Monthly Archives: October 2009


gretzkyCorporate CEO’s and forward thinkers like to use the Wayne Gretzky analogy.  Gretzky scored 940 some goals in his 20 career in the NHL.  But he never skated to the puck in order to take his magic shots.  If he skated to a hockey puck angling off the boards at 100 mph, it would be gone by the time he got there.  So Gretzky was as good as any hockey player that ever played the game… at skating to where the puck was going to be.

That’s forward thinking. Broad vision.

timeSo in light of the Wayne Gretzky analogy, this week’s lead story in TIME Magazine is reassuring.  California, it seems, is not falling off into the Pacific Ocean after all.

Oh sure, there are earthquakes and wildfires and crazy environmentalists chaining themselves to the railroad tracks in defense of the ecosystem.  There are gangs and home foreclosures, long unemployment lines and long lines at the frenzy-producing freeway merge.  There may be shuttered businesses and legions of workers whose origins are driving Lou Dobbs nuts.

But in general, there is enormous up-side in the Golden State and its powerhouses of innovation that are skating to where the puck is going to be.

Michael Grunwald writes:

It’s still a dream state. In fact, the pioneering megastate that gave us microchips, freeways, blue jeans, tax revolts, extreme sports, energy efficiency, health clubs, Google searches, Craigslist, iPhones and the Hollywood vision of success is still the cutting edge of the American future — economically, environmentally, demographically, culturally and maybe politically. It’s the greenest and most diverse state, the most globalized in general and most Asia-oriented in particular at a time when the world is heading in all those directions. It’s also an unparalleled engine of innovation, the mecca of high tech, biotech and now clean tech. In 2008, California’s wipeout economy attracted more venture capital than the rest of the nation combined. Somehow its supposedly hostile business climate has nurtured Google, Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Facebook, Twitter, Disney, Cisco, Intel, eBay, YouTube, MySpace, the Gap and countless other companies that drive the way we live.

Innovation implies the flourishing of  ideas that haven’t even been launched yet, defying the status quo.  It rewards early adopters and those who integrate technology in the most unlikely of ways.  Like Kogi, writes Grunwald, the Korean taco truck that announces its location via Twitter. “The beauty of California is the idea that you can reinvent yourself and do something totally creative,” says Kogi’s Roy Choi, a former chef at the Beverly Hilton. “It’s still the Wild West that way.”

But as forward leaning as the TIME Magazine piece on California is, it missed a chance to recognize that our schools have also evolved at light speed from the Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

When Grunwald celebrates the culture of innovation that produces breakthroughs in chip-industry, solar, LED lighting, green materials, the digitized grid, biotech, algae-to-fuel experiments, synthetic genomics, carbon-capturing-cement, sugar to diesel, semiconductors, and energy-efficient windows… he could have been a game changer himself… the first to recognize the relationship between innovative public schools and the fast companies they serve.  Instead, he states that California public schools “pose a real obstacle to the dream of upward mobility” and that they have been “deteriorating for years.”

Really? Deteriorating?  You are clearly thinking of Spicoli’s public schools.  Not mine!


California passed its charter law  in 1992, one of the first states in the country to do so.  There are now 750 charter schools serving 276,000 kids. 90 new charters opened in 2007 alone.  There are charters of every kind from High Tech High to El Milagro.  They flourish in a state that is unique for its size and diversity. Where 64% of its student population are children of color… third, only behind Washington DC and Hawaii.  A state where nearly half the students qualify for free or reduced lunch and where 1 out of 4 are English language learners.  A state that invests only $9,152 per student  (while New York invests  $15, 981 per student).  And where we don’t make excuses.

And while other states are relaxing their standards or lowering the cut point that determines grade level proficiency, California remains one of the most difficult states in America to test out at grade level.  The expectations here are sky high.

There are still many underperforming schools… but I don’t know where they are.  And if I did, I wouldn’t defend them.

I do know however, that schools like El Milagro continue to compete in an environment that is destined to change.  We will not be able to sustain schools as test prep academies to the exclusion of the real skills and talents that will feed into our innovative industries.  Solving energy and the riddles of biomedicine can not come from multiple choice tests.  The future demands creativity.  Critical Thinking. Resilience.

So you can be sure there are schools like mine, skating to where we envision the puck will be.  That’s California too.  Revolutionary thinking and the wild, wild west.


