Duncan Dilutes Obama Legacy with Words that Trump Actions in Education

Arne Duncan is willing to betray a generation of children to save the Common Core. He has charted the path for states that were unable to meet their own goals after getting waivers that forgave their failure to meet NCLB goals…as long as they have goals…that show they will really mean it this time. Promises made to Mr. Duncan do not supersede the promise made to our nation’s children that they will not be left behind educationally. Playing Kick the Can from 2008 through 2019 cannot be Obama’s intent.

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation is the law of the land. It must be enforced by the Executive Branch of the US Government. The Obama Administration has addressed two important issues in its treatment of NCLB, partially excusing the waivers, but there is no constitutional mandate to allow continuation of the waiver program for states that are out of compliance for both their waiver agreements and NCLB.

The two most valid education issues have been…

  • Interstate Portability: The absence of consistency and rigorousness of standards for education across the country has left some children more equal than others. That is to say, children in states without high standards for K-12 education render their young constituents disadvantaged Vis a Vis their peers in other states when they reach adulthood. In addition, these same children are unable to carry their education property across state lines without unnecessary knowledge gaps. Children who enter these states will likely see the value of their education property diminish through unnecessary redundancies and their becoming underserved educationally.
  • Absence of Due Process: NCLB created a “presumption of guilt” clause that removed due process from job loss actions against educators in schools that were declared to be failing. The absence of objective educator effectiveness standards, combined with mandates to dismiss some or all educators in these schools, has created the opportunity for unconstitutional capriciousness in the firing process.

The Obama Administration has explicitly mandated the development of educator effectiveness processes as part of the waiver process to address the latter issue. The only questions remaining are, “Did you do it? Yes or No?” followed by, “Have you met your self-imposed standards for progress toward conformity with NCLB?”

The Interstate Portability issue was partially addressed by a collection of states in adoption of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and reinforced by their inclusion in the NCLB waiver terms. However, the whole issue has become muddied in CCSS implementation. At the highest level, CCSS could have been reasonably imposed by the Executive Branch as part of NCLB from the start to insure Interstate Portability…End of story, with the interpretation of the standards and subsequent curriculum development and compliance measurement being matters for state and local education authorities.

Instead, the US Department of Education has taken a passive-aggressive approach by offering CCSS as an optional way to score a waiver from NCLB and has offered curricular-like guidelines for their implementation that the Federal Government has no business doing. Educators across the nation have been doing their part to complicate things by misinterpreting the CCSS as a curricular mandate and playing pedagogical ping pong with the Common Core for at least a couple of reasons.

Educators often take binary approaches to pedagogy and choose sides. The Common Core standards were written in language that seems to have bolstered some academics to think, “Aha! They are going to have to do it MY way now.” This position has a couple of flaws…first, CCSS is not a curriculum, and, second, jumping from standards to directions for instruction omits the concept of scaffolding. Educators have to teach the children, not just reinvent the world to be more consistent with a one-sided vision of pedagogy.

The other, quite valid, cause for debate is that the Common Core represents a very good first attempt at a set of education standards for the US. Like any other first draft, the CCSS will need to evolve to maintain their validity against the test of time. Unfortunately, today’s political game seems to be one of smoke and mirrors on the Common Core that is obscuring the fact that educators can escape accountability for the rest of the decade. At this rate, the reach of the NCLB waivers will undermine the educations of children as yet unborn. This is wrong.


November 15, 2014 at 11:44 AM Leave a comment

The Cart before the Horse… or How Not to Develop a Mission-Driven Education Service Delivery System

Education leaders and policy-makers are presuming knowledge they do not have yet when they address issues of weighted student funding, teacher effectiveness, and pedagogical best practices. Blunt instruments that capture the proverbial lightning rods on the education landscape have driven decision-making for so long that too many simply accept the truisms that “everybody knows…” Nowhere is there any evidence of information to build and fine-tune a mission-driven service delivery.

Education policy has followed a mythology around the uniqueness of the industry, its usual suspects, the established budget-busters, and good and bad pedagogical practices. Regulatory accounting and data reports do not yield the kind of information that is instructive or truly actionable. Rather, overworking of aggregate data implies precision in cost analyses and funding; test scores, attendance, and graduation rates become proxies for effectiveness in student outcomes. Absent standard data gathering on instruction, actual classroom practices defy validation.

