Small steps to big changes in schools

As schools in the US and other parts of the world make difficult decisions about how to reopen this fall, I look at some of the concrete steps that, over time, could make schools healthier places and transform the basic parameters of schooling. This post expands on comments I made at the Education Disrupted/Education Reimagined convening sponsored by WISE and the Salzburg Global Seminar in April  and summarized in a volume sharing the conference proceedings.

Have the wide-spread school closures changed schools forever? The history of school reform efforts shows that schools are much more likely to change slowly and incrementally than they are to suddenly transform, even in the face of a deadly virus. Yet we can take advantage of what we know about how students learn and how schools change to address a critical problem with the design of conventional schools:  Schools are a better medium for spreading disease than they are for supporting meaningful learning.

Learning depends on healthy, safe conditions for students, educators, and all those who work in schools; but schools cram too many people into too little space, and the typical lay-out of age-graded classrooms along labyrinthian hallways limits collaboration, exploration, and engagement with the world. We’ve made things worse in the US by leaving buildings in disrepair, and failing to provide adequate ventilation, air conditioning or heating, particularly in low-income communities. Add on a draconian schedule with little time for exercise, lunch, or other healthy activities; and then ramp up stress levels with high stakes tests where students have to sit in rows in silence for hours facing a ticking clock.

But things can change. We can make schools safer for students and staff as schools reopen, and we can create a foundation for much healthier and more powerful educational opportunities in the future.  

We can make schools safer for students and staff as schools reopen, and we can create a foundation for much healthier and more powerful educational opportunities in the future.  

Focus on learning that matters

The school closures and the inequities of access to online learning immediately launched a spate of proposals for dealing with “learning loss.” Many of these proposals rely on intensifying work on academic subjects, yet these proposals ignore the mile-wide and inch deep curriculum and age-graded pacing that make it almost impossible for those left behind to catch-up. Addressing academic learning loss begins by concentrating on a small set of key skills and concepts and providing educators with the tools to ensure that every student actually meets those learning goals.

Although academic needs have to be met, the challenges that students face as they return to school go far beyond academic achievement and a “less is more” approach to academics creates the efficiencies that provide time and space for supporting other critical aspects of children’s development. Back in school, learning will be enhanced by creating educational opportunities for students to reflect on their experiences during the outbreak; to develop coping strategies; to rebuild positive relationships with their peers and teachers; and to get engaged in meaningful and constructive work in areas they care about. When that happens, educators can shift their focus from covering the entire curriculum to addressing the critical needs of every child.

Addressing academic learning loss begins by concentrating on a small set of key skills and concepts and providing educators with the tools to ensure that every student actually meets those learning goals.

Break down the barriers between learning “inside” and “outside” schools

As we remake schools to help stop the spread of the virus, we can stagger schedules to fit students’ sleep patterns and development as they get older. We can make sure that students have regular chances to take the breaks and get the exercise that we know benefits learning and productivity. As we limit the number of people using school facilities at any given time, we can rotate students in and out of schools and expand support for students’ learning far beyond school walls. In addition to online learning, we can take advantage of possibilities for education outside on playgrounds, in the natural world, and in the neighborhood in gyms, museums, libraries, community organizations, and businesses. In the process, we can shift the focus from getting children into schools to enabling them to explore the world.

Expand the power of the education workforce

         To increase the reach and power of teachers who have been limited largely to working with students in classrooms, we can engage a host of people who have the time and the capacity to play a positive role in learning inside and outside schools. Organizations like City Year and Citizen Schools already demonstrate how to mobilize volunteers young and old who can provide targeted academic support as tutors, act as mentors, or guide students’ in projects, apprenticeships, and community service. Numerous proposals could help meet the demand, whether it’s through the kind of education “Marshall Plan” discussed by Robert Slavin or by expanding National Service and Americorps as outlined by David BrooksJohn Bridgeland and Alan Khazei, or bills  being developed in the Senate.

