The Reforms I'm For

We spend a lot of time talking about the reforms promoted by Education Reform Advocacy Organizations which we oppose. I also spend a lot of time correcting them when they say that those who oppose them are fighting for the status quo. So folks might wonder what reforms I actually support. It's a fair question.

I absolutely believe that public K-12 education in Washington, and across the country, needs serious reform. It is build on a model that, in turn, is built on the faulty assumption that the students will fit a narrow mold. The system is set up to expect and serve students who come able and ready to learn in a traditional school setting. The whole thing needs to be reconfigured around a different, more accurate, set of beliefs around who the students are, what they need, and how public schools can deliver it.

The solutions presented by Education Reform Advocacy Organizations, such as LEV, are not serious reforms. They do not address the problem. Some of them, such as charter schools, create an opportunity to bypass the problem – an opportunity which, sadly, often goes unused. Some of them, such as merit pay for teachers, have nothing to do with the problem.

I want to be part of a serious conversation about how public K-12 education needs to change so that it meets students’ needs. I would love it if the Education Reform Advocacy Organizations would turn their focus towards the real changes that need to be made and away from these distractions. Think of all of the money, resources, goodwill, and drama that have been squandered on these distractions when that effort could have been focused on some work that would really make the changes the students need.

The solution to the academic achievement gap will not be found in the teachers’ contract.
The solution to the academic achievement gap will not be found by changing the ownership and governance of the schools.
The solution to the academic achievement gap will not be found in “school transformation” grants or competency credits, higher graduation requirements, high stakes testing, or even more desperate punishment for students and teachers who don’t score well.

The solution will be found by:
  • addressing the barriers to learning for individual students
    • are they hungry
    • are they sick
    • are they in pain
    • are they sleepy
    • are they fearful
    • are they able to get to school
    • do they have a non-cognitive disability
    • do they have a cognitive disability
  • putting greater focus – at every level – on student motivation
    • teachers need to see their role as motivator
    • principals need to create a school culture that motivates students
    • teachers need training in motivation techniques
    • the school needs to offer students opportunities to exercise autonomy
    • the school needs to offer students opportunities to master desirable skills
    • the school needs to offer students opportunities to work in service to a greater purpose
  • intentionally creating positive cultures in our schools
    • principals need to see their role as the conservator of the school culture
    • teachers need to contribute to and model the school culture 
    • the school culture has to value learning for its own sake
    • the school culture has to value the life of the mind
    • the school culture has to value sitting and thinking
    • the school culture has to value intellectual curiosity
    • the school culture has to value intellectual freedom
    • the school culture has to value critical reasoning and questioning
    • the school needs to choose scholars, authors, artists, and thinkers as heroes
  • providing early and effective interventions for students who fall behind,
    • they have to be right on it as soon as any student falls behind, K-12
    • the interventions have to address the individual student's problem
    • the interventions have to work and work quickly
  • focusing teacher and class time on developing higher level cognitive skills,
    • use teacher time and class time for its highest value purposes
    • class time is for discussion
    • class time is for exploration of the wide range of contexts in which the lesson fits
    • class time is for exploration of deeper meanings of the lesson
    • because student skill levels vary, class time is a bad time for skill practice
    • class time is time to practice working collaboratively
    • class time is time to apply skills, not practice them
  • creating a system that delivers lessons at the frontier of each student’s knowledge and skills
    • get a calendar; it's 2012 - we can individualize instruction
    • let technology do what technology does well, provide skill building practice
  • and by creating truly inclusive classrooms for all students regardless of culture, ability, disability, gender, or socio-economic status
    • provide students with the supports they need to succeed
    • inclusive classrooms, when properly executed, work better for everyone
    • inclusive classrooms can be properly executed in real life conditions, not just in laboratories
What prevents our schools from working like this? It's not the students. It's not the teachers. The great majority of teachers would gladly accept the challenge that this type of school reform would present. But the students and the teachers don't get to decide how our schools are organized. They don't even usually get any input into the decision. The obstacles to the change we need in education are coming from management. First the principals. That said, a large number of principals, like the teachers, would readily embrace the challenge that this style of school configuration would present. The truth is that a lot of principals already do this sort of thing (though they have to do much of it without the district's knowledge). The primary obstacle to this re-configuration of public education is in the district- and state-level bureaucracies.

