(Not) Reforming again and again and again?

Everything has been said before, but since nobody listens, we have to keep going back and begin again.” – Andre Gide

This epigraph begins Larry Cuban’s paper “Reforming again, again, and again,” published in 1990.  As various reforms have re-appeared, Cuban extended his analysis again (“High School Reform Again, Again, and Again”) and again (“Fixing Schools Again and Again”).  Cuban speculates that this reform recycling is not a problem we can solve, it’s a condition created by the institutional and political realities that we continually have to deal with.

Just as it is possible to predict that reform initiatives will return again and again, it is also possible to predict – even before these initiatives are implemented – some of the factors that will make it difficult for the initiatives to take hold and to achieve their goals. The efforts to transform teacher evaluation that took off with the Obama administration’s Race To The Top initiative in 2009 provide a recent case in point.

Those policies made their way into the news again this past week thanks to a report from the National Council on Teacher Quality. The  press release (“States Bid Hasty Retreat from Their Own Attempts to Overhaul Educator Evaluation”) and coverage highlights the ways in which states teacher evaluation policies appear to be retreating (“Most States Have Walked Back Tough Teacher-Evaluation Policies”, Education Week; “ No Thanks, Obama: 9 States No Longer Require Test Scores Be Used To Judge Teachers,” Chalkbeat).  Although these developments are newsworthy they come as no surprise. Previous reports have noted problems with the design and execution of recent efforts to transform teacher evaluation, and even those who have noted some positive outcomes have highlighted implementation challenges as well.

Building on Cuban’s work with his colleague David Tyack in Tinkering Toward Utopia  and further analyses by David Cohen and Jal Mehta in “Why reform sometimes succeed”, my colleagues and I have been looking at some of the reasons that so many policies and reform initiatives fail to produce the fundamental changes in schools and classrooms that they seek. In a nutshell, this work suggests that too often the goals, capacity demands, and values of reform proposals do not match the common needs, existing capabilities, and dominant values in the schools and districts they are supposed to help.

Admittedly, this is a simple heuristic, but it provides one quick way to anticipate some implementation challenges and to explain how reform initiatives evolve. Although this example is drawn from the US, the basic approach to identifying the challenges of improvement and implementation can be applied in many settings outside the US as well.

Is there a fit between reform proposals and the needs, capabilities and values “on the ground”?
Asking a succinct set of questions provides one quick way to gauge the “fit” between reform proposals and the conditions in the schools and communities where those proposals are supposed to be implemented:

  • How widely shared is the “problem” that the initiative is supposed to address?
  • What has to change for the initiative to take hold in schools and classrooms to have an impact?
  • To what extent do teachers, administrators and schools have the capabilities they need to make the changes?
  • How likely is it that the key ideas and practices of the initiative will be consistent with socio-cultural, technological, political, and economic trends in the larger society?

What’s the problem the initiative is designed to solve and who has “it”?
When problems are widely shared by many of the stakeholders involved, initiatives that address those problems are more likely to be seen as necessary and worth pursuing – a key indicator of whether those “on the ground” are likely to do what the initiative requires.  

In the case of the teacher evaluation reforms, proposals for changing evaluation procedures grew along with concerns that the emphases on accountability and teacher quality in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 were not yielding the desired improvements in outcomes in reading and mathematics (which was also predictable even before NCLB passed into law but that’s a different blog post…). Those concerns came together with increasing interest in looking at growth in student learning through “value-added” measurement approaches and with the observation popularized by the New Teacher Project’s report on “The Widget Effect” that almost all teachers were given satisfactory evaluation ratings.

For whom was the system of teacher evaluation a problem? Policymakers, funders, and some administrators seized upon teacher evaluation as a critical problem. These “policy elites”, however, are those primarily engaged with managing the education system; but “fixing” teacher evaluation did not appear to be at the top of the list of concerns for many teachers, parents, and students, or for major stakeholder groups like teachers’ unions. As a consequence, considerable resistance should have been expected.

 

What has to change? To what extent do teachers, principals, and schools have the capabilities to make the changes?
The more complicated and demanding the changes are, the more difficult they will be to put in place.  Simply put, the likelihood of implementing a policy or improvement initiative effectively drops the more steps and the more convoluted the plan; the more time, money, resources, and people involved; and the more that everyday behaviors and beliefs have to change.

At a basic level, the “logic” of the teacher evaluation reforms seemed fairly straightforward:

If we create better estimates of teacher quality and create more stringent evaluation systems…

…. Then education leaders can provide better feedback to teachers, remove ineffective teachers, reward more effective teachers…

… And student learning/outcomes will improve

However, by unpacking exactly what has to happen for these results to be achieved, the complications and predictable difficulties quickly become apparent.  Among the issues:

  • New instruments have to be created, criteria agreed upon, new observation & assessments deployed, and trainings developed
  • Principals/observers have to have time for training and to carry out observations/assessments
  • Principals and other observers have to be able to give meaningful feedback,
  •  Teachers need to be able to change their instruction in ways that yields measurable improvements on available assessments of student performance

Of course, these developments are supposed to take place in every single school and district covered by the new policy, and, at the school and classroom level, these new procedures, observation criteria, and feedback mechanisms have to be developed for every teacher, at every level, in every subject.

In addition to highlighting the enormity of the task, this analysis also makes visible critical practical and logistical issues. In this case, for example, the new evaluation procedures are supposed to be based to a large extent on measuring growth of student learning on standardized tests. Yet, the policy is also supposed to apply to the many teachers who do not teach “tested subjects” and for whom standardized tests are not adequate for assessing student learning and development.

But even if all the logistical and practical problems are addressed, to be effective, the policy still requires administrators and teachers to develop new skills and knowledge: Administrators have to improve their ability to observe instruction and to provide meaningful feedback (in many different subjects/levels); Teachers have to know how to use that feedback to make appropriate changes in their instruction that lead to improved performance on available measures. Further, even if administrators were able to put in place new evaluation procedures and develop the capabilities to deploy them, using the results to sanction or reward individual teachers conflicts with the prevailing attitudes, beliefs, and norms of behavior in many schools.

(Among others, Michael McShane draws on Pressman & Wildasky’s 1984 book Implementation to highlight the issues related to reform complexity; David Cohen, Jim Spillane, and Don Peurach have written extensively about the need to develop a much stronger “infrastructure” to support the development of educator’s knowledge and skills and to improve instruction across classrooms and schools; and Rick Hess cites James Q. Wilson’s work to stress the difficulty in counteracting local incentives and prevailing institutional cultures.)

 

How do the proposed changes fit with the values, trends, developments at the time?Changes proposed that reflect enduring values as well as the socio-cultural, political, technological, and economic trends can take off in concert with other developments in society.  Conversely, conflicts over basic values and shifts in trends can also mean that support and public opinion may wane relatively quickly before changes have time to take root.

In this case, the teacher evaluation policies evolved as conflicting trends were emerging. On the one hand, the new approaches to teacher evaluation fit with long-standing concerns about the efficiency of education as well as with the development of new technologies, new approaches to data use, and interest in performance accountability among leaders in business, government and other fields. On the other hand, those policies also had to be implemented in a context where concerns about academic pressure and the extent of testing were growing among many parents and educators and where advocates for local control of education were becoming more concerned and more vocal about their opposition to the development of the Common Core Learning Standards.

 

What would you predict?
This quick survey provides one view of the challenges faced by efforts to change teacher evaluations:

  • A lack of a shared problem
  • Requirements for massive, complex, and coordinated changes at every level of the education system
  • Demands for the development of new knowledge, skills, attitudes and norms of behavior
  • In a context of conflicting trends and values

Under these circumstances, the prognosis for effective implementation was never good.  Of course, the hope was that the new policies could kick-start or set in motion many of the desired changes that could encourage the kinds of interactions between administrators and teachers that would improve student learning. Given the challenges laid out here, the fact that some aspects of teacher evaluations across the US appear to have changed could be seen as remarkable. In fact, the NCTQ report makes clear that states and districts did respond to the policies.  In particular, many more states are now requiring multiple observations of some or all teachers and more than half of all states now require that all teachers get annual summative feedback.

However, the NCTQ report also explains that elements of the policy critical to the basic logic are falling by the wayside. Ten states have dropped requirements for using “objective evidence of student learning” (though 2 states have added such a requirement), and “No fewer than 30 states have recently withdrawn at least one of the evaluation reforms that they adopted during a flurry of national activity between 2009 and 2015.” The Education Week coverage also notes that states like New Mexico have rolled back tough accountability provisions. New Mexico had instituted a student-growth score that accounted for 50% of a teacher’s overall rating but has since dropped that requirement after “more than a quarter of the state’s teachers were labeled as ‘minimally effective’ or ‘ineffective.’ Educators (including highly rated teachers) hated the system, with some burning their evaluations in protest in front of the state education department’s headquarters.”

