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Life Arts    H2'ed 6/4/18

How To Reform School: A Radical Reimagines Education

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TD: Actually, I'm not generally impulsive, but one does unusual things when they feel acute urgency. And I think there's nothing less than a full-bore crisis in American education -- and few really understand its exact nature. More later on that, I hope. But in terms of the trip, we accomplished a lot just through the sheer number of visits and meetings we set up. Many weren't all that memorable, and I condense a lot of the schools I visited into a school I gave a fictional name to, Eisenhower High, which is described in the opening chapter.

And in many ways, we didn't seek innovation as much as it sought me. The community forums we set up attracted many innovative educators, who would stay late to share with me their story and invite me to their schools for a visit the next day. We used our contacts and the community of people passionate about the film Most Likely to Succeed to identify great visits. And we just worked really hard, particularly Jeff Johnson and his team at Riverwood Strategies (the firm that specializes in advance planning for political campaigns). Also, when you're actually at a school, it doesn't take long to get a sense of what the student experience is like. I'd walk the halls, peek into classrooms, and interview students. In many (far too many) schools, kids are just going through the motions and the teachers are clearly demoralized.

But in the places that blew me away, there was energy that was instantly palpable. I'd look for, and fail to find, even one bored student. The teachers would share with me how they felt trusted as professionals to help their students. When I asked students questions, they know their stuff, and they had great reasons for why they were working hard on something.

JB: Now, you've intrigued me. Can you share a story or two of what you saw? What were they doing that 'worked?'

TD: The heart and soul of my book What School Could Be revolves around these stories -- courageous and visionary teachers in ordinary circumstances doing extraordinary things. One or two in isolation may seem interesting, but the real power comes from an overall mosaic of stories -- drawn from all across the country, across all grade levels, in every geography and demographic circumstance. I go from kindergarten kids in hard-scrabble Fort Wayne, Indiana, who are designing robots and mastering 3D printing right up through the amazing University of Maryland, Baltimore County, with their project-intensive STEM programs showing us how a university can empower kids, many from disadvantaged circumstances, to thrive.

As I traveled, this mosaic of transformational learning experiences seemed to be a bit of a jumble -- since no two are alike. But after the trip, as I stepped back and began reflecting on the overall pattern, I grew to appreciate that these extraordinary classrooms shared four common characteristics. These students are developing deep knowledge of a topic, essential skill sets and mindsets, true personal agency, and a sense of genuine purpose that comes from taking on challenges that make the world better. I use the acronym PEAK (purpose, essentials, agency, knowledge) to describe these powerful principles of meaningful education. Contrast these classrooms with all of the time students spend on tasks like SAT test prep, which is, in every way, anti-PEAK. Students drilling on stuff they find irrelevant just to move slightly up the pecking order in the chase for a more selective college. Ugh! We can do so much better.

The students designed a memorial to honor Waipahu [Hawaii] HS graduates who died in Vietnam.
The students designed a memorial to honor Waipahu [Hawaii] HS graduates who died in Vietnam.
(Image by Josh Reppun)
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JB: The Big Question, then, would be: how do we get from here to there? The education industrial complex has been built on the gods of standardized testing. It's not just the NCLB [No Child Left Behind] of George W. Bush, but it is Obama's Race to the Top which has further shackled our teachers and schools and disadvantaged our students. How do we accomplish a coup, work-around, full-scale reimagining within those constraints?

TD: And that is the single most important question facing our country, and the issue that will determine whether our democracy thrives or collapses. The urgency is profound and acute. I couldn't agree more about the damage done by NCLB and RTTT. Today, many view GWB's biggest policy blunder to have been the ill-conceived invasion of Iraq, which cost our country $3 trillion and only fueled the rise of terrorism. But as awful as that played out, his education policies will ultimately be viewed as more damaging. And Obama, with his promise of "hope and change," just piled on when it comes to damaging the lives of our students and teachers. And for those looking for a turn for the better from our federal government, the current Secretary of Education is singularly unqualified for her role. I do hope she stays in office, though, since the only thing worse than someone incompetent with bad ideas is someone competent with bad ideas.

So how do we make progress? I go right at this issue in What School Could Be. I explain the failings of our top-down central-planning policies, and the damage done by those eight seductive words -- "We have to be able to measure it." And I highlight leaders with an agile, effective innovation change model. I go into some detail on the remarkable work done in New Hampshire from 2009-2016 to put in place conditions for teacher-led change in both how students learn and are assessed. Their progress shows us that we can change schools at the state level, if our leaders have vision and are willing to trust and support our teachers in the field. And my website offers resources that any school, district, or community can draw on to energize their community, and start making informed progress through small steps that, over time, lead to big change. When you say 'small steps,' it doesn't sound all that consequential, but this is an innovation change model and, I'd argue, is the only way large systems ever change.

I'd emphasize one additional point. The biggest challenge in U.S. education is helping existing schools change. That's what I hope my film and my books do. But we have 137,000 existing schools with more than 75 million K-12 students in our country. Those who direct massive resources to creating a few new schools just miss the point. The clock is ticking; machine intelligence is sprinting ahead; other countries aren't tinkering around the edges; millions of our kids are at risk.

We won't help enough kids in a timely way if all we accomplish in the next decade is creating a few hundred new schools. We won't equip kids to thrive in a world full of dynamic innovation if our goal is eking out modest increases in standardized test scores. We can't possibly prepare our kids for their future if we short-change our teaching force when it comes to compensation, trust, and respect. Our country can do big things -- just think of World War II, or putting someone on the moon. But will we when it comes to education? That's far from clear. But if we don't, we're heading into a society with tens of millions adrift, and with a democracy that may not survive.

It's much, much harder to use a standardized test to assess someone's real-world expertise. So we have our kids study what's easy to test, not what's important to learn. -- Ted Dintersmith

JB: What is the value of hands-on projects? What do they bring to the mix that we don't get in our test-driven education system? How do they prepare us any better for life than what we've got now?

TD: I'm skeptical that all that much is being learned in theory-only academic courses, particularly in STEM fields. Just take a couple of minutes to watch this very telling short video. So graduates of MIT can't light up a light bulb with a wire and battery. Have they really learned much real science? Do they really understand electricity, or have they just been facile at memorizing Coulomb's and Kirchoff's Law? Keep in mind that these students all have 4.5+ GPAs in high school, 800s on their math SAT, and 5s in AP Physics and AP Calculus BC. They have completed four years at MIT, the most prestigious engineering institute in the world. And they can't light up the bulb. While anecdotal, this speaks volumes about the disconnect between theory-only academics and a deeper form of knowledge grounded in the real world.

One of the big issues in our K-12 schools today is that most students spend their middle- and high-school years on academic college-ready content that's a mile wide and an inch deep. By and large, I don't find that they're retaining what they study, nor have a particularly deep understanding of it -- despite working hard and, often, scoring well on exams.

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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