Education is a service-delivery system that would benefit from the insight allowed in the case management model for information management. Taking a lesson from the healthcare delivery system, education should convert from a cost-plus system to student-centered accounting and data, which matches funding with expenses and narrative information about resource allocation as well as student outcomes. This approach would allow for a better understanding of relevant student cohorts, actual services delivered, appropriateness of resource allocation, and quality review of educational effectiveness. It could also be directly linked to educator practice analysis and effectiveness reports.

Student-linked data on instruction would allow for real research on pedagogy, which currently falls prey to whimsy despite the best of intentions. Pedagogical best practices tend to begin with reasonable ideas, often from scholarly hypotheses, and rapidly become diffused throughout the more progressive schools, begging the question of their authenticity. Professional development follows to ensure that everyone adopts these practices, and dissenters are cautioned to acquiesce or risk demerits on their evaluations. Collaboration turns into a verbal agreement that goes something like, “If we all do the same thing…the students will have to get the message.” Ironically, the latest best practice fad always seems to carry the claim that it is student-centric and personalizes instruction. In reality, it only guarantees that there will be no competing practices to dispute its superlative label when the data is collected on its effectiveness.

Student-centered pedagogy cannot be driven by educator beliefs or biases. Rather, a robust model calls for offering the full array of possible learning activities, at least within the limits of available human capacity and technology. Lessons that are not working for a student should be set aside while he or she pursues a variety of alternatives, such as different approaches to the current concept, outside explorations, searching for missing information to fill knowledge gaps, or getting the perspective of a peer tutor. Data should be collected throughout the process to support professional practice analysis. Ultimately, every student must have good educational outcomes for the system to declare victory.

The development of a student-centered database will not be easy. But the first step might be to acknowledge the degree to which educators are hamstrung by the current system. Every state has begun with Federal data requirements for the last 10% of education funding, and then cobbled a system for the other 90% around it. So, while state and local education authorities are autonomous in most of their decisions about their education delivery systems, the federal standards make data-driven decisions more difficult.

What is likely to remain true is that data standards should be driven by federal policy for consistency across all states. However, these standards should be developed to serve the needs of educators at the service delivery level, not just addressing the federal exigencies. This would suggest that the Department of Education collaborate with some number of states to build possible models for student-centered databases and fund demonstration projects in local school districts.

And, of course, the demonstration models must be persuasive of filling a need. This cannot be just another alleged best practice among administrators that is more trouble than it is worth.

November 10, 2014 at 1:17 PM Leave a comment

There is No Shareholder Value in a Built-to-Flip World

Paradigm shift is just another name for structural change in the marketplace. In the case of the Internet revolution, there have been seismic shifts in two out of four parts of the market at once…promotion and channels of distribution. The product and the price seem not to have been affected as much. Still, the technology upheavals have blown such a smoke-and-mirror show in the faces of the Wall Street pack that they have lost their vision for the future. A renewed interest in shareholder value is our only hope.

Flipping something in the market is fool’s gold. It is not even a zero-sum game, because as long as nothing remains in the long run except the fees paid to the brokers we will all be worse off. It triggers a slow downward spiral that cannot ever pay off in net, and, by the time anyone seems to notice it, the damages have already hit a dangerous level of acceleration.

So go the bubbles on Wall Street. Yet the world markets have been satisfied to ride the wave of a series of rising and falling tech stocks based on fads that hold the attention of the masses at any given time. “Getting” the new paradigm seems to presume that fundamentals no longer matter. Besides, no one under 30 has a prayer of a chance of connecting the words shareholder and value to anything meaningful.

The ugly secret to this game, besides its inherent uselessness, is that the only winners are insiders…not just fee-collectors, but the fund managers who have the clout to cheat and the arrogance not to care. Ironically, they are the keepers of capitalism, an economic game at which they totally suck!

Capitalism may have greed as its motivation, but it is not its own end game. And true capitalists wish to sustain themselves. Captains of industry build businesses that are meant to offer lasting shareholder value. They make real products, have a genuine competitive advantage, and reinvest profits in a research-based pipeline of next generation products to stay viable. They do not invest in 19th century work conditions in third-world countries and sit on their offshore profits while lobbying for yet another round of tax relief.

