-breaking developments. Similarly, this adversarial approach keeps us caught up in the spat among the adults, with the students being barely essential to the dialogue aside from the requisite reference to the children by both sides as their sole concern.

A renewed US PreK-12 Education Delivery System (no “s”, not plural) must be student-centered and universally relevant in order to be sustainable. All information – finance, educational outcomes, teacher effectiveness – must be linked at the most basic level directly to the student. Education can no longer be defined by what happens within the schoolhouse walls. It can be delivered anywhere: at home, in the community, online, or within a central education complex. And the facilitator can be a person, a written source, a transmitter, or an interactive digital or interpersonal experience. The process can be personalized for each student with learning experiences designed for students individually or within optimized cohorts.

I am not usually one for getting hung up on semantics, but this one matters. We need a new approach to the Education Delivery System as a whole. The existing system does not work, and power brokers hanging onto their turf will never build a better system. Everyone has a stake in the solution. The children are the future of our world, but they depend on the education delivery system for effectiveness, health and safety for their survival, and a political economy within which they can become thriving adult citizens. Their villages need to get busy and learn to speak as one.

January 6, 2016 at 10:36 AM Leave a comment

ESEA Compromise Bill Misses Mark on Student-Centered Accounting

Student-centered education cannot naturally transcend its current regulatory environment. The best intentions of educators will always give way to funding imperatives and enforcement of the rules. That is, unless the rules are changed. Today’s ESEA Compromise Bill does not do that.

The point of student-centered accounting for PreK-12 Education is the matching of weighted funding with the spending for the student as an individual. It is intended to be the driver for centering all information – financial, academic services, and outcomes – on the student in a case management model. What it is not supposed to be is a way to siphon off public school funds to private alternatives.

We currently fund districts, NOT students, and we manage district outcomes, NOT student outcomes. Unfortunately, the current ESEA compromise bill does not seem interested in a more rational approach that enables analyses concerning to whom and how we deliver education services. Rather than give districts an incentive to become better informed about mission-driven spending, the leadership in both Houses of Congress have used popular jargon inappropriately as a smoke screen for keeping districts flying blind on actual student services AND helping conservatives to get public money for private schools.

Commitment to bettering the schools would suggest new money guidelines for the public schools to help them revise their spending and service mix to improve outcomes. At some point, once the financial models are in place and validated, it would seem logical to have the money follow the student under extraordinary cases of private placements. But that is not the intent of student-centered accounting, nor is it in any way a top priority.

Further, the conservative approach to funding is to expand block grants, presumably allowing the states to manage their own money. This does not seem a bad idea in a naive world, but one only needs to examine the actual practices to see the flaw. Most states lack internal standards for charts of accounts, and the exceptions still miss the point. Perusing hundreds of pages of detail for education accounting in a given state never yields more than a handful of line items on Instruction. If you give them money in a block grant, they will spend it without giving themselves more than block grant details for resource allocation. It is not an informed approach.

Federal ESEA law must either (A) tell the states that they will get weighted student funding and must justify future funding requests based on how they spent the the money to teach each student, or (B) create a financial and cost accounting standard that guides states on how they can better help themselves. School districts will attend to the details in the data…and that definitely has nothing to do with actual teaching.

November 18, 2015 at 4:34 PM Leave a comment

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

Renewing the American Education Delivery System – Introduction

Draft Introduction to a publication that I am developing from collective writings and musings on SchoolsRetooled.com.

The US PreK-12 Education system has devolved into a system hamstrung by regulatory compliance that has lost sight of its mission to educate all children well. Free access to public education in the least restrictive environment with equity, high quality, and lifelong sustainability has roughly translated into segregation of the children by race and income, special education that sustains eligibility for services, and market failure in urban education consistent with escalating income inequality. Complicit in this latter point is near-permanent loss of access to economic opportunity. In addition, problems in the general economy have burdened the system with unfunded pension and retiree healthcare benefits for the education work force.

The main focus of this publication is education delivery system renewal through eight essential elements of reform. Solutions that would enable a more functional education delivery system must reorganize the system around the primary mission of education. In addition, however, they must address reconstruction of lifelong income planning and affordable healthcare for educators. My special rants on the economy, healthcare, and pensions retain their relevance for our nation as a promise-keeper to its aging population as well as the land of opportunity, giving access to the American Dream to all people – young and old – with great urgency.

My world view was developed through participation in the education sector over the past 14+ years as well as my prior background in general management and all facets of the healthcare market. The combination has been especially synergistic inasmuch as I experienced the transformation of healthcare finance from a regulated, cost-plus plan to a prospective payment system organized around patient-centered case management. This structural shift unified care around the patient and enabled analysis of outcomes and effectiveness of services. I believe an analogous improvement is crucial to achievement of our mission in education.

Working in a series of strategic planning, operational, and internal consulting roles in healthcare organizations, I have gained insight into application of business management solutions to support extremely personal, often emotionally charged, high-stakes service delivery. The main objective was getting the best information and resources from the system while keeping the rest out of the way of operations. It can and should be achieved in education as well.

The process of reinventing the education delivery system does not preclude other good work by educators. There are many meaningful experiments being pursued in public and private education venues that should continue unhampered by system reform. Indeed, this incubation of innovation will be a cornerstone of education excellence into perpetuity. Likewise, a project management approach to school transformation should allow infrastructure enhancements to endure even as direct education services get top priority.

Renewal of the education delivery system necessarily relies on evolving government policies at the Federal and State levels. In addition, realignment of local school districts around mission and benchmarks is essential. Creative approaches to new schools inspired by private reform efforts must move beyond our current reliance on selective admissions for students and rampant age-based bigotry seen in charter school hiring. A discussion of inclusive solutions and a no-fault approach to education reform follows.

April 30, 2015 at 1:37 PM Leave a comment

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