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Tag: schools (Page 2 of 12)

Final Exams: What I Learned This Year

The school year comes to a close this week here in our overly-large school district and, like the kids taking their final exams1, it’s time to reflect on the past ten months and figure out if I’ve learned anything over that time.

Since I don’t like multiple choice tests, this will be an essay.

One thing that’s been very clear in working with our schools this year is that they just love their data. Data, data, and more data.

An increasing amount of the precious little time available outside of actual teaching seems to be taken up with organizing and analyzing data on the kids. And to facilitate all that organizing and analyzing, our schools have adopted (or in a few cases, have been forced to adopt) the concept of “professional learning communities” (PLC)2.

It sounds nice, but I really wonder what’s happening in those structures. When talking to teachers and others in the schools, more often than not they refer to those gatherings as “meetings”, as in “I have a PLC meeting this afternoon”, often applying all the distain that many of us outside the classroom reserve for that term.

Much of the focus of their meeting seems to be not on learning (professional or otherwise), or collaborating, or on forming communities, but on building “common assessments”, a phrase that boils down to everyone teaching a particular grade level or course giving the same tests to their kids at the same time.

The better to gather more data with – a vicious and never-ending circle.

When you toss in bracelets that are supposed to measure student engagement and a growing collection of other “assessment tools” that keep arriving in vendor spam, the obsession over data continues to grow.

So, at what point does the data become more important than the source of that data, which of course, are kids? Or when will more time and effort be devoted to the data?

I suspect the farther you take the numbers from the classroom, the more likely it’s already happened. Just look at our national education policy.

End of section 1. Wait for the proctor to instruct you to continue.

1 Which they discover quickly during their school experience are never the “final” exams. :-)

2 Many schools have altered the name to CLT (collaborative learning teams), or just CT, or some other variation on the same theme.

Creative Spaces

Following up on the previous post, a few more thoughts on Clay Shirky’s talk about what he’s learned from working with creative people.

A major theme of his presentation is about how the space, the building itself at the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP), plays a role in fostering student creative work. However, he’s really talking more about the ITP culture, one that’s been developed over many years within that space.

Shirky notes that ITP has always been an evolving organization, having been formed in the mid 70’s as a program to leverage the new portable video tape cameras and cable access television. One of the common elements of student projects is how they are very comfortable taking existing technologies, often whatever is available in the building, and using them in new ways to solve existing problems.

Shirky also says that, unlike many organizations, ITP is “world class at stopping things”. When something outlives it’s usefulness, they make changes without a hint of nostalgia.

When I think of groups and institutions grappling with creativity, particularly institutions, one of the odd things about institutions, and the larger they are, the bigger a problem this is, is that the often reverse the second law of thermodynamics. It becomes easier to start doing something that to stop doing something.

Because it’s great to think up interesting new kinds of things to try, that in many people’s minds is what creativity is. But a big part of it is also knowing when to stop doing stuff that used to work but doesn’t work any more.

If you consider the overly-large institution that is American education, Shirky is exactly right. We are very good at adding new tasks for for schools, teachers and kids, but the culture has almost no desire or capability for dropping… well, anything. Most of the K12 curriculum is full of crap that needs to go. 

Finally, Shirky discusses how students at ITP use the building and everything it in as raw material for their learning and their projects. The physical space itself contributes to creativity.

So this is the fourth lesson of creativity that I’ve taken from ITP. Which is if you design the space to reward serendipity, if you reward the ability to do these kinds of [student generated] experiments and to do them in public, where people can see, you get a huge boost over what it would take to plan something like that.

One telling example came a few years ago when the administration decided that most of the fixed computer labs were no longer needed since students were largely working on laptops. The students, empowered by the culture of the program, didn’t wait for the faculty to reallocate the space and decided on their own how to make best use of the physical resources.  In most schools, can you imagine students even being involved in a decision like what to do with a vacated computer lab?

Shirky’s stories of how the ITP spaces contribute to the creativity of the people using them got me thinking about the new middle school our district will open this fall. In a word, the building is boring.

With few exceptions (the art rooms with high ceilings and large banks of windows), it consists of the standard closed boxes connected by bland halls that have defined most schools for at least the last half century. Spaces designed for rows of desks pointed at the interactive whiteboard (that probably won’t be used interactively) and largely isolated from the other boxes.

Sadly, there is very little about the building that will foster collaboration, creativity or either of the two remaining C’s.

Serendipity? Sorry. There’s very little about either our school buildings or the culture inside them that tolerates that kind of chaos.

A Flaw in the System

In his short Monday morning post, Seth Godin discusses how a lack of responsibility and communications is a major “flaw in the system” of a big company.

Here’s the first half of his entry1 with a few adaptations (in bold) that might just fit a hypothetical overly-large school district.2

A good teacher says, “I know that this is a serious problem, it’s hurting our students and we can do better, but I can’t do a thing about it because it’s run by a different department.”

A version of this might conclude with, “And I don’t even know the name of the person who’s responsible.”

This is a sure sign of systemic failure as well as a superintendent who is not doing the job she should be. When smart people who care get frustrated, something is wrong.

Gee, I guess in some aspects school systems are not that much different from big business.

1 Apologies to Seth for using more than what would be considered fair use. I would hope he understands the context.

2 Strictly hypothetical, of course. :-)

Playing Under Different Rules

A new study of the KIPP charter schools program, darling of school reform advocates, says they “often outperform regular public schools. “But they’re not doing it with the same students, and they’re not doing it with the same dollars.”.

The study from researchers at Western Michigan University, to be released Thursday, estimated that KIPP schools receive more than $5,000 a year per pupil through private donations in addition to regular sources of public funding. It also found that about 15 percent of KIPP students leave the schools each year as they progress from sixth to eighth grades – and that those students often are not replaced.

The people pushing charter schools want us to think they work miracles with the same cost per child as the public schools from which they draw their students and money.

However, this and other research over the years continues to show that, while they do improve the test scores of their students, KIPP and other high profile charter schools are not subject to the same criteria as the public schools to which they’re compared.

I wonder how Jay Mathews and other members of the KIPP cheering section will spin this latest bit of evidence.


Coming Soon: Super School!

A new charter school is applying to open in DC and Jay Mathews is all excited because it combines two of his favorite education reform concepts: charters and AP.

According to Mathews, the original version of this model in Tucson, Arizona “has become by one measure the sixth most challenging high school in the country”.

What is that “one measure”?

Why it’s Mathews’ own creation, the “challenge” index, by which he compiles an annual list of “best” high schools based solely on a ratio of number of AP tests (and other college-level exams) taken to graduates.”

It’s one reason why he loves the DC area.

This region has the highest concentration of AP and International Baccalaureate courses and tests in the country. Some local schools, like Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, do almost nothing but AP and IB testing every May.

Can’t imagine a better way for kids to spend one month out of the year than doing “almost nothing” but testing.

Anyway, the point of Mathews’ column, beyond taking yet another opportunity to express his adoration for charter schools and AP tests (a two-fer!), is to speculate on whether a charter high school based on the AP program will succeed in Washington, DC.

I’m pretty sure it will.  In the same way that KIPP and other high profile charter programs have succeeded in the city.

By attracting a relatively small, highly select community of students with very motivated parents and siphoning off money from the public schools, while supplementing those funds with large pots of corporate donations and grants (which in this case they’ll need to pay actual living wages for AP-trained teachers).

It’s how all charters demonstrate that they can do a better job than public schools for the same cost.

Except that most don’t.

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