Yeah…this falls under the heading of Special Rants. I went to business school and worked in finance once upon a time. I got interested in education as a problem-solver. Yet one of the most frustrating aspects of education reform is the ability of tech toolies to continue to manipulate educators like kittens stalking a laser beam with newer and better apps while we continue to ignore our own fundamentals. Flipping through fly-by-night pedagogical tools is not reform.

Systemic change in education is not just possible, it is essential. We have the ability to use technology to eliminate obstacles to broad-based pedagogy and to inform ourselves with real data about finance, student outcomes, and educator effectiveness. Reinventing the business systems behind education can free us from the mythology that keeps educators trapped in myopic visions of success, dysfunctional management, and service to the bureaucracy instead of the mission of educational excellence.

October 25, 2014 at 10:58 AM Leave a comment

What’s Up in Holyoke? Privacy, Freedom of Speech, and Due Process under Fire

A teacher has been fired for speaking out against district administrators in Holyoke. Or at least the Commonwealth of Massachusetts thinks there is probable cause to investigate. His offense? Revealing that students’ names and test scores were being exposed on a data wall…then releasing the PowerPoint presentation in which teachers were directly instructed to include the students’ names. Opportunity, action, and intent on the part of the school district to violate the privacy of the children are in evidence.

Our children are our future. And our schools are on the front lines teaching those children about democracy, civil liberties, and citizenship. Unfortunately, in the Holyoke case, the teacher’s rights to freedom of speech and due process appear to have been flagrantly violated. In addition, the children’s rights to privacy have been encroached upon. Most details of their growth and development are protected from scrutiny in matters ranging from intellect to discipline until they reach legal adulthood at age 18.

Let’s start with the schools and their possession-with-intent-to-distribute of very personal data on children. In the era of Big Data, interpretation of the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) already has left parents, guardians, and children vulnerable to a couple of gaps in privacy guarantees. The first is the definition of directory information, which can be distributed without permission; the second is the waiver of prior consent for “…a contractor, consultant, volunteer or other party to whom the school has outsourced institutional services or functions.” In either event, FERPA has a bad nudge.

Parents get disclosure of policies or contractual arrangements with a brief window for them to prohibit access to their children’s data. It would be far better to offer parents a one-click opt IN if they wanted their children’s privacy rights to be violated, not requirement of an opt OUT action to keep data secure. Passive responses should protect the kids but, in reality, FERPA errs on the side of protecting access to the kids’ privileged information on behalf of public information requests or private consultants who mine data.

Holyoke school officials went the next step to provide the kids’ names and test scores expressly to subject them to intrusive offers of motivation and intervention in public and did so without prior notice. This action also left the students vulnerable to embarrassment or mockery regarding their achievement or lack thereof. When first exposed, the District issued a denial. When cornered, they retaliated against the whistle blower.

The Holyoke school teacher in good standing who led the protest against the inappropriate disclosure of students’ identities and test scores lost his job. Due process for teacher termination had been defined for tenured teachers; however, the teacher in question had not earned his access to those internal protections yet. He needed the Department of Labor Relations to intervene, which they have now done.

As for Freedom of Speech, that may remain in question within the Holyoke Public Schools for some time to come.

September 12, 2014 at 10:30 AM Leave a comment

Common Core Not So Hot of an Issue

The heated debate that is being waged over the Common Core is neither. Yes, it is July, which renders any environment a bit sultry…but the Common Core has slipped under the heading of safe binary disputes over pedagogy. These discussions are not a problem; the natural tension between standards and curriculum is a functional cornerstone of what should be a dynamic equilibrium in education. Feel free to jump in at any point. Just try not to ignore the real problems that should be at the top of the list.

I just read a cogent piece on literacy instruction and curriculum development by Kathleen Porter-Magee in the Education Gadfly; however, its inherent reason survived its goal of perpetuating the current obsession with the Common Core. The main objective seemed to be that some standards are good and others are bad, and that the bad ones are more likely to come from the Common Core. Standards that lead to manifestation within the context of a curriculum, as in the math example, are good. Standards that manifest in applied problem-solving are bad, as in the literacy example, because educators try to teach a generic skill before context.

