My Perfect Education-Reform Solution: Do Something Different

I will get this out in the open: education reform is a big, freakin’ personal issue with me.

I realize that I will likely face criticism by some parties for my claims or comments about the state of education because I don’t work in a school system, and  have never been a teacher, principal, school board member…so be it.

True,  I didn’t stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night, but I am in a graduate program, studying educational technology and special education. I am also a taxpayer in a state that had an 8-year head start on the current recession.

And I am the parent of a child who is starting first grade in a few weeks  after a tumultuous year in Kindergarten. Like I said this is a personal issue.

We Need To Do Something Different (There’s My Solution!)

In pondering education reform, I often recall a night in Chicago when I attended a lecture by the author Ken Kesey. After Kesey spoke for an hour or so, he took questions from the audience.  Most of them were inane, such as “Do you think I should move to Oregon?” and one that was something like  “In the ‘Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test’ it almost seemed like (that book’s author)  Tom Wolfe was inside your head. Do think that somehow he was?”

WTF? Most of the Q & A session was ridiculous;  I contemplated leaving, but I hung around only because I wanted to get a book signed by Kesey.

The mood shifted when a man with a thick Irish accent, who admitted to being an IRA sympathizer, questioned Kesey about the conflict in Northern Ireland (this was in 1993). Kesey calmly responded: “I have ‘the’  solution to that situation. Do you want to hear it?”

He didn’t wait for an answer before he said something like this: “You, and when I say ‘you’ I mean you, and the IRA, and the governments…YOU  need to do…something different!” By that time he was no longer calm, and exclaimed “Because what YOU ALL are doing ain’t working! So YOU ALL have to do something different!”

Likewise, when I say “we” in regards to education reform, I am talking about you, and me and everybody else. That includes teachers, parents, administrators, students, school board members and taxpayers.

In the area of education reform. WE need to do something different. So there it is, my perfect education-reform solution!

Oh, do you want more specifics? Truth is, I don’t know exactly what that something different is, but it’s almost certainly not No Child Left Behind, or Race To The Top. Though the  great thing about problems in our educational system, is that every stiff who has a blog thinks he has the solution.

Well, I do have a blog, so here ya go….

We Need to Think About WHY People Learn

I have written several recent blogs on  the Universal Design for Learning. As you see in the description here UDL is an educational framework that promotes “varied and flexible ways” for :

  1. Presenting and accessing information, concepts, and ideas (the “what” of learning),
  2. Planning and executing  learning tasks (the “how” of learning), and
  3. Allowing learners to be become engaged–and stay engaged–in learning (the “why” of learning)

This post is not about UDL per se, but take a good look  at item number 3 for a moment. Now, let’s put aside our  pre-conceived notions on what is wrong with the educational system (especially all the animosity and  finger-pointing among the various factions: teachers, parents and administrators,  charter vs. traditional shools, commercial vs. public interests..) and think about learner engagement.

WE need to provide engaging learning experiences.  Learning can occur in the absence of engagement (penmanship comes to my mind), but who WANTS to learn that way?

All of the current trends in education (longer school days, piles of homework, dress codes, privatization of public schools, open content, “Edupunk” etc.) are doomed to be colossal and costly failures if we (parents, teachers, administrators, content publishers…) can’t provide new levels of engagement to our K-12 students.

Each class streaming  into school systems is more  enriched than the class that preceded it. There are so many ways for children to learn, outside of school.  Ask yourself this, are your kids (your students, or your own children) smarter than you?

They are way smarter than you. They might not be as  proficient in Algebra II, or in reading as you were, and much of what they know may not applicable to future professional contexts. Furthermore, some of their knowledge may be of an objectionable nature.

But, they know a lot.  Probably more than you did. Certainly more than I did.

If we don’t recognize the new levels of enrichment each new crop of kids, we won’t be able to teach them.

We Need to Redefine What ” ‘Good’ Education” Means

Humans have always been good at learning. However, schools have not really been all that good at teaching. I’m not trying to discount the efforts of teachers and school staff over the generations. I have had, and I know, many extraordinary teachers, administrators, coaches and other staff members. However, traditional teaching practices cannot keep pace with the brain’s capacity to learn.

Do we really believe that the mantra “everybody learns differently?” If so, why does the lecture-based, sit-still-and- be-quiet-while-I-teach model still persist in so many schools?

