Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Future Starts . . . in Wausau, Wisconsin?

You just never know where good ideas will show up first, but even I was surprised to discover that an elementary school in Wausau, Wisconsin has a fifth-grade teacher who has been helping his students create digital portfolios for TEN years.   Actually, the story was in the Wausau Daily Herald, but the class is held in Rib Mountain, which looks like a tranquil green (or white, as the season may be) suburb of Wausau.  

The story was picked up by the Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development people at ASCD Smart Brief, a group that has distinguished itself for extensive professional development for teachers and school leaders--and their advocacy for a "whole child" approach to education.  Now, that "whole child" term has a kind of touch-feely, California whoo-whoo feel to it, but these are serious people backed by solid research and located near the public policy hub in Alexandria, Virginia.  ASCD can actually ask questions about "Is it good for the children?" and create symposia that consider such topics as "Ten Components of Personalized Learning."  

So I am heartened to find on their news brief this small article from the Wausau daily that highlights the portfolio-producing teacher, Brad Schmicker.   Even in Wausau, the daily newspaper thought to put the words "analysis" and "higher thinking" in their headline, so why is it so difficult to convince our representatives inside the Beltway that those might be admirable ways to evaluate all student work?   Yes, I know, how would they "account" for schools without their numbers?!

But picture this:  The ten-year-olds in Schmicker's class use PowerPoint (finally a good use of this utility) to pull together photos, audio clips of their own performances and oral reading, video snips, and their personal thoughts about what they are learning--in all their subjects.  I know this may seem stunning, but imagine what these kids are learning, not only about their subject matters or their own talents, but also about how learning occurs and how they are progressing as they go through the year.  This is the area called metacognition, or reflective learning, surely the highest level of recursive thought and a seriously important way of stimulating and prolonging student self-motivation and lifelong engagement.   And what better way to demonstrate to parents what kids are actually doing and how they are progressing in their personal growth, as Schmicker does at the end of each year? 

That's the extent of the article, and I'm going to bet that the portfolios end there and do not follow the kids into middle school, but imagine the possibilities:  What if students were to begin their video portfolios in their earliest school years, when classes are smallest and personal attention is actually possible?   What if students began with saying their ABC's and the next year showed their progress in a video of themselves learning to read, followed by video/audio clips of themselves progressing in their reading each year?  Think kids would be interested in their own progress then? 

What if schools could elaborate on that simple format to have students record orally at first, and then in writing, what they believed to be worthwhile about their learning?  What if all of this were presented to parents during teacher-parent discussions each year?  Do you think parents would be more involved, more responsive, more willing to participate? 

What if these portfolios could continue through middle school and high school (sometime in that wonderful future when we institute personalized learning for EVERY age level and invest real money in making that happen)?  What if these accumulated portfolios formed the foundation for an edited version that were sent with the student's application to college, elaborated a million times by those more complex experiences and activities of later years?  Can you imagine a better way of introducing each student and helping him or her find that perfect career and college fit?

Well, the questions are not all rhetorical, because more and more colleges are doing the sensible thing and moving away from ACT/SAT scores as the standards of admission, because even they realize how narrow a picture such scores paint of each student.  At the center of such efforts is an organization called FairTest in Boston, which recently reported that more than 830 four-year colleges and universities are no longer basing admissions on tests, but rather on more creative forms of expression, such as student portfolios.

With the proliferation, at last, of computers in schools and even a few schools that provide laptops for each child, the day of the student portfolio--demonstrating student progress in all areas throughout their K-12 experience--cannot be far behind.  This is precisely the type of reflective learning that can give all students ownership of their own learning and provide a sense of meaning and direction for their accomplishments.  At last, something for parents to actually talk about with their own students and with their teachers, rather than the usual one-way dialogue of grades, test scores, and "lack of motivation" discussions.

To take this a step farther, consider the possibilities of the portfolio when combined with projects that actually engage students in their own learning.  Here is one of the best all-time examples of a whole school and then a whole sequence of schooling built around the idea that students learn better when they are actually interested in what they are doing (I know, this is NOT brain surgery, truly!):  Take a look at an Edutopia report on the Key Learning Community, a K-12 public school in Indianapolis.  If you click on the photo at the top of the article, you will go to a 2009 update on the school, which began in 1987 and has been adding grades ever since.  They have a ten-year track record as a K-12 school now: successful, collegial, creative, smart, collaborative.  All the teachers who responded to the original article just want to know how to sign up; imagine how many parents would fight to get their kids admitted there!

So here's the moral of this story:  If you're a teacher, start talking about portfolio-making for every child.  In the computer age (a little late to education, but still . . .) this is not nearly the forbidding task that it once seemed when we first started talking about portfolios and other means of "authentic assessment" way back in the '80s.  If you're a parent, start talking to teachers and board members about portfolios for every kid.  If you're a homeschooler because none of this was happening in your school, I hope you're having your children maintain just such portfolios right now! 