Generic skills must become known as such before applied problem solving can happen across any curriculum. However, the skills themselves often need a context in order to be learned at the start. But then again…don’t forget style variations among students. Not everyone excels in linear thinking. Ms. Magee makes a number of fine points, but the Common Core is not essential to her argument. Instead, it does make for a strong case for a wider bandwidth in pedagogy. The students only win when the educators agree to disagree and accept more than one approach to learning at any given time.

Now, back to the Common Core…and the Gadfly’s Twitter summary that “this too shall pass.” The Common Core is a crucial element of our nation’s education system, but not because of its skills concentration. Rather it is the interstate portability of education that is at stake. The Common Core can and should be tweaked endlessly in a continuous quality improvement effort. Of greater importance, perhaps, is the notion that education as an institution can withstand any external forces of change.

Educators are resilient under conditions of siege, which is the way any change is perceived. And the industry can set up a failure with great reliability. The Common Core resistance suggests that, like No Child Left Behind, it was destined for failure from the start within this context. This is why neither can be left as an artifact of history. We are denying access to a high quality education to a large number of American children, and they are trapped in their geography. These changes must happen in spite of the resistance. The education community must learn a new skill, to rally around success with the same facility they exercise to create a failure.

July 24, 2014 at 8:27 AM Leave a comment

Data on Resource Allocation?

Aggregate expenditures in the US on the “instruction” portion of education are approaching $0.5 TRILLION, and that’s only about 60% of total spending. So how do we spend it across the curriculum? Dunno…there’s no uniform chart of accounts to analyze that. And the folks we trust to manage resource allocation for education are the same people who don’t seem bothered by this…they just know they always need more money.

Financial charts of accounts are boring. Especially once you have gone through them state by state without finding any unifying principle. In fact, in most states you cannot find a standard across local districts. We have no idea how we as a nation allocate our instructional resources by grade, subject, or program area. Nor do we have the ability to compare variations in spending against student outcomes with any real specificity.

If Lunch Lady Doris spends $25 on a birthday cake…we’ve got her. Alert the superintendent…the press is on the way, inquiring minds want to know. Yet no one seems concerned about the details when we spend hundreds of billions of dollars on instruction and almost half our students fall below grade level proficiency in math and literacy. One line item, which comprises 60% of spending, is the full report on instruction.

Money matters. And we need to know where it goes. Food, transportation, and buildings consume significant resources, and spending that money judiciously is important. But we put way too much emphasis on prevention of impropriety in the latter categories than we do actively intending spending for education in a rational model for student learning.

The student should be at the center of the story – weighted funding based on intensity of educational needs – with matching of corresponding expenditures in a case management model. Is anybody listening?

July 17, 2014 at 11:41 AM Leave a comment

Building a Concrete Bridge to Study Skills in 9th Grade

Today’s high schools are becoming more adept at inclusion of Students with Special Needs, and skills classes have become a great source of support for that effort. However, the transition to high school can be difficult for 9th graders, and they may not be ready to process generic skills for application across the curriculum. Sometimes they need concrete examples from specific classwork, homework, or test prep to give the concepts of study skills meaning before they can activate strategies independently.

There are good things happening in Special Education. Students with Special Needs are being educated alongside their peers in inclusive classrooms. Higher expectations have become a reality, along with genuine preparation for college. Heterogeneous classrooms often have general and special educators in a co-teaching environment, and students may also receive support through teaching assistants or paraprofessionals as well. Those who still need additional scaffolding also may attend skills-based classes with a curriculum aligned around student success.

By high school, the quick study cannot keep it all in his head. Last minute cramming for a quiz or test will not produce long-term memory for final exams. And the free association technique for writing will not autocorrect for audience and voice. Students must be taught how to read, write, and study across the curriculum. They must organize materials and time judiciously, and they must forego the usual distractions with intent. That done, the student can become more accomplished in the exciting, bewildering, and frightening world of emerging abstract thought. Facilitating this transition is not an easy task for the adults.

Teachers, counselors, and parents must be a team as they triangulate around the adolescent’s knowledge, maturity, and stamina as a student. Each must be prepared to provide guidance, stimulation, and structure that will support the young adult’s success. Most children will figure out many of these strategies and begin to activate them on their own. However, the full picture needs to be formalized like any other algorithm for life. This is especially true for Students with Special Needs who have found comfort in a concrete world, or those who struggle with focus or executive function.

