How NOT to reform American education

evaluation = bad

Alberta, Canada is widely recognized as having one of the best schooling systems in the world. A recent article in Alberta Views highlighted the differences between its system and America’s, noting that the United States is an ‘anti-model’ for how to do school reform:

By contrast we can also learn what not to do from reform in the US, whose education system is in decline. Its elements, implemented over the past two decades, are largely ideological: “market-based” reforms (the application of “business insights” to the running of schools); an emphasis on standardization and narrowing of curriculum; extensive use of external standardized assessment; fostering choice and competition among schools, often with school vouchers; making judgements based on test data and closing “failing schools”; encouraging the growth of charter schools (which don’t have teacher unions); “merit pay” and other incentives; faith that “technologically mediated instruction” will reduce costs; an overwhelming “top-down” approach which tells everyone what to do and holds them accountable for doing it.

This state of affairs is both depressing and harmful, particularly since it’s pretty clear what we should be doing instead. As a recent book, Surpassing Shanghai, notes, school systems around the world (like Japan, Finland, Singapore, and Shanghai) that consistently outperform the U.S. on international assessments do things very differently:

  1. Funding schools equitably, with additional resources for those serving needy students
  2. Paying teachers competitively and comparably
  3. Investing in high-quality preparation, mentoring and professional development for teachers and leaders, completely at government expense
  4. Providing time in the school schedule for collaborative planning and ongoing professional learning to continually improve instruction
  5. Organizing a curriculum around problem-solving and critical thinking skill
  6. Testing students rarely but carefully — with measures that require analysis, communication, and defense of ideas

Schools in the U.S. are failing miserably to prepare most students for a complex, technology-suffused world and a hyperconnected, hypercompetitive global economy. What will it take for Americans to stand up and fight not just against our schooling systems but also against educational reform efforts that take those systems in wrong directions?

Hat tip: Joe Bower (for both the quote and the post title)

[cross-posted at Education Recoded]

Things that AREN’T on the bubble tests


From Gerald Bracey (via Joe Bower), here’s a great list of things that AREN’T on the bubble tests our kids are taking:

  • creativity
  • critical thinking
  • resilience
  • motivation
  • persistence
  • curiosity
  • endurance
  • reliability
  • enthusiasm
  • empathy
  • self-awareness
  • self-discipline
  • leadership
  • civic-mindedness
  • courage
  • compassion
  • resourcefulness
  • sense of beauty
  • sense of wonder
  • honesty
  • integrity

Anyone want to argue that students who possess these will be less successful in life than those that don’t?
Anyone want to argue that these are less important than regurgitating decontextualized fact nuggets on a standardized assessment?
Anyone want to argue that schools shouldn’t be teaching these?
Anyone want to argue that these are not being crowded out in favor of increased emphases on fact nugget regurgitation?

No? No? No? No? Then why, again, are we doing what we’re doing?

Image credit: Taking a test

Are Ed Leadership programs still leading? [guest post]


All the talk of technology integration into the curriculum, blended learning environments, and the explosion of online learning has me thinking: How are universities preparing leaders for an increasingly technological world?

On July 4, 2007 on this very site, Scott wrote, “School districts, state departments, the federal government, corporations, and foundations have spent a lot of time, money, and energy on the technology needs of students and teachers. We have seen very little concurrent activity on the behalf of administrators, despite the fact that if the leaders don’t get it, it isn’t going to happen.

The die was cast at least three and a half years ago (truthfully… long before that).  Surely Ed. Leadership programs nationwide have been preparing digital age leaders to carry the torch back to their school/district and empower their staff to integrate technology. If not, why? Certainly, finance, law, organizational theory, and human resource courses are the foundation of programs across the country.  Isn’t technology as relevant in 2011 as these courses?

Leaders have limited time and increasingly limited resources. Pre-service and practicing leaders should be learning to use technology to create solutions to problems such lack of time, lack of communication, and the sense of isolation that they feel as they try to address the needs of teachers, parents, district staff, and students.