Notably, this analysis also highlights that the policies were largely indirect: The were esigned to develop an elaborate apparatus to measure teacher’s performance – with the hope that those changes would eventually affect instruction. Yet there was relatively limited investment in figuring out specifically what teachers could do to improve and the kind of feedback and support that would make those improvements possible. Under these circumstances, one could anticipate that many districts and schools would make some effort to introduce new observation and evaluation procedures, but that those new procedures would be grafted onto old ones, shedding the most complicated and controversial propositions in the process (providing another example of what Tyack and Cuban describe as a process of “schools changing reforms”).

The lesson from all this is not for the advocates to lament this rollback or the critics to revel in it.  Nor is it to abandon ambitious visions for rethinking and transforming the school system we have because the work that needs to be done is difficult or controversial.  The point is to use our knowledge and understanding of why changing schools is so difficult so that we can design improvement initiatives that take the predictable stumbling blocks into account.  It means building common understanding of the key problems that need to be addressed, coming to terms with the concrete changes that have to be made in classrooms and schools, and building the capacity to make those changes over time.

 

Imagination Lab Schools and the Future of Learning: An interview with Chris Bezsylko

In this week’s post, IEN talks with Christopher Bezsylko, the founding head of Imagination Lab School (ILS) a TK (transitional kindergarten) though 8th grade private school about to begin its second year in Palo Alto, California. Imagination Lab School asks students to “Know yourself as a learner; Find & exercise your voice; Seek multiple perspectives; and Take meaningful action.”

Bezsylko spoke to us this past spring during the US-China Education Forum, organized by the Columbia-Teachers College Chinese Students’ Association. In previous posts, we talked with Wen Chen about newly opened Moonshot Academy and with Joann McPike about the origins and work of Think Global School.

 

How did Imagination Lab School get started?

Christopher Bezsylko: Some who know our background like to say that we’re a phoenix story, because we started out of the ashes of another school closure. We were part of the Alt School Network, and our school was going well, but Alt School decided to focus more on its technology platform and they shut down several of their schools, including the one that I was leading in Silicon Valley. After that happened, many of our families felt that we had more work to do, and we wanted to figure out how to keep it going. At that point it was my third year in Silicon Valley, and I’d been thinking about the culture of innovation and the culture of collaboration that’s infused so many industries here. I’d been exploring what work is going to look like and what the community is going to look like in the next ten years, and, in terms of my own professional journey, I wasn’t ready to go back to a regular school. This idea of creating a new space for learning is energizing, and there is definitely a demand for it. I had a great team of educators that were with me, and I wanted to keep a cohort of us together and keep doing this good work.

So we met with a lot of different people. We had investors who knew about my history, and they offered money, but there were also a lot of strings to go with that money. Some wanted the school to be for-profit, and they wanted to control the board.  I’ve never said “No” to two million dollars before in my life, but I had to do it. That was not what I was interested in doing. We had also developed a lot of connections, particularly among the families that had been part of the school. Even some of the families that had already decided to send their children to other schools still believed in us, and they supported us financially. Then we partnered with ETU Education (a growing network of schools with campuses in China and network partners in other parts of the world). That partnership helped to give us some support and bandwidth behind the scenes, like IT support and technology support, as well as support for professional development. That partnership grew out of the fact that I’d met the founder of ETU, Yinuo Li a few years earlier when she was a parent in our previous school. So that was a great coincidence. She had moved back to Beijing and started a school there. We just stayed in touch. She was a good friend of one of the parents who became our board chair. Yinuo heard about what we were trying to do, and she wanted to help us maintain control of our vision. She came to us and said “Hey, you know, we can chip in a little bit of money and help you grow.” We both wanted to have a global school, and so the idea of exploring how we could do that from two very different parts of the world was really exciting. So with the support of our parents, we established an independent, not-for-profit private school in California.

What are three features of the school that are helping bring your vision to life?

CB: First and foremost, our promise is empowering each learner be their best self.  It’s about knowing who I am, finding and exercising my voice, understanding multiple perspectives, and taking meaningful action.  The second feature of our school is what we call community connections. A school isn’t just a set of walls and the people inside. We embrace learning that happens outside of school, and we seek out opportunities to regularly interact with the broader community. I like to say it’s not just being in the community but being of the community. It’s about making explicit, deliberate connections with the community. The last feature is impact. It’s about empowering every member of our community to take meaningful action, action that has a positive impact on others.

It’s also about connecting with other people and organizations around the really amazing work in education that is happening across the globe. Our partnership with ETU is an example of that.  We’re doing a lot of work focused on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and sharing it with them; and they’ve developed a communication platform between home and school, and we’re piloting that here as well.  We’ve also developed a student exchange program where students from each school spend a month visiting the other school. In 2018-19 we had students and teachers from ETU spend a month with us, and we look forward to growing that exchange program this year. In addition, this summer several of our team members visited schools in Beijing and led workshops there focused on problem-based learning and socio-emotional development, and I led workshops on the future of school and learning.

You just got started last year, but is there something you already know you need to change or adjust as you move into your second year?

CB: We are constantly learning with and from our students and families, so there are plenty of changes ahead. I would say the biggest things that we’re really pushing on right now is what does the fourth part of our promise to “Take action” mean?  We are looking beyond having a student complete a project to having a student who really goes out in the world and applies the knowledge, skills, and habits we are cultivating in a way that has impact in their personal lives, in their family, and in their communities. We’re realizing our kids are deeply engaged and deeply motivated, but we weren’t really hitting that fourth part of taking action as deeply as we believe we can. So really challenging them to think about “what’s the thing we’re going to do?” Whether it’s a personal commitment, and we publish it on our social media, or whether you’re going to go home and take an inventory of waste items in your trash can, and write a letter to your parents about the change you want to make at home. What’s a small impact that you can have? I think the first time around we started off with “What are the global changes that we can make?” But those are too big, even for me. So now it’s much more about what’s the local impact I can have?

Do you have other examples like the home inventory where you said this is more of what we had in mind?

CB: We have a rolling drop off. Kids just come in when they can, and they do a series of choice activities. We have one young man who is almost always the first student at school. He’s been coming in since the climate change unit with Starbucks cups and straws every day. So the head of our STEAM program sat down with him, and she pulled up the commitment that he made which was about reducing pollution in the oceans. He looked at it, and they talked about it, and said “Hey, how many days?” They looked at the calendar, and he realized it had been thirteen days. “How many cups have you brought? How many straws have you got? What’s your commitment?” Of course, this is a third grader who probably forgot his commitment because that’s what third graders do. Then she asked him a few questions, and he ended up bringing the letter home and said: “Hey, mom and dad, I need you to help me meet my commitment. I need your support and reminders so I don’t keep buying these things.” For us it’s one of the tools and resources that the child needs to keep his commitment. And this was a simple example, but it’s powerful in that we are trying to incorporate that learning at home as well. And so the parents are going to get this letter from the child, not from me as the head of school, not from a teacher. This is directly connected to something their child did at school.

Do you know how the parents responded?

CB: The response has been very positive. Our families value the strong relationships we form with them and their children, they value the authentic learning and the community connections, and they share many stories of learning that their children brought home. For example, during our end of the year investigation into Sustainable Development Goal 12: Responsible Production and Consumption, students across the grades explored the questions, “Where does our food come from?” and “How do our food choices impact our community?” As part of their learning, students in grades 2-5 created garden proposals which detailed how they could grow their own food at home. Students conducted interviews, did research, analyzed prices, created budgets, drew plans, and created prototypes of their garden spaces. As we were getting ready for our learning exhibition we started receiving videos from students which showcased the actual gardens they built at home. Some families were exchanging seeds and others were planning to share their harvest. There was a deep impact here where all members of our community were active and engaged learners.

Just for the basic facts: how many kids do you have now?

CB: This year we have sixteen students from TK, a transitional kindergarten, through fifth grade. We’ll add a grade level every year. We have two mixed age groups right now and we will evolve to five mixed age groups from TK-8.

You have worked in a number of different educational institutions, and you’ve been doing this work for a while. As you think of other people who are trying to create their own learning experiences or schools, what are some things you think might be helpful for them to hear about?

CB: For me, the biggest one is finding that “Why?” Knowing your “Why?” is the thing that drives you. In the first year, I spent a lot of my time focused on marketing, development, and operations because we are a small school without a lot of staff. I wear lots of hats and that means that I don’t get to spend as much time as I want every day sitting down with the teachers, learning with and from them. But when I make those sacrifices I remind myself why am I doing it. Because there are definitely hard days and dark days. But it really is about knowing why we are doing this work and why our work is important.