Changing the schools to something a little more about human progress and a little less about test scores has to be our work every day.  Congratulations, Brad Schmicker, you are certainly doing your part!  Hmmm . . . Rib Mountain, Wisconsin . . . Indianapolis, Indiana . . . the Midwest is just quietly going about its school reform, while on both coasts and in Washington, DC, the roar of the "school reformers" out-decibels the collaborative efforts of real educators, and the parents who support them.  Come to Facebook and join ChangeTheSchools in turning the tide on that endless debate, and putting fun and meaning back into education.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Sarah Palin of Education?

With all the brouhaha about Michelle Rhee's "second act," I just had to read her whole new site at Students First, a great big, expensive, business-sponsored paean to the worth of school that is all about kids.  Well, what's to argue about, right?  Who doesn't want school that's for kids first?  Oprah loves Michelle, "the warrior woman."  Who doesn't love Oprah?  So, let's just all sign up now, donate money and let Michelle re-create education in her own image, yes?

It all sounds good, it's all about the right stuff, at least on the surface, and then we get to the part that just, well, sticks in my throat.  Are we really all going to follow a woman who says things like "collaboration and consensus-building are over-rated"?  Are we all going to let her corporate backers--the CEOs of Gatesian proportion who want to run the world--take over schools, too?   Are we going to continue allowing beginners in education to run the show, telling those of us who have been doing things for kids for decades just how it's done?  
The scariest part is Michelle telling the world that she is going to amass $1 billion to influence elections--and don't think she can't.  If we snooze a moment longer, our public education system is going to be only a fond memory, given away without even a whimper, much less a bang, to private interests who really believe, like the new governor of Florida (bless his pointed little head) that giving everyone money to buy their way into private schools is somehow going to solve the problem.

There is something just evil about parents having to sit on benches in the hallways of popular charter schools, crying and begging for their children to be "let in."  There is something unAmerican about lotteries for spots in "high-performing" schools, so all the rest of the kids are left out.  There is something just plain ugly about beating up teachers and blaming them for the failure of a thirty-year experiment in terror called "trickle-down economics."  

Now we've got the school version of that same philosophy: "trickle-down education," otherwise known as the finale of the world's most polarizing political "theory."  Haves vs. have-nots?  We're making more of them every day.  We've now subjected the nation to the corollary--"back to basics"--to an absurd degree and discovered that--what?--we're all just plain dumber?  No surprise!  We've been forced to "teach to the test" for years.  That's what high-stakes testing is all about, and there's nothing "standardized" about it.   That would imply that the testing meets certain standards of learning, but that's not it at all.  It's only about numerical standards in a self-reflecting, recursive world that operates solely within a box of statistics--and we accept those scores as the gospel truth.

The whole system is a little like being locked in an unrestored Volkswagen van from the '60s, never opening the rusty doors, never looking out the mold-encrusted windows, and imagining that only what happens within that van is the entire universe.  Limited and narrow?  I'll say!  Backward and stubborn?  You bet!   No wonder kids are dropping out in droves, involved parents have decided to do school themselves, and teachers are wondering what happened to their dreams of making a difference . . . .

So, imagine my surprise and delight at finding comments on Michelle's website that did more than congratulate her for being brave and standing up to the big, bad establishment.  One writer, in particular, made me laugh out loud, and this is no laughing matter.  Calling himself Rhee + Gates = Fail, he (or she) said "What do I think about education reform?  I personally am still waiting for it to start.  Until NCLB is repealed or significantly altered to do away with high-stakes standardized testing . . . there will be no true reform."  Hear, hear!!

But the LOL part followed:  "Michelle is out there working for herself.  She is basically the Sarah Palin of education--came out of nowhere, did nothing and is now famous for being famous.  Like Palin, she is trying to cash in on this fame while it lasts by starting a private corporation run on donations from suckers who buy her message."

Well, there's nothing more to add to that!  Thanks, Fail.  Good Night, Gracie, wherever you are . . .

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

To Be or Not To Be--Shanghai

China scored an international coup without firing a shot yesterday when their students from Shanghai came out on top in all three categories of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA)--reading, science, and math.  American students scored way down in the average ranks, where we have ranked for years, behind a lot of countries that used to be considered "developing."

Well, I don't need to tell you that fur flew among standardized testing afficionados and self-styled school reformers who worked themselves into a frenzy.  The New York Times quoted an array of reactors who were stunned by this performance, especially the Secretary of Education, who said it was our "wake-up call."   He's right, we ARE being out-educated on every front, but I, for one, am very tired of hearing Secy. Duncan and everyone else on the East Coast talk about "closing the gap" in test scores as if that were some kind of reality measure, and blaming teachers for this national failing. 

There's a deeper and bigger picture in this story:  First, consider a rapidly industrializing and globally competing China, determined to show well on every measure; their rise is not unlike the Russian education juggernaut of mid-20th century during the Sputnik era when we were all pushed, bribed, and entreated to become scientists.  Somehow American scientific progress raced on without me, producing moon landings and other coups.  But we've been there, done that--both industrialization and scientific competition.  Haven't we already won both of those races?