Study skills classes are based around essential skills and habits of mind that can be explicitly taught. However, the student may not value these lessons unless there is a concrete link to results. Sometimes the special educator must sit and complete assignments alongside a student. Or scribe for a writer or test taker in an alternate site. Or wait for the good grades that document the results of diligence. School-wide, classroom-based, or personalized digital systems that provide quick feedback to the student will reinforce good work habits and support organization further.

My personal style as a teacher of skills has been one of activism, especially with 9th graders. A year of bad choices and consequences made no sense to me with a child who was still unclear on his or her role in the process. I organized for a child who was scattered, perhaps hovered a bit more with a procrastinator, and got a confirmation email from other teachers on the team before I fully accepted that a 14 or 15-year-old had “nothing to do.” The last case, of course, offered the promise for that dream curriculum of study skills…the one that I hoped to enable for my colleagues who taught upper grades. In the meantime, I set goals with students and often worked as hard as they did to achieve those objectives. Because sometimes in Special Needs, the students have to work harder than others to get to the next level, and no child should not be alone in that effort.

July 15, 2014 at 9:13 AM Leave a comment

Fast Company Misses the Point

I’ll say it again…Our children, the details of their growth and development, their hopes and dreams, their emerging intellects and identities…are not for sale. They are not to be profiled, tracked, or manipulated for profit. And their privacy is not to blame for our “secrecy” problem in education.

As a fan of effective tech solutions, I read the Fast Company piece on Jim Shelton, “The Man Who Wants to Fix Education’s Secrecy Problem,” with more than a little curiosity. Unfortunately, the substance was missing. Essentially, Gregory Ferenstein cited the problem of teacher performance to be our reliance on intangibles – quite true – then proceeded to describe possible ways in which privacy loss on the part of children was justified by the insight gained into how they use technology in lieu of human instruction. The lack of connection between objectifying teacher performance (and I mean that in the best possible way) and improving instruction was a disappointment. Our human instructional model was barely essential to the conversation, merely introduced and forgotten.

As we pursue valid reports of teacher effectiveness, a digital solution would seem to be essential. An argument that Ferenstein could have suggested (but did not) was that we need to stop relying on pen and paper student portfolios if we are going to get beyond test scores, attendance records, and graduation rates as actionable measures of student outcomes. Unfortunately, the author suggests that the tools of the social network and advertising effectiveness serve as a valid proxy for research-based pedagogy. Instead of looking for a better, student-focused link between educators and their students…the Fast Company solution extols the virtue of institutionalizing a bridge between external marketers and the children. And he presumes the leap from archaic fuzzy impressions to hyperbolic micro-analysis without stopping on any logical middle ground – a common mistake among advisers who offer no more than the veneer of a grandiose scheme.

I am pleased to learn of Mr. Shelton’s background in technology and hope that his ideas include rebuilding a student-centered education database…one that integrates finance, student outcomes, and teacher effectiveness. And I hope to see real tools for interactive instruction – not double-clicks and distractions – as well as opportunities to explore ideas while building computer-aided models or speeding up the process of studying and building memories. However, we can hack our way beyond the insular nature of education in good conscience without exposing the children to unscrupulous vendors. Their data must always be held sacred.

July 5, 2014 at 10:53 AM Leave a comment

Springboards or Bungee Cords?

Recruitment and retention of young people of color as teachers in urban public schools began as a goal, but recently got elevated to the level of a crisis. But might we benefit from trading our periscopes for something offering a broader view? Consider the possibility that there is no shortage of well-educated young people of color…and only question whether they should be held back from the same career opportunities as, say, your average Teach for America alum?

Children of color benefit from role models with whom they can identify, and who could be better than a great teacher from a familiar community? Unfortunately, public school recruiters have sounded the alarm that they are having trouble attracting and retaining a permanent workforce from that community. Solutions are being sought in incentives that give students who otherwise could not afford college a chance for funding in exchange for a promise of giving back as a teacher after graduation. But our goals for diversity among teachers should not be confused with the objective of giving urban scholars arising from poverty access to higher education and equitable income potential.

