Charter vs. Public: Does it Really Have to be Either/Or?

28 11 2010

Yesterday, I took advantage of the inclement weather, a lazy Saturday, and Netflix streaming by watching Madeleine Sackler’s The Lottery. This documentary follows four families who are waiting to discover if their children will be randomly selected for a very coveted spot in a successful charter school–the Harlem Success Academy. The film provides statistics about the failure of public schools in America and more closely focuses on the failure of local “zoned” schools. This film, like Waiting for Superman (which I haven’t seen), seems to make a very strong argument in favor of charter schools. Of course, many players in the public education arena have taken issue with this stance, since charter schools themselves are exempt from union contracts. This seems to be setting up an us vs. them mentality between charter school officials and public school officials.

But I think this is distracting us from the real debate.

Let’s face it. There are charter schools that outperform public schools. But not all of them do. In fact, according to the Stanford CREDO study, only about seventeen percent perform better than comparable public schools, and thirty-seven percent perform far worse. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not going to sing the praises of American public education either because there are significant problems with that system too.

So what’s the actual issue? Obviously, it’s an emotional one, especially because it includes an element of union vs. non-union. But these emotions are adult issues; they have nothing to do with the kids.

As I said earlier, this charter vs. public argument is simply skirting the real question, which really should be “What does good education look like?” Who cares whether good education happens at a charter school, a public school, or a private school? How about we remove our emotions and ask ourselves what the exceptional charter schools are doing to be successful? What are exceptional public schools doing? What are excellent private schools doing? And, more importantly, what do all these good schools have in common? When we figure that out, we can replicate that success.

Let’s be real. Charter schools, private schools, and parent choice aren’t going away. If we’re going to save public education in the country, we need to be willing not only to share our own successes, but we also need to be willing to listen and learn.

Education Reform: It’s Actually Kinda Simple

26 11 2010

I remember the first year my school was undergoing reform. We had task groups who focused on various initiatives: school culture, the schedule, career pathways/project-based learning, and advisory. The groups were pretty high functioning, doing research, brainstorming ideas, even creating proposals and plans to take back to the staff. We operated this way for about six months and then finally realized that we really hadn’t accomplished a whole lot. There were a lot of great ideas, but we hadn’t spent time sharing them with each other or prioritizing their implementation.
In our effort to do everything, we hadn’t really done anything. In addition, we thought if we could change structures, then that would improve student learning. We were wrong.

I think education reform as a whole is probably in the same boat. Not only are there way too many camps advocating different (structural) changes, but there is also really no conversation in policymakers’ agendas about how to increase student learning (which, by the way, is different than student achievement). Of course, everyone talks about what to teach (the common core standards, national standards, state standards, district/local standards, etc.), what to assess, how hard teachers should be working, and how to use assessments to punish or reward schools and teachers. None of these conversations are going to do anything to change education in this country. Not yet, anyway.

To change education in this country, we really should prioritize two questions and two questions only: What does powerful instruction look like? And How do leaders in a system help coach and support teachers so that they can engage in more powerful instruction in their classrooms?

And guess what folks. These conversations are totally free. We don’t have to throw money at education to make it better. Don’t get me wrong. More money would help. But the reality is that more money isn’t. We are a nation involved in a trillion-dollar war, the economy is still in the tank, and states are still having to make deep cuts in order to make ends meet. And many tax-paying citizens aren’t willing to pay more in taxes in order to “fix” education.

So let’s talk about the instructional core, which is discussed in Richard Elmore’s work as the relationship between the course content, the teacher’s knowledge and skills, and the tasks that the students are asked to do. Elmore argues that if you change one, you have to change all three. For example, changing the curriculum won’t have any impact on student learning if you don’t also change the students’ and teacher’s interaction with that content.

In this country, we’ve talked about content ad nauseum, and while we don’t have a perfect version of content standards, they aren’t the problem. They do help focus the curriculum (even though there is too much breadth and not enough depth).

The problem lies with the tasks our students are being asked to do (in many cases, rote memorization in order to pass “the test”) and the instruction being delivered in the classroom (prescribed lessons and an overemphasis on test prep). In other words, the problem lies not with teachers but with teaching.