A short film from InformationMatrix TV provides another glimpse of Imagination Lab School

 

Launching THINK Global School: An Interview with Founder Joann McPike

THINK Global Schoolis a “traveling” school that takes students to four different countries every year, twelve countries total. In this week’s post, IEN talks with Joann McPikewho founded THINK Global in 2010.  We met McPike during the US-China Education Forum, organized by the Columbia-Teachers College Chinese Students’ Association. In a previous post, Launching a new school in China, we talked with Wen Chen about newly opened Moonshot Academy, and a future post from the Forum will feature Christopher Bezsylko Head of the Imagination Lab School.

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Where did the idea for Think Global school originate?

Joann McPike:When my son, Alexander, was young, we traveled a lot. We took schoolwork with him, and we did it while we were travelling.  By the time he was thirteen, we had been to seventy-two countries. When we were in these countries, the questions that he was asking, the answers he was getting, and, consequently, what he was learning became so much more relevant.

At one point, we were in Vietnam, and our guide said “I’m going to show you some American propaganda.”  In my head, I was thinking “Americans don’t have propaganda,” but he took us into a room, and it was full of American propaganda from the Vietnam war. It hit me right then that we so often learn history from just one perspective. If you go to school in America you talk and think like an American; if you go to school in France, you talk and think like you’re French; in China, you talk and think like you are Chinese. I didn’t want that for Alexander, I wanted him to have a global perspective. I wanted him to be able to look at different countries, and say, “Okay, why is this society where it is now?”

We get so stuck in the world today looking at whathappened, but we don’t spend enough time looking at whythings happen. Why is the world the way it is? Why is a society where it is? Why is a country where it is? Why is a person where he/she is? Why are they angry? Why are they bullying you?

I wanted to start asking those “why” questions. So, when it was time for Alexander to go to high school, I said to him maybe we could just get a big boat and travel around the world and take a tutor.  But he said “That would be really boring. It would be more fun if there were a bunch of kids.” I said, “Okay, I’m going to get a bunch of kids and teach, and we can travel the world.”   But my husband said “You are insane. Nobody is going to want to go to a school like that.”  But I just felt like that was the way for Alexander to get an education, so we did it.

That first year, we found fifteen kids with very brave parents. Our curriculum was minimal to start off with and our first head of school came and left — just walked out one day.  But we did that first year in such a beautiful way. It was really philosophy heavy. The math was a great. The science was a little bit haywire, but every country we went to, it was the food, the sports, the history. We read books from local authors and it was so rich and full, and I thought that’s the way I wanted it to be. Then, during the second year, the board at the time thought we needed to have students take the International Baccalaureatebecause that would give us some credibility, academic rigor, and respect. So, we did the IB for a couple of years. At some point, though, the students pulled me aside, and they sat me down and said this isn’t working. Many of them had been part of that first year where they just travelled, and learned, and experienced, and lived, and they grew as human beings.

So how did you respond?

JM:I said “Yeah, I know.” We were on a lawn in India and they had me in the middle of a circle. They said “We are an IB school that offers travelling. We’re not a traveling school that’s offering the IB.” and I said “I agree with you.” They were so stressed out about exams, and they were so stressed out about the number, you know “What am I going to get?”  It just made me so sad. The teachers were stressed out as well. So I went back to the board and I said, “Look, this isn’t working. This is not the school that I envisioned. This doesn’t feel right. So either we close it or we change it.” That’s when we looked for a new head and found our current head, Jamie Steckart.  The students were the ones that interviewed him, and they were the ones that said, “Okay, by far he’s the one we need.”

So, the key step was to work with the students to identify a new principal, and then for the principal to hire new teachers?

JM: No, at that point, we didn’t hire new teachers. When Jamie came in, he sat down with the students and said, “Look, the IB isn’t working. We want to get rid of it, and I know exactly what we’re going to do.” Jamie had been teaching project-based learning for twenty-five years before it was a thing. He was an Outward Boundinstructor, and he used to use project-based learning and saw the turnaround and the engagement it brought.

It did take a lot of trust, because even though I wanted something different, I didn’t know how to make that happen. I knew it had to happen, but just didn’t know how. So I had to have that trust in Jamie and in the process. When he said “Okay, this is what we’ve got to do. We need extra money in the budget because we’ve got to send these teachers around the world for the next year to develop curriculum and set up the projects for the next incoming class,” I went, “Okay, whatever you need. Let’s just do it.”  Through a lot of work, Jamie and a team of educators self-designed the Changemaker Curriculum, which we have in place today and has completely transformed our school, bringing it much closer to the highs we experienced during that first year.

When you describe the school, what are some of the key features you talk about?

JM:It’s a nomadic boarding schoolwith a curriculum based on  project-based learningand a heavy emphasis on social emotional learning.  I always say that our kids live their learning, and the learning is relevant. I tell them when they arrive: “You can go into any class and ask your teacher ‘Why am I learning this?’ and the teachers have to be able to tell you why. If the teachers can’t tell you why you’re learning that, why it’s relevant to your life, then come and talk to me.” That’s so different from my education. I did two years of algebra and calculus in high school. I have never used algebra and calculus. Someone once said to me, “Well, you need to have algebra and calculus so that you have linear thinking.” But my thinking is completely lateral. What kids are going to need in the future is lateral thinking. They need to be able to look at a problem from many different angles. Come at it sideways and not look at it the standard way.  That’s what we do with the kids as they travel around the world.

You might expect pivoting away from the IB would make our curriculum less challenging, but the opposite is true. The difference now is that our students are held to their own lofty standards rather than just that of an academic status quo. Instead of spending hours in a classroom being talked at by a teacher, our students are creating projects relevant to the communities they visit and answering driving questions that tackle real problems in the world.

How can we deliver potable water to rural communities in India? How should Japan’s government approach the nuclear debate? In each of the four countries they visit on a yearly basis, students integrate into the local community, gaining firsthand perspectives from locals and experts. Our students come from all over the world and apply their own unique take to everything they do. It’s incredible to see the different ways they approach each project’s driving question.

One of the key things I’d like to stress about education today is that we should be encouraging individuality in students instead of the standard one-size-fits-all approach, as no two students learn in the exact same way. This is where our focus on social-emotional learning and our curriculum truly shines. Our kids are gaining mastery in the subjects they truly care about and the 21st-century life skills that will truly help them as they leave high school and enter the next stages of their life.

We just graduated our first class of non-IB students in Greece, and the majority of them are now headed off to university or a gap year with a clear picture in their mind of what they want to pursue, and that’s because they’ve had hands-on experience doing it over the last two years. Their educational experiences at THINK Global School have been invaluable in getting them to that point.

 

As a school, what are you working on now? What’s one of the challenges that you face?

JM:With the school one of the challenges is getting full-pay students. Right now, it is a scholarship-based system. Most of the students have scholarships because I always said that it’s not just a school for rich kids, it’s a school for the right kids. There are a lot of amazing kids out there that would never be able to afford to go to a school like this but who are really going to do something good to change the world. They are the ones I want to go to this school. But we’re not a normal standard school, so another one of the challenges we have is to show that what we’re doing is safe. We’re not putting your children at some future risk that they’re not going to be able to get a job or they’re not going to be able to get into university. So our challenge is to prove to parents that it is academically safe to be so diverse.

What are some of the things that you’ve learned that you think might be helpful to those who are trying to create new schools, even ones that are quite different from yours?

JM:Be brave. Don’t listen to the naysayers. Just keep going. Dare to be different. Connect with other people who are doing similar things. Reach out. The people that I’ve met who are doing innovative things in education, we all want to know one another. There is support in numbers. It’s not a competition. I’m not competing with anyone. I want to help you build your school to be the best school that can be and you will help me do the same thing. I think in education, especially with these top boarding schools and universities, it’s all such a competition. It’s not a competition. If we truly want to save the human species, education is the key. We have to get everybody a decent education and help them develop a true belief of who they are, of their potential, and of what they’re capable.

 

Rapid Rise: Computer Science Education in NYC Part 2 (2015-2025)

This week’s post builds on last week’s discussion of the foundation of the Computer Science for All movement in New York City, focusing on how and why this work has taken off.

Like Finland’s enactment of a policy requiring that all studentsparticipate each year in “a multi-disciplinary learning module,”setting a goal of providing a computer science experience for all students within ten years created a demand for the development of computer science related learning experiences. But it did not prescribe the teaching of a particular course. In this case, NYC’s new policy initially left open exactly what counts as “meaningful” and “high-quality” computer education, stating only that “NYC students will learn to think with the computer, instead of using computers to simply convey their thinking.” Further the announcement declared that “Schools can implement computer science education in a way that aligns best to their educational vision.”   “The DOE deliberately avoided being too specific about a definition of computer science when the initiative launched,” Preston said. “The K-12 Computer Science Frameworkhad yet to be written and New York State did not have computer science standards, and work in computer science education had been very decentralized until that point. I think the DOE wanted to learn from doing… without schools immediately going to requirements and seat time.”

