Monthly Archives: May 2009

JOURNALING CHAOS 4: “Las Preguntas”


The “I Ching” teaches that “Before there can be great brilliance… there must be chaos.”

This is PART 4 in a series of blog posts that document our research, strategic thinking, observations and debates as we take on one of the last vestiges of the industrial revolution: the practice in schools of organizing kids into grade levels according to their chronological age.  

There are often more questions than answers.

If we group our students according to their level of mastery and not by grade or chronological age;

If we defy all standard practice and industry norms and cultural mores and the hallowed “way we do things here”;  

If we defy American tradition itself and simply assign children to classroom groupings according to what they are ready to learn next… 

We must prepare to answer the questions.  So we started by asking them ourselves:

question mrkMaureen asked:  “Is it LEGAL to group kids for instruction– and eventually assign them a standardized test– according to their proficiency levels?” and “Is it ethical?”

Melinda asked: “If all kids take the California Standards Test according to their mastery level… and all kids end up scoring Proficient… won’t that look like we are cheating?”

Ryan asked: “A lot of our students are at different levels of proficiency for different subjects.  Some are proficient in math but not language arts.  So the state would have to provide our students with two different tests– two different grade levels.  Are they going to be able to do that?”

Lowell asked: “So you are talking about ‘dummying down’ the rigor just so you get higher test scores?”

Anthony asked: “Isn’t this just a sneaky way of avoiding accountability as a charter school?”

The Wizard asked:  “If we are labeling and re-labeling students by something other than a traditional grade level…  won’t that effect our funding from the state?”

Ivonne asked:  “If kids are grouped by mastery levels… and they don’t move to the next level until they demonstrate mastery of the level they are on… what happens to the kid that never demonstrates mastery?  Are we going to have 19 year-olds on our K-8 campus now?”

Kira said: “It sounds like your plan takes a lot of pressure off the teachers with those AYP goal and other requirements by the state of California.”  Then Kira asked:  “But if you do that, and now kids move to the next level only after they score Proficient on the CST… haven’t you now transferred the pressure from the teachers to the students?  What if you have students whojust aren’t good test takers? Are they stuck in elementary school forever?”

Conchita asked: “If you establish an age limit at El Milagro, and declare that you can’t stay here after the age of , say 14… but they still haven’t demonstrated mastery of the 8th Grade Test,  are you just going to socially promote them to high school?”

And “How is that any different than what we do now?”

Maria asked: “What about students transferring in during the school year from traditional graded schools?  If their child is a 5th grader, they are going to want them placed in the 5th grade!”

The Wizard is entitled to two questions so he asked: “How might our technology infrastructure play a role in helping students advance?”

pk asked: “Do you trust the California Standards Test… let alone the state standards… to serve as the benchmark for mastery before students can advance?”

Ricky asked: “Is this a protest against NCLB and the state’s accountability system… or a legitimate response to what the data tells us?”

celloJonathan noted: “There are a lot of ways to demonstrate mastery of state standards other than by a standardized test.  Are you giving the CST too much credibility as the main determiner of students moving forward? Are there other ways kids can demonstrate mastery of the state standards?”

RT asked: “Isn’t this a return to tracking?  Not that I see a conspiracy in every new idea, but we have been down this road before.  Isn’t this just another systemic guarantee that the same kids that always get left behind will still get left behind?”

Annie asked: “Can’t you achieve the same thing within the existing system of grade level groupings?”  

And since we are married she asked:  “You just aren’t happy until you are on the verge of getting fired, are you?”

Questions reflect the depth of the chaos. Or predict it.



Filed under charter schools, El Milagro, public education, standardized testing, technology in schools, Un-graded schools

JOURNALING CHAOS 3: “Ticket to Denver”


The “I Ching” teaches that “Before there can be great brilliance… there must be chaos.”

