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Wednesday
Nov202013

The Missing Piece to Reforming K-12 Education?

As co-founder of the Atlanta Music Project, I believe unequivocally in the importance of social and emotional learning on academic learning.  As such, I have been a big fan of the research being conducted at the Collaborative for Academic, Social & Emotional Learning ("CASEL").   Teacher unions and many teachers have historically blamed poverty as the excuse for why they are unable to successfully teach impoverished youth.  While poverty does make the learning process quite challenging, we know from successful programs such as KIPP and El Sistema that these children can learn under the right conditions.

In September, CASEL introduced a new study titled, The Missing Piece:  A National Teacher Survey on How Social and Emotional Learning Can Empower Children and Transform Schools   Per CASEL:

The central message of this report is that teachers across America understand that social and emotional learning (SEL) is critical to student success in school, work, and life. Social and emotional learning involves the processes of developing competencies, including self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. Educators know these skills are teachable; want schools to give far more priority to integrating such development into the curriculum, instruction, and school culture; and believe state student learning standards should reflect this priority. Teachers also want such development to be available for all students. These and other findings are the result of a nationally representative survey of pre kindergarten through twelfth grade teachers to assess the role and value of social and emotional learning in America’s schools. The voices of teachers on SEL are more important than ever, when expectations for classroom effectiveness are higher, the U.S. educational advantage worldwide is slipping, and a skills gap is threatening American economic growth.

This report concludes that there is overwhelming evidence linking SEL, student outcomes, and school performance.   Is Social & Emotional Learning the secret ingredient to reinventing education in America and around the world?   Feel free to share your thoughts on this blog or on Twitter - @Reinvent_Ed.

Tuesday
Oct292013

Did Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed Really Say That?

Tell me this isn't true. 

 

I've been meaning to write something about this news story but wanted to take some time to ponder my thoughts before penning something that was intelligent and not emotionally charged.

Earlier this month, Atlanta's Mayor (who has done a solid job as mayor by and large) was on record stating he has raised outside donations to boost the incoming Superintendent's salary to a whopping $600,000 per year!   My first reaction was shock and muttering to myself:  "Are you kidding me?"   But let me explain why this is not the solution that Atlanta is looking for in persuading a best-in-class education leader to be interested in taking the job.

  •  No Superintendent should command such a salary
  • With the governance structure of APS, unless a Superintendent will have the ability to implement a reform agenda, the person is set up for failure.  Why take a huge salary when the probability of failure is so high?
  • What message are we sending our community?   That the only way to fix public education is to overpay a leader at the expense of funding the areas where it's needed the most, such as teachers and innovative learning tools driven by digital technology?

 

It seems to me that the Mayor has hijacked the recruiting process.   I find it objectionable that he would equate the hiring of the superintendent to "hiring the head football coach at University of Georgia."    The two business models couldn't be more different.

And there is research to support my perspective, not simply a non-educator expressing an opinion about the matter.  I would point the mayor and his advisors to the following article from Harvard Business Review which clearly states the "the correlation between salary and job satisfaction is very weak."   Moreover, the research shows as well as being commonly known that intrinsic motivation is a far stronger predictor of job performance than extrinsic motivation.   What does that mean?   It means that Mayor Reed is "rolling the dice" and lowering the probability that Atlanta will find the visionary leader it sorely needs.

We don't need a superintendent who is nearing retirement, as the Mayor believes.  What Atlanta needs is a rising star - someone young and hungry who may have been an Assistant Superintendent in an urban district in the midst of a successful transformation strategy.    Instead of hiring another Nick Saban, we should be looking for the next Thomas Dimitroff.   But no leader will succeed in APS unless the stakeholders give her the autonomy to be a change agent.   And unfortunately, that's just not going to happen - not when a school system spends $150 million on one high school.

 

Monday
Sep092013

A Moment of Truth for Atlanta Public Schools

The nation has been looking at Georgia's education system recently, and not through a favorable lens.   Why is that?

  1. GA received the lowest grade in the United States on the strength of its proficiency standards.
  2. Citing cost issues, Georgia decides to pull out of the consortium that was developing assessments based on the Common Core (PARCC) and instead, while NOT sharing any details on how it will get there, states that it can develop similar quality tests at a fraction of the cost.   The tab?  Approximately $30 million, a rounding error as a percentage of the total state education budget.
  3. The GA DoE has been warned by the U.S. Dept. of Education that at least $10M in RT3 award funds are at risk because it did not live up to certain obligations outlined in its grant proposal about the timing of the implementation of a new, accountability-based teacher evaluation system.

With all of the backpedaling on Common Core, the current State Superintendent, John Barge, decides his job performance was so stellar that he feels capable of running for Governor against the incumbent in a primary!  