Did the traditional sage-on-stage approach to teaching hold your interest? Were you able to sit still?  I wasn’t.

What happenend when you checked out? You might have doodled in the margin of your paper, or passed notes, or perfected your spitball-creation techniques. Or worse. The problem was not that you didn’t WANT to learn, it’s that you WEREN’T learning, because you were hearing something you already knew, or were not engaged by the method in which the lesson was being delivered.

Are there kids who are entering school for the first time who are not intellectually enriched? Absolutely.  Do we need to provide services for those who have not had  the enrichment opportunities that others have had? Double-absolutely.

But we also need to ask whether there are there  kids coming in the education system, or in the school system that don’t WANT to learn? Probably very few.  We need to provide the means to LET the learners learn. Some are going to need extra supports that might include specialized staff or technology. Some are going to immerse themselves in a book or a web site, and require very little scaffolding. Many others will fall somewhere in the middle. They all want, and deserve, the opportunities to learn.

We Need To Back Away From The “Teachers or Technology?” Debates

I had an interesting phone conversation with a friend a few months ago. He is a noted psychology professor who spends a lot time traveling around the country addressing behavioral issues, in classrooms and entire schools. He said that in almost all of his consultations, the problems are rather simple to resolve with often-minor changes to classroom-management practices.

He also said this, “In many of these cases, there would not even be a need for a behavioral consultation if the students were properly engaged in their learning” That was especially interesting, because he and I had no prior discussion about the topic of learner engagement.

A question he has asked some of his clients, “Have you noticed that the behavior problems that you see at Kindergarten circle time (or in 6th grade math class) don’t occur in the computer lab?”

The answer is that in the computer lab, students are learning at their own pace. That is something that is absolutely not going to happen in the lecture-based,  1-to- 30, (teacher-to-students) classroom of yore.

“Teachers OR technology?” was a question that  came up during budget discussions in my home district. We need to start thinking in  terms of  “Teachers AND technology” Computers are not a replacement for teachers, but they augment the learning experience of  students who need special supports (such as enlarged text, audio,) and can deliver content and assessments at the learner’s pace. And aside from the pedagogical value, they go along way to reducing the amount of waiting in the classroom. Put up your hands if you like waiting?

We Need to Recognize That  20th Century Robber Barons Can’t Hurt Us

Schools are no longer a pipeline for workers in Mr. Pullman’s, or Mr. Carnegie’s factories. Therefore, we don’t have to embrace their ancient vision for US schools.  The vision in which a classroom’s  purpose is to condition children to sit still and to follow instructions, without question,  so that they can work on the assembly line for Mr. Pullman or Mr. Carnegie.

If students are achieving learning goals (with or without teacher support), and not disturbing others,  does it really matter if they are if they are sitting on the floor, or walking around the classroom? If the lesson’s learning goals are to demonstrate knowledge of the Battle of Bunker Hill does it matter if they acquire  that knowledge from a textbook, or from a streaming video?

In a blog earlier this year, Lisa Parisi, an elementary school teacher  made a wonderful case for a classroom that is universally designed for learning. One of her key points for  a  successful transition was this:

  • “Educators must give up that position of power to allow students the freedom to do what they need to be successful.”

It should be noted that Lisa Parisi is a teacher with over 20 years of experience and is a self-described control freak. She made the transition because it was the right thing to do so that all of her students would learn.

Pullman and Carnegie would just freakin’ hate her.

We Need To Get Over The Rose-Colored Views of  The Past

I think one of the confounding factors with the national education reform discussion is that people (long-time educators, parents, administrators, pundits, etc.) are comparing the current state of education to fond memories (probably with some distortion) of the schools they attended, or in which they taught. There are and there have always been both good and awful schools.   I don’t think most schools have ever been very adept at reaching all students.

Let me provide an example from the  “good old days” of education. Here is a repost of something that I had written on a discussion forum sometime ago:

A few weeks ago I picked up “A Life Decoded” the autobiography of Craig Venter, the scientist whose team recently announced the development of a self-replicating synthetic life form (ethical debates aside, this is a gargantuan accomplishment, with potential applications for clean water, nutrition, alternative energy…).

I had picked up the book for a couple of different reasons. First, I had the good fortune to work as an assistant to Venter for several months, when I was placed in his National Institutes of Health lab by a temp agency when I moved to DC (no jokes about ‘Mr. Smith going to Washington’ wise guys). Those were good times in my life and I enjoyed reading about the people on Venter’s core research team of the early 1990’s.