  • Are leaders using mobile devices to get into classes and address e-mail on the go or are they still tucked away in their office sifting through hundreds of e-mails?
  • Are leaders cheaply, quickly, and easily using the school website to inform and promote the school or is it outdated, cluttered, and otherwise useless?
  • Have leaders begun building Professional Learning Networks to stay informed about effective strategies and of the changing face of education or are they isolated in their schools speaking with a few other administrators about what they read in the paper and in few professional journals?
  • Are administrators conducting walkthroughs using mobile devices such as iPods/iPads and using surveys built for free on Google docs or are they paying for software (or, worse yet, still using paper and pencil)?
  • Are backpacks still being loaded up with letters for parents (fundraisers, PTO reminders, monthly newsletters, etc.) or are leaders using software to create school calendars that parents and staff can sync to their own personal calendars?  Are school messages going out on Facebook and Twitter (I’ve heard those sites have a few members).

These questions just scratch the surface of the training we should be providing. Universities have been known to support, lead, innovate, and get students to think critically. In order to continue to fulfill these responsibilities for school leaders, covering technology in one class isn’t sufficient. So I revisit my original question: How are universities preparing leaders for an increasingly technological world in 2011? Which programs are the most successful at meeting this challenge? Who “came out swinging” as we were called to do so long ago?

Jason LaFrance is an Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership at Georgia Southern University. Previously he served as an Assistant Principal at an Apple Distinguished School and Positive Behavior Support Model School in Florida. His research focuses on technological innovation in leadership preparation and practice. He can be reached at

Not so irrelevant 023

Five online resources worth checking out…

  1. Mike Kaechele wonders if the 1:1 device of the future will be a flash key we plug into any screen.
  2. Clayton Christensen shows us some ways that online learning is disrupting education.
  3. The Khan Academy is now accepting submissions from outsiders.
  4. Peter Gray believes that we need to throw out our fundamental assumptions that adults need to be in charge of children’s learning.
  5. Alan Levine reminds us that building is more important than badges.

See also previous posts in this category!

Iowa wants to fail 3rd graders (and other thoughts on the Governor’s Education Blueprint)

Over the past month I’ve been reading and thinking about the new Education Blueprint proposed by the Iowa Governor and the Iowa Department of Education (DE) as well as various reactions to that document. If you haven’t yet read Trace Pickering’s insightful (and also lengthy) response to the Blueprint, be sure to do so. Another important read is school change guru Michael Fullan’s recent paper, Choosing the Wrong Drivers for Whole System Reform.

Here are some additional thoughts of my own. These are not all-encompassing – I have additional questions and concerns – but they do constitute a few important issues that caught my attention. I’m also intentionally not commenting on topics for which I’m fairly ambivalent (e.g., charter schools) or don’t know enough (e.g., teacher salary schedules and compensation tiers) and instead will leave those to others who care or know more than I do.

Failing 3rd graders fails our 3rd graders

I’ll pick the low-hanging fruit first. Failing 3rd graders who can’t pass some reading assessment is a really, really bad idea. It doesn’t matter how many safeguards and second chances there are and I understand why the policy is being proposed (both educationally and politically). The bottom line is that, regardless of the ‘social promotion’ rhetoric and whatever gut intuition parents or policymakers may have, the research evidence is overwhelmingly unidirectional that in-grade retention does far more harm than good. Desired test score increases often never materialize and, even if they do, they usually don’t persist past a few years. One of the stronger and consistent findings in educational research is that, in the long run, in-grade retention is at best a long-term wash score-wise and the resultant negative impact on students’ psyches and their likelihood to graduate is horrific. The Governor and DE don’t get to advocate for research-driven practices in other parts of the Blueprint but ignore that requirement here.


We can visualize a box that represents the day-to-day occurrences within a classroom or other learning environment. That box is the most important aspect of schooling: if what students and teachers do on a daily basis in their learning-teaching interactions doesn’t change substantially, all hope of achieving ‘world class schools’ in Iowa vanishes. WE LEARN WHAT WE DO. There are a variety of inputs (e.g., standards, curricula, teacher quality, funding and resources, school structures, technology infrastructure, laws and policies) that hopefully impact what occurs inside the box. We also look at what comes out of the box (e.g., student knowledge, skills, and dispositions) to see if what we wanted to happen actually did happen. This is a classic Input-Process-Output systems model (that hopefully is accompanied by a recursive feedback loop that informs the system).


There are 85 main bullet points, or action ideas, in the Blueprint. As you can see in my annotated version of the Blueprint, I tried to place each action idea into one of three categories: Input, Process, or Output (coded I, P, & O in the document). You are welcome to disagree with my categorizations (and I admit I struggled with some of them), but the evidence is quite stark that the Blueprint is overwhelmingly focused on inputs and outputs and gives very little attention to the day-to-day learning and teaching processes that occur between students and teachers.