With all of the challenges facing public school systems related to school governance, academic achievement, the Common Core and other key reforms, the microscope continues to shine the brightest on Atlanta Public Schools ("APS").   Crippled by a major cheating scandal, and graduation rates for certain minorities still below 50 percent, the school board decides to spend nearly $150 million on rebuilding one high school - North Atlanta High School.   Plenty of education reformers and public policy officials have question the wisdom of this move, which was featured in a major NY Times story, on whether this will truly transform public educaton in Georgia when it reaches less than 1,500 students.

With this massive cloud continuing to rein over the sixth largest school district in the state (~50K students), it was recently announced that the school board had not only fired its original search firm leading the search for a permanent Superintendent, but that it hired two search firms to take over the effort.  Both of these firms are well respected firms, but they are not known for making waves or finding visionary leaders.  They are skilled at finding leaders who fit PRECISELY into the box laid out for them by the client.

So the question I raise is whether APS is not only capable, but positioned to attract a skilled, visionary, progressive administrator to fundamentally reform this school system, which is one of the largest employers in Metro Atlanta.   I am very concerned that at this critical moment for Atlanta's public schools, that Atlanta will not find the leader they sorely need.   Why is that?

  • They are bringing the public into the process.   The taxpayers elected a school board to make these decisions, with the input of key stakeholders from private industry and city and state government.   I fear this is a terrible move by the search committee and will only add to the chaos.
  • What will the role of politics be in this process?  Will the process be circumvented by political favors and referral candidates?
  • Will the search committee be able to attract serious candidates with the cheating scandal trial not taking place until 2014?  
  • Should APS try and lure a "rising star" with progressive leanings and some experience in urban school districts,  versus an experienced administrator who will command major dollars a la Dr. Beverly Hall?
  • Will APS find the best candidate regardless of race or ethnicity?
  • How will APS address the perceived disconnect between the goals of the school board and what actually occurs?  A recent article outlines the difficulties a prospective candidate will face.

Running a major urban school system in the current toxic environment of public education is a daunting task for any leader.   APS would be wise to look at best practices and identify those administrators who have successfully turned around failing urban school systems (e.g., Nashville) and try and poach key members of their team.   Find a candidate who has been trained in a successful environment - just like the Falcons did when they hired a young, but very smart member of the New England Patriots organization:  Thomas Dimitroff, to become their General Manager.   Seems that hire has worked out pretty well.

 

 

Friday
Jul262013

Ravitch on the "Perils" of Ed Tech: Is This Journalism or Propaganda?

"DANGER, WILL ROBINSON, DANGER".......

For those of you who remember the 1960s television sci-fi series: Lost in Space, this was the famous catch phrase that the robot, acting as a surrogate guardian, would voice to Will Robinson whenever there was an impending threat.

Fast forward to July 2013.   A supposedly reputable magazine:  Scientific American, posted an article by self proclaimed education historian Diane Ravitch titled, "3 Dubious Uses of Technology in Schools."  Interestingly enough, the article was originally published under the title, "Promise & Peril."  Ms. Ravitch is a very controversial figure in the field of public education, and she has been consistent in her disdain for education reform, especially the influence of private foundations and other stakeholders who Ravitch feels will destroy her "utopian" aspirations for public education.  Per the magazine's website, it serves as "The leading source and authority for science, technology information and policy for a general audience."   I believe that the article in question does not uphold the tenets of the brand, and in fact, damages the brand.  Lets discuss my concerns in more detail.

  • The author does not give sufficient weight to discussing the benefits of technology.  The subtitle of the story is "Technology can inspire creativity or dehumanize learning."   Ms. Ravitch is generous enough to give a total of TWO SENTENCES discussing the benefits of technology in public education.
  • Are her so called "dubious uses" of technology really "dubious?" 
    • Ravitch attempts to stoke fear into readers by claiming that "for-profit" charter schools are evil, while not providing sufficient empirical evidence to support such generalizations.   In any new school design, there will be outliers, but for Ravitch to single out the few in a pool of many successful charter schools is foolhardy.   How many public schools are squandering taxpayer dollars and not governing their schools with integrity?   Quite a few if you did the research.
    • Ravitch does not provide sufficient detail in her discussion about online assessments and the online grading of essays.   I am not up to speed on this development and while I need to look at this area more closely, I share the author's concern about online grading of essays.  It depends how it will be done, because there is a subjective factor to it.   However, I would not state that online assessments are not in the best interests of the system just because of this one concern which will certainly be worked out.   Certain types of assessments must be conducted online, as this will greatly enhance the efficiency of our public education system, improve productivity, and support adaptive learning systems.   We need to use big data more effectively in public schools so that teachers can spend far less time on remedial work at the beginning of each school year.   It will also help us evolve our system into a competency-based one versus one that depends on seat-time.
    • Finally, Ms. Ravitch continues her assault on the Gates Foundation-funded nonprofit, inBloom.   Ravitch is terrified of the use of "big data" in public education, and the risks of storing personal, confidential data on students in the cloud.   Ravitch, to the best of my knowledge, has not represented that she has even seen a demo of the technology in action, yet she amplifies the propaganda being distributed by self interest groups.   Many other industries such as health care are seeing the material benefits of leveraging the cloud for data storage and data intelligence.  InBloom has been very consistent in their communications that they will not be providing personal data to third parties without consent, yet Ravitch and the teachers unions have used their influence to misrepresent the intent of the inBloom solution and spread fears about applications that are not part of the core use case.  The FAQ page on inBloom's website states:  "inBloom is not creating a national database. It is providing a secure data service to help school districts manage the information needed for learning, and to support local educational goals. Only school districts decide who has access to that information and for what purpose."  

