New School’s begin to emerge – out with the old

Posted on: March 23, 2013

Some days I wonder if the school system will ever actually be able to make education work. Richard Elmore said recently: “I do not believe in the institutional structure of public schooling anymore”. This challenges us all to think about what our world would look like without the current school structure. Kids go to school. They learn what has been determined is important to learn… They go to college and then they get a job, and then the cycle continues.

Right? Not so.

The traditional school has to change and is changing. No longer do we need to see children being grouped by ‘age and stage’ and learning in subject areas that don’t seem to relate to life and its meaning. What we want to see is how children learn to interact with the world around them and how they find their place in it. How do they learn to be critical thinkers and creative problem solvers to find solutions for issues that are challenging our world of today and tomorrow? It is not by sitting still in a classroom and learning from textbooks and a static curriculum that is contextually irrelevant to children.

There are educators and parents all over the country that are saying we can do this differently. One great example of this is a school in Chicago — Global Citizenship Experience. They bring the real world into the classroom and the classroom into the real world. Their vision is to cultivate their students’ autonomy, accountability, purpose, and gratitude and youth development in each area reveals various types of achievement. But notice, achievement is a byproduct of loftier ambitions, not the other way around.

The model of learning is dynamic and the design is authentically bridging the gap between the real world and academia. It includes weekly visits or field experiences, guest workshops and case studies with not for profit organizations and corporate partners. There are blended learning opportunities, a truly integrated curriculum, and what is even more interesting is that the curriculum has been aligned to not only the Common Core Standards (skills), but the 8 United Nation’s Millennium Development Goal’s (MDG’s) to help shape engaged global citizens (values).

The integrated curriculum covers topics that are relevant and challenging for the children in their lives as students, teenagers, and global citizens. An example is in their junior year when they spend time learning about rhetoric, argument and policy. These come under the broad headings of integrated English and History – Global Government. Under the STEM umbrella, their sophomore year topic is Global Health and they study the 3 areas of population, disease and cure. Once the overarching topic and guiding questions are determined, the local context is explored for optimal resources and issues, each which helps reinforce the purpose and value of the skills that each individual student is developing. The teachers ask, who are the best experts in the world with whom we may learn about this? And then they find ways to create learning exposures for the students throughout the city, at school, and online.

I had the chance to spend two days with the teachers and students in the school. What I noticed about the teachers was that they were interested in dissecting their own practice. They had frequent meetings with each other, observing each other’s teaching, finding out the latest research, and they were constantly trying to get better at what they were doing and how they were doing it. They were essentially attempting to master the craft of teaching.

The students were amazing. There were able to articulate exactly what they were learning and why. They could say how it was making a difference for them and what impact is was having on their life and the lives of others. They were in love with learning and couldn’t get enough of it. They were using rubrics to evaluate their progress and they were as tough on themselves about reaching the expectations for success as their teachers were. Failure at GCE was not an option for any student.

Children can enroll and attend physically or enroll and attend remotely because 100% of the curriculum is digital and the lab (brick & mortar) invites remote participants to engage with the classes.

The school is a designed as a lab in which the educators develop a unique curriculum and their own ‘Model for Learning’. Parents and students know this when they send their children there. To be part of a continuous learning environment where everyone is improving what they do every day can only be positive. The school’s curriculum is available online and it is fine-tuned after each lesson. The school’s in-house professional development team, who guide the teachers through more than 300 hours of PD per person per year, also provide curriculum and professional development to other schools in the public and private system. GCE’s goal is to impact large quantities of learners (students and teachers), to share the GCE model so that more communities experience meaningful and purpose-driven learning, and thus far their success has been phenomenal. They are developing a global network of learning circles including students, educators, partners- non-profit, corporate, and civic – who collaborate online and in person.

The Global Citizenship Experience is going to be one of the types of schools we see in the future. One in which the children’s learning needs are customized, individually. One where each child counts, and is challenged to become the best person they can be, to think about their place in the world and how they will eventually be able to contribute to it. One in which they are not allowed to wait until the school day is over before their life and learning can begin.