This is PART 3 in a series of blog posts that document our research, strategic thinking, observations and debates as we take on one of the last vestiges of the industrial revolution: the practice in schools of organizing kids into grade levels according to their chronological age.  

twd class-1So what if we organized our students for instruction according to the martial arts, mastery-based model that is thousands of years old instead of the archaic, age-driven system that we all perpetuate today?

For starters:

• Students would be grouped according to where they are on the continuum of standards.

• We wouldn’t need grade level groupings at all.

• Students would move fluidly forward and back according to their demonstrated needs and evidence of mastery.

• Teaching would be far more differentiated.

• Students would progress at their own pace.

With regard to testing:

• Some 11 years-olds would take the 4th grade version of the California Standards Test… because that is the level they are ready for.

• Some 11 year-olds may take the 7th grade test.

• Some 11 year-olds might take the 5th grade test for math, but the 3rd grade test for language arts.

• Every student would be “at grade level” because, as in Taekwondo, they would be taking a test to demonstrate what they can do.  It is geared to their level… so they will all be–by definition–“proficient”.

• Since all students would be proficient, schools would not show up as “Program Improvement” and the states’ metrics that are now based on counting percentages of proficient students would be obsolete.  So they will need new metrics.

Since we are a charter school known for our willingness to try stuff,  we are intent on pursuing this model.  We know we will have to do our homework and that we will be accused of ‘gaming the system.’  And yet, our real intention is to completely align our school– curriculum, assessment, and student groupings–  to a standards-based model.

The Adams County School District 50 in Denver, Colorado is already taking a courageous lead on this.  So I’m going to Denver to see how it works.


Cross-posted on Leadertalk

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Filed under California charter schools, charter schools, El Milagro, Un-graded schools



The “I Ching” teaches that “Before there can be great brilliance… there must be chaos.”

This is PART 2 in a series of blog posts that document our research, strategic thinking, observations and debates as we take on one of the last vestiges of the industrial revolution: the practice in schools of organizing kids into grade levels according to their chronological age.  

This past week we completed the 2009 version of the California Standards Test.  It is a standards-based test designed to assess the degree to which children mastered the standards at their grade level.  If they get higher than a scaled score of 350, they will be considered “proficient” and everyone will be happy. 

Of course, anything less than that means they are “not at grade level” and it will be a reason for great concern.  And if 45% of our overall students or 45% of our Latino students or 45% of our English language learners are not at grade level, the state of California will declare us to be a “Program Improvement” school.

So here is what I don’t get.

If we have a standards-based curriculum, and students’ mastery of those standards is determined by a standards-based assessment (in our state: the California Standards Test), then why aren’t kids grouped in classrooms according to their mastery of those standards ? In other words… a true, standards-based school. 

Where do we see standards-based schools?  In that Taekwondo studio down the street– the one in your neighborhood strip mall.

200px-WTF_Taekwondo_1In Taekwondo and other martial arts, students are assigned a white belt until they demonstrate mastery of ALL of the techniques, blocks, kicks, forms, and philosophies that are taught at that beginning of the learning continuum.  They advance through the curriculum- color belt by color belt– until they reach the level of black belt.  There is a high price to pay for not mastering all of those blocking and striking techniques if you spar with another black belt so Taekwondo instructors tend to promote students only when they are ready to be promoted.

Not so in your school or mine.

The significant difference is that in Taekwondo we group students by their demonstrated competence.  In public schools we group kids according to 1) their chronological age and 2) the grade level they were sitting in when the clock ran out at the end of the game last June.  Our 11 years-olds are fifth graders no matter what level of mastery they have attained in school.  And next month, they will become 6th graders and they will struggle to catch up all year until it is time to take the California Standards Test again.  When that time comes, they will be handed the Sixth Grade Test– not because they are ready for it… but merely because we placed them in a student grouping called “Sixth Grade”!

So what if we organized our students for instruction like they do in so many of the schools for the martial arts– in a mastery-based model that is thousands of years old instead of the archaic system that we all perpetuate today where students are promoted merely because it is June outside.  