This is unsurprising. This is traditional school reform stuff:

We’ll change some inputs; let’s try better teachers and higher standards. Oh, and we’ll also change some structures around. How about reallocating some monies, reorganizing traditional schools a bit, and allowing for charter and online schools? On the back end, we’ll assess like crazy by changing our tests or using new and/or additional ones.

In the end, we change only a little and, if we’re lucky, we see a little change in results. This is the way most states do it, but it’s neither the only way nor the required way. Where in the Blueprint is the recognition that we need to do something DIFFERENT in our classrooms? Where’s the acknowledgment, for example, that we need to invest heavily in teachers’ ability to facilitate learning environments that foster higher-order thinking skills (an increasing necessity these days)? Where’s extensive language about better facilitating student engagement in their courses? There’s virtually nothing about students’ interest in what they’re supposedly learning. There’s nary a bullet point about student hands-on or applied or problem-based learning or authentic intellectual work (a great program already being piloted by DE, by the way). To the extent that PBL and AIW and similar issues are addressed at all, the Blueprint does so indirectly; all hopes lie with effective implementation of the Iowa/Common Core and the Smarter Balanced assessments. Instead of just holding educators ‘accountable’ on the front and back ends of the process, how about directly investing in them so that they actually can be successful? The overwhelming emphasis of the Blueprint is on accountability rather than capacity-building. Go ahead and do a search in the Blueprint for the terms training or professional development or capacity; you won’t find anything. If DE and the Governor are truly serious about ‘world class schooling’ in Iowa, they should be focusing heavily on the Process box – the day-to-day learning and teaching processes occurring in classrooms all across the state – and right now they’re not.

Low-level testing

Much of the Governor’s education concerns appear to be driven by NAEP scores and proficiency levels, despite the fact that most of the items are predominantly factual recall and low-level procedural knowledge AND despite the fact that the designers of NAEP freely admit that the level designations are arbitrary AND despite the fact that the American Institutes of Research notes that most of the nations to which we are comparing Iowa also wouldn’t score well on NAEP. If we want our students to be gaining higher- rather than lower-order thinking skills, end-of-course assessments appear to offer us nothing better. So there’s a lot of new and/or additional testing in the Blueprint that’s focused on stuff you can easily find using Google – or that can be done cheaper by people elsewhere in the world – instead of on the skills and capacities necessary to really foster a world-class citizenry and workforce. We’re not talking about assessments like the College and Work Readiness Assessment or what they do in Singapore. Again, when it comes to higher-order thinking skills, there’s virtually no proposed investment in the Blueprint for the instructional side and all of our hopes rest on the Smarter Balanced assessments, for which right now we have no idea what they will look like and no idea how they will operate. The Blueprint essentially validates and tweaks and expands current testing schemes, despite significant warnings to the contrary from our very own National Research Council.

Digital, global world. Analog, local schools.

It’s a globally-connected world out there, but the Blueprint primarily focuses on globalization as an economic force to which we must respond, not a societal / learning / citizenship issue to which we should attend for mutual benefit and empowerment. The Blueprint also says that Iowa students and graduates need to be internationally competitive but most of what it proposes is vastly different from what other countries are doing to achieve better results. The Blueprint contains no significant investment in teacher capacity-building, no emphasis on early childhood education, no amelioration of the impacts of family and neighborhood poverty on learning, and no recognition of the importance of strategic foreign language learning (particularly at younger ages), just to name a few.

It’s also a digital world out there, but you wouldn’t know it given the lack of emphasis placed on technology in the Blueprint. For example, only nominal attention is paid to online learning, despite the fact that it’s booming nationwide and despite Iowa’s meager offerings compared to other states. Even though Iowa ranks abysmally low when it comes to Internet speed and access, there’s nothing regarding the importance of universal statewide broadband Internet access for both educational and economic development purposes. Most damning, there’s absolutely no recognition of the power and potential of digital technologies to transform learning, teaching, and schooling, despite the rapid and radical reshaping of every other information-oriented societal sector by digital tools and the Web. In the world of the Blueprint, it’s as if computers and the Internet essentially didn’t exist. Go ahead and do a search in the Blueprint for the terms Internet or digital or technology; the omissions are quite alarming, actually. There’s one meager shout-out to the rapid growth in 1:1 laptop initiatives across the state, but no support for giving every Iowa child a powerful digital learning device, for providing technology integration assistance for educators, for upgrading woeful infrastructures, for rethinking policies, or for anything else of substance when it comes to educational technology. It’s 2011. Personal computers have been around for three decades and the Internet has been around for at least a dozen years for most of us. Digital technologies are transforming how Iowans and the world connect, collaborate, and LEARN; this omission is both sad and shameful.