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Condense schooling and increase learning

All of these changes are within our reach right now. They do not require new curricula, massive professional development for teachers, or new technologies. Reimagining education depends on re-orienting our priorities, making schools healthy and safe, and focusing first and foremost on students’ needs and interests, particularly those of Black, Latinx, and immigrant students, students from low-income communities and the communities hardest hit by this pandemic. But as we change our priorities and take these initial steps, a more radical possibility emerges: Condense the school day.

Instead of extending the school day and requiring students to spend even more time on basic skills, we can concentrate more efficient academic support in more limited time slots, with educators able to utilize sophisticated materials and coordinate contributions from colleagues with specialized expertise as well as volunteer tutors, mentors, and online and offline guides. In a sense, every day could be a half-day, opening up opportunities for students to have lunch, get outside, and participate in a host of school-based, community-based, or online activities; to get any counseling they need; to pursue their own education interests; and to participate in activities that foster a much wider range of developmental and educational goals. Such an approach rejects the tacit assumption that limits education to schooling and embraces the possibilities for supporting students’ learning and development wherever and whenever it occurs.

6 Things Educators Can Do From Home To Help Their Students

What can we do? That’s a question we are all asking right now. For all of us that question begins with what we can do to keep ourselves and those around us safe and healthy.  But parents and educators like me are also thinking about what we can do to support our children, students and colleagues as K-12 schools close and classes go online. There are no easy answers, but here are 6 things I’m thinking about to try to deal with the challenges and take advantage of the possibilities:

  1. Focus on health and wellness. Learning is an important goal, but health and wellness for everyone has to come first. Students will learn the most from the acts of courage and kindness that help keep us all going.
  1. Suspend Schoolwork. Suspend exams, grades, and any other requirements that may contribute to stress and anxiety – for teachers and parents as well as students. Children and parents need opportunities and guidance for engagement in positive and productive activities, not more reasons to fight over homework or “keeping up.”  
  1. Encourage invention, design, creative expression and meaningful engagement. Instead of trying to figure out how to cover the curriculum, educators can put the syllabi aside and focus on meaningful activities – activities related to important learning goals that might be motivating and interesting for students to do while they are out of school.  Instead of creating new demands, concentrate on creating new possibilities:
    • Encourage students to keep a weekly diary – in words, pictures or any other media
    • create online journals, newspapers and magazines that students can contribute to
    • Invite students to share artwork, music, writing, photographs, or videos in an online exhibition
    • Stage online “talent shows” for students to share videos they have produced
    • Provide links to online resources and tutorials for learning languages, playing an instrument, developing academic abilities or learning other skills and enable students to share their progress
  1. Connect, connect, connect. Educators are uniquely positioned to provide information and support for their students, particularly those who are struggling the most. We can check-in, ask how they and their families are doing, share the latest news and resources, and help to identify critical needs. Educators can also build relationships and fight isolation by finding and creating opportunities for students to connect with one another as well with adults, particularly those in retirement homes, hospitals or anywhere else people might be disconnected and in distress
  1. Find new ways to serve the community. Create online community service activities and virtual service projects. My oldest daughter, a senior in college, has been serving as a mentor and had to say goodbye to the elementary student she visited every week, but what if they didn’t have to say goodbye? What if they could stay in touch by text or video even for a short-time every week? With so many students of all ages out of school, we can create online clearinghouses where students – or anyone really – could connect with those looking for mentoring, tutoring, or just conversation. Reach out and partner with parents, those from community centers, after school programs, Americorps programs like City Year and Citizen Schools, museums,  and libraries to find and create these activities for students to engage in online. Together educators and these extended programs can work to focus particularly on the students and their families who may be unable to get online or stay connected.
  1. Embrace collective responsibility. From living in Norway for a year, I learned it is possible both to respect the rights of every individual and cultivate a sense of collective responsibility.  There is no more important time for reinforcing our common bonds and recognizing that everything we do has an impact on our neighbors. It could be as simple as inviting children to call their grandparents or extended family once a day or a couple of times a week or just calling down the hall, leaning out the window or talking across the fence. The most profound thing we can do in difficult times can be done anywhere in any circumstances, dedicate ourselves to working with and for each other.

