Category Archives: school reform

CARVING UP CRAIGY

MORE STORIES from “Fighting For Ms. Rios”:

Now that my book is published and available (even for your iPad) through Amazon, I want to resurrect my blog.  There are a lot of really good posts here. So I’ll highlight different stories from Fighting for Ms. Rios and connect them back to a previous post.  It all comes full circle anyway.

BookCoverImageAiden is clearly blessed with many talents: he is an amazing writer, of course.  He is athletic.  He seems to have a sixth sense when it comes to adult culture in schools.  And he is quiet capable of defending himself in a fistfight.

Other interesting talents emerge from time to time– but one of the more peculiar ones is his awareness of when he is invisible to adults.  It’s hard to tell how literal Aiden wants his readers to take these passages, but they are definitely there for a reason.

On his first day at school, on the blacktop, he hears a conversation between a teacher and a parent.  How does he hear it?

I always seem to overhear those kinds of conversations between adults—maybe because I am invisible to them.

He overhears Wanda and Ms. Rios speaking about Raymond. And later, when Craigy gets himself in trouble for bringing a knife to school (Carving Up Craigy), much of Aiden’s narration comes from being invisible.

I wondered how I could have sat through that entire conversation and how it never once occurred to Señora Principal Nuñez or the Compliance Director to send me back to class. But I guess it didn’t. And I remained strangely, invisibly, witness to every word.

invisiblePerhaps it’s just a sneaky literary trick that Aiden is invisible and privy to information that normal kids wouldn’t have at school– if it weren’t one troubling detail.  They are often invisible.  Adults run the place.  They call the shots.  They determine who comes and who goes and at what time kids eat and go to the bathroom and play with their friends.  It’s all about command and control.  And when the adults step off-stage they do so in places where the kids aren’t allowed to go:  the office or the teacher’s lounge or the lunchroom or parking lots or the fast food restaurant down the street.

Some of this is just a matter of practicality. Adults in the workplace have different needs and privileges than children in a school.   But what does it mean when a child feels invisible in his own school?  He has no value? No relevance?  Nothing to offer? No wonder Aiden is so insistent that the adults know his name!
Schools often describe themselves as being student-centered– they aspire to focus all their attention and all of their decision-making around what is best for their students.  That is a worthy mission.  But if they could hear their students speak, if the truth was made manifest, how many are falling through the cracks and chasms simply because they are invisible?

“Carving Up Craigy” is from THE FOURTH JOURNAL: Virtuosos

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Filed under children at risk, Fighting for Ms. Rios, gifted children, public education, school reform, spiritual intelligence

BEYOND YOUR SCHOOL’S TATTOO

A few years ago The Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology released a study on the trend of tattooing. In it, they estimated that 24% of the population between the ages of 18 and 50 had at least one tattoo. But that was five years ago. It is likely much higher now.

And the most popular tattoo? It is the tribal band, a sun or butterfly, or some Chinese script that one can only hope means what you think it means when you commit to wearing it for the rest of your life.

A tattoo is all about commitment and communicating your “brand”.

So I wonder why our parents and our teachers don’t routinely get tattoos of our school logo. Come to think of it, I see all kinds of tattoos every day at my school, but I have never seen even one that promotes our brand.

That’s troubling. Not because I want to see a bunch of tattoo designs of our school, but because tattoos are the the ultimate expression of a customer’s faithfulness to a product. The single most powerful indicator of customer loyalty is when clients willingly share their positive experience with family and friends and urge them to see for themselves. It is the concept of “net promoter”.

And how do citizens of a capitalist and democratic society express their product loyalty? Through their frequent patronage. By word of mouth. By wearing a tee shirt (Hard Rock Cafe-London?) Through Twitter and Yelp and Facebook.

And by affiliating oneself to an idea… symbolically captured in a tattooed brand: the mercedes benz hood logo, the channel interlocking “c’s”, the nike swoosh, the flirtive persona of the playboy bunny, the venerable “NY” of the New York Yankees.

If you were to Google tattoo designs for Harley Davidson you would find pages and pages of them and no shortage of examples carved into every conceivable body part. It is a small price to pay for attaching oneself to the notion of raw power, independence and engineering excellence. Tattoos are, among other things, metaphoric.

If you Google tattoo designs for your school, on the other hand, chances are you won’t find any. You won’t find my school either and that’s the problem. Our stakeholders would sooner ink images of automobiles or household appliances or tobasco sauce to their forearms than their neighborhood school.

There may be some reasons for that:

• Product brands are familiar and reliable and often represent an attribute that an individual is willing to “advertise” for the rest of his or her life. It is less about the product and more about the metaphor. And our schools don’t make good life-long metaphors.

• When schools do show up as tattoos they are logos for universities like USC or Notre Dame or the bright red “A” of the Crimson Tide. But don’t be mistaken. These tattoos are not in tribute to the math department or to the fine services rendered over in accounting. They represent football teams that win more than they lose. Teams with history and swagger. We all like a winner. The Trojans may be on probation but they certainly aren’t in Program Improvement.

• Perhaps most importantly, if someone is willing to tattoo the icon of a business or product to their body, it is because that brand is incontrovertible and well defined. There is no going back. There is, for example, no debate about who (or what) the Apple or Target icons represent.

The neighborhood elementary school? That’s a different story.

But if people have a positive enough experience in the marketplace, if they are so passionate about a product that they feel it in their bones, if they are willing to shout from the rooftops, to at least buy the (Ferrari) tee shirt until they can afford the car– then you have a brand that works.

And if people are willing to compromise their career aspirations for a visible tattoo, to endure the stinging pain and fuss with the healing process, to brook the criticism from mom and the in-laws, to say nothing of their jealous friends’ incessant chiding–it is only because they believe so deeply in what that brand represents.

And, sadly, that is why there aren’t a lot of public schools represented in tattoos. Neither for metaphoric value. Nor for the sake of sentiment.

When it comes to our experience in public schools, there simply is no “brand” identity that invokes the kind of passion required to allow some 19 year old to carve a Chevy monster truck with Bridgestone tires into your ribcage. We forfeited that responsibility to the marketing genius of politicians who chose instead to brand public schools in a far less generous light: as ineffective, archaic, moribund sinkholes that waste taxpayer dollars.

Time for a different brand. Time to promote the extraordinary capacity of teachers and schools to not only engender amazing academic results in whatever test you want to gives us… but to simultaneously prepare students for a future that they will actually inherit– one that will no doubt require them to think, create, innovate, problem solve, communicate (in multiple languages) and work effectively with others.

What would that brand look like? And would you be willing to tattoo the icon to your body if it all lead to extraordinary results?

(This post also appears on LeaderTalk)

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Filed under charter schools, El Milagro, innovation and change, public education, school reform, teaching

A BLINDING FLASH

I’m back.  I have been sleeping.  Drifting through the universe.  Holding on for dear life.

I’m trying to get my second book published and figure out where I go from El Milagro.  So I am going to resurrect my blog and lose myself in thought again.  Maybe Mondays.  I don’t know.

Here’s what I do know…

We got our test results back and they were very strong… very satisfying- at least  from the standpoint of trying to engender higher test results.  We had to give up a lot to get our 35-point growth on the Academic Performance Index (API).  We had to give up science and social studies, for instance.  We also had to give up the arts and music– not that we were ever real strong in those areas before.  We had to give up creative writing and critical thinking and dancing on the blacktop and “the Mission Project” and quality physical fitness time (though we implemented a new standard for nutrition) and problem solving and the science fair.  Our kids did not weigh in on either the ecological crisis in the gulf or Arizona’s immigration policy. In fact, they didn’t apply their learning to very many authentic tasks at all.

But we got to 835 on the API and there is satisfaction in improving our teaching and learning– if in fact we improved our teaching and learning beyond what is required to prepare children to take the California Standards Test.

This year we are striving to improve the API from 835 to 860.  But this time…we are bringing the rest of the state’s curriculum back and organizing around multi-age classrooms.  We are also emphasizing the importance of the 21st Century Skills… since we think it is pretty important that our children can actually compete in a future when grade school accountability movements may very well have run their course.

We will take the 35-point increase on the API because it is better to leverage growth than to have to explain why our students aren’t keeping up with the test prep academies.  We will be all about growing their basic literacy skills.  But we can’t be blinded for a moment by the bright flash of the API or the illusion that it is enough just to get higher test scores.

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Filed under innovation and change, school reform, standardized testing, teaching, Uncategorized

CRUCIBLE

Three weeks remain in the 2009-10 school year an we have just finished testing. We expect to see significant growth over the year before and we expect the schools down the street will  have gotten even more growth and we will be reminded that the schools down the street did it right and we are somehow not as efficient or effective or committed or skilled or blessed or insightful or something.

In the meantime, we also moved the ball down the field on our plan to implement more multi-age classrooms and transform our teaching. We are preparing to return to a curriculum that inspires our children to think and create and spring out of bed in the morning and race down the street to El Milagro because there are things happening here that are worth learning.  In the post-test celebration our students danced on the playground and I was reminded how much I miss seeing them find their rhythm.

Along the way we even challenged ourselves to find a solution to that stubborn dilemma that all teachers face in June: what to do with the kids that aren’t ready for the next grade.  Retain them? Socially promote them?  Transfer them to the schools down the street that have all the answers?

We decided that no one zeros in on student needs like we do.  We decided that we wouldn’t have to retain or socially promote kids that weren’t ready… if we just get them all ready!  And since kids learn and develop on their own time , we decided we would give each struggling learner their own timeline and gameplan for promotion… and multi-age classrooms allow us to do that.

So much is happening at El Milagro… even in the face of opposition and cynicism that we are somehow cheating or taking short cuts.  If you read this blog you know… we are totally focussed on finding a better way.  So we dip, even for a moment, into the fires, searching for that wisdom that even those schools down the street might learn from us.

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Filed under charter schools, children at risk, El Milagro, innovation and change, school reform, Un-graded schools

RESURRECT A DREAM

A new study from the Center for Research and Reform in Education at John Hopkins University has concluded that “Spanish-speaking children learn to read English equally well regardless of whether they are taught primarily in English or in both English and their native language.”

In other words, bilingual instruction does no harm as it relates to the acquisition of English literacy skills; we can reintroduce the goal of bilingualism  and Spanish literacy – without any negative consequences to English reading acquisition.

In still other words… if it does no harm… and thus there is no adverse impact on test scores… then the advantages of bilingual instruction now outweigh the disadvantages… according to the latest research on the topic!

The director of the report, Dr. Robert Slavin, noted that

“Here’s a study that gives more solid information than has existed before that quality of instruction is important. The idea that the language of instruction is going to be decisive just doesn’t come through. You can succeed in either language. You can fail in either language.”

We have always said that it’s the quality of the teaching and the passion for promoting biliteracy that makes the difference!!!

Of course at El Milagro, we have stretched to squeeze every point we can from the California Standards Test.  Our student mobility and the drive to stay out of Program Improvement forced us to abandon dual language instruction.  But next year we are eliminating those external pressures by

• Dramatically increasing the number of multi-age classrooms on our campus

• Developing a rich, integrated curriculum for those multi-age classrooms

• Placing students in grade levels according to their performance level (and not according to their age)

• Promoting students only when they demonstrate mastery of their grade level standards

Not only does this allow us to satisfy all the AYP demands, it will allow us to reintroduce the arts, health and fitness, science and social study.  We can teach children to think again.  We can promote creativity and performance and  problem solving and innovation.  The multiple intelligences!

But it also suggests that it is time to resurrect our dual language program… and our dream of biliteracy for all children.

Joy. Authentic learning.  Dos idiomas.  El Milagro.

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Filed under bilingual education, charter schools, El Milagro, gifted children, innovation and change, school reform, teaching

BLAZED

Delaware and Tennessee were evidently the big winners in the Race to the Top dough.  Delaware, which was ranked No. 1 on the competition’s 500-point grading scale, will win about $100 million, while Tennessee, which came in second, will get something like $500 million.  That’s cool for them.  But I read their plans.  I studied the language.  They talk about:

Expectations, accountability, student achievement, test results, teacher evaluation, teacher quality, academic standards, standardized testing, labor and management and consensus and shared decision making…

Then I wondered…

Wasn’t  Race to the Top money awarded  to encourage school reform?  Real Innovation?  A billion dollars worth of fresh thinking?  Transformation? Transcendent change?

Isn’t it true that if you keep doing the same things over and over again… even if you call it something new… you’ll get the same results?

Tennessee’s Education commissioner, Timothy Webb said:  “We believe that if you take all of the technology out of the classroom, … but you leave the highly effective teacher interacting with students, the students will grow.  All those other things are great to have, but we know without a shadow of a doubt that we have to invest in great teachers.”

I get his point and they are not proposing to remove technology from their classrooms ( at least, I don’t think)… but the premise here is that teachers alone are enough to create extraordinary schools.  We know you can’t have extraordinary schools without them.  But what about a “highly effective teacher interacting with students” and using the tools that our students will actually need when they finally escape the gravitational pull of a K-12 public education system and go into the world to invent a new future?

Or at least try to keep up with the one we have.

Arne Duncan, our Secretary of Education said when awarding Tennessee and Delaware the RTTT  prize money:  “We now have two states that will blaze the path for the future of education reform.”  And I hope they do.

But if you are going to”blaze” a new path you have to first get off of the old path.

For less than the $500 million dollars that President Obama invests in racing to the top in Tennessee… there are schools that will be blazing!

El Milagro.

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Filed under California charter schools, charter schools, El Milagro, innovation and change, President Obama, public education, school reform, standardized testing, technology in schools

TWO AMERICAS, ONE STORM

NOTE:  It’s been kind of hard to keep up with my weekly blog entries lately… so thanks for staying with this site for the last few weeks. I am working on final edits for my second book (“Fighting For Ms. Rios”… and managing the blog for my class at University of San Diego (check out some excellent posts from my students there).  We are also making advance preparations to launch a little revolution… which will itself be the subject of the next few posts.  Stay tuned!

There is another “Achievement Gap” in America and it is gathering on the near horizon like a storm cloud. Mark my words. That storm will come and we will see our future as a nation engulfed in another predictable catastrophe that didn’t have to happen.

I want Arne Duncan and our President to hear me. I am not in Washington DC or the halls of the state senate in Sacramento. I am at El Milagro and we are fending off foul weather.

Here’s a gap that’s deep and growing deeper by the day:

It starts in schools that struggle to keep pace. For whatever reason. Maybe it is the leadership, maybe it’s the teachers, maybe it’s the kids or the parents or the books or the pedagogy or the water or the facilities or the lack of light. In the end, it doesn’t matter. Because schools that don’t keep pace with AYP have to circle the wagons and teach harder. More reading. More math. Then more reading still. More math still.

And while reading and math crowd out the rest of the curriculum– as schools eliminate science and social studies and the arts and physical education to make way for more focussed/rigorous/aligned instruction in basic skills (aka “test prep”)– something big goes missing:

Creative thinking, innovation, critical thinking, problem solving, application, play, self-discovery. Joy. Learning.

…the skills our kids need to compete for jobs. For economic growth. For America. For global survival.

So in communities where kids struggle against artificial goals enshrined by NCLB… they fall further and further behind in the very skills and attributes that prepare them for the 21st century workplace. Basic skills are critical… but Facebook and Google and Apple and Amazon did not become giants on the strength of the standardized test scores of their employees. They rise or fall on their ingenuity.

High performing schools and districts and communities have the luxury of ignoring the inherent threats of high stakes testing. They don’t have to panic and fire their music teachers. They can sing and dance. They can prolong their analysis of world events and enter the local science fair. The can critique good art and celebrate the natural giftedness of their students. They can provide a comprehensive and enriched curriculum for all.

So the Gap widens. Can you see it? Low achieving schools, with their disproportionately large number of low income students, English language learners and other children of color, pressured to turn their fate around, are forced to abandon the very skills their students need the most– the ability to create a new world. While their counterparts in high performing schools think and invent and find their wings.

That white and asian children consistently outperform Latino and African American children in reading and math on standardized tests is a problem. But that is not the only problem. And it certainly isn’t the most urgent.

There are two Americas. For the past 50 years public education has been a primary force to eliminate the distinctions between rich and poor; between our many ethnic and racial differences. But we are the unwitting force now dividing the chasm anew. Two Americas. One storm. One nation falling like a house of cards.

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Filed under charter schools, children at risk, El Milagro, innovation and change, public education, school reform, standardized testing, Uncategorized

E-BAY’S LEGACY, AN ACT OF WAR

Meg Whitman once ran E-bay and now she is running for Governor of California. Her platform: she plans on creating jobs, cutting spending and fixing the education system.

Her fix for the education system?  More testing, more “accountability”, and converting failing schools into charter schools. E-bay must have gotten her best creative years.

I wonder, by the way,  what happens to failing charter schools on the Meg Whitman plan.  I wonder what she thinks charter schools actually are.  I wonder why every candidate running for public office wants to “fix” public schools… and if they can really see what is broken.

She says:

For years, California politicians have talked about building better schools. Few improvements have come despite billions of additional spending. Enough talk, we need action. We will lead the charge to put more control in the hands of local educators and parents.  We will put more dollars directly into the classroom instead of costly bureaucrats. If a school fails to improve after three years, under my plan it will automatically convert to a charter school. It’s time California schools make the grade. The future of our state depends on it.

Remember when Reagan was President and his education commission unleashed “A Nation At Risk?” They were convinced the education system was broken too. They said:

“Our Nation is at risk . . . . The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people . . . . If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war . . . . We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament . . . .”

An act of war?

But what if this notion of failing public schools is a myth?  a complete fabrication?   A distraction from the real root cause of America’s great divide?

If a house burns to the ground, do we blame the architect for the building materials used to construct the house?  Or do we recognize that the real root cause of the destruction… is fire!

If Meg Whitman wants to “fix” California’s schools, she needs to first “fix” the government and then “fix” the economy.  There is a reason why schools in low income areas are consistently outperformed by schools in high income areas: children in low income areas tend to be less ready for school, have less access to health care, be more susceptible to childhood obesity and type II diabetes, enjoy less parent support, have less learning resources and less access to technology.  For starters.  And they have no voice.

And while politicians like to call those ” excuses”… I wonder what would happen if the severe gap in economic prosperity was diminished.  What if all kids enjoyed the exact same benefits and life conditions whether they lived in Compton or Malibu?  What would our education system  look like then?

Politicians can’t fix schools– not with all of the standardized testing schemes in the world. Especially if they aren’t broken.  And there are plenty that aren’t broken.  Yet.

But those same politicians do have an opportunity to significantly improve the quality of life for children.

To tell you the truth, I don’t think Meg Whitman plans on doing that as Governor of California.  I don’t think her fellow politicians in Washington DC plan on improving the quality of life for children either.  Even though my students would benefit mightily from having access to health care, our senators and congressmen can’t seem to get that done.  They are dysfunctional.  They appear to be paralyzed by their own political systems and structures and culture.  They are influenced and driven by a collective greed that blinds them to their opportunity to rescue America’s children… if not their schools.

Bill Moyers wrote:

No wonder people have lost faith in politicians, parties and in our leadership. The power of money drives cynicism deep into the heart of every level of government. Everything, and everyone, comes with a price tag attached: from a seat at the table in the White House to a seat in Congress, to the fate of health care reform, our environment, and efforts to restrain Wall Street’s greed and prevent another financial catastrophe.

The house is burning and the people positioned to extinguish the flames, are instead blaming the builders.  I propose we re-think the the myth:

“If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre governmental performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

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Filed under California budget, California charter schools, childhood obesity, children at risk, health care, public education, school reform

STAMPEDE TO THE TOP: A RACE TO RUIN

Several things happened this week that gave me pause:

First I saw on CNN the story about a little fourth grader in Texas who hung himself in the school restroom.  The child psychologists all attributed his death to depression and the economy and the pressure he likely felt as he made his way through school.  But he was nine.  And while depression may be on the rise (like obesity and diabetes and other childhood illnesses) it hardly explains such an extreme response.

I wondered…  what was it about his school that added to his hopelessness?  Or what could have been different for him?  Were his talents and interests nurtured?  Or had he been reduced to a test score and a proficiency level?

Then I started my class at USD on Tuesday.  I am teaching a course on Education Reform.  In an attempt to introduce the students to El Milagro, I shared an I-Photo slide show of our kids over the years.  It captured the spirit of children dancing and singing and celebrating.  Talented.  Diverse.  Exultant.  But there were no pictures from this school year.

So I wondered… what kind of climate have we created for the children of El Milagro lately?  Is it a refuge from the stress of their struggling families? Or have we pushed ourselves too far out on that assessment ledge… and in the name of someone else’s definition of accountability… hung our toes over the brink?

Then I listened to President Obama talk about his vision of education in the State of the Union.  In it he said:

“This year, we have broken through the stalemate between left and right by launching a national competition to improve our schools. The idea here is simple: instead of rewarding failure, we only reward success. Instead of funding the status quo, we only invest in reform – reform that raises student achievement, inspires students to excel in math and science, and turns around failing schools that steal the future of too many young Americans, from rural communities to inner-cities.”

I wondered… isn’t that a frighteningly narrow definition of “school success?”

So then I started reading Yong Zhao’s book entitled  “Catching Up or Leading the Way where he states that China is going the opposite direction as the US right now.  That they value outputs and student achievement for sure, but they value the inputs too.  Zhao urges American educators (of which he is one) to rethink the preoccupation with testing and national standards:

“America is at a crossroads. We have two choices.  We can destroy our strengths in order to catch up with others on test scores, or we can build on our strengths and remain a leader in innovation and creativity.  The current push for more standardization, centralization, high-stakes testing, and test-based accountability is rushing us down the first path.  What will truly keep America strong and Americans prosperous is the other path because it cherishes individual talents, cultivates creativity, celebrates diversity, and inspires curiosity.”

I wondered…What are we doing for our children?  Are we handing them musical instruments to play their hearts out on, inviting them to dance, coaching their teams, encouraging community service, investing in their health, encouraging them to think, inspiring them to invent and innovate, handing them a camera to capture their youthful energy in photographs?  Or are we drilling them on test taking skills?

The Race to the Top may actually be a stampede over the edge of the cliff.

I wondered… what have we learned from that tragedy in Texas?

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Filed under El Milagro, gifted children, innovation and change, President Obama, public education, school reform

MORE THAN JUST THESE THINGS, OUR LIVES CHANGE WITHOUT HAIKU- LOST IS HUMAN TOUCH

The Huffington Post includes a list of 12 common items that have become obsolete this decade. Check ’em out.  If newspapers, and landline phones, and calling, and cameras with film, and fax machines, and wires and CD’s and dial-up internet and telephones and encyclopedias and the yellow pages and catalogs and hand-written letters may have all become obsolete… what in if anything, became obsolete in our public schools during the same time period?

Plenty.

Here are 12 things that have become obsolete in public schools during the past NCLB decade:

• Critical Thinking

• Hands-on Science

• Field trips

• Morning Recess

• Grades based on Teacher Judgment

• Creative Writing

• Physical Fitness

• Bilingual Education

• Haiku

• Fine Arts

• Tolerance

• Extracurricular Activities

You can keep up with what’s obsolete in your school by checking your local newspaper.  If you can find one.

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Filed under public education, school reform, technology in schools