A lost opportunity

There are a few things that I’m glad the Blueprint included. Although there is only a single bullet point referencing competency-based (rather than age-based) student progression, if done well that one thing alone has the potential to significantly and positively reshape much of how we do education in Iowa. I also like the willingness to invest in district-level innovation and to give districts some flexibility. The proof of most of this, like everything else, will depend on the legislative language and the resources committed.

As I think about the Blueprint as a whole (and we are encouraged by the document to treat it as ‘a set of changes designed to work together’), it feels like a lost opportunity. The Governor and DE had the chance to dream big and swing for the fences. They had the chance to propose impactful, sweeping changes to the current system. They had the chance to create learning and teaching environments that prepare students for the next 50 years rather than the last 50 and to educate the public as to why those changes are necessary. The Blueprint rhetoric is right but the action items fall far short. I don’t know if it’s a lack of knowledge or vision or courage that’s holding them back, and of course there are political considerations with all of this. But the result is a a tweak of the current system, a tinkering at the edges rather than a rethinking of the core. Perhaps it’s foolish of me to wish for more.

I welcome all feedback. Thanks.

The kindness of strangers


I was supposed to do a webinar.

Scheduled on Tuesday evening, the webinar was for school board members in Iowa and was the second of four scheduled online events for the Iowa Association of School Boards.

I was supposed to do a webinar.

But not just me alone. I also invited others to join me and a few folks took me up on the offer. The idea was to get multiple perspectives on our topic of the evening. On Tuesday, the subject was how technology tools are changing everything and creating a new information landscape for all of us.

I was supposed to do a webinar.

But there were storms in Ames, Iowa, and, minutes before we were supposed to begin, my Internet access from our local cable company went kaput. Uh oh…

I was supposed to do a webinar.

Thanks to the kindness of volunteers, including people I’ve never met in person, the show went on. Alison Link (in Minnesota) and Bryan Lakatos (in Ohio) and Lou Ann Gvist (in Iowa) forged on without me. The school board members and superintendents who logged in had a fantastic, wide-ranging discussion.

I was supposed to do a webinar.

I DID do a webinar. Just without me in it. It wasn’t seamless. We had glitches. I was a complete nonfactor. And yet it was a needed and helpful conversation and both participants and facilitators benefited from it.

Many organizations get so caught up in the need for perfection that they forget the power of simply talking. No broadcasting, no selling, just talking. Tuesday night was an affirmation of the power of human connection, our desires for technological perfection be damned.

Thank you so much, Alison and Bryan and Lou Ann! You were amazingly adaptive and incredibly helpful. I owe you!

Is this the best we can do for our kids?


Deron Durflinger, a high school principal in Van Meter, Iowa, says:

We need a system that isn’t based on doing well on NAEP and PISA, but in which students are able to actually develop a love for learning. Being able to adapt and learn more and newer skills is the world our students live in and will continue to live in.

This idea is based on the notion that what students are asked to know and be able to do will remain the same as they are now, and I haven’t seen any increased expectations in this regard. Making the Common Core more clear and definitive isn’t going to help students develop a love of learning, nor is it going to raise the level of expectations for students in Iowa. It will however, help adults measure how well students can fill out bubble sheets.

Is this the best we can do for kids in Iowa?

I might modify that to say, “Is this the best we can do for kids in America?

We can work on inputs (e.g., teacher quality, standards) and outputs (e.g., assessment) all we want as educators and policymakers. But until we change the process of what kids do on a day-to-day basis, we will fail to realize the systemic changes we need in our children’s learning environments. We must start teaching in a way that helps kids see relevance and helps them actually care about what they’re supposed to learn so that they don’t just memorize it short-term and then forget it as soon as possible.

We learn what we do. We ignore student boredom and lack of engagement at our peril.