New year, new predictions?

In this week’s post, I scan of some of education predictions in the news over the past few weeks and reflects on the possibilities schools and education in the coming years.

Last week and the week before, my roundup of key issues of the past year and decade highlighted for me the difficulty of making predictions about the future.  The safest thing to do is probably to stick to ambiguous statements like “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” My recent work looking at why so many efforts to change schools fall short of their goals suggests that statement may be particularly accurate in education. That does not mean that things have not and will not change at all and scanning the predictions for the coming the year and decade (listed at the end of this post) provides a glimpse of what some commentators think might transpire. By the end of the 2020’s there will undoubtedly be many new schools, new learning experiences available outside of schools, and new technologies. Looking back at the concerns about stress, safety, data privacy, the spread of false information and other problems that emerged in the last ten years, the new developments of the 2020’s may well have some undesirable effects. But it’s possible to imagine some more positive effects as well:

  • Beyond school choice? Rather than arguing over whether students should be able to choose schools, students might have more opportunities to fashion learning pathways that match their specific needs and interests. Those pathways might include learning experiences in schools, but students might be able to draw on a much wider array of learning opportunities outside of schools in their own communities but also around the world, online.
  • Beyond the “usual subjects”? Rather than intensifying the focus on testing and basic skills, new developments might make it possible for more students to learn the basics more efficiently and in less time, creating opportunities for them to develop their abilities in many different ways. Those will likely include more formal and informal opportunities to participate in e-sports, to produce their own music and other art works, craft their own products and services, and participate in virtual communities where they can share those experiences and products far beyond their local schools.
  • Beyond personalization? Rather than having to rely on educators to figure out how to personalize learning or differentiate instruction for every child, students and parents may be able to play a more active role in choosing the goals of their learning experiences and the nature of those experiences as well.
  • More time for teaching and learning? Rather than making teachers obsolete, new technologies may tackle many of the “back-end”, administrative, and managerial aspects of schooling; in the process, those developments might create more room for teachers to work with students and other educators on teaching and learning.

Nonetheless, as it has been in education for the past 100 years, many of the most unconventional developments are likely to be confined to the margins, to alternative schools and special populations, and to the white and/or wealthy elites who are most likely to be able to take advantage of them.  At this point, I’m not sure there is any reason to revise substantially what I said when looking ahead last year:  That changes in schooling happen slowly, and incrementally and that the most significant changes will come as society as a whole changes, as the environment evolves, as new economies and technologies develop. Those changes may have the most significant impact on schools when the nature of work and family life shifts and parents no longer have to rely on schools to look after their children from 8 to 3 PM five days a week. At that point, as the nature of childhood changes, schools may change and some may be left behind entirely, allowing children to explore far beyond their own neighborhoods, develop their abilities, and express themselves in ways that might change their world.

PREDICTIONS

Grim and hopeful global trends to watch in 2020 (and fold into a zine) (NPR)

A teacher makes 10 predictions for education in 2020 — some of them rather hopeful (Answer Sheet, Washington Post)

Six education stories to watch in 2020 (Forbes)

Ten Education Stories We’ll Be Reading in 2020 (Straight Up, Education Week)

Will higher education roar in the ’20s? (Inside Higher Ed)

10 Higher Education Predictions for a New Decade (Inside Higher Ed)

5 K-12 trends to watch in 2020 (Education Drive)

2020 priorities inside America’s 15 biggest school districts: Student protests over equity, school boundary changes, abuse charges, & more (The 74 Million)

Albany primer: Here are the big NYC education issues to watch in the new legislative session (Chalkbeat, New York)

California education issues to watch in 2020 — and predictions of what will happen (EdSource, California)