People generally do want to give back to their communities. But they have a right to choose when and how. And a student does not need to focus his or her attention on role models who plan a lifetime in the classroom. Teaching is one of many great professions. Children can find inspiration in role models from every walk of life, living well and pursuing their dreams. Let’s not turn our springboards for success into bungee cords that snap young college grads back home too fast. They may wish to return for a few years of service in the community while sorting out their plans for the future, or they might be drawn home in another phase of life with a wealth of real world experience. But their career trajectories should not be altered by design.

Any program intended to level the playing field for students from disadvantaged communities should do just that…give each student the chance to pursue higher education and choose a career path with as much freedom as a student who was born in a more affluent world. In the meantime, every effort should continue to be made to transform urban schools into centers of academic excellence that also would be great places to work.

July 1, 2014 at 11:44 AM Leave a comment

Organizing the Faculty around the Children on a Broader Pedagogical Base

A 21st century plan …unbundled products, individualized education strategies, and liberated teaching styles to facilitate a brilliant collaboration among practitioners that develops their differences in a medley of learning experiences for their students.

Broad-based pedagogy could be seen as an amalgam of elements from all the canned systems, one that cherry-picks the best of what each has to offer while declining the confinement of the packaged deal. It begins with the picture of the educated child at each developmental level, defines competencies that underlie that stage as well as the knowledge, analysis, and judgment that are within his or her grasp. A wider variety of learning opportunities are designed to reach every student. That child’s ability to think and reason, the problems that can be solved, and the maturity implicit in one’s behavior…all are evidence that the process in on track.

Children bring unique styles, predispositions, and time lines to class. In combination, the possibilities are endless. Fortunately, technology can enable pedagogy with a similar breadth of dimensions for personalized learning strategies. But the human factor cannot be eliminated. There is no complete tech solution nor is there one teacher who can address the needs of all their students all of the time. Try as we might, we cannot make a call to Central Casting and order up the latest model teacher equipped with the latest fads in pedagogy. Been there, done that. Instead, a team of teachers must triangulate around knowledge, stamina for learning, and maturity in their students using any tool available.

Learning how to teach all the children, beginning with a paradoxical look in the mirror…

At a recent author event, I heard a neuro-psychologist, among other things, challenging his peers to reflect on the biases they brought to their patient care. Every consultation that arose from a defined point of view, regardless of their foundations as cognitive therapists or psychoanalysts, for example, threatened to derail the process of unraveling the patient’s problems. Commitment within the discipline to draw consistent conclusions was the flaw in the process. Skepticism toward one’s preconceptions was necessary for actually hearing one’s patients.

I could see analogies within schools of pedagogical thought as well as a partial solution in self-awareness on the part of the practitioner. Just as neuro-psychologists must open their practices to input from other disciplines, educators must seek a dynamic equilibrium among divergent pedagogies and teaching styles for a diverse population of students. It creates the demand for team teaching…without the inherent group think that often accompanies it.

For a teacher who loves a subject, the urge to move the child to think like oneself is compelling. ”If you could see what I see, you would be able to do so much more,” begets a quest that is mired in teacher-centric thought regardless of the number of things a child experiences hands-on. Sometimes a child just wants to get procedural knowledge and move on. Wallowing in the building of every cog in the machinery of analysis will never engage them. But they can marvel at the beauty and efficiency of the smoothly functioning algorithm. Conversely, memorizing words and equations sets up cognitive conflict for a child who is driven internally to prove theorems. The procedure begs to be challenged, the exceptions rooted out.

Dispensing with the normative language around style…

Historically, directors of instruction have often become married to pedagogical approaches like serial monogamists, finding early adopters of a learning system, then letting professional development be driven toward co-opting the rest of the faculty until all have capitulated…by which point the strategy has achieved obsolescence. The process is exhausting and breeds failed teachers, those without the resilience to let others repeatedly reinvent them without their permission.

Added to the conundrum is the simple fact that teachers do not necessarily enjoy teaching outside of their own comfort zones. Yes, teachers who remain in the profession for the long haul need to be prepared to grow and stay ahead of the curve. And they need a combination of options for horizontal and vertical mobility to learn from new challenges and broaden their experiential knowledge. But preferred contexts for their work may persist. This does not have to be a problem.

We may well be finding ourselves in the zone for brilliant collaboration among educators…one that matches complementary skills among teachers to better reach the children. Evidence is emerging that we have been neglecting memory, for example; we definitely have struggled over deep versus broad knowledge; and we may have spiraled our way out of our students’ bandwidths at times. And we have discarded education practices that had become cumbersome rituals when we have apps to revitalize the essence of their lessons. Our collective memory for pedagogy, coupled with modern tools of the trade, should prove to be a potent force.

June 26, 2014 at 9:02 PM Leave a comment

Decisive Courts Fill Gap in Education Leadership…Again

Tenured teachers and their students can have the full benefits of the US Constitution at the same time. One does not need to choose between the two, as implied in the Vergara decision. We all want successful students. And that means good teachers. But streamlining the dismissal process for some presumes guilt on the part of all tenured teachers and weakens their right to due process. This is a harmful precedent.

Reading Jay Mathews’ piece on the Vergara case in the Washington Post, I recognized ideas that sounded right…almost. Peer review is a very sound concept, and it addresses part of the equation for professional growth among teachers. Unfortunately, what has been missing from much of the rhetoric around the case was decisive leadership at the top and fact-based due process. In their stead was a perpetuation of the status quo: the ageist folklore of bad old teachers, milquetoast administrators who underestimate their incumbent power to nurture, motivate, and discipline all employees, and teachers led by self-appointed standard bearers who wield informal authority as bullies yet lack full knowledge of one another’s true contributions.

Instead of carrying the weight of leadership, the prevailing voice in education has once again perpetrated the blame game, waging a successful PR campaign against the oldest and most highly paid teachers and getting a judge to force administrators’ hands to do a job that was already within their powers. Further, instead of motivating all educators to do their best over an entire career arc, it has set teachers about the job of sorting out their own elite and bullying the rest through peer pressure, without the benefit of the top-level view of a legitimate supervisor.

The future requires student-centered good information, motivational leadership, a broad pedagogical base, and educator mobility. The due process for firing a tenured teacher has always been available. It is a measure of last resort, not a tool to be streamlined for the short list of education reform strategies.

June 23, 2014 at 4:08 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

Turning Leadership to a Young Man’s Best Advantage

I am a believer in Girl Power…but today’s reflection is on empowering young men, something of a lost art in an era of binary thinking. As our young women have grown, we have neglected our young men, especially children of color, and we owe them a chance to feel the power of being strong in their minds, their hearts, and their best intentions as leaders.

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

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

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

Some of the issues I encountered…

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

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

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

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

March 8, 2014 at 11:41 AM 2 comments

Finding the Gestalt in Competency-Based Learning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Achieving Mastery without Pedagogy Wars

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Vision for Information and Pedagogy

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

SchoolsRetooledTM                                                                                 Confidential Draft

Sytems Integration Proposal

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2013 Kathleen T. Wright



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

Common Core Debate Misses Point

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please Try to Remember

Memorize this: Students need to have knowledge for context so they can know more. They need an analytical toolkit and to understand when and how to use it. They need to be conscious of prior knowledge in the basics so they can get on with more interesting aspects of cognition. The greater the relevant stored memory they possess, the more exciting is the exploration. And growth becomes exponential.

My grandfather used to slip into a recitation of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner at odds times well into old age. His education was one of memorization of many things. It was a hyperbolic technique discarded decades ago, but on dreary days he took pride in his schooling. He was just another guy in dry cleaning, but he had a bookcase full of Harvard Classics that he knew by heart.

Today, any use of memorization outside of one’s lines in the drama club is likely to be maligned among educators. Drill and kill has become the label of doom for bad teaching. However, while a system of rote learning does not lead to deeper knowledge, the ability to extract a complex web of content from memory has become a forgotten part of critical thinking.

Students engage in the learning process and remember what they experienced. But there is no universal experience that guarantees they all learned the same thing. Nor is there a style of exploration that works well for all learners. So teachers have to show students how to evaluate their retention of information and their progress toward mastery of concepts, how to sort through their knowledge to validate its application in a given context, and how to study with intent. At times, It sounds a bit like bearing the fruit of memorization.

We are wired for vocabulary and concept mapping for intelligence. Learning and remembering tens of thousands of words is integral to our ability to think. Likewise, in the humanities, prior memory underlies any sense of metaphor, analogy, or contrast. We achieve abstract thought as our understanding of common themes and repetitive patterns frees our minds for the bigger picture.