At the same time, as part of the new policy, CS4All built on initial efforts of the Software Engineering Pilot to develop the infrastructure that could support the spread of coherent and focused computer science learning experiences. As one article from Code.orgput it, CS4All started with an explicit “focus on providing resources for every step of the education pipeline.” For example, since New York’s statewide computer science framework had not yet been created, CS4All developed a CS Blueprintas well as a wide range of K-12 curricula.

In order to meet the increase in demand, the new policy also sought to increase the supply of teachers with the experience and skills to spread computer science learning experiences across the City.  The approach, however, had to take into account the fact that it could take quite some time to build a “pipeline” of computer science teachers to serve students in a variety of different computer science learning experiences at different levels.  Therefore, “we started with creating a job market for computer science educators,” Preston explained, recognizing that they would have to “catch up” with providing the preparation experiences and materials and programs later. Describing the challenges of preparing teachers, Preston continued, “without state certification, without dedicated teacher education programs, and without a job market for computer science teachers, there wasn’t going to be a pipeline.”  At the same time, Marcus stressed that from the beginning, the “pipeline” was designed to prepare teachers who can both teach computer science courses and who can act as leaders and computer science advocates who can support the spread of computer science education from inside the system.

To support the growing group of computer science teachers, the third goal of the new CS4All policy sought to build on and expand the portfolio of computer science programs working in the City. In particular, CSNYC cultivated connections with a number of programs that provided opportunities, often outside of school, for NYC youth to work and learn with technology.  With encouragement and support from CSNYC and the CS4All related funding, these programs turned their attention to developing the materials and the professional development programs that could help to build an “infrastructure” to support a wide range of computer science learning experiences. “Ultimately the idea is to offer a lot of on-ramps of different shapes and sizes that schools can choose from” Preston reported. Ideally, this variety would help to meet the varied interests and needs of different schools and students.

All of these developments contributed to substantial increases in the number of students receiving Computer Science education and taking and passing Computer Science AP exams.  In New York City, almost 134,000 students received Computer Science education in 2017-18, a 44% increase from the previous year.  In addition, the number of students in New York City taking an AP Computer Science exam in 2017 more than tripledcompared to 2016, and the number of students passing an AP Computer Science exam increased more than fourfold compared to 2016. New York City public school students also accounted for approximately 7 percent of AP Computer Science Principles exam-takers nationwide; and in a matter of only two years, AP Computer Science has become the third most popular of all Math/Science AP courses in the City. Notably, the students taking the AP computer science exam are among the most diverse of any subject, and, notably, the number of female students taking that exam increased from 379 in 2016 to 2,155 in 2018.

 

Why the rapid expansion?

As Monica Disare reported, New York City’s Computer Science for All “plan progressed from a concept to reality at a notably rapid pace, thanks to a rare combination of factors: a focused and well-connected champion, a growing national focus on career readiness, and the sustained interest of the city’s political leadership at a time when the mayor needs to demonstrate clear progress.” Although the combination might be somewhat rare, these factors coalesced along with Wilson and CSNYC’s deliberate effort to work with the NYC DOE and to cultivate relationships with and engage a variety of other funders, programs, companies, and educators who developed an interest in computer science education.

Like a typical development campaign at a major university or cultural institution, the initial investments in computer science education in the City helped to lay the groundwork for de Blasio’s announcement long before it was made. As a consequence, when the de Blasio administration was exploring which education initiatives to support, CSNYC and other computer science supporters were able to promise to raise half of the funding needed to meet the new policy’s ten-year goals.  The private commitment helped to leverage the public commitment, while the public commitment helped to encourage private donors. As Preston explained, “we were able to convince the City to do this by promising to raise half the money privately so for every dollar they commit they get two, but they can also flip that around and say to donors we can say that the public sector will match every dollar you pay.”

In some ways, though, Wilson and CSNYC were taking a chance by working closely with the NYC DOE during the Bloomberg administration. In fact, de Blasio directly opposed many of Bloomberg’s education policies, including Bloomberg’s efforts to link teacher evaluations to test scores and his embrace of charter schools.  However, Bloomberg’s emphasis on supporting the development and use of technology as an engine of the City and the economy in general was widely supported. As a consequence, computer science education was one initiative on which many could agree. “What’s nice about computer science education is it’s fairly bipartisan,” Preston said, “it’s a rare topic that many people can agree on.”

Beyond this support from what scholars like Tyack and Cuban call “policy elites,” the growth of the computer science commitment and movement in NYC also benefitted from the fact that computer science education can be incorporated and “fit into” many of the existing structures and practices of existing schools. For example, adding one of the AP courses dedicated to computer science education not only fits neatly into a typical high school course schedule, it also aligns with existing AP tests and takes advantage of all the incentives and supports that go with the existing high school graduation and college entrance processes. As Tyack and Cuban explain, these “add-on’s” (like the addition of kindergartens to elementary schools earlier in the 20thCentury) can be put in place without disrupting normal patterns of activity in schools. Furthermore, computer science education fits the conception that many people have of what “real school” could be. Sociologist Mary Metz coined this phrasethat helps explain why many “innovations” and practices that challenge conventional educational expectations have difficulty taking hold and spreading.  Thus, computer science learning experiences benefit from the fact that many see them as directly connected to both valuable careers in technology-related fields and to valued academic outcomes in math, computation, and critical thinking.

Nonetheless, both the political support and the ability to add computer science to conventional school structures come with downsides. Embracing political support leverages many aspects of the government infrastructure – making it possible to link to other professional development and preparation initiatives, to build on other DOE trainings and resources, and to get access to data to track progress and inform future planning. At the same time, the computer science work in the City is no longer independent; it’s subject to the requirements and expectations of the DOE and dependent on continuing support from district administrators and politicians who may change as political fortunes rise and fall.

In addition, although computer science education initiatives take advantage of the structures and expectations of conventional schools, the course requirements, standardized tests, schedules, staffing patterns and many other aspects of conventional schools make it difficult to carry out student-centered, collaborative, or project-based learning experiences that many computer science programs seek to develop. Most critically, adding computer science learning experiences into all conventional schools demands a massive investment in the preparation and professional development of computer science teachers. Whether or not those investments will pay off remains in question. Countless reform efforts and literature reviews point to the difficulty of substantially increasing teachers’ skills and abilities through preparation and professional development. Even spreading AP courses in traditional subjects like physics and chemistry across all schools has proven difficult, as very few schools in New York City have the staff to offer these courses.

Ultimately, even if the initiative succeeds in helping 5000 teachers develop the skills and expertise they need to support students’ learning of computer science in 10 years, many of those teachers may leave the system (particularly if the skills they develop end up encouraging and enabling them to take higher paying technology jobs outside schools).  Even with substantial capacity-building efforts like those taking place in New York City, this kind of “revolving door” that makes it difficult for many improvement initiatives to reach and sustain their goals and momentum.

Under these conditions, one might expect relatively conventional CS4All courses and learning experiences to spread rapidly across conventional schools; but how well executed those classes are and how different they are from conventional classes, remains to be seen.

  • Thomas Hatch

 

Rapid Rise: Computer Science Education in NYC Part 1 (2010-2015)

This week and next week Thomas Hatch describes how the effort to provide “computer science for all” has developed in New York City.  The first part focuses on some of the ways that early initiatives to develop new schools and courses with a focus on computer science education helped to lay the foundation for New York City’s pledge to provide all NYC public school students with a “meaningful, high‐quality computer science education.” The next week’s post will reflect on how and why computer science education has taken off and will consider the extent to which it fits into what David Tyack and Larry Cuban have called the “grammar of schooling.” 

“Computer science for all” has taken off.  A variety of teachers, academics, and programsaround the US have been working to help students learn about computer science for some time, but many point to 2013 as the year when a new movement began to pick up steam. That year, nationally, Code.org launched the now annual “Hour of Code” campaign; districts, including Chicago, quickly started adding computer science classes; and in New York City, CSNYCwas created to ensure that all New York City’s 1.1 million public school students have access to a high-quality computer science  education. Then in 2015, New York Citypledged that all its public schools would be required to offer computer science classes by 2025; and in 2016, then President Obama provided the official stamp of approval by announcingthat “in the new economy, computer science isn’t an optional skill—it’s a basic skill, right along with the three R’s.”