Contact Eric Davis, Founder and Director of GCE if you want to visit the school or receive professional development. Eric is always willing to share the knowledge and the experience with others and will be happy to train other educators.

What do we teach our kids and why?

Posted on: March 21, 2013

Who is the best judge of what kids need to know?

Have you ever wondered why we teach our kids the curriculum that we do? How and who determines what it is that is important for them to learn? What are the skills and knowledge that they MUST learn in order to make them the citizens of tomorrow’s world?

Most curricula is designed in a series of must know skills and knowledge that is determined without knowing the children for whom it is designed. It is a predetermined set of skills and knowledge that has been decided as what is important to know. Interestingly, it is also broken up into subject areas like math, science, reading and writing, as if they are separate from each other.

Maybe it is time to challenge the current curricula and ask questions about is it providing what we want for our children? Is it keeping up to date with technology? Are the children excited by what they are learning and is it relevant to their lives and to their futures? Do the employers see what they are learning as valuable to the workforce of tomorrow or even today?

Life it not a series of subjects and we cannot always break things down in sizeable chunks and follow through in steps that make sense. Life has twists and turns in it that are unexpected and we need to be flexible, be able to think critically and examine why we would do things in a variety in different and interesting ways. We also don’t work in isolation from each other, so we need to be able to interact and take on others points of view and integrate this information and determine whether we like this or not.
Schools are set up with timetables in subject areas, and built on the tradition of learning progressions.

Children and young people are human and don’t all fit the mould of this traditional model. Many schools are now trying to break from the tradition and the first thing to do is ask the families and the kids what it is they need to learn. It is by effectively engaging with kids, parents, families and community to understand their diverse aspirations, identities, languages and cultures that we will truly get to what is it we need to teach our kids and why.

Once you know what it is children want to learn then the next step is how do you teach it. Teaching is no longer limited to the classroom space and can be adapted to be contextually and culturally appropriate to the kids you have in your school. Teachers need the right professional development in content knowledge and/or pedagogy in a particular area of the curriculum alongside understanding of how to effectively adapt for the local situation and the different kid’s aspirations & needs.

What is the goal?

Posted on: March 13, 2013

Janet Levinger is my guest blogger this month as she is someone who I admire immensely and has been involved in education in this state for over 15 years. She is immersed in the education community, volunteering and focusing time, advocacy efforts, and philanthropy on improving the lives of children in Washington State. Her emphasis is on all education–cradle to career. This has been reflected through her hours of volunteering in countless organizations from Social Venture Partners, League of Education Voters, Eastside Pathways, Thrive by Five, Child Care Resources, Bellevue Schools Foundation, United Way and is Board Member Emeritus at Eastside Preparatory School. Welcome to Janet….

My friends know that I am involved in education reform. So now that Washington State has passed an initiative to allow charter schools, they ask me if this will fix our education problem. And the answer is an emphatic “no” – there is no silver bullet to fixing education.

We are a large country, with a hugely diverse population. Why anyone thinks a “one size fits all” approach to education will work for all children is beyond me. With so many different children – with different learning styles, different socio-economic backgrounds, different home lives, different preferences – it should be obvious that flexible, adaptable approaches are essential. Charter schools are one tool in our tool box. But we need many tools. Here are some ideas – many of which are part of what a good charter school does.

Leadership: Schools and school districts are businesses so superintendents and principals require leadership and management training and the flexibility to build strong teams that work well together.

Teachers: Teachers get a lot of blame these days. Some teachers are so gifted, you could put them in the middle of a desert with no books and they would manage to teach and inspire their students. Some teachers are so bad, they should be counseled out of the profession. But most teachers fall somewhere in the middle.