Want to know why some charter schools work better than traditional public schools? They work because they take advantage of the freedom from state- and district-level bureaucracy. Want to know why some charter schools work no better than traditional public schools? It is because they do not take advantage of their freedom and they operate no differently than the public school down the street. While charter schools offer a path around those obstacles, they offer no assurance that the path will be followed and they leave the obstacle in place for everyone else.

Seattle is getting a new superintendent. It would be marvelous if he introduced some of these ideas to Seattle Public Schools. He could do it. He could re-define the role of the central administration, the principal, the teacher, and the schoolhouse. He could bring Seattle public education into the 21st century. He could do it for every student in the system - not just those in a few schools. The change has to come from his office. It has to come from the Board. The change has to come from the people who are responsible for designing and maintaining the system because the system is the problem - not the people working in it.


Absolutely fantastic. I'm sending this out in all directions.

Good work, Charlie.
Anonymous said…
We also need to look at curriculum. If the schools are delivering a fundamentally unsound math program, for example, then that is something to improve. I do not understand why curriculum receives so little attention. It is an area completely overlooked by the ed reformers.

The Seattle Public Schools have implemented a discovery approach to math from elementary through high school. Former math teacher Dan Dempsey has compared different districts in WA with similar student populations and found that this curriculum has harmed Seattle students and increased the achievement gap.

Many students who struggle with English, for example, have problems with such a text heavy approach to math. Others, with ADHD, simply need more direct instruction to understand the problems. They do not benefit by “discovering” the solutions themselves because they never do.

Some say that a good teacher can overcome these barriers but our son had an excellent math teacher at The Center School who came from the International School in Bellevue. She worked with him every day after school but he could never understand these unnecessarily complicated math problems.

Thomas Hook from the University of Victoria did some interesting studies in Calif. where students who switched to Saxon math did better, even in economically disadvantaged areas. Mercer Middle School on Beacon Hill showed improvement when they switched to Saxon. Yet only a handful of schools are allowed any variance on curriculum, because past superintendents and administrators so strongly supported the fad discovery math of the past few decades.

It is no surprise to me that business leaders say we graduate students without fundamental skills in math. Professor Cliff Mass of the U of Washington has certainly brought attention to the lack of skills seen with incoming freshmen. Too many test into remedial math.

I have heard that Banda used better math textbooks in his district. An improvement in math curriculum cannot come soon enough to Seattle.

S parent
Vborghesi said…
This is an excellent blog entry. I am excited to have come across this source of information for Seattle schools. My experience so far, which is limited to enrolling my son for kindergarten, has being frustrating at best and infuriating at worst. Why is such widespread and obvious inequality so blatantly accepted in this city? Why are there only a few exciting programs like TOPS available to our kids when it is clear by their waitlist numbers that parents want more schools like this for their children? Schools should not be run like businesses. We need to win back the discussion from those that would wish to do so.
word said…
In addition to improved math and science curriculum (a priority) we definitely need less emphasis on "district coherence" (a drumbeat of the MGJ years) and more leeway to allow schools to innovate for their own students. Our school's very successful inclusion Spectrum program was summarily eliminated (mid-year!) because it did not fit into the model of "district coherence". Now education excellence seems to be left lurking in besieged pockets in the district. Staff and principals have been encouraged not to innovate in any way or advocate for their schools. I hope this trend reverses in the Banda years and I wish him the best of luck.
Jack Whelan said…
Nicely articulated. We have been playing a decent defensive game, but it's impossible to be effective if we don't also have an offensive game. Charlie nicely lays out some basic principles around which such an offensive game plan might be developed. My hope would be that the CAS eventually can provide the space in which such a plan might be realized.
Anonymous said…
Wonderfully said!
The community as a whole needs to get involved with mentoring programs and family assistance programs. There are so many issues in the lives of our students that it makes it impossible for some to learn. Also one size does not fit all and the district and principals need to let teachers have more of a say what happens in the classroom.
The district is finally making changes to curriculum so that it does meet state standards.
****One things to add to the blog - principals also need to encourage and motivate their teachers too.
Anonymous said…
Wonderfully said!
The community as a whole needs to get involved with mentoring programs and family assistance programs. There are so many issues in the lives of our students that it makes it impossible for some to learn. Also one size does not fit all and the district and principals need to let teachers have more of a say what happens in the classroom.
The district is finally making changes to curriculum so that it does meet state standards.
****One things to add to the blog - principals also need to encourage and motivate their teachers too.
Charlie Mas said…
Thank you, S parent, for your mention of curriculum.