Although Congress never authorized the $4 billion dollars the Obama administration requested for computer science education in the 2017 budget, the White House and the National Science Foundation partnered to commit $120 million to the Computer Science for All effort. More recently, the Trump administration directed the US Department of Education to make available $200 million dollars for grants related to computer science education while another $300 million dollars in pledges came from a partnership with the Internet Associationand companies like Amazon, Facebook, Salesforce, Google and Microsoft.  As one indicator of the increasing attention to computer science, the introduction in 2016-17 of a new AP course on “Computer Science Principles” contributed to a sharp increasein the number of students taking an AP exam in computer science, including significant increases in the numbers of female, Latinx, and Black students taking the exam. Between 2017 and 2018, the number of students taking the AP Computer Science Principles exam increased again, by almost 50% from 50,000 to 76,000.

Changes usually seem to come slowly in schools, but this rapid expansion of K-12 computer science initiatives illustrates both some of the key opportunities and the challenges of making large-scale changes in education systems. In particular, the development of Computer Science for All illustrates how initiatives that fit into what Tyack and Cuban call the “grammar of schooling” can take off with the backing and resources of political elites. In fact, in some ways, “Computer Science For All” has emerged as a kind of “social movement.” Marshall Ganzdescribes social movements as emerging from “the efforts of purposeful actors (individuals, organizations) to assert new public values, form new relationships rooted in those values, and mobilize the political, economic, and cultural power to translate these values into action.” But, Michael Preston, the former Executive Director of CSNYC (a partner organization for New York City’s Computer Science for All [CS4All] initiative) stresses that what the movement actually achieves depends on much more than how far and how fast it spreads.  In a series of conversations, Preston highlighted some of the developments that set the stage for New York City’s commitment to provide a “meaningful, high‐quality computer science education” at every level by 2025. In the process, he highlighted that engaging all students in meaningful and rigorous computer science learning experiences depends on developing what amounts to an “infrastructure” for computer science learning, including developing the curricula, assessments, tools, preparation programs, professional development supports, professional networks, and organizational relationships that can reach every school in the City.

 

From two new schools to a portfolio of computer science programs

Even before computer science education picked up steam across the country, Fred Wilson, a venture capitalist, was working to support the spread of computer science education in New York City. Wilson’s interest grew as he realized that many of the technology related start-ups he invested in couldn’t hire enough local talent.  From Wilson’s perspective, the fact that computer science courses were primarily available in the most selective high schools with exceptionally high percentages of White and Asian students also made increasing access to computer science to students from all backgrounds a particularly pressing equity issue.

To respond to the problem, in 2010, Wilson sought out the advice of members of the New York City Department of Education (NYC DOE). They recommended Wilson start a new school dedicated to computer science education and take advantage of the NYC DOE’s decade-long support for creating and replicating small schools. As Preston, described it:

“I think the consensus at the DOE was that if you create a new school model, you can set the conditions for an innovative new practice to take shape. The idea was that they would open up a new small high school that would be a model for teaching computer science at an unscreened school [a school without admissions requirements] so that any student could apply; there wouldn’t be any academic pre-requisite; and every student who came through the door could get a rigorous sequence of computer science. But in every other way it would be a typical new small school.”

Acting on that advice, Wilson teamed up with the DOE’s Office of Postsecondary Readiness to open the Academy for Software Engineeringin 2012. The Bronx Academy for Software Engineeringlaunched a year later and both schools quickly got to work developing a multi-year sequence for computer science instruction.  While those schools were able to enroll high percentages of Hispanic and Black students as well as students qualifying for free or reduced price lunch, from the beginning those efforts also sought to address predictable challenges like developing a gender-balanced approach that appealed to both males and females. “Both schools were 80% male initially,” Preston explained, which reflected the applicant pool. “If you name your school something with software engineering in the title,” he added, “you may not attract the most balanced applicant pool.”

The intense effort that those schools had to put into creating a rigorous computer science sequence also highlighted the need for more extensive curricula as well as a “pipeline” of K-12 educators with relevant preparation and expertise in computer science.  To begin to meet those demands, in 2013, the DOE also launched the Software Engineering Pilot Program, which aimed to develop a 3-4 year sequence of computer science courses for middle and for high school. As Debbie Marcus, current Executive Director for Computer Science Education at the DOE described it, the program was a key step in pursuing the vision that “Computer Science education could be for every student in New York City, not just those in the new schools.” According to Marcus, the work on the pilot helped to build a foundation for the later rollout of Computer Science education across the City and contributed some key learnings along the way. In particular, the pilot engaged 40 teachers a year from many different subjects in a professional learning partnership with DOE-created curricula and resources. Those teachers were able to bring pedagogical and subject-matter expertise that made it clear that computer science learning opportunities could be integrated into many different courses, not just computer science courses. In addition, the pilot created opportunities to learn how to engage principals in the implementation process, both to ensure time for teachers to learn from experiences with a new subject  and to set up plans to spread computer science learning opportunities throughout a school.

At the same time, as another way to build the infrastructure to support the spread of computer science education in New York City, Wilson  worked with nonprofit expert Sarah Holloway and NYU computer science professor Evan Korth to create the New York City Foundation for Computer Science Education (CSNYC).  Among its initiatives, CSNYC developed partnerships with a number of computer science related programs from around the country and sought to help them take root in New York City. As Leigh Ann DeLyser (current Director of Education and Research at CSNYC) and Preston described in an initial historyof the development of CSNYC, those program partners included:

  • Exploring Computer Science Curriculum– A year-long, introductory level,high school computer science curriculum and teacher professional development program
  • Beauty and Joy of Computing– An AP Computer Science Principles Course developed by faculty at the University of California at Berkeley and members of the Education Development Centerin partnership with the DOEd
  • Bootstrap– Curriculum modules to help teachers of math and science in 6th-12thgrades to incorporate computer science content into their courses
  • Scalable Game Design– Classroom guides and professional development activities that help teachers to enable students to learn computational thinking while creating computer-related games.
  • TEALS(Technology Education and Literacy in Schools) – A program of Microsoft Philanthropies that recruits, trains, mentors, and places volunteer technology professionals from industry in high school classrooms as partners with teachers

These initial investments created a kind of “portfolio” of programs that represented a variety of different approaches to computer science education and engaged many different stakeholders in the work.  In the process, CSNYC itself began to expand its own goals from providing seed funding to providing connections and coordination to help the computer science education sector in the City develop in a more coherent way.  For example, CSNYC established two “meetups” where teachers and others involved and interested in computer science education could get together on a regular but relatively informal basis.  CSNYC also helped to track progress and identify several critical challenges that the various initiatives in the sector experienced: finding enough qualified teachers and creating enough “real world” computer science related internships and experiences for students.  To address these needs, CSNYC cultivated relationships with a variety of local universities and businesses.

All of this activity established a loose network of programs and a wide and engaged group of stakeholders that, according to CSNYC helped to expand computer science opportunities from a few New York City schools in 2013 to over 100 schools and over 10,000 students by 2015. As a result, when new Mayor Bill de Blasio was ready to develop some signature initiatives, Preston noted that expanding computer science across the City was already “tee’d up.”  Building on that momentum, in the fall of 2015 de Blasio significantly upped the ante with the establishment of CS4Alland the announcement that by 2025all NYC public school students, from kindergarten through 12thgrade, would receive “meaningful, high‐quality computer science education.” In addition, the announcement pledged that over the ten years from 2015 to 2025, the DOE and private partners would train “nearly 5,000 teachers who will bring computer science education to the City’s ~1.1 million public school students.”

  • Thomas Hatch

 

*this post also appears on internationalednews.com*

Launching a New School in China: An Interview with Wen Chen from Moonshot Academy

**This interview that Aidi Bian and I conducted with Wen Chen was posted on internationalednews.com**

Moonshot Academy, a new private school for an initial group of 37 14-16-year-olds, opened in the fall of 2018 on the campus of the Affiliated High School of Peking University. Wen Chen, Head of Research at Moonshot, talked about the origins of the school, the key features, and a few of the things that the school leaders have learned as the school has evolved.  We spoke with Wen Chen during the US-China Education Forum, organized by the Columbia-Teachers College Chinese Students’ Association. Future posts from the Forum will feature Joan McPike, founder of THINK Global School and Christopher Bezsylko Head of the Imagination Lab School.

 

How did Moonshot Academy get started?