Teacher effectiveness is so profoundly important that we have to hold teachers to high standards. At the same time, we have to support them. To start, teachers should receive the training and education they need to be effective in the classroom, including classroom management, curriculum and lesson development, creating effective assessments, and adapting their approach for a diverse student body. Once teachers start their jobs, we must provide them with ongoing mentoring and professional development.

Early Learning: I am a huge proponent of early learning. Science shows us that 75% of a child’s brain is developed by age 5. Economic research tells us that for every dollar invested in early learning, we save at least $7 later. Kids who start out behind are unlikely to catch up – and unfortunately, low-income, minority kids are most likely to start out behind. So what do we do? We support parents as a child’s first and best teachers. Home visiting programs and play and learn groups are a good way to coach and mentor parents so they can better prepare their children for school. We need to improve the quality of child care by paying early learning teachers professional wages, providing them with appropriate training, and offering subsidies to low-income families so they can afford the best quality. Finally, since many kids are in informal care, with neighbors or grandparents, we have to target these caregivers as well with effective programs.

Expectations: All kids have great capacity to learn. We cannot give up on kids because they are poor, come from a stressful home life, or don’t speak English. Many excellent schools have proven that these kids can excel. Teachers, principals, and other school personnel should have professional development to help them understand and overcome their own prejudices and have high expectations for all. We also have to work with school faculty and staff and with parents to encourage kids to set high goals for themselves.

Parent and Family Support: Schools cannot be responsible for everything. So we must support parents. We can coach and mentor parents so that they understand the importance of being in school (reduce absenteeism) and doing homework. Wrap around programs provided by school districts and nonprofit organizations provide before- and after-school care, homework help and tutoring, food, warm clothing, and more. These programs allow teachers to teach and ensure that kids attend school, arrive ready to learn, and have help when they need it.

Pedagogy and Curriculum Content: Quite honestly, we are boring our kids to death. A teacher standing in the front of the room lecturing at a class of students, giving them worksheets for homework, and multiple choice tests for assessment is anachronistic. My father is 85 years old and grew up in South Dakota during the depression. That’s the way he was taught. Kids will be eager to learn and work hard when they are engaged. Our classrooms need to be interactive, hands-on – focused on critical thinking not memorization. Topics should be relevant to the way kids live which means we need to incorporate technology and social media and not shy away from the difficult topics we face today. We also need to teach our kids how to advocate for themselves and how to be team players and team leaders. These are important life skills. Our schools should encourage our students to innovate and take risks so they can develop resiliency, learn to handle ambiguity, and understand that we often learn most from our failures.

Discipline: A very important area that has more recently come to my attention is discipline. Kids of color are disproportionately disciplined by out of school suspension or expulsion. Obviously kids who are dangerous need to be removed from a school setting. But kids who are not in school do not learn and get farther and farther behind.

So what is the goal? To me, the goal for our community is young adults who are able to support themselves economically and emotionally. So while charter schools will be helpful to some, they are not the solution for all. We need to build community-wide commitment to seeing our kids ready for school, developing well academically and socially, graduating from high school on time, successfully completing appropriate secondary education, and into living-wage jobs.

Assessment for teaching real kids

Posted on: January 6, 2013

The education system seems to struggle at all levels to know what do about assessment. What do we need to assess and how much do we assess; when, why and for whom? Every layer of the system needs some form of assessment to improve achievement of the learners that they have their focus on. Simple right?

Not so.

From the systemic point of view, system wide improvement is focussed on the classroom level up with the idea of every assessment making a difference for every learner, in every classroom, in every school.

To improve at a system wide level, everyone has to work together to decide what do we value, and what will we measure. Firstly we have to put the learner at the center of all we do and all we measure. Secondly we need to make sure our teachers are capable of assessing. By this I mean they know what to assess, how to assess and recognize that their ability to assess is critical to the learners achievement. Thirdly, the curriculum is assessment inclusive and teachers use multiple sources of evidence to assess; teacher observations, standardized tests, practical applications of knowledge and skills.

So how do we do this? How do we find out of learning actually has happened? How do we know what to teach next and then report this at a district wide level, and then be able to use this information to inform system wide improvements?

Start with assessing what you value and what ensure what you value connects with the learner and who they are, for if it does not then it will not hold any value for them or the school or the district or the system.

By using a cycle of inquiry to collect information, identify where the learner is up to in their skills, knowledge and process will then help determine what needs to be done next to change how you are providing the teaching and learning experiences and set up new ways to respond to what has been learned to alter and improve the teaching practice so the learner can access new learning.

Assessment cannot be disconnected from the curriculum or learning. Testing cannot be in isolation from the experiences in the classroom. Summative testing at the District, State or Federal level testing can be helpful if learners get to see what their results mean only why and if there is a discussion about it the content of the test, not just put away and a result given.

A great school system is about continuous learning and improvement, and assessment is part of this. Each classroom contributes by individual learners and teachers responding immediately to learning needs identified by formative assessment. Schools contribute by teachers interrogating the data and analyzing the data to ensure their future programs respond to the learners needs. The district and state contributes by determining information about learner achievement to decide how best to support schools. Resources, advice and guidance and policies support and help when the information is based upon authentic and real assessment.

Actionable, informative feedback to parents not mindless platitudes

Posted on: November 18, 2012

It is time to provide actionable, informative feedback to parents, not mindless platitudes to soften the blow of a poor grade.

I just read a school report, and it is hard to believe what value there was in it, if any. The child is currently failing her 6th grade science class. The comments on her report card are, “Is a pleasure to have in class” and “Has an excellent attitude”.  Actually, although she may enjoy science, which she does not, as a parent there is no indication what-so-ever that she is failing. She is in dire straits of not becoming the rocket scientist they want her to be. However, reading the report they could be led to believe that she is on track to becoming a scientist and more than that, actually a scientist with an excellent attitude! There is no indication that she is struggling or what to do about it. Platitudes about attitude won’t get action about learning.

Why not just tell the truth? Are teachers not in the business of helping kids learn and accelerate so they can improve their chances of having success in their education? If we communicated what the kids need to learn next, and parents could understand what that was, we would have a work force behind the education system that is untapped and potentially incredibly valuable to every kid in the country.

We could say, [Name]  attitude to science is great. She has had difficulty with some of the concepts about energy and forces, but is persevering and we will keep reviewing in this topic.  [Name] next area to learn about is pulleys and levers. At school we are going to be working on learning what all the language related to this topic. [Parents name] could help by quizzing her about what these are and then getting her to make a small machine using objects from home and noticing as many examples of pulley’s and levers in the environment as possible- make a game of it.

Granted, it takes more time and you have to know your kids – what can the school system give up that it does not need to do to allow teachers to have this time to do this better? Most teachers I know would rather do that, than waste time on producing a report that has no meaning for the kids, parents or them.

Reports need to state where the kids are up to in their learning, what they are going to be focusing on next, and what the school, child, and parent can do in order to support this learning. Let’s tell the truth,  and be clear about the messages we are communicating to parents, and how they can help.



Finger on the pulse of education

Posted on: November 16, 2012

We go to the doctor and they speak to us in a language we understand. They tell us we have an illness of some sort, and what to do about it. They prescribe us drugs that will kill the bugs, and tell us what to do to feel better and get well. They do it in a way that that we understand, because if they don’t, we won’t get better. We trust that they have done their research, they know what they are talking about, and that they are telling us the truth.

When teachers and Principals talk to parents, they need to do the same. They need to speak in a language that parents understand. They need to speak to them in a way that communicates where their child is up to in their learning, and what they have to do to help them. They don’t need to do this in a way that references the latest book they read, or use language that has acronyms that the average parent has no hope of understanding.