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Filed under California budget, California charter schools, charter schools, El Milagro, innovation and change, lou dobbs, public education, resiliency, school reform, technology in schools



This is NOT a post about how screwed up the whole high stakes testing and accountability movement is.  It is NOT  a scathing criticism of NCLB or the misguided goals of our public policy toward schools. It is not a rant about how access to health care for all students would do more to decrease the achievement gap than almost anything the schools themselves could do,or how inadequate standardized testing is a measure of real learning, or how the release of the NAEP test results this past week indicate that there has been very little overall improvement in reading in 4th grade over the past 20 years.  And in this post I will NOT lament that we have in effect become glorified testing and tutoring centers as monuments to Stanley Kaplan, or how when it is all said and done– even those schools that create extraordinarily high test results– may not be providing students what they really need to excel as 21st Century citizens.

Rather, this is post is about three students who I most likely would not have met and worked with this week if it were not for the demand from the state of California that we raise our Academic Performance Index– our API.

The API is a composite three-digit score that represents how our students, as a whole, performed on the California Standards Test last May.  Every school in California has one.  It is a measure of growth from one year to the next.  Schools that are standards-based, aligned, focused on children, and utilizing state of the art teaching strategies should be able significantly improve their API each year. All schools in California are expected to find a way to eventually score a minimum of 800.

As expected, schools in more affluent neighborhoods are in the high 800’s and 900’s while schools in lower socio-economic communities tend to score much lower.  THAT… is the achievement gap.

Our API at Mueller Charter School was 520 in 1999, and it is now 797.  That would be a pretty impressive gain in a lot of places, but here in Chula Vista, there are 5 schools within a few miles of us–  with the same demographics– who are now well into the 800’s, including one school that is at 865!

While we are an independent charter school and we are free to design our own program we are also highly competitive.  865?  That is where WE are supposed to be!  In fact, our charter is based on a promise that 90% of our students– regardless of their socio-economic circumstances– will be at grade level.  If 90% of our students were at grade level… our API would be at 900! And that is the bridge we need to cross now.

spyingSo we peeked over the fence at what those other schools were doing. We infiltrated their ranks.  We looked at the materials they were using and snuck in their classrooms and took pictures.  We even bought them lunch and straight-out asked them: “What the hell are you doing to get those results?”

What are you doing that WE aren’t doing?

The answer may surprise you.  It may disappoint you.  But they are not cheating! They are not just doing test prep activities all day long. They have not abandoned their students who are not likely to score Proficient.  They are not disenrolling low performing students or encouraging their parents to transfer to El Milagro.

They are, in fact,  aligned in every way to get higher test results.  Their teaching, their approach with their parents, their schedule, their instructional strategies, their mindset, their learning activities are all geared for higher test results.

Now that could be good or bad depending on what kids might be missing while they are being offered a school program that is aligned toward test results.  But it is hard to argue against schools where kids have developed the basic literacy skills necessary to score higher on the CST than they did the year before.

It is hard to argue against school improvement.

DSC01067So that brings us to three girls from Ms. Etter’s class that I worked with this past week.

One of our strategies this year is that we have extended the school day by :45 minutes for a targeted group of students– that is, any student not currently at grade level. Every teacher in grades 2 – 5, has identified a dozen or so students who need additional, guided instruction and so they work with them diligently.  Every day.  Then we created a team of tutors to assist them.  That team includes me and our Principal, our head counselors, our school psychologist, all of our Kindergarten and 1st grade teachers, and even Mr. Wizard our technology director.  Anyone that is not assigned a class and that has a teaching credential (or something similar) is on the support team! We are each assigned to one classroom where we will work with the two or three of the lowest performing students for the rest of the year.  And I have Ms. Etter’s 5th grade.

This week my three students and I worked together on a reading passage that comes from California’s “CST Released Test Questions. It was a passage about a music box, accompanied by six, multiple choice  test questions. Here is what I learned:

These three students are probably representative of many of our struggling students in California–

• They are English language learners who fell behind early in their school careers.

• They prefer to speak in Spanish because it is easier and because that is what they hear at home.

• They have had only modest gains in language acquisition.

• They were unfamiliar with basic English words, phrases and idioms that appeared in the passage: “attic”, “passed away”, “in the middle of nowhere”…

• In general, they don’t know stuff.  What we would assume to be general knowledge for a 5th grader, (aka: Prior Knowledge) they just don’t have… they don’t know much about music boxes or Haley’s Comet, or armadillos or any of the other general topics that appear in expository reading passages on the CST.

• They don’t know that they don’t know stuff.

• They demonstrate limited initiative to learn stuff.

• They don’t have strategies to attack CST questions: particularly ones that are difficult for them.