New Year’s Resolutions for Leaders of Social Change (SSIR)

Philanthropy in the 2020s: 16 Predictions (Inside Philanthropy)

14 predictions for the future of classroom technology (Forbes)

From artificial intelligence to augmented reality to peer-to-peer learning, 7 ed tech trends to watch in 2020 (The 74 Million)

Four Things You Need To Know About STEM And Education For 2020 (Forbes)

Report: Climate change literacy, early childhood focus shaping STEM in 2020 (Education Drive)

Rounding up the issues of 2019 and the 2010’s (Part 2)

In this follow-up to last week’s post on some of the common issues and key concerns mentioned in end-of-the-year and end-of-the-decade education reflections, Thomas Hatch highlights questions about the role of research and technology in improvement efforts.

Last week’s post showed that many reviews of the key education stories of last year and the preceding decade noted some progress as well as some stagnation and continuing inequities in student outcomes.  At the same time, those reviews also often came back to concerns that neither research nor technology were having the hoped-for effects in improving education.

What research adds value?
The discussions of progress and stagnation over the past decade reflected continuing concerns about educational research, its quality and value. The championing of “value-added” research in the 2000’s was succeeded by an embrace of large-scale data sets and data mining which contributed to rising concerns about data-privacy and cyber-security (as Audrey Water highlighted with a link to the K-12 Cyber Incident Map).

In what Alexander Russo identified as one of the 10 pieces of education journalism that defined the decade, Emily Hanford may have both re-ignited the reading wars and made concerns about the lack of impact of research on practice a hot-button issue again.  (We shared our own take on the problems of getting research into practice in blog posts and a podcast about our study of the 112 external support providers working to improve K-3 reading outcomes in New York City).

At the same time, Matt Barnum’s review of 8 lessons learned in 2019 pointed to some key of issues of equity, race, and poverty that research is shedding light on.  The awarding of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Economics to Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo, and Michael Kremer also capped a decade in which the use of randomized controlled trials expanded even more, particularly in the developing world. As Crawfurd and Hares report, a systematic review of RCTs in education research found just over a thousand unique studies between 1980 and 2016, with more than half of these produced between 2010 and 2016.

What’s changed? Technology? Schools?
Even another ten years of promises of an ed-tech revolution couldn’t seem to speed up the slow pace of change in teaching and learning in primary and secondary education (as Larry Cuban continues to chronicle). Some things have changed. Students can now use their phones to access google classroom (and get texts from their parents in the middle of the day) and teachers can download lessons from a host of sites offering open and free access to tons of instructional materials (though many of those don’t appear to be aligned with academic standards). Yet, in 2019, both students and teachers still worked in the same schools and classrooms, for roughly the same amount of time, with the same instructional approaches, focusing on many of the same skills and outcomes as they did in 2009.

At the same time, questions about the quality and the value of higher education have erupted along with  the development of online courses, micro degrees, and other new higher-ed entities that few had imagined when the decade began (and the “Varsity Blues” elite college admissions scandal and the student loan crisis hasn’t help much either).

For those that aren’t already depressed, Audrey Waters provides a detailed accounting of the 100 worst ed-tech debacles of the decade.

Looking ahead?
Although many education conversations in the 2000’s in the US were consumed by debates of the No Child Left Behind Act, only a few of the reviews of the last decade mentioned the Every Child Succeeds Act of 2015 or other policy developments. Instead, partisanship seems to have overwhelmed many discussions of policy and the fractures seem to be growing. It gets harder to tell the “reformers” from the “non-reformers,” and even those who thought they held similar views – Democrats, charter advocates, free marketeers among others – find themselves trying to make sense of who stands for what in the age of Trump.