The other day, I listened to a podcast from the Stanford University School of Education. It was Tony Alvarado (former Chancellor of NYC schools and former Chancellor of Instruction for San Diego City Schools) speaking about educational leadership in schools. One of his major points was that if student learning isn’t changing in the system, you might want to look at the professional development. Only when professional development focuses on instruction do systems see results, which is why Alvarado also argues that exemplary teachers are the ones who make good administrators.

Because they are the ones who truly know how to support, talk about, assess, and scaffold adult learning.
So maybe we should lay off teachers for a while and talk about teaching. Maybe we should support student learning by supporting adult learning. Let’s focus our attention and get some results.

I think it’s actually that simple.

Where Do We Go from Here?

23 11 2010

Yesterday was the National Day of Blogging for Education Reform. So many passionate educators shared their values, beliefs, and ideas with the media, political figures, and citizens who care about the state of education in this country, and it was very clear that these real educators–not educational pundits–truly know where our system needs to go. But here’s the real challenge: Where do we go from here?

How do we begin to put our thoughts into acts? How do we change our beliefs into practice? There’s no easy (or single) answer for that. But, in the end, it will be educators’ actions that will truly drive the education reform our country so desperately needs.

Because in a system where so much seems to be out of our control, there’s one thing that remains within it: our classrooms.

How can we make our classrooms learning communities instead of test-prep centers where we and the students are equally demoralized? I’m sure the answers to this question will be as unique as each of the people reading this blog, but for me, here are my public commitments to my students:

1. I commit to knowing my students well. This means knowing the different ways they are all smart and meeting them where they are in an effort to help them see previously unimaginable possibilities.

2. I commit to respecting their input, even if sometimes it’s difficult to hear.

3. I commit to asking them to assess themselves.

4. I commit to engage them in my class by allowing them to discuss their thoughts and ideas frequently.

5. I commit to provide opportunities to use what they’ve learned in (multiple) authentic ways with authentic audiences.

6. I commit to give frequent and constructive feedback about their progress.

7. I commit to caring about their lives and realizing that sometimes those lives may take precedence over a reading assignment.

8. I commit to having equally high expectations for all my students, regardless of race, perceived ability, socioeconomic status, or previous success in school.

9. I commit to providing my students with a clear picture of where we’re going and why it’s important.

10. I commit to always do what’s best for my students according to educational research, not politicians, billionaires, or or CEOs/business owners/journalists-turned-education experts.

This is my pledge. Now it’s your turn.

Real Ed Reform

22 11 2010

It’s interesting the way non-educators speak about education reform. You hear all the same banal rhetoric about merit pay, Race to the Top, student accountability, charter schools, and corporate investors. These non-solutions completely miss the point, though–it’s the system itself (and the intention behind it), not the structures of the system, that is to blame.

First of all, let’s be real here. Our education system as we know it was built during the Industrial Era 200 years ago. It was designed to do exactly what it still does–categorize students. For the students that are “smart,” there are opportunities for enrichment and higher-level thinking so that “those kids” can be successful in college. For the students that the system deems as “not smart,” there are plenty of intervention classes to teach these kids the basic skills they somehow must learn before they are allowed to do higher-level work. These students are encouraged to simply graduate high school so that they can get a job or, at best, perhaps attend a 2-year college. Of course, in the 1800s, the options were a university or factory work. Not much has changed.

Therein lies the first and major flaw of the system. What other professions or systems have been conducting business as usual for the last 200 years? Kirsten Olson, author of Wounded by School (and Harvard scholar), argues that prisons have been pretty much the same for the past two centuries. Perhaps “the oldest profession in the world” looks pretty similar too. But can you imagine if your doctor didn’t wash his hands before he operated on you? Could you imagine if engineers were still designing buildings according to 19th-Century standards and codes? Seems pretty ridiculous, right? Exactly.

It’s time for a major overhaul, and that begins with determining what we actually want from our education system. Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe in their book Understanding by Design lay out a three-step process for planning instructional units or curriculum plans. Of course, their model makes so much sense that you can pretty much use it for life in general. Let’s look at this idea, step-by-step.