• They don’t have the patience or the persistence to work through test questions, to eliminate the obviously wrong answers, to search for context, or any other tricks good test takers use.

calculationsAnd even though Cassandra is Far Below Basic and not likely to improve significantly enough to get to grade level this year…  if we can move her up at least one proficiency level, it would be a huge gain for her.  Then, if we can move all of Cassandra’s Far Below Basic classmates up it would be good for them too.  And good for our API. Because if Mueller Charter School was so aligned that we did not have any Far Below Basic students last year… our API would have been up as high as 815.

And if the top half of the students who were Basic had just gotten a few more questions right… enough to be Proficient instead of Basic… our API would have been in the mid 820’s.

Because to compute the API, the state uses a weighting system in which:

The number of Far Below Basic students is multiplied by 200;

The number of Below Basic students is multiplied by 500;

The number of Basic students is multiplied by 700;

The number of Proficient students is multiplied by 875;

The number of Advanced students is multiplied by 1000…

And the numbers add up.  And they don’t lie.  And stretching organizationally to engender growth for every single child is not just good for the API it’s good for our kids.  It creates the possibility for future school success. And it’s good teaching.



Filed under innovation and change, public education, school reform, standardized testing



I woke up to news pulsing through Twitter that President Obama had won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Really?  He won it?  He’s not just  “a candidate in the running”… but he actually won the thing?

That’s extraordinary!

Just last week it seemed the White House was licking its wounds because Chicago had been passed up as an Olympic host– when the IOC picked the other high-crime, high-poverty, high-partying city– Rio.  The right wing nuts that used to demand patriotism from every American in support of “their president”– now applauded America’s (and Obama’s) embarrassing failure on the world stage.  This was exactly the kind of stumble that the haters envision when they say “I hope the President fails.”

But now, instead of throwing shoes at an American President in full view of the world,  there is this acknowledgment of his quest for peace.  It is a strange and unexpected exoneration of how the world sees America.  Glenn Beck was just crowing about how the IOC decision was a rejection of the Obama ideal. Now he and Limbaugh have to retrench to spew their venomous, hate speech:” I agree with the Taliban… Obama doesn’t deserve the Nobel Peace Prize,” Limbaugh said.  They had to move quickly to de-legitimize the award– just as they have tried to de-legitimize his election, and his citizenship, and his judgment, and his humanity.  And people listened.

Every day I watch this lunacy– the right wing Republican talking points, the hypocrisy, the power of talk radio loons to influence public opinion, the failure of our elected representatives to get along well enough to actually do something about the crises that they themselves have identified: Health care.  Afghanistan. Nuclear proliferation.  Economic collapse.  Global warming.

In Oslo, Nobel Committee Chairman Thorbjørn Jagland said:

Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world’s attention and given its people hope for a better future. We are not awarding the prize for what may happen in the future, but for what he has done in the previous year. We would hope this will enhance what he is trying to do.

It occurs to me that when President Obama ran on the promise of change (and hope) we underestimated the extent to which change unsettles.  Change scares that crap out of people. It polarizes.

Even the people that voted for change pass through stages of tempered dissatisfaction.  Today, for example,  represents one of the largest demonstrations of gay American activists in recent history, with the Human Rights Campaign and their march on Washington to protest a lack of progress in the Obama agenda for gay rights.


Change will be there too.  Like a giant chameleon sitting in the trees and turning whatever colors may be reflected in the surrounding landscape. Blending in.  The eye of the beholder. Participants will no doubt list their disappointments: not enough progress on “Don’t ask-don’t tell”, or civil unions, or gay marriage.  And I am with them.  There hasn’t been enough progress.  And if the Prez is listening… let’s throw in our disappointment over the education agenda.  And the slow closure of Guantonomo.  And the fractured withdrawal of troops from Iraq and simultaneous build-up in Afghanistan.  And jobs are still disappearing. Hell, let’s just replay the Saturday Night Live skit in case he hasn’t seen it.

And then, having gotten all that off our chest, let us join in a collective epiphany:  that if you voted for change…  you already got it.  If you voted for hope— the Nobel Laureate embodies it.  If you voted for President Obama– an extraordinary figure in an extraordinary time– hang on tight.  Change promises a long and treacherous road out of a darkness he inherited.  It will be worth the journey.


Filed under innovation and change, President Obama


chicago 2016The International Olympic Committee decided to hold their 2016 Games in Rio instead of Chicago.  Even a personal appeal by President Obama could not persuade them otherwise.