It is perfectly acceptable to be concerned about the online storage of data.  However, public education would be best served by working collaboratively with an organization whose intent is noble:  to create a technological standard that connects the entire public education ecosystem.  The main objective of InBloom is to make the disparate systems compatible, and as such, make the job of educators and administrators much easier.   It is unfortunate that Ravitch has taken such a pessimistic view of what this initiative can offer to our education reform efforts, and instead anoint herself the "Ralph Nader" of public education.

Finally, I take personal issue with Ravitch's comment  that "teachers see technology as a tool to inspire student learning; entrepreneurs see it as a way to standardize teaching, to replace teachers, to make money and to market new products."   That is categorically false and insulting to the many entrepreneurs who are trying to bring innovation to K-12 education, but are stonewalled by an anachronistic system dominated by textbook publishers extracting billions of dollars in monopoly profits from K-12 - something that Ravitch fails to acknowledge in her assault on entrepreneurship.

If Diane Ravitch or any writer for that matter wishes to communicate their skepticism with new technologies, that is perfectly fine.  However, if you are going to write a policy piece for a supposedly reputable publication, then the story needs to provide sufficient empirical data to support the assertions.   It is clear that this story could have easily been posted on Ravitch's blog, where she is free to publish her "rants" that are opinions devoid of supportable fact.    Instead, we are forced to accept the grim reality that major publications will abdicate their journalistic integrity to forward a political agenda, which in this case is the supposition that technological innovation will seek to destroy public education, rather than improve it.

I think Will Robinson would have ignored the robot because he would have assumed the robot had a technical malfunction......

Tuesday
Jul022013

Politics Will Continue To Undermine Public Education Reform

I haven't posted in a few weeks because I have been in a period of frustration.     Reading the lies that continue to published to unravel the Common Core has caused me to reflect on the state of public education in the United States and how difficult it is to effect meaningful change.   The politics around public education reform is as toxic as it's ever been.

What is happening right now is a symptom of the broader political battle between Democrats and Republicans, between Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians, between state and local control versus the role of the federal government in our society.  This blogger will continue to insist that local control will exacerbate the inefficiencies and ineffectiveness of public education.  

The Common Core was an effort led by the states - by a group of Governors  and Chief State School Officers.  Secretary of Education Arne Duncan staunchly defended the Common Core in a speech last week.  His remarks should be read.  He discusses the difference between a "curriculum" and "standards."   These standards are far superior to what preceded them.  We should not have 50 states with 50 different standards.  No content provider would be able to scale such a fragmented business, but more importantly, the standards we hold our students to should be substantially similar regardless of where they are educated.   There was tremendous state support for these common standards - 45 states plus DC adopted them.   While it is important that the standards do NOT result in an excessive amount of standardized assessment, what is important is that the quality of such assessments improves significantly.   And we don't need more multiple choice tests, which do hardly anything towards assessing learning, only the ability to memorize facts without context.

Tea Party activists are distorting the facts and causing fear and paranoia in the education space.   Even folks like AFT President Randi Weingarten are lobbying for a moratorium on tests related to the Common Core.    We know that anytime a new reform is put in place, there may be an initial drop in academic achievement.  That happened in parts of Tennessee which was one of the winners of the Race to the Top competition.   But then scores go up. 

Even in Georgia, whose own standards are practically identical to the Common Core, local school boards are caving into the misinformation and paranoia spread by local Tea Party members.  Cobb County's board decided NOT to approve new math textbooks aligned to the Common Core.  As education journalist Maureen Downey stated in the story:  "In declaring that Cobb cannot buy textbooks aligned with Common Core math standards, the school board is essentially saying students cannot have textbooks aligned to the Georgia standards, either. Because they are the same."   

We cannot let these self interest groups unravel years of collaboration that resulted in a set of standards that are materially better than what preceded them.   Our education system will be set back many, many years if the Common Core is derailed.   In the words of Secretary Duncan:

Whatever your views about public education, it is indefensible to lower learning standards. There is simply too much at stake — for the country — for our future — and for your industry.

If your state lowers standards, you lose a high bar for reading, for critical thinking, for writing, and for taking ideas seriously. You lose one of the cornerstones of democracy. Because the power of democracy depends upon an informed electorate — and a free press.


Politics certainly undermines education reform - I hope we have the courage to overcome such obstacles.  Our children's future depends on it.