I have a pretty good idea what would happen and I’ll bet you do too.  Some of it would be good… especially for students and teachers.  But some of it would create such profound dissonance within the “testing and accountability system” that my school will face absolutely blistering criticism.  And maybe worse.

So we are going to have to think this through. And we are going to need your help.

Cross-posted, in part, on Leadertalk

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Filed under charter schools, El Milagro, public education, standardized testing, Un-graded schools

JOURNALING CHAOS 1: “First Bricks”


The “I Ching” teaches that “Before there can be great brilliance… there must be chaos.”

This series of blog posts documents our research, strategic thinking, observations and debates as we take on one of the last vestiges of the industrial revolution: the practice in schools of organizing kids into grade levels according to their chronological age.  

We have been talking about school reform for as long as I can remember.  And restructuring.  Revamping. Creating distinguished schools.  Schools of excellence.  Blue ribbon schools. 90-90-90 schools. Break-the-mold schools. Effective schools. Charter schools. 


But schools– even schools like El Milagro–  are still pretty much the same as when I went to them. And so are the results. We still have an achievement gap that separates our children’s future along the lines of race and class and home language.  We still struggle with the edicts of Sacramento and Washington, DC. We get bombarded with research studies from university professors who are among our  nation’s least effective teachers.  We push our kids and our teachers to the limits of their patience and ability and health.  We squeeze blood from a turnip.  We eek out the last 3 API points and scramble and strain to “meet our AYP goals.”  We adjust to all the latest changes in the state’s nuanced metrics and how we keep score.

And we make progress.  For a price.

This is not what educating our children should be about.  This is not teaching and learning.  It is not preparing children for the competitive rigors of the 21st century, globally interconnected, green and fragile world they are inheriting. And you know it!

And so do I.

the revolutionSo today I am throwing the first brick in the revolution.  Right through the freaking window.  Today it will be one brick.  Tomorrow another.  And then another.  And I’ll invite you to pick up a brick or two as we get the momentum leaning our way.  We are going to change El Milagro. And this blog is going to chronicle the change– the revolution– brick by brick by brick.  

I am aiming at one very traditional, very systemic, very sacrosanct structure that is creating the greatest roadblock to our forward progress.  In the parlance of the extended  war metaphor:  we are taking out a strategic bridge that has kept us constantly circling back to our beginnings.  It was the wrong bridge from the beginning but now it has been there for 150 years and it’s hard to imagine life in our schools without it.  But we’ll all get used to it.  We need a new bridge that will take us in a very new direction.  It will provide a different view of the horizon and the pathway to a very different destination.  

The bridge we are taking out?  The one that leads to the same outcomes every year?  The one that lures us into taking three  steps forward and two steps back as an annual ritual?

It is the extraordinarily resilient model of grouping children by their chronological age. 

That’s the target.  It may not seem like much right now, but if we take out that bridge a revolution in public education will spread and from the ensuing chaos… there will be the potential for great brilliance. 

Follow this blog series and you will see why.


Filed under California charter schools, charter schools, El Milagro, standardized testing, teaching, Un-graded schools


crossroadsThis is the anniversary of my first blog.  I have now been blogging for a full year.  59 posts, 147 comments and countless hours and caloric expenditures of creative energy later… here I am.  Somewhere.

But this week I had an epiphany.  

On Thursday  I contributed a comment to Scott McLeod’s blog called Dangeously Irrevelevant, and somehow I think it got deleted.   He is a professor in Iowa and a frequent critic of public education and his own children’s schools. Blogs are good for asking challenging questions and he usually asks some tough ones.  But I took exception to this:

Does anyone think that we were doing a fine job of meeting the needs of underserved populations before ‘the tests?’ Have we all forgotten that school has been boring for generations?

It’s not ‘the tests.’ It’s our unwillingness and/or inability to do something different, something better.