Stage 1: Desired Results

The first step in any sort of planning is determining your desired end results. Do we still want our students to be sorted according to perceived ability or pre-determined role in society, or should all of our students have opportunities to compete in our Twenty-first Century global society? What would a sufficiently competitive student look like? What skills would this person have? What would he or she know? And guess what. Bill Gates doesn’t get to be the only person who decides. And for that matter, neither do Arne Duncan, Cathie Black, or Michael Bloomberg. Everyone needs to be a part of this conversation: educators, parents, students, and yes, even hedge-fund managers, politicians, and CEOs.

Stage 2: Assessment

There is definitely no shortage of assessment rhetoric in today’s educational landscape, but we’re talking about the wrong things. First of all, because we really have no clear picture of what we want from our students when they graduate from an educational system (and simply requiring proficiency in reading and math is way too short-sighted). I would be willing to bet that most people would say that they want students to be able to think critically, problem solve, communicate effectively, ask good questions, and innovate (at least I would hope so). Unfortunately, the assessments we actually use in our system test basic knowledge. Of course, that’s because they’re only given in one format–multiple choice. While this may (or may not) tell us what students know, it give us no insight into how they think, and honestly, that’s what we need to be most worried about in this country.

And it’s not just about the method of assessment; it’s also about having a common definition of mastery. Even right now, states have different definitions of what “proficient” means, and those definitions are kept secret from teachers, parents, and students. Wiggins and McTighe (and most other educators) advocate for the use of rubrics in assessing student mastery. When written well, they are descriptive and objective. When deciding what to do about education, policy makers could probably learn a lot from taking advice from…I don’t know…educators.

Stage 3: Learning Plan

Wiggins and McTighe advocate for creating a plan only after teachers determine their learning goals and assessment evidence. If, as a society, we ever do decide how we might change our system to meet the demands of our world, then there are issues we must consider.

1. Student engagement. Maybe this will come as a shock to some people, but students are different than they were 200, 100, 50, or even 10 years ago. Blame this on whatever you want–the media, social networking, cell phones–but placing blame doesn’t make the fact go away. Technology is here to stay, and it’s only going to become an even bigger part of students’ lives in the future.

Of course, this means that students are engaged in different ways. They are no longer content with sitting quietly in a desk being talked at for six hours of their day (but really, are you?). Students want to interact, create, laugh, discuss. We need to give them opportunities to learn with and from each other, and in doing so, we need to teach them how to do this in an academic context. And, by the way, this really isn’t a new idea either. Just look at the work of George Herbert Mead, Lev Vygotsky, and John Dewey.

2. Grades–both A-F and age-based. If we ever do get our act together and allow students to move through our system based on their mastery of clearly outlined outcomes, then we eliminate the need for academic and age-based grades. The system we currently used is totally flawed anyway. First of all, the A-F grading scale originated in the 1700s, and as an educational system, we haven’t questioned its relevance in 300 years. Second, an A (or an F) definitely doesn’t mean the same from state to state, school to school, or even classroom to classroom. This fact alone makes it an unreliable measure of student success.

And once we get rid of grades and move to mastery-based assessment, it won’t matter whether a student masters a particular outcome in first or fifth grade. Students (and adults, for that matter) learn skills at different rates (for example, I’m 32 and have never learned how to drive a stick). Why are we putting an artificial time clock on students who may need extra time? And why are we holding students back who have already mastered certain content?

Think I’m crazy? Check out Eagle Rock School in Colorado.

3. Teacher Preparation. Our teachers in training are currently learning how to perpetuate a broken system. If true change is to take place, pre-service teachers need to be educated about what real education reform is all about. It isn’t about how to increase test scores. It’s about how to rethink the test. It isn’t about filling kids’ head with content knowledge. It’s about teaching them transferable skills. It isn’t about the teacher’s teaching. It’s about the students’ learning.

It Can Be Reality

For those of you reading this who think this is all a pipe dream, know that it’s not. I’ve been working in a high school for 10 years now, three of which we’ve been engaging in real reform. It’s the hardest job I’ve ever done, and I’ve heard that reforming a school is harder than starting a new one. And if it’s that hard reforming a school, I can’t even imagine how hard it will be to reform a whole system. But we don’t have the option of making excuses anymore. Time is running out.

Let today be the first day of a new era.



Value-Added Modeling: A Modest Proposal

21 11 2010

After the LA Times posted the names and ratings of 6000 teachers based on “value-added modeling,” the “education reform” world went crazy. Even the Obama administration supports this type of teacher-evaluation. My thoughts: why stop with teaching? Why not use value-added modeling (VAM) to assess all kinds of professionals? Here’s a sample of what it might look like.