And maybe it is only fair.  As attractive as Chicago may be as a venue, South America has never hosted the Olympic Games. As Chris McGowan writes: “Brazil is one of the world’s top ten economies– after having emerged relatively unscathed from the global economic crisis.”  It is a giant of culture, food, partying, agriculture, music, and biofuel!  It is one of the world’s leading exporters of ethanol (half its cars run on pure alcohol!) Already self-sufficient in petroleum, Brazil recently discovered massive off-shore oil reserves.

riojpegThe IOC was evidently not disuaded by the poverty, crime, pollution, corruption and violence  present in Rio.  After all, it is not like those conditions don’t exist in Chicago.

In fact this week, while the president was flying to Copenhagen to make a personal appeal for his home city, another 16-year old honor student became a victim of school violence.  Last year 34 Chicago school children were killed and 290 were shot.  Several have already been killed this year… and its only October.

Gun violence continues to be one of the leading causes of preventable deaths of young people in our country. The  Children’s Defense Fund reports that:

• In 2005, 3,006 children and teens were killed by firearms, the equivalent of 120 public school classrooms of 25 students each.

• Between 1979 and 2005, more than 104,000 children and teens were killed by firearms in the United States. This is the equivalent of 4,177 classrooms of 25 students each.

• California lead the nation with 475 gun related deaths of teens  in 2005

CDF also reminds us that

• Every second in America, a public school student is suspended

• Every 7 minutes a child is arrested for a violent crime.

• Every 3 hours a child or teen is killed by a firearm.

And that is just for starters.

gunAnd as sobering as that data may be, Derrion Albert was not the victim of random gun violence in Chicago!  He was hit over the head with a splintered railroad tie in the middle of a street melee, and then he was punched and kicked unconscious.  He was not a participant.  He was merely walking home from school.  While he lay in the street dying, another teen captured the entire scene on his cell phone so that it could later be posted on You Tube.

This is Bobby Kennedy’s “Mindless menace of violence”.

Who are their parents?  Where are their counselors and teachers?  Where is the clergy?  Where is the compassion and sense of justice among so many kids that could participate in this melee and watch another student die?

Where is the President?

It is not as if the educators of the Chicago Public Schools don’t know what is happening.  Education Week reported that:

“Chicago is launching a $30 million plan to try to end the waves of annual shooting deaths of student-age children. The nation’s third largest school district says it’ll target 1,200 public high school students seen as most at risk to become gunshot victims. Chicago Public Schools CEO Ron Huberman says the money will go toward connecting the at-risk kids with full-time mentors and finding them part-time jobs. It’ll also help pay to provide safe passage for students forced to go through areas with a high concentration of gangs.”

stop gunsThis is not the first time large expenditures have gone into the public schools to try to keep our children safer.  Back in the early 1990’s, Walter H. Annenberg established the Annenberg Foundation with $1.2 billion in assets, explained that he made his historic commitment to school reform because he was concerned about rising violence among young people: “We must ask ourselves whether improving education will halt the violence.”

Those Foundation grants went to a number of major American cities with large urban school districts, including Chicago where the “Chicago Public Education Fund” was developed.  This not only provided funding to work on grass roots efforts to stem the horrific levels of violence in our urban schools, it provided a forum for civic leaders to get involved in schools.  This all took place in 1992– or just about the time that Derrion Albert was born.   And the chair of the Chicago Public Education Fund… was Barack Obama.

And now all has come full circle as the President returns to America with more than enough challenges on his plate.  The good news about not getting the Olympic Games in Chicago?  The President’s many detractors will not have fresh ammunition to pummel him with every time something goes wrong with the planning or the unemployment numbers stubbornly decline in the heartland.  Perhaps even better news, the President might lend the full power of his office to the kids in his old neighborhood on the South Side.  There are two Chicagos.  One mourns the failure of their city’s Olympic bid and the billions of dollars that would have been injected into the local economy.  The other mourns the death of still another child who just wanted to go home.

Next week Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Attorney General  Eric Holder will visit Chicago to lend their official support for efforts to protect our children. It will be an uphill battle that will take more than photo-ops and fly-bys.  It will also require a lot more than Walter Annenberg’s millions.  It will require the transformation of an entire community: the schools, the public housing, jobs, career counseling, parent engagement, social services, medical care.  Maybe it will require  the transformation of the nation at a time when there seems to be so little patience for real change.

In fact, teen violence and student deaths are taking place at such staggering and unacceptable levels in our cities, it will take an Olympian effort on the part of our President who knows first hand how such violence threatens to rob America of its very soul.


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Filed under children at risk, gun violence, President Obama