[cross-posted at Education Recoded]

Please join me for some webinars with Iowa school board members


I’m facilitating a webinar series for members of the Iowa Association of School Boards (IASB). Last week I did one of my standard “the world has changed” sessions online and now we’re following up on that interaction with three topical webinars. I’m looking for 3 to 5 people who might like to join us for each session. Participants will be school board members from across the state of Iowa. They’ll fire questions, concerns, and comments at us in the text chat area. We facilitators will answer questions, share resources, and engage participants via web cam and/or the text chat.

Here’s a description of each session. If you’re interested, sign up using the facilitator registration form (first come, first serve!). Once you’re signed up, I’ll send you the URL for your webinar(s).

Our new information landscape: These technology tools are changing EVERYTHING! [November 8, 6pm to 7:30pm Central]

New technologies are changing how we interact, share, and work together. Most schools and educators, however, are not yet using these powerful tools in classrooms and many are even blocking them completely from student use. Does this make sense given how wired our world is today?

Our new learning landscape: These technology tools are creating powerful new ways for students (and educators) to learn [November 29, 6pm to 7:30pm Central]

Whether we’re students or adults, new technologies are changing how we learn. Teaching and learning are going to look very different over the next couple of decades, and much of it is going to occur in more informal and online settings rather than in our traditional, formal, face-to-face schools. What are the powerful possibilities and potential pitfalls? How do we tap into these tools and still ensure that we make AYP student achievement targets under NCLB?

Our new economic landscape: These technology tools are changing what it means to prepare graduates for the workforce [December 12, 6pm to 7:30pm Central]

Jobs, jobs, jobs: right now that’s what’s on everyone’s mind. This recession is not a temporary blip. We’re living through a structural change in employment that has major ramifications for how schools prepare students for the world of work. What does it really mean to be a successful employee and company in this new hyperconnected, hypercompetitive global economy?

Hope some of you can join us!

“We didn’t have [x] when I was a kid and I turned out okay”


Here’s a statement that I’m getting really tired of hearing:

“We didn’t have computers when I was in school and I turned out okay. There’s no reason why kids today need ’em.”

I’m sure that this argument was offered in the past as well:

“Buses? We walked to school barefoot, in the snow, uphill both ways!”

“I don’t want to pay for indoor plumbing for the school. We didn’t have it when I was a student and I turned out alright.”

“Electricity? Pshaw! Do you know how dangerous those wires are? When we were kids we had oil lamps and candles and everything was fine.”

“Back in our day we didn’t need that newfangled writing and alphabet stuff. We actually used our brains and memorized things.”

“Agriculture? Hah! It’s the ruin of society! Kids are just sitting around getting soft while they watch the crops grow. When I was a child we actually had to run after our food. We were tough, not like these kids today.”

And so on…

At some point we have to label this what it is: ridiculous. When we actually acknowledge and support this misbegotten, history-blind nostalgia, all it does is delay our much-needed recognition that the world is constantly changing and that we need to adapt in thoughtful but necessary ways. Change be can scary, but there’s a huge difference between intelligent, reflective criticism and mindless, reactionary dismissal.

Remember all of the hubbub a few years back when everyone above the age of 30 was absolutely convinced that Facebook was PURE EVIL? Then they started using it themselves and realized that it was just another (albeit different) way to communicate. The furor died down and we started having interesting conversations about when and how Facebook might be a useful learning tool. How many of those Facebook-is-pure-evil folks reflected on that process and resolved to think about the next new technology differently? How many of them apologized to the young people in their lives for their knee-jerk comments a few years back? Very few, if any.

Is it wrong of me to wish that people who espouse this view be prohibited from holding political office or serving on school boards?

[cross-posted at Education Recoded]

HELP WANTED: Interesting primary/elementary educational technology projects?


I’m working with a school district that’s asked me to focus on the primary and elementary grades (Kindergarten through 6th grade, or Years 1 through 6/7). If you only had 1 hour to show some teachers and parents a maximum of 8 to 10 really interesting educational technology projects happening with younger schoolchildren, what would you show them?

I can pull ideas and projects from CASTLE’s list of subject-specific blogs but thought some of you might have more targeted recommendations for me. As usual, I’ll compile the comments and share back out as a blog post. Thanks in advance for any help that you can give!

Image credit: Flat Classroom Skype