Wen Chen: We actually started with an App designed to help high schoolers in Beijing organize themselves into learning communities. The App promoted learning companions or communities:  Students coming together and then learning things together. We tried to focus on anything that the school doesn’t teach you, but that you really need when you go into society because we recognized there’s a huge gap in terms of what you learn from school and what you really need to be able to do. So, we established a research team to study what the curriculum covers and what you need in your real life and in the job market, such as financial skills and other career-related skills. For example, financial management might be something we all share an interest in at the age of sixteen, so let’s just get together and learn. That’s the idea of the App. During the App stage, we successfully hosted an animation exhibition initiated by one of the high-schoolers using the App. Another group created a band.

 

How did the App turn into a school?

WC: We realized that if you are only doing extra-curricular things you can never accomplish the mission which is to prepare the younger generation to face the future. So, we realized that having an App to organize this online community or offline community is definitely not enough. And then we got the chance to work with the affiliated high school of Peking University and to create a school.  The principal of the high school has been very supportive as he wants to have this innovative force on campus and to make room for new things to emerge.

Originally the idea was to create a school that is learner-centered and provides necessary support for teenagers in the world. To create the school, we focused on the education goals of “cultivating fulfilled individuals and compassionate active citizens.” Then we started a lot of discussions before we had any students. Basically, we wanted to figure out what we mean when we say that this is a fulfilled individual, or this is a compassionate and active citizen. With that in mind, we started to look around and look for all the agencies and institutes that conducted research on what future talent should look like. We drew on a lot of models to guide our work including OECD’s Competency Framework, the Partnership for 21st Century Learning, the EU’s Competence for Lifelong Learning, and the Chinese Education Bureau’s Core Competencies and Values for Chinese Students’ Development (in Chinese). Eventually, we developed a competency model composed of three main domains. First, we emphasized the thinking tools that are the foundation of personal development. The second domain focuses on self-management, career development, and also mental and physical health. The last domain, which we think is most important is effective social cooperation. This is the structure that we use to consider how to help learners learn, how to make sure that we are seeing all the changes and to connect the missing part that traditional schools are not providing.

 

What are some of the key features of the school now?

WC:  Some of the key features include: project-based learning for the main pedagogy; advanced curriculum standards – a little bit from AP and from the Common Core (in the US) to be our course standards; and for assessment, we changed the assessment system from traditional letter grades to a mastery transcript.  We also use OKR (Objectives and Key Results) a management system used in Google and a lot of other companies. It’s aligned with empowering the employee and the staff to come up with solutions. It’s different from KPI (Key Performance Indicators). Instead of “I tell you this is the number that you need to reach,” learners need to set their own personal development goals. They need to figure out what it takes to reach that goal and what are the key results they really need to accomplish. We’re using that system for our company as well as for our learners.

For the school, we offer a number of different courses/learning experiences.  Then the learners choose from these options based on their personal development goal so that they can get support and more exposure to the content knowledge and competencies where they want to improve. For instance, someone might want to acquire more social emotional skills which means that the learner might choose courses related to those skills. Some learners might choose to focus on self-management. So, this learner might choose courses that are related to those skills. Or some may say I don’t want to be a shy person and may want to practice oral presentation and communication skills, so we also have courses for that. Basically, they go through course selection phase based on their personal needs. Then this creates the learning group for each course. We offer more courses than the learners need so some of the courses offered aren’t going to open if there are not enough learners who choose it.

The style of the class depends on the topic.  Some courses are more similar to traditional classes where you have discussions, Socratic questions, or seminars. Some courses are more maker-oriented, such as computer designing and programming, so for those courses learners do a lot of things in the maker space.

 

What are the learning activities like?

WC: In the fall, we had three different kinds of learning activities or what we call “learning scenarios”: Blended learning, project-based learning, and deeper learning.  Blended learning focuses on knowledge requirements. Learners make their own academic goals for the semester and then they just directly use Khan Academy or other online materials as their learning resources. All the learners go at their own pace, but we designed milestones to check learners’ progress and their mastery of the content. For the milestone, we design a defense session or if they want, they can choose to take a standardized test. It’s up to them. For the defense, the learners randomly pick questions out of a question pool, and then they need to give an oral representation within ten minutes. That is followed by some questions.

The second scenario, project-based-learning, is considered our main course. All of the projects are designed by our teachers, and learners will choose the course based on their OKR’s.

The deeper learning scenario is designed to accomplish three outcomes: One is learning how to learn, one is systems thinking, and the last one is self-awareness.

We changed these scenarios significantly after the first semester. We decided to keep the names of the key elements, but instead of using those as our curriculum structure, we changed into a different structure which includes our common core (which still includes some elements from our original Blended Learning scenario), the Focused Curriculum (courses that are interdisciplinary and focused on project-based learning), Media Courses (Math & English) and the Personal Project which emphasizes learner-initiated projects.

The way that we define the common core is, we provide four different domains in the disciplines: social science, humanities, science and engineering. We try to select “discipline competencies”, which are shared by all of the courses or subjects inside of each of the domains. For instance, in the social science domain, subjects like anthropology, psychology, and sociology share some competencies so we tried to use those as competency standards for course design. Learners need to choose at least one course out of each of the domains before they graduate.  We want to make sure that they have those competencies (maybe not the course itself or the content knowledge itself), but definitely have that kind of a shared competency mastered after the Common Core.

 

Why did you make these changes?

WC: There were two main reasons. One is that when we conducted the blended learning, we realized that in a mixed group sometimes it can be really challenging for the learners to be on their own with the content. No matter how frequently you try to interact, we’re missing the part where the learner is watching the video themselves. We don’t want them get into the habit of passive learning. So we decided to design a better scenario where we can see and be with them. The second reason is that we realized we want to have three sets of assessment standards. One is efficacy competency, like global citizenship or global perspective. But we also want to make sure that our curriculum is very rigorous and academic-driven. So, we needed to put more emphasis on subject competency as well as subject knowledge mastery. We had to figure out what would be the best way to combine subject competency and the subject content knowledge learning without jeopardizing what makes us a different type of school. We definitely couldn’t go back to traditional courses, like one teacher preparing one course and then just talk and talk. However, we really wanted to make sure that the face-to-face interaction time is enough to meet the subject competency or habit of mind of the subject learning. We decided to adopt a scenario where the teacher and learner have more interaction but we definitely needed something that’s not one-direction instruction all the time. We created the common core scenario which is more like the flipped classroom where the learners do pre-course reading and listen to the audio materials, but once they are in the classroom, it is a facilitated process and discussion.

We still kept the part where learners can go on their own pace. You can learn as much as you want, but in class we try to sit together and discuss something that we all share and ask questions. We still provide the blended learning as a separate course or a separate activity and experience that learners can choose. Because we’re a really small school, we don’t have the capacity of having all of the subjects covered for all of the teachers. For some courses, learners still need to go online to learn the materials, and they are going to learn on their own. However, we need to make sure that we answer their questions in time, when they run into trouble.

 

It’s still early in the journey, but is there already anything in particular that you’ve learned from this that other people trying to start their own schools might find beneficial? Things you wish you’d known before you started?

WC:  I would say the most important thing what we learned so far is to “know your audiences and know your families”. We are very transparent and very honest with parents. I want to share this with people who want to open a new school in China: be honest with your parents and also work with them. That’s something that I learned from the previous semester.

China is a complicated society and you ave all different types of audiences and families. The reason why I’m saying know your families and work with them is to emphasize the complicated features of the families. For us, we have a lot of families who used to stay in the public school system. However, their kids are in the public schools’ international sector. The learners have already made up their minds to go to a college or university abroad when they graduate from high school. Then there is also part of our group who are already in international schools or schools with the International Baccalaureate system or A-Level system. Then there are a few families that are just in a traditional public school setting. Those are our audiences. We try to create a lot of opportunities to discuss the school with the families before they decide to jump on board. We really want to make sure that what they are looking for is something that we can provide.

External Support for Schools in Historical and International Perspective

My recent commentary in Education Week (“Who will improve the school improvement industry?”) and a longer version (“How can “outside” help support work inside schools?”) suggest some strategies that might help increase the collective impact of external support in schools. Those suggestions build on the recognition that schools in the US need much more support to improve learning for all students and that external support providers can offer access to resources, expertise, and services that many school districts cannot develop on their own. As “intermediaries” these organizations also facilitate sharing of information and coordination among schools and those working in different parts of the education system.

However, it is worth highlighting that the need for this kind of external support is exacerbated by the highly-decentralized nature of the US system. This reliance on external support in the US education system seems unimaginable in countries as diverse as Singapore and Finland that have invested in making sure all schools have access to adequate facilities, resources, and expertise. In addition, in Singapore, the education system reflects a “centralized-decentralized” approach that both constrains and supports all educational enterprises including those engaged in fostering students’ learning and development outside of schools. In Finland, education stakeholders at the national, local and school level engage in a coherence-building curriculum renewal process roughly every ten years that guides the work of all those involved in education.

