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.

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

A Very Special Need – for Students Desperately Wanting to Be Different…from Themselves

High school special educators know a lot of students who ultimately identify in the LGBT community…students who are trying to shelter-in-place in a small group setting after the very traumatic experience of trying not to be themselves for a very long time. They often are medicated for ADHD and offered therapy for counter-intuitive behaviors in which they indulge in hopes of being accepted among students who identify as straight. PTSD is not just for warriors.

We don’t talk about this, but I wish someone would study it (maybe they have?)…so we can be informed and address it more appropriately. But I truly believe that there are a significant number of students among the Special Needs population who are misdiagnosed. They are anxious, appear hyperactive, have difficulty focusing in school, act on impulses that get them in trouble, and accept punishment in a manner that suggests self-loathing. They also are very bright and can think fast, produce fabulous school work, and excel in most endeavors in a very safe place. Let’s call their disability Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, for kids whom life had taught to wish they were someone else.

I want to say it is okay…you are going to be alright. And no, we cannot find the person who did this to you and made you different, but you are beautiful. But that often is not what the student who is engaged in an internal battle over his or her identity seems ready to hear, especially from an adult who could not possibly understand what a teen is going through. And the rest of the world is making some progress, but it is not fast enough. In the meantime, unnecessary pain and suffering continues as students try to recede among the wallflowers or jump out of their own skin in search of sameness with everyone else.

What can we do to create an authentically safe place in school? And what can we do to advance the cause of acceptance in the work place, on a park bench, or in the retail dressing room or public restroom? Sadly, our students expect the worst. And for some that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. But it might help to stop adding the Special Ed label and misguided interventions to an anxiety disorder that we might just be perpetuating. I am happy to offer a safe place. Just wish it were not a stop-gap measure for an all-too-imperfect world.

March 8, 2015 at 9:14 AM Leave a comment

Finessing the Common Core

Here’s the deal. The Common Core was heralded as a new higher standard for college readiness in PreK-12 education that ¾ of the states adopted at one time or another. Now there is some buyer’s remorse because states want flexibility in implementation. Therein lays the mistake. The wholesale adoption of the Common Core by states was misplaced. What we needed in the end was a nationwide minimum standard (hint: the Common Core) for Interstate portability and absolute flexibility within the states to direct how they achieved the minimum as well as how they wished to raise the bar locally.

In politics, like marketing, there’s more than one way to achieve the desired result. Take for example, the pharmaceutical industry, which takes a two-pronged approach to selling a new drug…sell it to the prescribing physicians and/or sell it directly to the consumers to get them to ask their doctors for it. Likewise, the Nation’s political agenda can be legislated directly or bubble up through grassroots operations within a critical mass of states. Gay marriage offers a brilliant example of the bumpy road to victory and the legal altar. Anyway, back to the Common Core.

The Obama Administration believed in a national standard for education, but they hesitated to define it as such. Instead, they let the early adopters of the notion among state education chiefs develop Common Core State Standards and sell them to their colleagues across the nation. Then, they offered NCLB waivers as an incentive for states to adopt the Common Core themselves. But, rather than sell the idea to the Legislature when they had more favorable odds, the Administration made a strategic mistake of solidifying the agenda via the back door to the states. Instead of seeing the ¾ adoption rate among the states as a mandate for a national standard, they were satisfied with uniformity within the states…a straight-jacket that would eventually irk states’ rights advocates and more independent thinkers among the local education leaders.

The opportunity that remains would be to stop waxing eloquently about the new high level of achievement offered by the Common Core and begin to sell it as a good minimum standard for the nation…the starting point from which states would have great liberty in setting their own agendas equal to or greater than the national mandate. Because that is what the Common Core is. We forget that any standard to be achieved by “all of the children” is the new floor for achievement. Yes, our glorious Common Core, if successful, is actually intended to be the lowest common denominator.

For now, we are mired in the false starts of treating standards as curriculum mandates, which they clearly are not, and thinking that states who wish to rewrite or modify the Common Core in their own words are wrong. It is time to let go of the rigid thinking and find the common ground founded in the Common Core.

February 27, 2015 at 10:48 AM Leave a comment

8 Essential Elements of Education Delivery System Reform

Just added a quick 1-minute PowerPoint outlining my continuing commitment to No-Fault Education Reform and rearranging my 7 Keys +1 to system reform…

Carving a System to Reveal the Beautiful Minds Within

February 26, 2015 at 7:09 PM Leave a comment

A Village of Leaders Trapped in Their Own Stories

The study of literary classics teaches us about characters – heroes, villains, and the rest – who are trapped in their respective stories. Paralyzed by karmic inertia, they often pursue flawed strategies in parallel, and the plot cannot be resolved without life-changing events that both unite and liberate them in a convergence of common causes and conflicts. Collateral damage is unavoidable, but children are rarely allowed to suffer tragic consequences in the end.

Accountability and blame are two sides of an unbalanced coin, or so it would seem in education. But accountability in a fair game could also be the catalyst for a much needed cultural change…inclusiveness among all teachers. Results-orientation is a good thing…something to strive for in a world of natural leaders who just happen to be teachers. And for that, traditional teachers, boot-camp “heroes” from the Land of No Excuses, and seasoned career changers need to merge their ranks and share talents with more mutual respect and less suspicion. Maybe then the lost children of failed schools would be saved.

I became a teacher through a mid-career transition program after 20 years in health care. As an ICU nurse, I learned quickly that failure was not an option to be taken lightly. Later, as an MBA working in the corporate world, being accountable for my personal, professional, and company goals was just business as usual. One agreed to a set of goals and met them. It wasn’t mercenary. The trickle-down theory of profit-sharing was just that – theoretical – to a young business analyst. But having a job and delivering results went hand-in-hand.

Similarly, the No Excuses teams of recruits have a common thread of achievement that links their mission-driven work. And many new teachers emerging from traditional teacher prep programs arrive in schools truly believing that they are their students’ only hope for success. Yet the schools were full of well-intentioned professional teachers before any of us joined their ranks. Why can’t we all get along?

Education has a long history of regulation, and a bureaucracy has grown around documenting rule-following behavior instead outcomes. Caught up in such distractions from the primary mission of educating the children, many career teachers are frustrated by newcomers who introduce an alternate agenda…like they invented it. And the cruelest irony is that each group seems to bank on gathering young, like-minded individuals who will all do it (fill in new leader’s name)’s way. “Watch me succeed and learn from me” is the battle cry. Great…another charismatic leader with a magic pill and a role modeling strategy for delivering change. And as the pendulum swings and time marches on…educators try every strategy from A to B.

The fly in the ointment is the idea that a universally adopted narrow agenda is a long-term solution. A novel approach in the classroom may yield a boost in performance for some, but it will grow stale and miss the mark for many. To reach all students, a broad range of learning strategies must be cultivated, and teachers need to be able to have the discretion to respond to students for whom the latest thing in education is not a good fit. Innovation is crucial, but it does not guarantee obsolescence of that which came before it.

And veteran teachers need to have their voices heard at least as well as any other group. True leadership fosters mutual respect among staff members, and professional development must be robust enough to keep all teachers vitally engaged in their mission over the course of a lengthy career.

A legacy of grudgingly tolerating teachers for the last 15-20 years of their employment is the self-fulfilling prophecy of the occasional bit of dead wood within the ranks of veteran teachers. In my first couple of years of teaching, I bought into the folklore of new heroes and old villains. But the closer I looked at many of the older teachers walking ghostlike, unseen by their younger colleagues, the more evident it became that their spirits had not died of natural causes. They were the victims of not-so-benign neglect, the designated scapegoats who were vital to the formula for a blame-based failure cycle.

School transformation has become a disruptive process that is driven by a presumption of guilt among some of the teachers. Individuals have been faulted for a bad system’s outcomes with little benefit to the children. Further, accountability testing itself is being targeted as an evil force as well. A truly bleak picture is emerging of eliminating accountability tests and turning out the spotlight on achievement so that the children will be allowed to fail without so much evidence…Mission not accomplished.

In an alternate ending to the story, breaking the failure cycle could mean transforming the people – students and staff – through a better system…not just new schools designed around closed systems of elite players who fit into a tight mold and forgetting the rest. Broad-based pedagogy and inclusiveness of all teachers and students would be essential to the ultimate plan for success. And accountability for student outcomes would be founded in a commitment to a minimum standard for literacy and mathematical reasoning as the base from which all students would pursue their goals as lifelong learners. For that, conversations will have to be moved beyond identifying individual culprits who can be excluded.

February 17, 2015 at 2:42 PM Leave a comment

An Open Letter to Senator Franken…on ESEA Renewal and testing

Dear Senator Franken,

I appreciated your question during a recent hearing on ESEA Renewal and competitive grants when you asked how we could redesign our tests to better measure what we want our children to develop…critical thinking, creativity, etc. While this is a noble goal, I believe it is not the role of the Federal government to regulate the heights to which our children could soar. That is what the partnership between educators and families in their school communities must pursue relentlessly.

From a regulatory standpoint, I believe the primary role of government is to establish the minimum acceptable standard for PreK-12 education. Much of the discussion about testing in the government arena has been misplaced. Essentially, critics of existing standardized tests are concerned that we should look for optimal levels of cognitive development in our assessments. In the former case, we are ensuring that all students reach the floor at each level of education, a necessary prerequisite for initiating work toward the next higher set of objectives. In the latter case, we are trying to define the ceiling for the children, something that should never be constrained by any artificial limits, especially not through government regulation.