That's why I'm skeptical about this national over-reaction to China's test scores.  It's certainly not the moment to go running back into the past but rather a moment to change the game!   The American people are certainly not going to stand by while the "reformers" further homogenize schools or force longer hours or adherence to strict formulae.  That kind of thinking is directly counter to what We the People believe schools ought to be.

Check this out:  We really believe in our deepest values--independence, self-determination, progress, et al., and we care about individual people.  If we really want to move forward as a nation, we need to move up to the next step in this evolution of democracy:  We need to create a public school structure that emulates those concepts and provides the nurturance, coaching, and creativity to set American kids on fire about learning.  I can't stand to watch any more hysteria about the symptoms of decay (drop-outs, drugs, truancy, discipline, suicides even), when we could be examining the CORE BELIEFS we share and revitalizing our public education system in that image.

New Vision for Schools is the new game in town, and we're the ones who have to break that sound barrier, too.  The next step to global leadership--especially for the highly diversified population of U.S. schools--is to demonstrate that all children have inestimable gifts by designing a public education system that helps teachers and parents bring those seeds of greatness to life.  That means we have to be done with haves vs. have-nots.  We have to be done with intolerance.  We have to be done with dividing the good test-takers from those who just don't want to play. 

Here's the kicker:  School reform is NOT a numbers game.  It's a people game.  It's a game that is played by the new rules of cooperation, collaboration, and synergy.  I know, what a concept!  It's only what everyone inside schools and everyone outside schools have been saying all along, but somehow we can't hear each other.  People!  Let's talk to each other and get something worthwhile going.  That's the best investment we will ever make in both a better world and our own economic future--and you can take that to the bank!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Business Leaders Take a Beating

Just when we thought Bill Gates was going to take over the schools as well as the world, there's a new awareness in town . . . a little more along the lines of "Hey!  Wait a minute!!  What are all these CEO's doing in here?!"   That's kind of what New Yorkers wanted to know over the past few weeks in the wake of the mayor's appointment of a publishing executive to take over the job of schools chancellor. 

I think I laughed out loud when I first heard the news.  After all, let her try it out . . . I mean, why spoil the fun of watching another CEO discover that managing schools is just not a straightforward task?   That would be a little like the Gates Foundation School of the Future in Philadelphia, which has had a revival now, but which floundered for a few years while the people in charge slapped their foreheads in dismay because the students just didn't know what to make of completely computerized everything.  You know, as in "where are those worksheets"?

Yes, it takes a little more than building a new structure, even if it is high-tech city, to convince the public AND the kids AND their parents that doing things a new way might be a good idea.  Think of a complete rewiring of public expectations of school, and you'll have a pretty good idea of what Microsoft ran into in Philly when they first started out.   The experience was right in line with what Mr. Gates said, in his own dismay, a few years ago when he was spending millions to rally the troops for school reform:  He told the NY Times in an email interview that the "lack of public will" was the biggest barrier to true reform.

Well, yes, people are happy to live in the traditional world of the traditional school, because it's safe, it's familiar, it's . . . tradition!   Like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, we allegedly independent and forward-looking Americans are clinging like Saran wrap to our traditions.  There are precious few left in this new millennium, and our beloved public schools are primary aspects of our American identity.  You know how it goes:  Where did YOU go to high school?  Were you on the football team or were you a nerd (a brain, a party girl, etc.)?   Everyone who matters shows up at high school football games, the band parents raise tons of money to buy new uniforms for the marching band, the debate team travels to out-of-town contests . . . and the activities are just so much fun.  But all of those things are NOT what school reform is about.  We all love our activities and, precisely for that reason, we want to make academic work just as engaging, based on the work of real teachers with real experience in how students learn, and real school leaders who know how to create collaborative environments for teachers, parents, and kids.

As charter school operators across the country are proving to themselves every day, there's just so much to be DISCOVERED about how schools really operate!   So, pay attention, CEOs:  Schools are not "in trouble" because the people in charge don't know how to manage; they're in trouble because times have changed drastically over the past 50 years and schools are still struggling along with the zeitgeist of the 1950s dogging their every step.  We need a reinvention of our traditional model, and it does need to be public, and the CEOs can't help us.  The people in the schools need to do it themselves, with the input, support, and collaboration of all of those disenchanted parents and community members. 

At last, the public is starting to ask the real questions:  Why are we letting business leaders run our schools?   Even in New York, the most politicized environment in the nation (well, right after the DC beltway), real people are asking real questions.    I guess it's time for all of us to stand up and say, "Hey, guys!  School is NOT a business--surprise!!"   Find out more and join our campaign to create REAL change in schools on our Facebook fan page.  We need all the clout we can get to make a dent in public opinion--and those traditions!