Further, although we have learned a lot in recent years about the challenges and possibilities for using external support effectively, many policies seem to ignore that evidence. In particular, national initiatives and federal policies in the US continues to assume that there is a steady supply of effective programs. For example, in 1983, A Nation At Risk declared, “It is our conviction that the essential raw materials needed to reform our educational system are waiting to be mobilized through effective leadership.” Since that time a series of federal in initiatives have built on the idea that there is an established knowledge-base and effective support providers and, in turn, have increased the pressure on states and schools to use those external resources.

These policies have contributed to the development of a small number of school models that have demonstrated effectiveness (for example Success for AllExpeditionary Learning, and Diplomas Now).  Nonetheless, overall results have been mixed at best. For example, in 2002, RAND’s evaluation overview concluded NASDC’sinitial hypothesis–that a school could improve its performance by adopting a whole-school design–was largely unsupported.” (Full disclosure, I worked on the NASDC-funded ATLAS Project and chronicled the challenges in designknowledge-use, and scale-up.) The 2008 CSRD evaluation reported only one-third of the schools awarded funds chose reform approaches with “recognized scientific research bases.” Most recently a summary of 67 different evaluations conducted on programs supported by the i3 grants found that only nine evaluations (13%) found evidence of both adequate fidelity and positive impacts on student academic outcomes.  A recent Carnegie Corporation report pointed out the continuing challenge that schools are often overwhelmed by multiple support providers who work in an uncoordinated fashion that may hinder rather than help improvement efforts; a finding consistent with my own work from twenty years ago (“When improvement programs collide”) echoed in another Rand report (“Challenges of conflicting school reforms”) on the implementation of New American Schools’ designs in one district).

We can keep these challenges of using external support in mind and learn from previous efforts. In the end, all of us who are involved in education are responsible for taking best advantage of the real contributions external providers can make and for taking seriously the problems and issues that we know make it difficult to use that support effectively.

  • Thomas Hatch

 

How can “outside” help support work inside schools?

This post provides an expanded version of the commentary “Who should improve the school improvement industry” published last week in Education Week. The commentary is by Thomas Hatch, IEN Founder and Professor of Education at Teachers College, Columbia University and Co-Director of the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching (NCREST).  The commentary and post report on a study of “The Role of External Support Providers in Improving K-3 Reading Outcomes in New York” funded by the Brooke Astor Fund for New York City Education in The New York Community Trust. Hatch also discussed the study in a podcast for CPRE’s Research Minutes.

Schools and districts depend on a host of “outsiders” to help them create powerful learning experiences for all their students.  This loose collection of curriculum providers, tutoring programs, staff developers, management consultants, and school designers forms what Brian Rowan calls the “school improvement industry.” Almost thirty years of federal policies and philanthropic initiatives have fueled both the demand for these kinds of organizations and the supply (see CSRD, NCLB, and SIG, the Annenberg Challenge and the Gates Foundation’s small schools initiative among others). Illustrating that growth, this year, a survey of 13 state websites identified 151 of these organizations, but in 2001, I only found 63 listed in the Catalog of School Reform Models, with only 15 in existence before 1980.

The development of this “industry” builds on two key ideas:

  • On their own, many schools do not have the capacity they need to make sufficient improvements in students’ learning
  • There are “external support providers” that do have the capacity – the resources, expertise, and connections – that can help large numbers of schools make those improvements

A lack of adequate progress towards many educational outcomes supports the first proposition, but even with evidence that some providers such as Success for All and Expeditionary Learning can be effective, the limited number of “proven” providers casts doubt on the second. Reviews that demonstrate effectiveness of some improvement programs, curricula and professional development services also show how rare it is to find those approaches employed in practice on a widespread scale. Illustrating the problems when outside experts try to influence what happens inside schools, only a handful of the largest districts in the US consistently use highly-rated curricula. Many curricula and textbooks that claim to be aligned to the Common Core actually are not; and a recent study on the research behind apps for 3-5 year olds spawned the headline “few preschool apps are developmentally appropriate.”

Why is it so difficult to produce and use “proven” programs and practices?

Numerous factors contribute to this state of affairs including the difficulty of carrying out complex evaluations, the limitations of conventional methods and outcome measures, and the need to adapt to different contexts.  All of which stoke debates about what counts as “proven” (as illustrated by the controversy over American Public Radio’s claim that many educators don’t know the science related to how children read). But with thousands of schools that need to make improvements, why is it a surprise they turn to thousands of materials, practices, and programs that are not “proven” and may not even be aligned with standards or what’s considered appropriate practice?

When we periodically stop to recognize this reality, too often, the response is to blame someone:  Blame the researchers for not doing the “right” kind of research; blame the schools and educators for choosing the “wrong” programs; blame the policymakers and funders for aiding and abetting the whole endeavor. But the growth of the “school improvement industry” and the difficulties in using external assistance and “research-tested” programs are not accidents. These issues are produced by a decentralized education system and a society that relies on the creativity of individuals and not-for-profit and for-profit enterprises to address many social, economic, and educational issues.

An illustration: External support for improving reading in New York City

As one example of the possibilities and challenges for taking advantage of the work of external support providers, my colleagues and I explored the nature and variety of external assistance available in just one subject (reading) at one level (elementary schools) in one large school district (New York City). Our report and research brief from that study shows over 100 programs working directly with students or teachers to improve reading outcomes in New York City public elementary schools. A review of a representative sample of programs revealed that those programs focus on a wide range of different goals – some on more specific skills like comprehension, while others focused on the standards of the Common Core or on “grade level reading.” The programs drew from a range of approaches, including tutoring for students and instructional coaching for teachers that have some evidence of effectiveness, but only 19% of the sample programs had publicly available evaluations reporting on their outcomes.

The sample programs demonstrated substantial reach, however, suggesting they could serve as a valuable lever for system-wide improvement. In fact, just 26 programs reported working with 161 different schools comprising 16% of all elementary schools in NYC (including 28% of the elementary schools in the Bronx and 26% of the elementary schools in Manhattan). We also found some basis for collective impact as just over half of the sample programs reported working in partnership or collaboration with at least one other sample program. At the same time, the sample programs get support and information from a wide range of sources of funding and expertise that are themselves likely to be only loosely related. The sample programs reported receiving grants from 57 different funders and identified 75 different sources for literacy expertise with little overlap. The sources of expertise encompassed individual consultants, the conferences of the National Council of Teachers of English, and the Huffington Post.

What would it take to increase the collective impact of external support?

Moving forward requires both long-term and short-term strategies. Long-term strategies can build on efforts at the national level to develop “evidence-proven” programs, to support research use, and to foster networked improvement communities focused on reading.

At the same time, local and regional efforts can launch short-term strategies to promote greater coordination, coherence and collective impact right now:

  • Share information and build awareness by regularly “mapping” which programs are providing support in key aspects of schooling – Carried out systematically every five years in areas like reading, math and school improvement (or on an as needed basis as priorities and initiatives develop in other areas), this scan of the educational environment could make visible the extent and nature of the outside support available; reveal areas of overlap; and expose underserved areas where more support might be needed.
  • Support coordination, common understanding, and coherence – Local hub organizations can bring together stakeholders from inside and outside schools to jointly reflect on the information from these periodic scans and other research. These hubs could then identify common needs, discuss relevant research and effective practices, and develop agreements on standards and expectations.
  • Build broader coalitions for collective impact – Strategic alliances and collaborations could bring together strategic partners to take on emerging needs in local neighborhoods (as in East New York Reads) or broader regions (like the Early Literacy Task Force in Michigan).

Strategies like these begin with the recognition that investments need to be made in building the capacity of both external support providers and schools; but they also establish a middle way between adding more bureaucratic requirements and letting “1000 flowers bloom.”                                                                                   

 

Can the “School Improvement Industry” support system-wide improvements in K-3 Reading Outcomes in New York City?

**This post initially appeared on internationalednews.com**

This week’s post features a podcast with IEN founder Thomas Hatch.  The podcast discusses a recently released report and research brief drawn from a study designed to identify all the external support providers working with New York City public schools to improve K-3 reading outcomes. 

https://videopress.com/embed/5E1ivxOv?hd=0&autoPlay=0&permalink=0&loop=0

In the latest podcast from CPRE’s Research Minutes, CPRE Senior Researcher Ryan Fink talks with Thomas Hatch about his latest study “Mapping the reading improvement sector in New York City.”  Among other issues Hatch discusses the nature of the school improvement industry in general, as well as some of the challenges that “external support providers” have faced in trying to work with schools in the US most productively.  He also highlights the longstanding nature of the problem – citing his own experiences while working at the ATLAS Communities Project and described in a 2002 article “When improvement programs collide.” Hatch goes on to discuss how difficult it is get any sense of the size, scope, growth, or effectiveness of this external support even in one area (reading), at one level (K-3), in one region (New York City).  As he put it, when the research started:

how many programs are trying to help New York City elementary schools improve reading outcomes? Nobody had any idea…So this work has been designed to get a sense of not just how many organizations and people are out there doing this work, but exactly what kind of work they’re doing, and then to figure out what we can do to try and make sure that all of this work adds up to more than the sum of its parts, and really has a much more powerful and catalytic effect on reading in New York City.”