In STEM, some students internalize algorithms more readily when they have conceptually realized them through independent exploration. Others prefer to be taught procedures and rules for application. Either way, the long term goal is to have adequate understanding and formalization of strategies to have ready access to analytical tools when called upon to apply them. Critical thinking cannot be a random walk in which one reinvents the needed tools through exploration for life. It is inefficient and, frankly, boring in the absence of periodic training to choose the right method intuitively and move on.

For students with Special Needs or English Language Learners, the issues of vocabulary, knowledge retention, and executive function complicate the learning process. Beyond that, students living in poverty may demonstrate extremes with memory, especially if under-served academically. For students who struggle with reading and writing, an uncanny ability to memorize details of a narrative or complex instructions may be their strongest educational asset. Asking such a student to memorize something might just put him or her in a happy place to jump-start engagement in a lesson.

Alternately, students trapped in chaotic lives may experience functional memory lapses. Where they have been and what they have seen might best be forgotten, suppressed for purposes of coping and moving forward in life. Memory needs to be retrained to overcome such blocks, and out-of-school time needs to be enriched with safe, memorable experiences to give the exercise meaning. It is not a simple matter of increasing processing time.

Anyway, back where we started…if you have an interest in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Google it and find a copy in seconds. But give memory a chance as an educator. Keep classroom experiences rich, but do not forget that students need to remember many, many things.

December 12, 2013 at 2:04 PM Leave a comment

Consumer Focused PreK-12 Education

I am not a fan of privatization of government services; however, I strongly urge public school educators to look at their services through a consumer focus. School-aged children are not members of a captive market. Enrollment in many school systems has declined, sometimes quite precipitously, and consumer confidence must be won back to keep public education alive. And this will require changes that will cascade through the entire delivery system.

Political conservatives are all about privatization of schools to give parents choices for educating their children. And they make a fair point that children are owed better than what many struggling school systems have to offer. The liberal counterpoint tends to vilify the privatizers themselves and to recommend barriers to entry into the PreK-12 arena. For the good of the children, neither side should win. The children need public education that meets their needs – not those of private shareholders or adult stakeholders in public schools.

Consumers of public PreK-12 education services are the children and their parents or guardians. They have a wide variety of needs that must be taken into account to achieve free appropriate access to public education. For them, a strong, responsive education delivery system defies the confines of a nifty mission statement or TEDsplaining of beliefs. Instead a dynamic equilibrium must be maintained through a substantive on-going dialogue between educators and consumers.

School leaders are in charge of this this new parent-teacher paradigm, and their leadership teams should represent great depth in instructional services as well as a quality assurance function that ensures community satisfaction and persistent enrollment. The latter group is convened as part of the team for attendance, support services, and achievement in benchmark assessments as well.

This approach can be differentiated from that of reformers who cite the importance of parental buy-in with their value systems. In reality, they do not sell their plan to parents…they just exclude the parents who do not immediately agree with their mantra. Public schools must serve all members of the community and, frankly, be more flexible than that.

Going further, public schools need to be organized to deliver 12-14 years of education services that culminate in students becoming adult citizen with readiness for college and career development. Today, they are centrally organized with physical or virtual access to broad-based resources. That may change, but for the near-term school services should be available through neighborhood or regional access with transportation appropriate to age. Parents may decide to send their kids across town for a school, but the system should not be designed to require it. Walking to school for PreK-8 would be ideal.

In cases of poor education delivery, the school transformation process may take many forms – from reorganization to complete reinvention – but the problems implicit in this change process should not be exported to the kids and their families. Such projects should be managed for seamless transitions and timely communication. Voluntary change should be implicit in the contract between consumers and their service delivery systems – not contentious battles among stakeholders or regulatory intervention.

Back to the real world. No one seems to like change. But we need it. Building dynamism into the day-to-day discussion between teachers and parents probably means more highly skilled leaders as facilitators. And it will require greater autonomy from district oversight. The pay-off should be success for the children, a more robust model for problem-solving, and less need for blunt regulatory instruments.

Like I said, I am not a fan of privatization of government services, mainly because I think it distracts investors from better options for real economic development. In addition, ideal models for schooling generally offer exclusive services rather than general access. But we can take a lesson from the presence of competitors and learn to beat them by playing the game better.

November 14, 2013 at 12:45 PM 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

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