But students are standing up and speaking out.  One more scan for “student activism” in the news in 2019 reveals some of the people and the stories we could be following in the coming years:

2019 was the year of the protest, thanks to a new generation of activists, I-D

A ‘new wave’ of activism on campus: Students are aggressively seeking their demands, The Philadelphia Inquirer

Where Did All These Teen Activists Come From?, KQED

Young people across Asia pushed for change in 2019. Meet five of them, CNN

Greta Thunberg isn’t alone. Meet some other young activists who are leading the environmentalist fight, CNN

8 young activists you need to hear from today, XQ

19 youth climate activists you should be following on social media, earthday.org

Youth Activist Movements of the 2010s: A Timeline and Brief History of a Decade of Change, Teen Vogue

Rounding up the issues of 2019 and the 2010’s (Part 1)

This week and next week, I note some of the common issues and key concerns mentioned in end-of-the-year and end-of-the-decade education reflections. As in the International Ed News round-ups of 2018, 2017, and 2016, many of the reflections come from US sources, but there are some global links as well. This week, Part 1 concentrates on the waves of violence and activism and the discussions of outcomes mentioned across a number of sources. Links to many of the sources that inform both posts are also provided. Next week, Part 2’s roundup focuses on common questions about the role of research and technology in improvement efforts.

Although there are many educational experiences, schools, resources, technologies, companies and other ventures in 2019 that were not around in 2010, many of the key issues and stories of 2019 overlapped with those mentioned in the reviews of the decade of the 2010’s as a whole.

Safety, gun violence, trauma…and student activism
In the US, the killings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown as well as the shootings at Sandy Hook (to name only a few) made safety, gun violence and trauma key topics inside and outside schools throughout the decade. In 2019, 25 shootings in schools and at school-related events were in the headlines, along with questions about active shooter drillsand other means of securing student safety.

At the same time, traumatic events also fueled the emergence of Black Lives Matter and the Me Too movement in the US and contributed to a wave of student activism globally.  In 2015, Li Zhou and Adrienne Green chronicled in words and pictures the student activists who were demonstrating against soaring tuition, protesting police brutality, and demanding education reform. That wave continued into 2019 as students called for action on sexual assault, racism, and climate change, with Greta Thunberg’s scolding of delegates at the UN and the students’ climate strike echoing around the world.

 

Progress? stagnation?
Debates about whether schools are getting better or worse also continued throughout the decade. Internationally, PISA test results in 2012, 2015, and 2018 continued to highlight the high performance of East Asian countries like Singapore; showed a decline in Finland; and revealed high scores in some jurisdictions in China while raising questions about how representative and appropriate those scores were.

Globally, Lee Crawfurd and Susannah Hares of the Center for Global Development, summed things up by pointing out that progress on achieving primary schooling has stagnated but attention to learning has grown: they found that only about 50 articles mentioned the  phrase “learning crisis” in 2010 but almost 300 mentioned it in 2019.  For added emphasis, in 2019, the World Bank sought to focus on “learning poverty” by creating a new global target: cutting in half the number of children who are unable to read and understand a simple text by age 10 (currently at 53% in lower- and middle-income countries).

In the US, Chad Alderman pointed out that the 2010’s “may be the best decade ever in terms of college attainment,” but Dana Goldstein noted that the decade concluded with reports of largely stagnant performance and continuing inequities in outcomes on the National Assessment of Educational Progress and the National Center on Education and the Economy highlighted a widening achievement gap on PISA in reading as well.

Inside Philanthropy’s David Callahan described the 2010’s as “a decade in which a billionaire-backed K-12 reform push largely flopped.”  Those elite-backed reforms in the US included the launch of the Common Core Learning Standards and numerous state-backed initiatives to increase accountability by tying teacher evaluations to student outcomes.  Yet the decade ended with reports of little evidence of positive impact of the Common Core and continuing debates about its value.  In 2019, studies also found little if any positive effect of the new teacher evaluation policies on student test scores.  Those top-down initiatives also contributed to a backlash against testing, and, as Madeline Will of Education Week put it, spurred teachers to take leadership into their own hands, “leading strikes and protests across the country, and even running for office.”