It’s not ‘the tests.’ It’s us.

So whose schools are we talking about?  His kids go to school in Iowa for God’s sake– hardly the crucible for school reform.  Yet this is the kind of statement I see made all the time, especially from university professors who have little room to question the quality of instruction at the K-12 level. So I said, in effect, “I disagree.  We are doing something different at Mueller Charter School and it certainly isn’t boring.” And I cited our partnership with the Chula Vista Nature Center as an example.

Maybe citing Mueller Charter School is considered self-promotion on somebody else’s blog.

Maybe my objection was deleted because I used my own school, as I often do, as an example of a public school that works.

Maybe the critics of the K-12 system don’t like to acknowledge “isolated examples” of schools that work– even though charter schools exist to serve as innovative and sometimes “isolated examples” of courageous change. The way I see it, one example from El Milagro is as valid as criticizing the entire K-12 system on the basis of a single school in an Iowa cornfield.  

So whatever. Dangerously Irrelevant has to live up to its name.  My blog merely needs to live up to El Milagro— the miracle.

All I know is that I am investing too much time commenting and debating in this medium; I’m expending too much creative energy on trying to be a participant and build an audience for my blog.  

I have a school to run.  I have students and staff who need my creative energy to be devoted to them. I have several book projects winding their way to completion.  And we have two extraordinarily promising projects on the drawing board that could profoundly transform our school (and any other school that pays attention to our work.)  

So this is as good a reason as any to steer my blog (and my blogging) in a different direction.  I’m just going to document the transformation from Mueller Charter School into El Milagro and leave the debating to the critics on the sideline.

As for the two projects… stay tuned.


Filed under California charter schools, El Milagro, environmental studies, public education, teaching, Uncategorized


abacusjpegIt’s Week 2 of the California Standards Test and students are fingering their math facts like an abacus.  Many of our children couldn’t wait for the math portion of the CST.  They are descendants of the Mayans and ancient astronomers of the Yucatan.  They know mathematics.  It flows through their blood in algebraic platelets and word problems with multiple right answers. 

Math is our advantage.

But these are also the children of the video game and “Guitar Hero”; the dance step and :30 second wait for an Original Dream Machine with an extra energy boost.  They call upon the internet and it responds immediately– or they will divine a better connection.

The response is immediate.  The results appear promptly.  And the sociologists decry us all as the generation(s) somehow spoiled in our expectation of instant gratification.  And they may be right.


But when it comes to the standardized testing game, we receive anything but instant gratification.  In fact, we will wait three months for the results.  They will come in late July, most likely the first week after our teachers return from a brief summer nap.  By then they will already have met their new students and new colleagues and new parents.  And right about the time that they are adjusting to the idiosyncracies and learning styles and potential and challenges of a new class, last year’s data will arrive with a crash on the doorstep.  Like the morning paper thrown too hard from a passing car.  One that slams the screen door at the bottom and sends the frightened cat racing through the house with her ears pinned back.  Scared shitless.   

The test results will of course make headlines in the local section of the Union-Tribune.  There will be a complete analysis.  They will be posted school by school on the internet.  And those of us who strain every day against an odd alignment of conflicting systems, will immediately recognize that no matter how good the news or how bad the news… there is not a thing that can be done now to change our history.

Schools will go into Program Improvement.  There will be sanctions and consequences.  Administrators will be shuffled.  Teachers will be placed on assistance plans.  But none of those steps can change the outcomes from a group of children who have now come and gone.  

So if the California Standards Test is so important that it can change lives and careers and entire communities… why does it tak three months to get the results?