When Fink asks Hatch about the implications, he responds that “we need to come to the realization that there’s not going to be an adequate supply of proven programs, and they’re still going to be demands” from schools for help. He concludes by outlining some of the key steps that he thinks can help to build coordination, coherence, and collective responsibility in the reading improvement sector.

 

Speculations on Education in the 2020’s…

My current work focuses on how to develop an education system that prepares us all for a future we can’t predict.  Nonetheless, rounding-up the year-end reviews from many of the education/news outlets I follow (see the links below) always inspires some reckless speculation. This year, as last year, issues related to educational technology and personalization/customization in the US, immediately came to mind:

Virtual reality will be the whiteboards of the 2020’s — Almost everywhere I travel I find whiteboards in classrooms, and almost everywhere I travel I find teachers (including me) who don’t use them.  These “hardware” innovations manage to scale because they make schools look like they are doing some “new”, but can be plugged-into conventional structures and practices without really challenging the status quo. Furthermore, new hardware can be difficult to maintain, the basic technology changes so fast that it can be difficult for schools and educators to keep up, and, ultimately, effectiveness depends on the expertise of individual teachers.  As long as educators have to rely on evolving hardware to take advantage of virtual reality, there will be some amazing and powerful uses, but it will remain limited in wide-scale effectiveness. (As a corollary, I also predict that whenever I see another innovation that is not working out as intended, I will soon find out that Larry Cuban has already pointed this out in a succinct and enlightening way)

AI will do for education in the 21st Century what standardized tests have done in the 20th – Artificial intelligence is already flowing into many classrooms in “smart” assessments, “intelligent” tutoring systems, online services and the phones and social media accounts of teachers and students, and the costs and benefits need to be carefully considered. These carriers may increase efficiency, particularly on routine and standardized tasks, by providing individualized feedback and guidance.  On the positive side, these developments can create opportunities for students and educators to spend more time on activities involving deeper learning, social emotional development and other worthwhile pursuits; and just as standardized tests had some benefits – by making inequities in educational opportunities and outcomes visible for example – AI could help historically underserved students get access to more effective feedback and customized support.  At the same time, the most sophisticated uses of AI to support “deeper learning” and support more complex tasks will likely remain out of reach for many schools and educators for some time.  As a result, using AI in education may well reinforce the same narrow set of academic skills and abilities – and may reflect the same biases and systemic racism – as standardized and high-stakes tests.

Personalization in classrooms will be as successful as project-based learning – This year, the blowback and concerns about personalization seemed to get as much attention as the efforts to promote it.  Given the ease of saying education is personalized and the difficulties of actually carrying out any kind of individualized instruction in conventional classrooms, personalization may well remain a niche reform.  It will continue to have adherents, particularly among those who seek an alternative to traditional schooling, but many will continue to be skeptical and to resist large-scale efforts to adopt it without considerable community input and support.

Customization of educational pathways will be the new frontier for “choice.” Even as it remains difficult to individualize instruction in classrooms, the rapidly multiplying opportunities to support learning outside of traditional education institutions will create opportunities for individuals to get “just-in-time” learning when they want and need it.  Employers, new providers as well as traditional schools, colleges, and universities are already creating badgesmicro-credentialsnew degree programs, and other targeted learning opportunities.  As a result, students will have more and more opportunities to choose providers (online and off) to help them develop abilities and expertise that support their academic, personal, and professional development.  In the process, institutions focused on preparation may face more competition from organizations and individuals that offer professional development and ongoing support.  Again, although students from different backgrounds may find new educational opportunities that better meet their needs and interests, there is no reason – yet – to think that the resources and support needed to find those opportunities will be equitably distributed.

These reflections rely primarily on wild extrapolation, mixed with a small dose of my own experiences with the challenges of making rapid and wide-scale changes in schooling.  However, I have more confidence in saying that changes in work and the workforce and related uses of time are more likely to change schools than any particular reform effort, policy change, new technology or other “innovation.”  As long as parents have to continue to rely on schools to house their children from 8 AM to 3 PM or so – in buildings that separate them from the surrounding community; in isolated classrooms with one adult and a relatively small group of peers; with limited funds and resources – there is no reason to expect that schools will look substantially different from the teacher-centered, age-graded, academically oriented, standardized test based form that has developed over the past century all over the world.

Under these circumstances, what will change?  The most significant changes may come in the experiences, perceptions, and treatment of childhood. The rise of industrialization came along with decreases in child labor (though by no means it’s elimination).  Those developments also created space and time for a different kind of childhood for some. Today, the advent of new technologies and social media can make childhood more public in ways that may lead children to become “young adults” much more quickly.  With personas and histories that are widely visible through social media, serious debates about the abuses and uses of children’s work, images, and perceptions by their parents and others have already begun.  I’ve experienced this in my own work as I’ve struggled with how and when to draw on and represent my children’s experiences in schools in Norway and Finland as well as on my social media accounts.  But the publication of everyday life affects us all, as we find our actions and identities subject to much wider interpretation and critique.  But at the same time that the pervasiveness of social media opens children up to inspection, monitoring, and new forms of profiteering, it can also create opportunities for transparency, making visible young people’s experiences in ways that reveal – and address – inequality and injustice. What’s more, the changing times also afford opportunities for young people to become artists, entrepreneurs, and activists who can have a much wider impact on the world around us than they ever have before.

— Thomas Hatch

 

An (unsystematic) scan of 2018 year-end reviews education stories, issues,   and predictions for 2019

Education in 2018 seems to have been distilled into a series of sub-topics as sources like Education Weekthe74, and EdSurge all offered multiple reviews in areas like Higher Education, Politics, EdTech, EdBusiness and others.

Year in Review: Our Top Edtech Business Stories of 2018, Edsurge

EdSurge’s Year in Review: The Top 10 K-12 Stories of 2018, Ed Surge

EdSurge HigherEd Year in Review: Our Top Higher Education Stories of 2018, Ed Surge

2018 in Research: How Principals Lead, Gates Faltered, and Teens Balk at ‘Growth Mindset’, Education week

U.S. Education in 2018 in 10 Charts, Education Week

Top Posts of 2018 Focus on Big Education Companies and Popularity of Digital Tools, EdWeek Market Brief

The Hottest Stories in the Ed. Market in 2018, and What It Means for the New Year, EdWeek Market Brief

Education Week’s Biggest K-12 Technology Stories of 2018, Education Week

Our 2018 Education Journalism Jealousy List: 22 Important Articles About Schools We Wish We Had Published This Year, the 74

The Top 2019 Priorities Inside America’s 15 Biggest School Districts: Teacher Strikes, Integration Fights, Sexual Misconduct Claims & More, the 74

Best Education Articles of the Year: Our 18 Most Popular Stories About Students and Schools From 2018, the 74

How School Policy Changed in 2018: The Year’s 7 Biggest Federal Storylines, From Unforgettable Student Advocacy to an Already Forgotten White House Proposal, the 74

6 Education Predictions for the New Split Congress: From School Infrastructure to Student Discipline to ‘Groundhog Day’ on Higher Ed?, the 74

2018 in charts:

11 Charts That Changed the Way We Think About Schools in 2018, the 74

U.S. Education in 2018 in 10 Charts, Education Week

In New York City

What happened in New York City education this year — and what to expect in 2019Chalkbeat

In California

California education in 2018; A look back at EdSource’s top stories, EdSource

California education issues to watch in 2019 — and predictions of what will happen, EdSource

Philanthropy & Social Innovation

Crystal Ball Check-In: How Did We Do at Forecasting 2018 Philanthropy?, Inside Philanthropy

Philanthropy Awards 2018, Inside Philanthropy

Top 10 Most-Read CEP Blog Posts of 2018, The Center for Effective Philanthropy

Looking Back and Looking Ahead

What worked (and didn’t) this year: 10 lessons from education research to take into 2019, Chalkbeat

Ten Education Stories We’ll Be Reading in 2019, Education Week

The Year of Thinking Forward, CRPE

Reflections from education reporter Jenny Abamu on Twitter

Some of the “favorite development papers of 2018” from the World Bank, including three from economist David Evans who highlighted three papers related to education in the developing world: