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There is genius around us – and within us

A. O. Scott said:

The incentives not to think – to be one of the many available varieties of stupid – are powerful. But there is also genius around us, and within us.

via http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/31/sunday-review/everybodys-a-critic-and-thats-how-it-should-be.html

Are we unlocking genius in our classrooms?

Dabbawalas, tutorial networks, and the naysayers

In Mumbai, India, many workers prefer a hot, home-cooked meal instead of eating at a food stand or restaurant. So each workday 5,000 dabbawalas (“those who carry a box”) deliver 200,000 lunches from workers’ homes to their offices. Collecting dabbawalas, who are typically on bicycles, pick up individual lunch boxes from each home and bring them to a sorting location. Sorting dabbawalas then mark the lunch boxes with symbols and colors to mark their route and destination and put them on local trains. At each railway station, local dabbawalas collect the appropriate lunch boxes and deliver them to workers via foot, bicycle, and pushcart. The entire system works in reverse to get the lunch boxes back home again. All of this is quite complex but the entire 125-year-old system is organized organically by the dabbawalas themselves, not the government or a corporation. It is estimated that a mistake is made about once in every 8 million deliveries, which is particularly impressive given that many of the dabbawalas are illiterate. The dabbawalas have been profiled by the New York Times and NBC News, among many others, and there is even a Harvard Business School case study about them. 

In Mexico, what started as an experiment to improve 8 poor, rural public schools has now exploded into a national network of over 9,000 low-achieving elementary and middle schools. In these schools, student-centered tutorial networks rely on the knowledge and skills of youth to help scale up student learning at levels that would be impossible if done by adults alone. On any given day in one of these schools, a teacher might be tutoring a student, a student might be tutoring another student, or a student might even be tutoring an adult parent, community member, or educator. In this manner, new pedagogical practices can be disseminated nationwide through tutoring and social networks rather than just top-down professional development and educator training mechanisms. In these tutorial networks, everyone is a learner and everyone is a teacher.

Richard Elmore describes the system further:

When they have developed mastery in a given area, students play the role of tutor to other students who are undertaking inquiry in the same area. Students learn both the content they study and the practice of tutorials. Over time, the learning of the students and tutors, coupled with the training that tutors receive in the broader network, becomes a fund of knowledge available to tutors and students in other schools in the network. Learning is disciplined throughout by norms of mastery. Students and adults work together to build a fund of common knowledge that is available to all.

No one has told these students that they cannot control their own learning. No one has ‘schooled’ the adult tutors, who are largely recruited from the rural communities they serve, that they are ‘unqualified’ to teach or to serve as leaders of learning in their communities. The students and tutors share an understanding that, if there are things that they need to know in order to teach others, they will learn them through the teaching of others. The students and adults form a powerful social movement, with a common identity around access to learning. Most of all, students are given the gift of adult trust that by engaging in learning, by choosing what to learn, and by giving the gift of learning to others, they will discover their power as leaders of learning in their communities. 

Helen Janc Malone further notes:

What is unique and innovative about the tutorial networks is that they put the learner and the process of learning at the center of the education endeavor, and focus on tutorial relationships as a driver for democratic, equitable learning environment, absent of traditional, grade-level, standardized, rigid structures that often disengage students. Taking agency for instructional delivery and ownership of learning is empowering and motivating for both the tutors and the tutees. There is a great sense of pride that comes from receiving personalized learning, mastering content and sharing that knowledge with peers. An added advantage of such a strategy has been the excitement that spreads beyond the school walls and spills out into the community, where families again begin to see schools as centers for learning and development. This is particularly evident where tutorial networks have been able to positively transform rural, high-poverty, low-performing schools.

Nationwide community-driven tutorial networks that put students at the center. Complex, Six Sigma-quality delivery systems run by marginally-literate workers. Incredible, right? I can’t help but wonder… What could we do if we tapped into the power of our people and tried to actualize new possibilities instead of mere historical inertia? What could we do if our school organizations elevated the questions, “why not?” and “how can we?” over the reflexive “yes, but?”

As school leaders, we know that the naysayers will start chiming in as soon as anything new or different is proposed. Instead of allowing the change-adverse to dominate, maybe we could say, “Look at what’s happening out there. Given our greater resources and our incredible talent, there’s virtually no limit to what we could do. Let’s get started and do some things that are amazing!”

#dreambig #getmoving #makeitbetter

It’s too overwhelming

Overwhelmed

“The magnitude of all of this change… it’s too overwhelming.”

Fair enough. I, too, often feel overwhelmed by it all. But are we going to hunker down and ignore it or lean into it and try to figure out how to adapt? Which one better serves the needs of our children?

Image credit: Day 49 – I can’t do it anymore, Alisa Ryan

Remember to disconnect. But also be connected.

Jill Berkowicz and Ann Myers remind us that it’s important for school leaders to disconnect from their digital, online environments and be reflective. But Steven Johnson reminds us that ‘the great driver of … innovation has been the historic increase in connectivity.” Finding the balance is tough but essential…

Is this what Iowa parents really want?

IowaParents2

Iowa parents (and grandparents), is this what you elected our state legislature to do?

  1. Reduce incoming revenue via tax cuts
  2. Then preach ‘fiscal responsibility’
  3. Then say, “Sorry, there’s no money for schools”
  4. Repeat yearly

Don’t our schools deserve better? Don’t our children (and grandchildren) deserve better?

Image credit: Capitol building, sharyn morrow

Download this slide: JPG

This online high school is not going to change education

Siliconvalleyhighschool

The headline at eSchool News reads ‘This online high school could change education’ (a slight modification of the original headline at the Santa Cruz Sentinel). Okay, I’m game. I’ll check it out…

I read about the founders. I read that they’re trying to make the curriculum relevant for students (awesome!). I read the claims that Silicon Valley High School will provide a ‘five star education.’ Okay so far. Then I get to the following:

With the help of a core team of 12 developers and 20 subject matter experts, Teves and Smith have developed a platform and process to deliver ‘best-available’ content to students at a fraction of the cost of similar curricula.

and

The courses are highly linear and feature well-produced videos starring engaging and highly relevant teachers chosen by the high school’s panel of experts.

And there we have it. ‘Highly linear,’ self-paced, one-size-fits-all courses; videos made by experts; and an online platform to ‘deliver’ them, including quizzes. I’m pretty sure that this is not the first time this has been suggested or tried (MOOCs, anyone? Khan Academy? K12 and Connections Academy? TED-Ed?). And – good intentions aside – I’m pretty sure that these models are essentially replicating online the traditional face-to-face model of sit-and-get, transmission-oriented education that’s dominated for centuries. But, hey, students can proceed at their own pace and do this anywhere…

Video lectures are still lectures:

More than 700 studies have confirmed that lectures are less effective than a wide range of methods for achieving almost every educational goal you can think of. Even for the straightforward objective of transmitting factual information, they are no better than a host of alternatives, including private reading. Moreover, lectures inspire students less than other methods, and lead to less study afterwards.

When will we be willing to confront the need to change the day-to-day learning experiences of students rather than simply trying to repackage traditional methods in different wrappers?

Schools aren’t preparing freelancers and entrepreneurs

Freelance

[I’m back. I took an actual winter break. It was awesome. I highly encourage it!]

Freelancing is on the rise, with perhaps as many as a third of American workers now engaged in some kind of freelancing work. Of course this has enormous implications for overall employment, health benefits, and workforce and job stability. Dennis Yang, CEO of Udemy, notes that

this conversation will [soon] reach critical mass, especially around how freelancers continue to learn and upskill in such a fluid work environment. In the absence of corporate support, these independent workers need to keep hustling to stay ahead of the curve and prove they can out-innovate their peers. In short, as more companies choose to depend on contract workers for key parts of their business, those freelancers will see increasing competition for those gigs and, therefore, more pressure to differentiate themselves and their skills.

Are most schools helping students learn how to leverage their individual interests and skill sets to ‘out-innovate their peers’ and differentiate themselves from the crowd? Are most schools helping students learn how to adopt entrepreneurial mindsets, workflows, and financing techniques in order to be both self-sufficient and competitive in a highly-complex, rapidly-shifting work landscape? Are most schools teaching students how to ‘learn and upskill’ themselves so that they optimize their chances to be selected for the next gig that they’re seeking?

Nope.

Are most schools still primarily running students through a ‘one size fits all’ model, assessing students in standardized ways, discounting students’ unique strengths and talents, and completely ignoring the economic and workforce realities into which they’re sending their supposedly-qualified graduates?

Yep.

Image credit: 20100504-available-for-freelance, Chris Piascik

Iowa school poverty and report card rankings

My local high school recently was named the top high school in Iowa by Niche.com, a school and college ranking site.

Ames High on Niche com

Today the Iowa Department of Education issued its first-ever school report cards. Ames High School didn’t do as well this time, only managing an overall ranking of Commendable, which is the third-highest report card category. Here are the number of Iowa schools in each of the six possible report card categories:

2015 Iowa School Report Categories 2

For this first year, the Department of Education distributed schools along a normal curve. In future years, the point boundaries for the school report categories will be locked into place and schools will be able to move in and out of the categories. In other words, down the road it is possible that some report card categories may have few or no schools in them.

I downloaded the Department’s school report card data and combined them with its free lunch data. Free or reduced-price lunch percentages often are used as indicators of school poverty. Here is what the free lunch percentage distributions look like for each report card category:

Iowa School Report Card Rankings by Free Lunch Percentage 3

Zero of the 34 Priority schools have less than 33% free lunch eligibility and 30 of the 34 (88%) have more than half of their students who are eligible. In contrast, 27 of the 35 Exceptional schools (77%) have less than 33% free lunch eligibility and only 3 of the 35 (9%) have more than half of their students who are eligible. Here are the median and average free lunch eligibility percentages for each report card category:

Free Lunch Percentage for Iowa School Report Card Categories

Here is the box plot for each school report card category:

Iowa School Report Card Rankings by Free Lunch Percentage 1

Here’s a reminder on how to interpret a box plot:

Interpreting a box plot

Iowa’s school report card results mirror those of other states, which typically show strong negative relationships between overall school report card scores and school poverty levels. So we now have an Iowa school report card system that confirms what we already knew from the peer-reviewed research and from other locations, which is that schools with higher poverty levels tend to do less well on indicators of school success. Whether we will actually do anything about it remains an open question…

Please check over my data and see if I made any mistakes. Also see my copyright policy and feel free to use these data and images as you wish for your own projects!

Sioux City CSD has a different view than Governor Branstad

Iowa flag state outline

Sioux City Community School District Chief Financial Officer John Chalstrom said:

In the past six years, the increase in [Iowa] state aid has averaged 1.88 percent while expenditures have grown an average of 3.45 percent.

Superintendent Paul Gausman said:

How many years can you have in a row where the supplemental state aid is so low it continues to choke you for efficiencies? Sooner or later, you’ve found every efficiency you can and it begins to really hurt.

Governor Terry Branstad said:

We gave all this across-the-board money with no accountability and Iowa kind of stagnated

and

a budget where “you throw money” at schools won’t necessarily improve them

via http://siouxcityjournal.com/news/local/education/sioux-city-school-district-expects-to-trim-budget-next-year/article_b2f39414-f097-5ebf-982d-554811378498.html and http://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/news/politics/2015/08/03/governor-terry-branstad-education-spending-iowa/31077365 and http://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/news/politics/2015/07/13/education-funding-vote-branstad/30109287

East Campus: Uncovering the brilliance in every student

High school student Jeff Bliss famously said in 2013, “If you would just get up and teach them instead of handing them a freakin’ packet, yo. It’s kids in here that don’t learn like that. They need to learn face to face.” Unfortunately, too many alternative high schools are just about worksheet packets and self-paced online courses. East Campus in Muscatine, Iowa takes a different approach, one that is paying enormous dividends in terms of student engagement, academic success, and high school completion.

Hydroponics, East Campus, Muscatine Community School District

East Campus has a strong emphasis on hands-on academic activity. For example, students learn about metal absorption, evolution of plant species, and trait adaptation in science by engaging in real-world hydroponics and phytoremediation projects. They partner with the University of Iowa and Muscatine Power & Water to do this work, learning about cell biology, ions, and molecular polarity along the way. Similarly, they’re learning about urban renewal and the environmental impacts of human behaviors through the lens of bicycling, applying their English / Language Arts skills as they evaluate resources, write grant proposals, utilize social media, and engage in marketing techniques to advocate for more bicycle-friendly areas in their community.

Students also are investigating molecular structures by testing sugar substitutes and seeing which configurations taste better; the end goal is to create a book or video that places a culinary lens on the subject of chemistry. They’re working with a nonprofit that makes hand-powered bicycles for people who have lost the use of their legs, analyzing different countries and cultures to determine where the need for such transportation is greatest. Most students are learning to code, and nearly all of them are incredibly active in their community’s Blue Zones initiative, helping the food insecure grow healthy vegetables and making commercials that promote healthy behaviors. They work with Monsanto to understand the seed production process. They make documentaries with local survivors of heart disease for the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women campaign. They’re using scrum boards and other project management techniques. Their video production work is so fantastic that they participate in national media conferences and get asked by out-of-state businesses to make videos and commercials. And so on…

The work that East Campus students do isn’t sitting at a desk regurgitating facts from a textbook. They’re not just answering a few short essay questions based on a teacher lecture days before. Instead, they’re engaged in challenging, real world work. Their assessment is in the quality of what they do, not just recalling minutiae that can be found in five seconds with a smartphone voice command. Are your high school students doing this kind of complex, authentic work on a regular basis? Are your local youth making a positive, meaningful impact on their community and the world around them?

In his most recent TED talk, Sir Ken Robinson notes that our best alternative education programs are “very personalized” and often “involve students outside school as well as inside school. And all the evidence from around the world is – if we all did that – there’d be no need for the alternative.” East Campus proves that every day, reclaiming students’ brilliance that too often gets lost in our more traditional systems.

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