If A Pig Wore A Wig And Other Tales of School Reform

if a pig wore a wig

Bill Gates had an idea. He was passionate about it, absolutely sure he had a winner. His idea? America’s high schools were too big. 
When a multibillionaire gets an idea, just about everybody leans in to listen. And when that idea has to do with matters of important public policy and the billionaire is willing to back it up with hard cash, public officials tend to reach for the money with one hand and their marching orders with the other. Gates backed his small-schools initiative with enormous amounts of cash. So, without a great deal of thought, one school district after another signed on to the notion that large public high schools should be broken up and new, smaller schools should be created.

With that lede, former NY Times columnist, Bob Herbert details The Plot Against Public Education: How millionaires and billionaires are ruining our schools POLITICO Magazine October, 6, 2014.

Herbert catalogues the failed hit-or-miss reforms driven by corporate America’s assault on public education. Smaller schools, charters, on-line schools, and big testing have yet to deliver significant improvements in student performance. What they have produced is a “testing-industrial” complex that has turned schools into test factories that harness the labor of students to toil at the “bubble-test” assembly line producing dubious “achievement” data. While I’m sure that corporate leaders, venture capitalists and foundation experts are nice people, I doubt their primary goal is student achievement. Not with the big profits to be made servicing the “K-12 space” and privatizing public education.

The piece profiles a cast of well-placed educational “reformers” – Bill Gates, Ronald Packard (former Goldman Sachs banker), Michael Milken (disgraced junk-bond king), Larry Ellison (billionaire co-founder of Oracle), Rupert Murdoch (king of the News Corp media empire), and Cathleen Black (longtime media executive and short-lived NYC school chancellor). What they lack in educational expertise is more than offset by their wealth and political influence. Herbert closes

Those who are genuinely interested in improving the quality of education for all American youngsters are faced with two fundamental questions: First, how long can school systems continue to pursue market-based reforms that have failed year after demoralizing year to improve the education of the nation’s most disadvantaged children? And second, why should a small group of America’s richest individuals, families, and foundations be allowed to exercise such overwhelming—and often such toxic—influence over the ways in which public school students are taught?

Image credit:
Taken from Page 255 “Illustrated Poems and Songs for Young People. Edited by Mrs. Sale Barker”
(1885) The British Library Identifier: 000201665

The Bots are Coming! Better Re-think My Lesson Plans

S.H_Horikawa_–_Star_Strider_Robot_Close_Up

Here’s a suggestion for your back-to-school faculty meeting – take 15 minutes to watch Humans Need Not Apply by CGP Grey. Then have a discussion on it’s implications for your students and (your curriculum). Talking about robot invasions is way more fun than updates on new state tests.

The video’s thesis is simple – robots are coming for our jobs. Actually, they have already taken many of them. And it’s not just low-skilled labor they’re taking over.

… white-collar work is no safe haven either. If your job is sitting in front of a screen and typing and clicking — like maybe you’re supposed to be doing right now — the bots are coming for you too, buddy.

I’ll bet that accurately filling out a worksheet won’t be a valued bot-competitive skill.

Are the professions safe from bots? Not exactly. The video makes the case for bots replacing significant aspects of legal, medical and even creative work. (And I’d add teachers to that list.)

It begs the question – what skills should we be teaching to students who will have to compete against the bots for employment? I don’t think there are any easy answers to that question. But I’ll bet that accurately filling out a worksheet won’t be a valued bot-competitive skill.

As the video concludes:

We have been through economic revolutions before, but the robot revolution is different.

Horses aren’t unemployed now because they got lazy as a species, they’re unemployable. There’s little work a horse can do that do that pays for its housing and hay.

And many bright, perfectly capable humans will find themselves the new horse: unemployable through no fault of their own. …

This video isn’t about how automation is bad — rather that automation is inevitable. It’s a tool to produce abundance for little effort. We need to start thinking now about what to do when large sections of the population are unemployable — through no fault of their own. What to do in a future where, for most jobs, humans need not apply.

For full text of the video click here.

Image credit: S.H Horikawa – Star Strider Robot
By D J Shin (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

Why Do Teachers Ask Questions They Know the Answers To?

The Future will not be multiple choice
The Future will not be multiple choice

A while back I posed 13 Subversive Questions for the Classroom. Here’s the first five:

  1. If a question has a correct answer, is it worth asking?
  2. If something is “Googleable” why would we spend precious class time teaching it?
  3. When we ask students to summarize, do we actually want to know what’s important to them?
  4. What do you suppose students think they are supposed to be doing when we ask them to analyze?
  5. Do you ever ask your students questions you don’t know the answer to? Why not?