This is after all the age of technology.  Instant gratification.  If it is so high a priority, tell us how our students did on this morning’s math assessment… but tell us now.  I’ll even give you a week. No excuses.  I don’t want to hear how many schools there are in California and the hundreds of thousands of tests that have to be scanned or the logistics of reporting it all back or any of those other stock complaints.  When we were chided about our low API a few years ago, no one wanted to hear about our families in crisis or our children who have lived in multiple foster homes or the child attending his 22nd different school or the inherent struggles for second language learners.  The mantra of the “Age of Accountability” is “No Excuses!  So we will push our students up the mountain side in search of miraculous growth.  We will keep them whole and alive.  We will challenge and cajole and celebrate them.  And we will test them.  

testAnd this morning, they will each complete question number 21– a pre-algebraic word problem with one absurd possible answer choice, one answer choice that will trick a number of children who aren’t yet test-savvy enough to smell a rat, one answer choice that is correct and one answer choice that goes down smoothly…a sugar sweet placebo to remind us all that standardized, multiple-choice tests are to the disadvantage of the children that actually think. But they don’t know if they got question #21 right. They don’t know if they fell for the tricks and the traps so they cannot make mid-flight adjustments like they do on their video games. They’ll never know.

And by the time the results come back they won’t care!  Because kids are like that. They want to know the results right now… or heck with it.  By next July they’ll have other fish to fry.  For teachers it is a different story.  The percentage of children that tanked on #21 will be instructive.  Sort of.

giftsBut imagine what our teachers might do with the data if they could get it back next Tuesday. As they unwrap the tangled trends: 

• They could review the results with students so they know where they are strong and what areas they need to work on with 5 weeks left in this academic year.

• They could create an individualized summer learning plan for students so they could bridge some gaps in their learning before the next school year starts.

• They could meet with parents and triangulate the CST results with evidence of classroom work and other local assessments.  By then, parents would know exactly what level their children are on– their academic strengths and areas for growth.

• They could provide parents a summer reading list based on the CST lexile report.

• They could bring some closure to the school year and prepare each child’s file for transferring on to the next teacher.

• They could identify appropriate grade level placements for the next school year.

• They could meet with next year’s teacher with definitive data.

• Grade levels could re-group around the data and identify areas that need to be re-taught, or celebrated, or re-enforced, or tossed out altogether.  

• They could make informed decisions about the programs and policies and approaches and innovations that were successful and the ones that weren’t.

• They could fully capitalize on their expertise in using data to leverage informed, strategic change.

And of course we do all of these things in time.  But if the system were better aligned, and the data were returned to us, and the legislators and test bureaucrats in Sacramento had to stretch as much as we did… we would all have the tools we need when those tools would have the greatest impact.

At El Milagro we are in search of results.  Now.  Instantly.  No excuses.

gold 840

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Filed under California charter schools, charter schools, El Milagro, public education, standardized testing, teaching


stillIt is Day 3 of the 2009 California Standards Test and it is quiet across the campus.  Still.  Ghost-like.  Except for the traffic up on I-5  whistling like a turbine and leaning ceaselessly into the North wind.  The South.

Our kids have prepared— not PREPPED– but prepared, all year.  They studied the right stuff and learned the right skills and held the same data up to the magic moonlight like the rest of us did.  So they are ready.

It is a precise science now– the advancement of a school toward the testing regime.  There are balloons signaling “840”– our school-wide goal. As if anyone could forget that that is our school-wide goal.  It is, after all,  painted in fresh colors on our psyches.  We set the goal ourselves and based it on some somewhat arbitrary variables like (1.) we have grown 40 points in one year before and (2.) the school down the street is at 840 and (3.) we are just 40 points better at teaching than we were at this time last year so (4.) what the hell!  840.  

danceeeeNow we are in it.  And that heads-down, pencil-gnawing silence of testing is mixed in with a healthy dose of celebration.  Every day.  Today the staff will play the 7th and 8th graders in flag football.  Yesterday there was a school-wide movie, a huge game of  “Capture the Flag” and a chess tournament.  The day before we cranked the music up and danced on the black top.  Testing time is also a celebration of learning.  We equate it with the team that practices all week long for a big game on Saturday.  The practice is fun… but it doesn’t compare to the rush of competing in bright uniforms against another team.