Seattle Public Schools central administration bureaucrats like to play a game in which they keep changing the nomenclature and its meaning.

Response to Intervention becomes Multi-Tier Support System

Innovation Schools become Creative Approach Schools

No word has been re-defined by them so much as "curriculum". The need to set a lexicon and stick to it. Unfortunately, immediately after correcting someone else's use of words like "curriculum", "instructional materials", "content", or "Standards", they, themselves will then use them to mean different things. It is a trick they pull to emphasize the idea that they are the experts and you are just ignorant lay people who have no business talking about their work.

Don't let them get away with it. Call them on it at every opportunity.

As for what S parent meant by "curriculum", I'm not sure if it was a reference to the textbooks or the instructional strategies. Let's face it, some textbooks work for one instructional strategy and not for others. The idea that a textbook supports a "balanced" approach is patently absurd. If the textbook does not include the algorithm then it does not support direct instruction. If it does, then it does not support "discovery" style instruction.

It has been my observation that the discovery method of teaching math reliably works in only the most ideal conditions - small classes of well-prepared and motivated students lead by an expert teacher with deep content knowledge. Even then, while it can bring students to an understanding of the concepts, it will rarely lead to computational mastery. That's been my observation; your results may vary.

While it is necessary and good for the district central administration to determine the Standards and content (the knowledge and skills that students are expected to acquire) for every student in the district and for the district to confirm that this content is being learned...

it is neither necessary nor good for the central district administration to dictate any detail of instruction - not materials, not pedagogy, not even the time devoted to any discipline of study.

The District sets the goals and assesses to determine if the goals have been met. The District uses the assessments as an indicator to determine if they have to investigate further (data prompts questions; it doesn't provide answers). The District doesn't mandate methods for reaching the goals.

Only the teacher, an education professional who knows the student and has a relationship with the student, is in a position to say how the student should be taught. And the teachers should have the freedom to do it as best they can.

So, on the whole, I'd rather the district didn't dictate materials or instructional strategy, but did strictly enforce outcomes.
math parent said…
The curriculum discussion reminds me of a conversion with a current board member where he contended the books don't matter, the teacher does. Well, the books become the de facto curriculum, despite what above board member likes to believe.

My middle school child recently thanked me for working on math facts at home. During a science class they were asked to reduce a fraction and some students struggled with the problem and reached for a calculator. My child was surprised that a simple problem was challenging to some kids (who will be taking Algebra next year in middle school) and was bothered that her classmates were somehow cheated out of proper math instruction (you didn't need a calculator for this problem, just basic factoring skills).

The quality of the books matters. The content taught matters. The quality of the teachers matters. Hopefully the new head of Curriculum and Instruction will see it the same way.
Anonymous said…
The Central District Administration has been dictating instruction to the detriment of students. Past superintendents and School Board directors chose only discovery math textbooks and computational mastery got left behind. The former Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson was also a big fan of this curriculum and she promoted it with millions of dollars for supplemental teacher training, which proved ineffective.

Parents asked for other textbooks with direct instruction examples and they got shot down. This led to a lawsuit by former teacher Marty McLaren, who saw first hand how frustrated students got with discovery math. Now on the Board herself, McLaren will argue for more effective math.