In class, it is likely that the teacher has taught the kids about language registers, about what is appropriate language for specific audiences. It is very likely that they have taught them to alter their language depending on who they are talking to. Educators need to do the same when speaking to non-educators. This needs to occur in all communications – school reports, websites, letters home, telephone calls, presentations, and anything that involves communication between home and school.

Otherwise impenetrable ‘eduspeak’ scares parents off so badly you are never going to get genuine engagement/partnership.


What’s the Real Problem of Underachievement?

Posted on: November 9, 2012

It is not enough just to more effectively teach the children who are behind in their learning.

It’s not enough to say “But look, we are offering them all these additional programs of support.”

It’s not even enough to make sure they progress in their learning.

We need to accelerate their learning, so they catch up to their peer group, and so they do this in good time. We need to have a sense of urgency about this.

For the kids who are behind, many schools offer programs that address parts of the issue, but do not look at the real source of their underachievement. We need to ask the hard questions to get the real answers.

We need to find out what is stopping our kids from getting what they need and getting it fast.

We often hear all the reasons why it’s impossible to get all kids achieving. They come from poor families; they may not speak English at home; their parents may not have had much formal education; they may not have books at home; parents can’t read with them because they are doing shift work all hours; there are struggles with drugs or violence … the list goes on.

Let’s be clear about this though: It is not about changing the factors we can’t influence, but changing the factors we can. And there are plenty of those. It is only when the adults in the school stop blaming outside factors and start to change our own behavior and what we actually do, will we see results.

Identifying why people believe kids are not achieving is the first step in being able to make the change.

An example might be teachers teaching kids that look different – and are different – to them. They may believe that these kids are hard to teach, not ready to learn, or that they will not be as successful as other learners.

Or what of the special education student for whom the expectations are set too low, but who really could achieve at a much higher level?

How then, can these teachers learn to challenge their own set of assumptions or expectations – so that they can in turn change the expectations of the learners themselves?

I was Principal of a low socioeconomic school, where most of the kids started without a lot of pre-school experience. The expectations they held of  ever achieving great academic heights were low.

I will never forget the moment when I asked a class of 6th grade children, who amongst them was planning on going to college. No one put their hand up. One kid said to me “only brainy people like you go Miss”.

My heart broke.

Now, many teachers I have talked to would respond to that with, “See? They don’t even want to get to college; they’re just not excited about education; that kind of attitude is the norm where they come from, and this is what I have to work with every day. No wonder they don’t achieve.”

But I wasn’t about to accept that norm as a given, as something outside my control. From that point on, I tirelessly worked at creating the opportunities for a new norm, for the kids to think about it being normal to expect to go to college.

We hired talented minority students from the college’s science and technology program as our teacher aides, so they could be positive role models. We made an agreement with the college that our kids could go to lectures in the medical school, law school, or the science and technology school four times a year. We had college lecturers come and speak to our  kids on a regular basis

For me, it was not enough to have the kids just exposed to teachers as role models. They needed to see it all. They needed to physically go to the college, and for it to become normal.

We need to provide the right professional development for our teachers, and challenge the way we think about how and what we believe about what’s stopping our kids from learning. Let’s get to the real problem about why kids are underachieving, and challenge our thinking about what works for who and why

Let’s not put quick fix, unsustainable solutions in place.

Instead, let’s ensure all our kids get what they need from our education system.

How the curriculum can kill learning

Posted on: November 3, 2012

by Joanne McEachen and E. Jane  Davidson, Ph.D.

Many schools in the U.S. and elsewhere purchase an off-the-shelf curriculum and set about teaching it. That way it’s fair because all the students are presented with the same material – right?


A one-size-fits-all curriculum can and does kill learning, and it does so among the learners who most desperately need to learn.


For many kids, the material they are presented with seems incredibly disconnected with their reality, who they are, and what gets them excited. The subject matter seems alien, distant, irrelevant. And they switch off.

Well, you might say, isn’t it just that some kids don’t like some subjects – like science, for example? Not at all. Every learner can get excited about science if you know how to connect it with who they are, make them see themselves in it.