The charter debate did get a little bit more complex over the decade. Charter schools in some regulatory environments like Massachusetts showed some positive results, but critics continued to question the impact of charters on students and neighboring schools. Charter schools even became an issue of debate among Democrats in 2019, with opinions breaking down along racial lines, as the74 illustrated in 14 charts that changed the way we looked at schools.  (To be continued…)

Links to roundups and reflections for 2019 and the 2010’s
2010 to Now: A turbulent decade for schools, Education Week.

Teaching in 2020 vs. 2010: A look back at the decade, Education Week

14 charts that changed the way we looked at America’s schools in 2019, The 74 Million

Eight lessons we learned from research in 2019, Chalkbeat

Education may be pivotal in the 2020 election. Here’s what you need to know. Highlights from the Brown Center Chalkboard in 2019, Brown Center Chalkboard

Cheating scandals, charters and falling test scores: 5 takeaways from the year in education, The New York Times

Laugh, cry and gasp along with the best viral classroom moments of 2019, NPR

2019 education year in review with Erica Green, Alyson Klein and Josh Mitchell, The Report Card with Nat Malkus

The 7 most memorable pieces of education journalism for 2019, Phi Delta Kappan

10 pieces of education journalism that defined the past decade, Phi Delta Kappan

Online degrees slowdown: A review of MOOC stats and trends in 2019, Class Central

A decade in review: Reflections on 10 years in education technology, Ed Surge

What problems has edtech solved, and what new ones did It create?, Ed Surge

The 100 worst ed-tech debacles of the decade, Hacked Education

  • Thomas Hatch

Coherence and Alignment: Reflecting on Two Decades of Research on Educational Reform

This week, Elizabeth Leisy Stosich discusses her interview with IEN’s Thomas Hatch, published in the new Cornerstone Series from the CPRE Research Minutes podcast.  This will be our last post of 2019, as we will be on hiatus until January 7th. Happy New Year!

Last week, I had the chance to speak with Thomas Hatch from Teachers College about  two articles that I have drawn on in my own work on coherence and standards-based reform. In the interview Hatch discusses his 2002 article “When Improvement Programs Collide” and his co-authored 2004 study, led by Meredith Honig, “Crafting Coherence: How Schools Strategically Manage Multiple, External Demands.”

I was interested in doing this interview to share it with the students in my course, Leading Educational Policy and Reform, for experienced educational leaders in Fordham’s Ed.D. program. Often, when discussing policy, we only consider one policy at a time rather than examining it in the complex policy environment that educational leaders must navigate on a daily basis. In the interview, we discuss how Hatch’s work on coherence has evolved, our common interests in the social process of interpreting and making sense of policy, and connections to the work of other scholars in the field including Richard Elmore and Karen Seashore Louis.

In our conversation, Hatch describes the challenge of policy alignment as “a technical issue”; whereas, policy coherence is an issue of meaning. He was motivated to pursue this line of research when working to support educational reform in the 1990s. As he explains, “Even if all of the efforts of systemic reform in the 1990s were successful and we produced all these aligned policies, there could be so much work and so many demands on people that they’d still feel overwhelmed and fragmented. And it’s that sense of overwhelmingness and fragmentation that we were trying to address, particularly in thinking about that article around crafting coherence where I think we really emphasize that this is an issue of learning and meaning making that people and organizations like schools are engaged in.” Over time, his work has reinforced the importance of understanding the challenge of “crafting coherence” among external policies and internal goals from a collective perspective, one that takes into account the fact that educators are engaged in this meaning making process simultaneously but from their own unique perspectives.