Last year retired math teacher Dan Dempsey presented the School Board with comparisons between Seattle and other districts like Clover Park and Spokane. They showed better results in public high schools using Holt Algebra textbooks.

Textbooks do matter and it would be most helpful to have effective ones. This is a specific change that Banda could make that would help students succeed in math.

S parent
Anonymous said…
You said a lot, Charlie. And I agree with every word but it is too much.

Get to kids (much)earlier which happens in other successful countries.

Provide a safety net so that all kids have equal opportunity: sleep,nutrition,predictability.

Take education out of the for-profit sector in which it resides. We can have multiple curriculums in every classroom if we aren't paying top dollar for over-size textbooks, redundant manipulatives, a ten-percent tax on every educational purchase, and the wages of sales reps who wine and dine District employees and teachers to sell the product.

And no one curriculum really works for all. That's why teachers are still relevant.

Finally, most of us who came up through school in the fifties and sixties (and maybe seventies?) rarely saw OTs, psychs, speech therapists, literacy and math coaches, or even PE specialists in our schools. Education does cost money. One cannot articulate "tired of throwing money at schools" unless one is totally out of touch with what "school" means today. Most of our legislators do not have a clue. The amount of expertise in a school building - including elementaries - is staggering. All of these people deserve a paycheck and that is not throwing money at schools.

Start pre-K services earlier; get educational materials out of the for-profit sector; and throw the savings at children and teachers and specialists. You'll find your money better spent.

Anonymous said…
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jet City mom said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jet City mom said…
Finally, most of us who came up through school in the fifties and sixties (and maybe seventies?) rarely saw OTs, psychs, speech therapists, literacy and math coaches, or even PE specialists in our schools. Education does cost money.

I agree. The individuals with disabilities education act wasn't signed into law until October, 1990.
The narrower precursor to IDEA, the Education for all handicapped children act, wasn't enacted until 1975.

I suppose we could save lots of money if we threw away children who now are served by these federal laws.

This brings up another concern, with revaluation of diagnostic criteria for autism goes into effect next year, a Yale study estimates half of students previously covered, won't qualify.
Getting an autism diagnosis could be more difficult in 2013 when a revised diagnostic definition goes into effect. The proposed changes may affect the proportion of individuals who qualify for a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder, according to preliminary data presented by Yale School of Medicine researchers at a meeting of the Icelandic Medical Association.
Volkmar and his team found that in a group of individuals without intellectual disabilities who were evaluated during the 1994 DSM-IV field trial, it was estimated that approximately half might not qualify for a diagnosis of autism under the proposed new definition. 

Since students will still need services to be successful, are we going to have supports in place?
Anonymous said…
Since students [currently receiving an autism diagnosis] will still need services to be successful, are we going to have supports in place?

Where have you been Hello Kity? They took the supports away 3 years ago when they started something called ICS. Which is NOT integrated, NOT comprehensive, and NOT service. Changes in the DSM-V Diagnosis don't matter, they'll NOT serve you just the same with or without a diagnosis. Besides, the district never gave out a diagnosis for autism. They don't have anybody qualified to do it, only "school psychs", which don't do autism, and never have. So, if you were rich enough to pay for the autism diagnosis - you could be admitted to a program.

-sped parent
Jan said…
n -- I totally agree on the for-profit ed materials stuff. The amount of money wasted on overpriced blather, with consumables, new editions every few years, etc. etc. is beyond frustrating. I also agree with focusing funds on the school-based specialists (teachers, reading specialists, SLTs, OTs, etc.). But could you elaborate on what "starting earlier" looks like to you? Does it include ALL kids? Only disadvantaged kids? Mandatory pre-school? If so, starting at what age? Funded how? Is there anything (Head Start in particular) that you see as partially working now? I have some strong ideas about the value of self-directed "play" in education, and in early ed in particular -- but am no expert in the field. I would love to hear your thoughts.

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