However the primary reason, that I picked up the book is that I have been writing a lot about learner engagement and I had become familiar with Venter’s personal history from media articles over the years. Here’s a brief overview of his achievements (reverse order):

1. Creation of a self-replicating synthetic life form, announced a few weeks ago.
2. Led the private sector-side effort to sequence the human genome .
3. Was founding member of the Human Genome Committee, while still with Federal government.
4. Distinguished researcher and lecturer for many years before becoming a “media celebrity.”
5. Completed his undergraduate studies and PhD in six years.
6. Turned down a swimming scholarship to Arizona State, because he didn’t think he would make it in college.
7. Serial underachiever, with chronic behavior problems throughout his elementary and high school career.

Venter refused to take tests in middle school. He almost flunked out of high school; though was able to escape with slightly more D’s than F’s his senior year. Back then (in those good old days) he was probably written off as “just a troublemaker”

In retrospect, he was the quintessential under-engaged student. This was a child that the school system was prepared to leave behind, in the halcyon days of Eisenhower and Camelot.

So what happened between Venter nearly failing out of high school and his rapid-paced college career?

  1. Escalation of troops in Vietnam during his senior year in high school
  2. Enlistment in US Navy where testing revealed this “failure” had an IQ of 143.
  3. He chose to join the Medical Corps
  4. Assignment to a Marine Base Hospital in Da Nang (where he treated hundreds of patients during the Tet Offensive).
  5. An attempt to end his own life by drowning. His change of heart occurred when he was more than a mile from the shore of China Beach.
  6. Chance meetings with key mentors, in the military (and later in junior college and at U of California) that helped to him find motivation and define a career path.

My opinion is that schools have never effectively reached the type of child that Venter was.  Oh, did I mention that education reform was a personal with me? My son like Venter, has a big IQ and like Venter’s parents, we have endured a generous share of dubious behavior at school by our child.

He’s six.

My son often checks out in the clasroom, and is usually quite  vocal about being checked out, often this has frequently escalated to highly disruptive behavior. I realize that we might be in for a long 12 years. I am prepared for that.

My son loves to learn, but unfortunately, many schools have become a place where a child’s passion for learning goes to die. However, I like to think that things will be different enough such that my son doesn’t have to go through a Vietnam-like experience to find his motivation and to capitalize on his strengths.

We Really, Really, Really Need To Examine Our Priorities

We are absolutely not  providing engagement with any of the following trends:

  1. Strict Dress Codes
  2. 10 hour school days
  3. Firing the entire staff of a school that is deemed as underperforming
  4. Privatization of public school systems
  5. Persistence of the “sit down and be quiet” model of teaching
  6. High-stakes testing in two curriculum areas, which leads to…
  7. Teaching to standardized tests (and the expense of art, music and SCIENCE)

If our goal is higher scores on standardized tests , maybe strict dress codes and longer school days might get you a little closer. However, if the goal is learning, the only way we are going to improve our lot is to provide engaging learning experiences for our students.

It’s hard for me to imagine that any of the “flavor of the month” options for education reform would have had an impact on Venter. If I’m missing something, please tell me how compelling a student like Craig  Venter to go to school until 5:30 or to wear a Polo shirt,  would have made a difference in his K-12 achievements, (or lack thereof)?

We Need To Stop Worshipping Sacred Braus

In my home school district we have often been given answers that contain the phrase “…because of budget cuts”  I really have a tough time swallowing that. I understand that money is tight, but my feeling that is only because it’s being spent in the wrong places.

It’s interesting that there have been such severe cuts at school districts around the nation, but concurrent to that there is unprecedented spending spigot opened from the federal government, stemming back to the passage of No Child Left Behind. WE spend more on education than ever. We just don’t spend it well.

I recognize that there won’t be an epiphany on the part of state and federal government or school districts that will stop wasteful spending and cause funding to flow into appropriate buckets. Any immediate change is going to require alternative sources of funding.

Funny I should mention that, an interesting point was made about school funding in Michigan a few months ago, by a local radio commentator. His point, state school funding has been shrinking for many years, while the BEER TAX hasn’t been touched since 1966…when it was lowered!

The  price of a bottle of beer is  sacred while school funding is not. That is a truly WTF-worthy realization for me.

We need to do something different.

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