Since the value that a teacher adds is only measured by math and English scores, doctors’ effectiveness needs to be measured by similarly limited means: maybe average BMI and blood pressure for all patients? I mean, those are general indicators of health, right? If the patients don’t become healthier over time, I suppose the doctor should probably be fired from his or her job.

The purpose of hiring an accountant is to manage one’s wealth (or lack thereof). Of course, the ultimate goal should probably be to become more wealthy over time. That’s logical, right? The more efficiently one’s money is managed the easier it will be to acquire more of it. Therefore, accountants’ effectiveness should be measured only by the average net increase of their clients’ net worth. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Priests and other religious leaders are professionals too, and if they truly do their job, then their parishioners should demonstrate an increased knowledge of whatever religious text on which the particular belief system focuses. Whether it’s The Bible, The Koran, or The Book of Mormon, I don’t think it’s too much to ask for society to expect congregations to have a proficient understanding of the major tenets of their religion. Therefore, I propose that once yearly ALL members of a church, synagogue, etc. should take a comprehension-based test of the major religious text used in the institution. Priests’ effectiveness will be measured based on how much each person’s comprehension increases over time.

Bill Gates
Apple is gaining on Microsoft. Of course, this is probably in large part to the innovative iPhone and iPad, which allows people accessibility to the Internet and computing-type tasks anywhere they want to go. Clearly, the employees at Apple are much more creative than the ones at Microsoft. Therefore, I think Bill Gates’ effectiveness should be measured on his employees’ increased creativity. If they remain stagnant (or decrease), perhaps Microsoft needs to start shopping for a new CEO.

Arne Duncan
As Obama’s Secretary of Education, it really is Duncan’s responsibility to make sure students are learning. After all, he is the ultimate education leader. If teachers’ performance isn’t improving, well, couldn’t one make an argument that it’s because of the lack of support from the top? Shouldn’t Arne share in some of the responsibility? Therefore, I propose that Duncan’s effectiveness should also be measured based on student performance. Don’t like that Arne? Then VAM is probably wrong for everyone.

Yes We Can!

20 11 2010


I am a rebel.

No, definitely not the stereotypical motorcycle, tattoo, body-mod type. More like the J.Crew, sedan, suburban type.



I have probably just completely challenged your mental picture of the concept of rebel itself. But it’s true. Because under my brown plastic-framed glasses, collared button down shirts, and definite mom vibe, I am constantly internally questioning how I can disrupt, confront, and transform a system—an institution.


The word itself probably conjures up associations of teachers you loved and hated, activities that were fun (and sufferable), and all the ways you may have tried to defy a system that either did or didn’t work for you.

Well, it doesn’t work for me either. Except I’m a teacher.

Most of you probably expect me to insult the so-called “reforms” that are unfortunately flying around our political landscape: Race to the Top, merit pay, corporate investors. While it’s true that they’re annoying, they aren’t our real issues. Our real issues revolve around the fact that real teachers aren’t writing their own narrative. Teachers have become victims of a broken system, and unfortunately, our students are all too often the collateral damage. Don’t misunderstand me. This isn’t necessarily anyone’s fault; I think it’s simply a reaction to the fear that politicians want to create. Let’s face it. They find myriad ways to punish us, all in the name of “accountability” and “student achievement.” And most teachers will tell you that America’s obsession with high-stakes testing is probably as unhealthy as America’s obsession with McDonald’s. But whenever a teacher buries students with multiple-choice practice, rote memorization tasks, and meaningless worksheets, he or she has unintentionally supported an institution that doesn’t have anyone’s best interests at heart. Students need to learn to argue, analyze, and synthesize. All students. Not the ones we deem motivated or interested or capable. Every. Single. Kid.

I had the good fortune of recently hearing Pedro Noguera speak about the future of education at the Coalition of Essential Schools Fall Forum. He called education the Civil Rights issue of the Twenty-first Century, and I think he’s right. And I will continue to be a rebel and activist each day. No, you won’t see me wearing tie-dye or carrying signs on a busy street corner. But you will see me working tirelessly to affect my own little corner of the world because that is the type of activism that creates movements.

Just wait. It’s coming.