As the year draws to a close, I reflect on all of the attention that school reform has gotten. There have been films and forums, outrage and outcry, but still no real systemic change that will transform learning environments for our children. We really do know what to do, and we are already spending enough money to make it all happen. But we lack the courage to change. Local school boards, parents, teachers, unions, policy makers, legislators, and even students themselves fear change so much that they become unwilling to do what is right. I hear my colleagues fret about being attacked, and then attacking parents and others themselves. Multitudes of people, from all stakeholder groups argue that they need more money, yet we are spending more than ever before. Bureaucracies keep increasing and the rules we know have gotten in the way of success, get more and more stringent.
Where I work, we are looking forward to a new project that would relax restrictions and increase technology, training, and other resources into a small group of schools that are willing to make changes. A group of educators got together and tried to imagine what schools would look like if they could make any changes that would be helpful. They struggled with this thought. It was very difficult for them to really re-imagine schools, and they did not believe that relaxing rules was really possible. They wanted a guarantee that things like “seat time” and union-driven scheduling would go away before committing to any change. What really struck me was the immediate gravitation toward the barriers. Every time one person would say something, another would chime in with a “well - we could not do that because...” The facilitator attempted to redirect the group telling them they needed to imagine so we could begin designing the schools our kids need, but it was not possible for them to do.
Charter schools are supposed to be places where this sort of re-imagining is possible, yet they become stuck just like traditional schools. In most communities, charter schools must live with the same computer-driven schedules for middle and high school students, seat time requirements, bussing and lunch schedules, and sometimes even state-adopted text books. Classes must be taught by teachers with specific certifications, creating unnatural segmentation of learning at the secondary level.
Even the film “Waiting for Superman,” considered a bit radical by many in the education establishment, concluded that all we need to do differently is make teachers better through improved human resources policies and training, and put kids in classrooms longer. While that would be a great start, I think we need to do much more to transform our students into the creative, divergent, collaborative thinkers they need to be in the 21st century. Here is a list, in no particular order, of some things that real reformers are already doing to create inspiring schools:
1. Eliminate grades as a way to evaluate and communicate the quality of student work - See this great article by Alfie Kohn
to learn more.
2. Incorporate the technology kids are using in the real world into the classroom, instead of banning it. My colleague Lisa Nielsen
has written volumes on the topic.
3. Consider altering daily schedules of schools to be in alignment with the biological needs of kids. You can learn more about this on my website
4. Make learning personalized, following the individual needs of children. Many groups are doing great work in this area including Kunskapsskolan
and School of One
5. Eliminate our high school credit (Carnegie Unit) requirements, and replace them with expectations of mastery. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development proposed just that in its High School Reform Proposal
Create teacher preparation and professional development programs linked to competencies that make a difference in the classroom. Use these to replace the current certification requirements that have little or no correlation to effective teaching. The New Teacher Center in Santa Cruz and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards are doing great work in this area.
We know what to do...all we need now is courage. Make 2011 the year when YOU have the courage to do what you can to begin transforming our schools to become what our kids need.
I have had countless conversations with fellow educators about teacher quality, teacher tenure, and the removal of teachers who do terrible things, or simply just can't cut it in the classroom. There is consistent agreement that our kids all deserve great teachers. There is agreement that schools and administrators should work hard to ensure that teachers receive the preparation and ongoing professional development to hone their skills. Everyone speaks emphatically about removing teachers who cause physical harm to kids. Yet, when it comes to the processes that should be employed to take really bad teachers out of the classroom, many of us part ways. I have seen this in action in my own experience. There have been multiple times in my career as an administrator when teachers, parents, and kids have alerted me to the wrongdoing of teachers. I don't mean just plain old incompetence. I am talking about terrible acts that cause terrible harm to our most innocent kids. Unfortunately in a few of these cases I had no choice but to remove teachers from classrooms. That's when it got strange. Every time this has happened, the very same people (teachers, parents, kids) who expressed the concerns about the teacher's treatment of students, became very upset when the teacher left. There was inevitably an outcry for the poor soul who had lost his or her job. There were occasions when people asked if they could contribute to the person's legal defense, or if there was some way I could take back the action of removing the teacher. Kids blamed themselves for the problem and cried when the teacher left. It seems we have become so conditioned to the idea that a teacher can't be removed, that when it actually happens, we believe we have done something wrong. I am not aware of any other profession that requires the same level of investigations and legal proceedings to remove an employee who is not meeting expectations. Most people really don't understand what school leaders must actually do to remove a teacher. For some good insight into this, read this article
by Barbara Martinez of the Wall Street Journal. So, as teacher unions, legislators, and school reformers grapple with how we determine what a good teacher is and does, we should at least find a way to remove teachers who are causing true ho
As my year of dedicating my blog to school improvement winds down, the media is cranking up with lots of stuff being slung about charter, traditional, virtual school, and vouchers for private schools. Just in case you haven’t been paying attention, there is a battle for educational dollars being fought all over the country, and lots of misinformation as a result.