Let’s pick an example that might seem dry to most people – the particle nature of matter.

I had to teach the particle nature of matter to a class of 35 of middle school students. I was told to do this in a series of 13 weeks of lessons. There was set plan of worksheet style lessons I was told to use. I set about thinking how could I make this relevant and meaningful to these learners and bring it to life for them?

I ditched the lesson plans and turned my classroom into a science lab for three days and told my kids they were all scientists and they had to find ways to discover how particles through the air (gases) through liquid and through solids.  We set up stations around the room with experiments that they helped me to design. I knew which students would be good at designing experiments, which would be good at leading the groups for experiments, which students would be good at reporting the findings and which students would be good at challenging the findings.

We talked about what was it we need to learn about the particle nature of matter that everything is made up of particles that everything is constantly moving, how fast the particles are moving which helps to determine if they are solids, liquids or gases. We all became scientists over that week and I instilled a love of science in every child in that room. My dean of academics sprang a test on us at the end of the semester. My class aced the test. Their scores were at the top of the school, even though we had not done the traditional learning method. All the children passed and we had the highest average across the school.

It is not about making the kids finding scientists who look like them it was about them realizing that they are made up of particles! Once they connected with the learning material, and it had relevance to them they got into learning with enthusiasm.

Find those links and you can turn the curriculum into motivational gold.

This is what we mean by ‘differentiating’ the curriculum.

Every learner needs to be able to see a little piece of themselves in what they learn. It has to connect to them in some way. We need to find ways to bring it to life for each and every child in the room.

That’s a lot harder than just trotting out the same material to the whole class. But the rewards are huge.

If we get this right we see not just progress of the kids who need it, but – especially when we combine it with genuinely connected teaching – rapid acceleration and whole-class success.


When did education become so complicated?

Posted on: October 26, 2012

I had the opportunity to listen to an accomplished author speak about the importance of teaching character to children as part of their education. Move away from teaching curriculum only and teach character. The students would then have the resilience to succeed in their lives, stick it out through college and be successful. Charter schools were doing this and were making a difference in children’s lives. Public schools could not do this though, as they had to teach the curriculum and they can’t change fast enough. While I was listening I started to get this uncomfortable feeling. Does it have to be an either/or, and surely teachers know how to do both?

My heart sank when the author said there are no tools available yet for teachers to teach character and implement the ideas. Again we will end up with off the shelf supplies of how to teach character. The point of teaching character would surely be to get to know who the children are, and challenge them to be the best they can be. To develop their character through experiences that are tailor made for them won’t happen if we provide teachers with the step by step guide of how to teach character.

Teaching children needs to start with knowing the child, assessing what they know already and developing a program of learning that will challenge and accelerate them through the next levels of the curriculum, simultaneously building their character and developing their understanding of themselves. If we put the learner first and stop spending so much time worrying about the adults, then we may just get back to what we know is right. Character and curriculum can and should go hand in hand. It is possible to teach this in public schools… it is being done, and we should all expect it.

What’s Right with Charter Schools?

Posted on: October 19, 2012

The title started out as “What’s Wrong with Charter Schools”, then I changed it to “What’s Right with Charter Schools”. What‘s right with Charter schools is choice, and the ability to determine what is right for the children in your school. This should be the case in every school, and I am surprised that it is not. The alternative is Charter Schools.

If each school could represent what the community of parents in the area wanted for their children, and strategically planned for this, then maybe we would not need them. If each school had local decision making, where the school Principal was trusted to determine what was needed in their school to prioritize teaching and learning experiences that maximized learning outcomes for all learners, we may not need them. If each school was able to purchase professional learning and development that met the needs of the teachers, to teach the children that are in the school now, then we may not need them. If the assessment was relevant and gave information to parents and teachers about what the learners need to learn next to accelerate their learning, we may not need them.

Until we have allowed our public education system the freedom to respond to the needs of the learners they serve, then we need charter schools.