Test days are game days!

Still, the nature of the whole testing thing worries me.  There are at least these 10 things I hate about the test in California:

• It is a test of basic skills in language arts and math but we don’t test in the primary language of our students. So now it is not only a test of basic skills, it is a test of language acquisition.  Our English Language Learners (ELL’s), on top of the other mountains they have to climb, are not really given a chance to show what they know.

• While the mobility rates of students is controlled for (students who transfer in after October don’t count toward the “840”)… they still count.  Including the 4 that transferred in from other schools last week.  

• We will have to wait for 3 months for the results.  If we are leveraging the future of the nation on these results… why can’t we find the technology to score these things and get them back next week?  We need the data.  

• I have read California’ “Released Test Items”.  I know what is on the CST’s.  It covers some standards.  But it misses plenty.  Our kids are gifted in many ways and not all of those intelligences are tested.  Most aren’t.  They will get no credit for their musical or athletic talents.  Their ability to speak two languages, a gift so many adults covet, will neither be assessed nor mentioned.

• Our 8th graders will be gnawing on their #2 pencils for 90 minutes a day, for  8 straight days.  They will test in language arts, social studies, science and algebra.  It is too much testing.

• I hate the bubbles.  But I guess it is fun for kids.

• I hate that grade level Proficiency is harder to demonstrate in California than the rest of the country.  The test is just harder.  Other states are sand-bagging their kids so they have less “Program Improvement” schools.  And they know it.

• I hate that there is no room for creativity.  Daniel told me that the test is too easy and that the “questions suck”.  He will get the maximum scaled score of 600, again, and for him the questions will suck.

• I hate that the California Standards Test is standardized, even if teaching and learning and children are not.

• I hate that we get only one shot at this. 



But enough whining.  There are at least as many things I like about the California Standards Test:

• The data will allow us to continue to improve and leverage significant, revoultionary change as a charter school.

• We will know that our students are learning and that they are learning what they are supposed to be learning.

• The content standards, the “rules of the game”, are now crystal clear.  They are out there.  

• Parents an students know what those rules are.  They know what they have to master in order to be considered “Proficient”.

• Being “Proficient” matters to our students.  To every one of them.  It creates a clear, unambiguous goals for them to achieve and a pathway to work from.

• Our students are always going to fill in bubbles on standardized, multiple choice tests. They will fill in bubbles in AP geography mid-terms, on the PSAT and SAT and GRE, on the driver’s license exam and on the state Bar exam.  Our students are learning great strategies (and developing healthy attitudes) about all of these.  They are getting good at filling in bubbles.

• The CST is a school-wide culmination of learning.  It is an EVENT.  It is a celebration! We build towards it all year.

• The CST data is summative.  It doesn’t help us make in-flight adjustments.  So it inspired us to find our own assessment system; our own formative tests that help us monitor our students’ academic growth all year long. In real time.

• The CST gives every teacher, employee, student and parent a common mission; a target. 

• The CST is data.  You grow or you die.  No excuses.


As I was writing these last few bullets… I noticed a few students going down to the rest rooms.  They have been at it for nearly two hours and they are starting to emerge from the caves.  Exhausted. But there is still a sparkle in their eyes.

“Morning guys.  How did your testing go?”

“It was easy!” they answer in unison.  Like they practiced it.  Or expected it.

When they say it was “easy” it could be a good thing or a bad thing.  We don’t know.  We won’t know for three freakin’ months.  In the meantime, we will celebrate teaching and learning and get ready for Day 4 of testing tomorrow.  And we will try to preserve our undefeated record in flag football against a very test-weary but game group of 7th and 8th graders. And we’ll pump one more day’s worth of helium in the balloons. 

Meanwhile, the sea breeze blows across the playground and the balloons bow.  840.


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Filed under charter schools, El Milagro, public education, standardized testing, teaching