Here’s a TEDxCreativeCoast video – The Future Will Not Be Multiple Choice – that answers those questions and showcases the power of a PBL / design-based approach to learning. Turn curricula into design challenges, classrooms into workshops and teach students to think like designers.

While you watch it, try to think of a meaningful career that looks like filling out a worksheet.

14 Provocative Questions for the Faculty

 

It’s back to school time. Get ready for that opening day faculty meeting where you sit and listen, while wishing you could be getting some actual work done in your classroom. Here’s some questions you might ask at the meeting to generate more meaningful back to school discussion.

Can students learn to be innovative in a school driven by the routine of test prep?

Every summer you get to reinvent yourself as a teacher. I’ve used the time to brainstorm a few disruptive questions I would pose to subvert the status quo in school. This post is directed to teachers and administrators thinking about their school at the program level. Its companion post, 13 Subversive Questions for the Classroom, offers reflective questions for teachers to consider when thinking about their approach to instruction.

  1. When’s the last time we talked about who’s learning, who’s not, and what we are doing about it?
  2. How much of what is taught in our school is only useful for passing state tests?
  3. With new and cheaper technologies giving students greater control of their information landscape, when will our school become totally irrelevant to students and fully isolated from their personal learning environments?
  4. Do we dumb down instruction for the “low achievers” in the belief that they cannot handle higher order thinking?
  5. Are the “honors” students critical thinkers, or just willing to memorize what we give them?
  6. Are teachers’ informal social media connections more valuable to them than our district-mandated PLC’s?
  7. Which is the better driver’s test – the written DMV exam or the road test? What does that tell us about state assessments?
  8. If we accept the notion that the careers of the future have not been invented yet, how do we justify the rigidity of our 19th century, departmentalized curriculum?
  9. When do students actually get to work on that “life-long learner” goal in our school mission statement?
  10. What would happen if faculty meetings and staff development had to use the strategies being advocated for the classroom?
  11. When we host a parents’ event, do we use the instructional strategies we promote for the classroom or simply lecture at them?
  12. Is our school program thoughtfully designed to give students increasing responsibility for their learning?
  13. What meaningful career looks like filling out a worksheet?
  14. Can students learn to be innovative in a school driven by the routine of test prep?

Comment below to add a question you’d like to see posed at the opening day faculty meeting.

Image credit: Banksy – subversive street artist.

Excellent Sheep and Our Crisis of Leadership

A recent rebroadcast of an interview with William Deresiewicz on WBUR’s Here & Now led me to his essay Solitude and Leadership in American Scholar. The essay is from a lecture he delivered to West Point’s plebe class October 2009.

Deresiewicz addresses the roots of our crisis of leadership in America,

… I know what it’s like for you guys now. It’s an endless series of hoops that you have to jump through, starting from way back, maybe as early as junior high school. Classes, standardized tests, extracurriculars in school, extracurriculars outside of school. Test prep courses, admissions coaches, private tutors. … So what I saw around me were great kids who had been trained to be world-class hoop jumpers. …They were, as one of them put it herself, “excellent sheep.”

… We have a crisis of leadership in America because our overwhelming power and wealth, earned under earlier generations of leaders, made us complacent, and for too long we have been training leaders who only know how to keep the routine going. Who can answer questions, but don’t know how to ask them. Who can fulfill goals, but don’t know how to set them. Who think about how to get things done, but not whether they’re worth doing in the first place. What we have now are the greatest technocrats the world has ever seen, people who have been trained to be incredibly good at one specific thing, but who have no interest in anything beyond their area of exper­tise. What we don’t have are leaders.

What we don’t have, in other words, are thinkers. People who can think for themselves. People who can formulate a new direction: for the country, for a corporation or a college, for the Army—a new way of doing things, a new way of looking at things. People, in other words, with vision.

For his full essay and his thoughts on education, Twitter, and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness click here.

As I’ve written, I’m outraged by the fact that a generation of teachers and students have become slaves to corporatized testing. While our school district mission statements all claim to “foster life-long learners,” in reality, teachers are forced to spend increasing class time prepping kids for predictable tests. We’re giving a generation of kids practice for predictable, routine procedures – and that happens across the “bell curve” from AP test prep to meeting minimal proficiency on NCLB-mandated tests.

If students are going to be productive in a dynamic society and workplace they will need to be agile, fluid learners. Future leaders that are encouraged to explore their own approaches and reflect on their progress. Students who can work collaboratively with their peers to plan, implement and evaluate projects of their own design. For more of my thoughts on standardized testing, teaching and learning, see my test prep tag.

Image credit: flickr/jahansell

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