That said, educators across the nation should be accountable periodically for minimum standards of achievement, or benchmarks, for the children. In addition, local managers of education should always have multiple measures of achievement that show evidence of academic progress for each child over time against his or her own previous accomplishments. Such discretionary evidence could include student portfolios, performance tasks, and both informal assessments and standardized tests. Indeed, technology is enabling more sophisticated ways of capturing well-rounded snapshots of students (and teachers) and tracking progress over time. I only mention this non-standard data set because it will require vigilant privacy protection at the Federal level.

As we look at standardized assessments, test items must address the building blocks of cognition as well as the Gestalt of learning. It takes a solid toolkit of knowledge and skills used with accuracy, fluency and some degree of automaticity to think really big thoughts. Flaws in critical thinking alone do not inform us about the missing links in education. And we are assessing children across a range of abilities, many struggling to move beyond concrete skills to higher order thinking. When they miss the mark on applied problems, we still need some simpler problems to identify their strengths and build new learning on comfortable solid ground. As with any minimum standard, the test ultimately gives more information about those functioning on the lower margins than at the top.

As for high stakes, well-educated children simply take each standardized test and ace it. When that is not the case, we educators should reflect on the needs of the children and consider how we might be delivering a service gap in their educations. It is up to the grown-ups to fix the problem…not export it to the children in the form of high anxiety. Unfortunately, this has not yet become a matter of pride for us professionally.

I will cherish the day when our under-served children are ready to face real high-stakes challenges in life, hopefully ones of their choosing, as they excel academically in ways indistinguishable from their more privileged peers. In the meantime, we are left with the remnants of low expectations in too many schools, whether they are persistently failing or simply failing to be inclusive enough with some populations in a superficially successful school. The cause of lifting the trap door to the basement and allowing all children access to the ground floor must be pursued relentlessly in the public sector. Then we can and should talk about raising the bar.

I appreciate your commitment to a high quality education delivery system, and I wish you much success your work with the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.

Very truly yours,

Kathleen T. Wright

SchoolsRetooled.com

February 5, 2015 at 12:35 PM Leave a comment

ESEA/NCLB Renewal and Teacher Evaluations

In 2001, No Child Left Behind legislation included a provision for firing up to half of the teaching staff in any school that was considered to be persistently failing. A wink of the eye defined the target to be tenured veteran teachers, the older the better. However, the US Constitution promises citizens due process to protect them from, among other things, discrimination in the work place. Regardless of the intent of legislators, due process need not be a burden to employers. Rather, it can be transformed into a robust model to sustain all teachers in the mission of educational excellence.

ESEA/NCLB legislation is under consideration for renewal, and the teacher evaluation process has had its hearing. The Obama Administration actively supported states and school districts as they shored up their teacher evaluation processes to reflect student outcomes data through a series of Race to the Top competitive grant awards. Now, the new leadership in the Senate Education Committee has declined to include guidelines for teacher evaluations in the Federal education law as an inappropriate intrusion into the affairs of the states. This is not necessarily a problem, with a caveat.

“Nobody told me not to…” is a perennial claim of children as they test limits and bump up against implicit rules of conduct in the natural growth and development process. This self-serving loophole finds new life in adulthood in the dysfunction of a regulation mentality. Heavily regulated government services and public utilities are not like free-market enterprises. Their entrepreneurship stifled by onerous rules, these agencies find their liberty in the conventional wisdom that, if it is not in the rule books, then we can do as we please. This is not necessarily so, but the need for clarification can be expected.

With or without a Federal mandate, an effective and constitutionally sound teacher evaluation process is a critical success factor within any school. School districts employ teachers as their most vital resource. They need to recruit the best, retain them through effective induction processes, and sustain them through effective quality assurance programs. Regular goal setting, review, and motivation keep employees whole over the long haul. Further, any attempt to run roughshod over the rights of employees or neglect to be inclusive in professional opportunities is illegal and undermines the school community.

Human capital management is evolving in education, and fledgling innovations in the teacher evaluation process require active nurturing. Districts need to continue their leadership with the help of technology partners to ensure a robust system emerges using multiple measures of professionalism and effective practice. A teacher portfolio approach is now within reach that can facilitate the transfer from a punitive, fault-finding procedure to a continuous professional development model consistent with student success.

A few years ago, I posted a First Glace at Teacher Effectiveness Data, which outlined sources and uses of data from the human resource files to student portfolios and peer review. The explosion in education applications from the technology sector since then will allow us to compile a wide range of information with ease. In addition, with privacy issues being resolved, there can be greater confidence in data integrity between classroom tools and employment records.

ESEA Renewal is not expected address teacher evaluations, but these evaluations have always been a local issue at the discretion of school districts. What has changed is that the perfunctory and ineffective processes of yore have been rendered obsolete. Fortunately, the demand for dynamic models of teacher effectiveness measurement and promotion can be met with tools to seamlessly consolidate multiple forms of evidence on a teacher’s practice. We need to make this happen and get back to the ongoing dialogue between a mentoring manager and a highly motivated professional with educational excellence as the shared goal.

January 28, 2015 at 4:40 PM Leave a comment

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