So, what is the difference among these options and what is all the fuss about? Assuming nothing, first let’s talk about good old fashioned public school. A public school is funded mainly through state and local governments. The United States Constitution does not address education at all, leaving decisions about education for each state to make. Every state has a provision for funding and regulating a “free and appropriate public education” for children between certain ages, generally covering kindergarten through grade twelve. Each state also includes compulsory ages for education, mandating that every child between those ages get an education. Most will allow parents to homeschool if they don’t want their children to go to an actual brick-and-mortar school. The United States Department of Education was not created until 1980, during Jimmy Carter’s administration. It generally accounts for about 7% of overall education dollars, but has a huge influence through programs like No Child Left Behind.
Most children attend traditional public schools, and most teachers in these schools are part of teachers’ unions; mainly the American Federation of Teachers or the National Education Association. The teachers’ unions have had a huge influence, for better or worse, due to intense lobbying efforts across the country.
In 1991, charter schools were born in Minnesota and have been spreading ever since. These public schools - yes charter schools ARE public schools - offer parents in local school districts a choice outside of the traditional, usually district run, schools. Charter schools can be operated by non-profit organizations, for-profit educational management organizations, a group of teachers, or even a traditional public school district. The idea behind charter schools is to provide the operators of the schools with more flexibility in how educational services are delivered. Each school commits to its plan and its accountability measures through a “charter” with an authorizing authority. Each state that chooses to allow charter schools stipulates what type of organization can be a charter authorizer. Some states mandate that only the school districts themselves can authorize a charter. Some have specific agencies or organizations established just for this purpose, and others allow certain universities to provide this important function. Students who attend charter schools usually have to meet the same testing requirements as students in traditional public schools.
Contrary to much of what you see in the press these days, charter schools may NOT charge tuition and MUST admit all students in the same way traditional public schools do. In the event that there are more applicants than space will allow, the charter school holds a lottery, like the ones that have been depicted in recent movies.
There has been a lot of argument about whether charter schools are better than their more traditional counterparts. You can justify whatever position you believe by finding the study that agrees with you. It seems that there are great charter schools and great traditional public schools, and really terrible schools of both types as well. The argument really shouldn’t be about which is better; it should be more about what is better for each individual child.
Meanwhile, vouchers are beginning to take hold in some places. A voucher is when a state provides money for parents to use for education outside of public schools, usually in non-public schools. There is talk in Florida right now about creating vouchers for parents to use for a wider variety of educational options, including the purchase of computers for their children to access virtual schools (more about this option in a minute). There are two main types of vouchers; privately funded and publicly funded. Privately funded programs allow donors, usually large corporations, to donate money in exchange for tax breaks. A set amount of money is given to families to use for tuition in private schools. Publicly funded vouchers divert public dollars from public schools, allowing parents to use a portion of the money that would otherwise go to the local public school, for the private school of their choice. Contrary to much of what you might read, these programs actually SAVE public schools money since they don’t give parents 100% of the funds, and many of the students who benefit are high-needs kids, who generally cost much more to educate. This happens because parents most often have a strong desire to keep their kids in the “regular” school and aren’t looking for options unless their child is experiencing difficulty in school.
Although many people are adamantly opposed to using public dollars in private educational settings, this is really nothing new. We have been doing this for decades in preschool and post-secondary settings. Head start programs have long been offered by private preschools, and many states now allow vouchers for universal preK programs simply because local elementary schools lack the capacity to ramp up these programs without astronomical costs. Pell grants and other federal and state programs have long provided funding that post-secondary students can use at institutions of their choice, public or private. I could not have finished college without this funding, and I used it at a combination of public and private schools. Both of my children used this funding as well; one in a state school and the other in a very expensive private institution. Almost everyone I know has taken advantage of these programs, and I have never heard a soul complain that Pell grants shouldn’t be allowed to be used in private colleges or universities. So, I am completely baffled why this has become such a flashpoint in education reform.
Finally, virtual schools are programs that allow kids to get instruction via the Internet. Some of these programs have a “live” teacher who interacts with the student, while others are completely computer-driven. There are also programs where kids can attend a traditional classroom virtually in a Skype-like environment, and webinar-style programs where kids can share a screen with a tutor who might be across the street or across the globe.
In case you can’t tell by some of my earlier comments, I am for school choice for K-12 education, in all of its forms. For over a quarter of a century I have worked in education, in regular old public schools, charter schools, and private schools. I have been a member of the National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers, and also worked in places without union representation. Here is what I know for sure. Every kid deserves the very best education available, and we should not be quibbling about who provides it, or how it is provided. Parents are the best people to determine what school is best for their kids and it is time we respected them enough to give them real options.