Daily Archives: May 23, 2009



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