Archive forMay, 2011

One size fits all

Cross posted at on the Futures of School Reform blog.


Several years ago, I attended a conference for teachers. The speaker at the podium was defending their support for a law that requires all teachers in the state to use the same textbook. The crowd of teachers was getting restless to the point that several were shouting back at the speaker. Exasperated, the speaker bellowed into the microphone, “But not every kid in the state goes to your school!” Yes, I thought, but your policy is affecting the kids in my school!

Recently, I was on a conference call discussing how to influence national education policy. One educator on the call said, “Well, I realize that this might not be feasible, but I was thinking about how England has a schools inspectorate where teams of people go out and examine schools to see if they are effective, rather than relying exclusively on multiple choice test results.” The response from one person on the call was to say, “We don’t have the capacity to do this everywhere all at once right now, so it’s not possible. Although I guess we could do a pilot… (and their voice trailed off dejectedly).” I wished I had thought to respond in the moment, “Hey, repeat what you just said, but in an enthusiastic tone of voice: We don’t have the capacity to do this everywhere all at once right now, but we could do a pilot!”

It seems to me that a key challenge for policy makers in any arena is to implement policies that help make the worst cases better while simultaneously avoiding making the best cases worse. Take the effort by some to “teacher-proof” the curriculum.

Those who want to teacher-proof the curriculum apparently see examples of ineffective teachers and want to do something about it, so they create a scripted curriculum and pacing guide. I imagine that they think to themselves, “Well, this may not be perfect, but it’s better than what those teachers were doing before.” I am willing to concede that it might be true that this kind of support helps some percentage of struggling teachers. Still, beware the law of unintended consequences. Some years ago, one of our local school districts embarked on such a plan. As a result, a number of strong teachers came to work at High Tech High, in their words, because they were “fleeing the district.” Years later, while that district is pursuing other strategies, we continue to benefit from the presence of these strong teachers. This district, presumably, continues to suffer from the absence of these same teachers.

It is frustrating to be on the receiving end of one size fits all strategies. As a school practitioner, no amount of flexibility is too much. I can’t imagine ever thinking, “Wow, those regulations have really improved our schools!” Still, at a national level, I do not think it is right to say that we should have no regulations, just let the market decide everything. I think we need a balance between bottom up, market driven mechanisms, and top down policies.

But please, policy makers, a nod to the Hippocratic oath: first, do no harm. One size fits all policies may make our worst schools better. They definitely make our best schools worse. Some subtlety is needed.

What do you think? Is it true that “sometimes in order to treat everybody fairly, you need to treat everybody differently?” Or is that a slippery slope, and we must impose the same policies on everyone? Is it possible and desirable to identify great schools and teachers and get out of their way while still implementing top down approaches to improve schools and teachers that struggle?


NOTE: thanks to Stacey Caillier, Kelly Wilson, Larry Rosenstock, and Rob Riordan for helpful suggestions and edits for this piece.


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On Technology in Education

Cross posted on Edweek’s Futures of School reform blog. Among other changes, the editors took out the links to the student and teacher work, so I have put those links back in here.

I want to say that commenting on “the futures of school reform” makes me somewhat uneasy. My take on the past hundred years of attempted U.S. school reform is that it is largely a story of fierce ideological battles among writers, professors, and policy makers, while the actual practice of what happens in classrooms has remained largely unchanged. Witness for example, the charge I often hear that “progressive education is destroying U.S. public education.” Given how little of the progressive education vision has actually been widely implemented in real classrooms makes it hard to believe that if U.S. public education has been destroyed, the culprit is “progressive education.” I also note that John Dewey purportedly stated that he’d “rather have one school former than one hundred school reformers.”

With those caveats, when I think about the futures of school reform, one element that I think about is the use of technology in education. It seems that some of the buzz words du jour in school reform include “blended learning,” “hybrid learning,” and “online learning.” I frequently find myself in conversations with wide eyed true believers excitedly describing how all these new 21st century tools and strategies are transforming the relationship between teachers, students, and knowledge. However, presenting a student with scanned-in textbook pages, followed by a few multiple choice questions, under the guise of “blended learning” (in this case, 19th century pedagogy with a 21st century spin) is not a future I imagine nor hope for.

I always ask the true believers, “What’s an example of a transformative technology tool that we can use right now with our students?” And then a most curious thing happens. Invariably, people either: a) look down at their feet, or b) look me confidently in the eye and say, “I’ll have to get back to you on that.” Before we all drink the technology in education kool-aid, I would like to participate in fewer conversations about “the promise of blended learning,” and see more examples in the wild of technology tools helping students learn more deeply and more effectively.

Despite some cynicism, I do believe that technology has the potential to reshape what happens in classrooms. One technology that I believe offers an intriguing possibility for teachers to create more authentic learning opportunities for students is the relatively new micro-publishing industry (e.g. Inspired by Ron Berger from Expeditionary Learning, many of our teachers have begun developing projects where one of the end products is a student produced book.

Peter Jana and Daisy Sharrock, 10th grade humanities and chemistry teachers at High Tech High worked with students to produce a book called Chemistry and Conflict. This book is a series of chapters, each chapter created by a pair of students. “The chapters focus on the relationship between different chemical elements and historical conflicts, such as the relationship between isoprene (rubber) and 19th century imperialism.”

High Tech Middle 6th grade students on the Melissa Daniels and Ben Krueger team (humanities and math/science, respectively) created an alphabet book for younger students about ancient Egypt entitled E is for Egypt. In this book, “young Egyptologists unlock the mysteries of hieroglyphics, uncover ancient burial tombs, and reveal the secrets of the pharoahs.”

Ninth grade humanities teacher Julie Ruff produced the book Peer Collaboration and Critique: Using student voices to improve student work as part of her graduate work in earning an M.Ed. in Teacher Leadership at the High Tech High Graduate School of Education. Julie asked questions such as, “Who owns a final product? Teacher or students? And who gets to define quality work? Who should students take advice from?”

I have observed the pride that many students feel at having their words and their work appear in print. One of my high school senior advisees solemnly observed to my advisory group, “I’m a published author now.” I believe that micro-publishing is an opportunity that allows almost any teacher to work alongside students to produce high quality products in which students not only absorb new information but also transform it to help make it their own, as well as develop important skills such as learning to work well in a group and the ability to effectively communicate one’s ideas.

What do you think about technology in education? Is it is just a bunch of hype? What’s an example of a transformative technology tool that we can use right now with our students?


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