In the interview, Hatch also shares practical advice for educational leaders at the school- and district-level who face the difficult task of leading policy implementation. As he explains, educational leaders should “recognize this is a part of the job. It’s not a sign that you’re not doing well if you’re feeling overwhelmed. It’s a reality of the circumstances in which the work is done, and you have to recognize that you’re facing conflicting incentives.” My recent article, “Principals and Teachers ‘Craft Coherence’ Among Accountability Policies,” examines how educators respond to the demands of the Common Core and a new teacher evaluation policy and reinforces how challenging maintaining this balance can be in the face of high-stakes accountability policies. In fact, the pressure from standards-based accountability policies can lead some leaders to abandon their local school goals to focus on external demands. To be successful in the long run, leaders must both respond to the requirements imposed by external mandates but also maintain a focus on the goals that matter most to the community they serve.

Around the World in PISA 2018 Headlines

Around the world, another flurry of headlines followed the release of the 2018 PISA results last week.  As we did in 2015, we’ve pulled together some of those headlines and links in a scannable alphabetical list.  That scan showed that critics continue to stress the difficulty of using the PISA results to draw any definitive conclusions on the quality of educational systems (“PISA Doesn’t Define Education Quality, And Knee-Jerk Policy Proposals Won’t Fix Whatever Is Broken,” The Conversation; How PISA Created An Illusion Of Education Quality And Marketed It To The World,” The Washington Post), but at the same time, most headlines focused on changes in scores or rankings by trumpeting gains, highlighting losses, or lamenting stagnation.

Overall, the negative news stole the spotlight, even for countries like Singapore at the very top of the rankings (“Mainland Chinese students best in world as Singapore, Hong Kong slip down rankings”, South China Morning Post).  Pasi Sahlberg summed it all up by pointing out that, on average, scores were declining in the 37 OECD countries (including top PISA performers like Finland, Japan, Korea, and many provinces of Canada) and declaring “Sleepless, distracted and glued to devices: no wonder students’ results are in decline.”

Although China’s astronomical scores were featured in many stories, some international headlines pointed to the problems with those scores as well (“Teens From China’s Wealthiest Regions Rank Top Of The Class In Global Education Survey,” CNN.com; “China Is No. 1 On PISA — But Here’s Why Its Test Scores Are Hard To Believe,” Washington Post). Some of the headlines from sources in China also noted areas for improvement, including concerns about inequity, students’ emotional health, and lack of attention to learning that cannot be measured in standardized tests like PISA (“China To Further Promote Education Equity In Light Of PISA Test: Ministry,” Xinhua Net; “给看不见的教育指标更多关注” [translated as “Pay More Attention To Invisible Indicators”] China Education Daily; 教育体检PISA的启示:成绩卓越但仍需努力 [“Reflection From PISA Test: Excellent Scores But Need Improvement”], China Education Daily).

In the US, headlines predictably focused on the bad news (“It Just Isn’t Working’: PISA Test Scores Cast Doubt on U.S. Education Efforts,” New York Times), and even those with a more slightly positive take still ended with a negative spin (“U.S. Students Gain Ground Against Global Peers. But That’s Not Saying Much,” Education Week). The Director of the US Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, Mark Schneider, didn’t see the PISA results as providing grounds for optimism either (“The New PISA Scores Tell Us Lots About the Sad State of American Education. What They Can’t Tell Us Is How to Fix It,” The74).  But there’s always next year, or, in this case, PISA 2021…

Australia
‘Alarm bells’: Australian Students Record Worst Result in Global Tests (Brisbane Times, December 3, 2019)

Belarus
Belarus Fares Well in its Maiden PISA Test (Belarus News, December 3, 2019)

Belgium
Young Francophones’ Improve at Maths, but Remain Poor at Reading (Brussels Times, December 3, 2019)

Canada
Canadian High School Students Among Top Performers In Reading, According to New International Ranking(The Globe and Mail, December 3, 2019)

China
China To Further Promote Education Equity In Light Of PISA Test: Ministry (Xinhua Net, December 4, 2019)

给看不见的教育指标更多关注 [translated as “Pay More Attention To Invisible Indicators”] (China Education Daily)

教育体检PISA的启示:成绩卓越但仍需努力 [“Reflection From PISA Test: Excellent Scores But Need Improvement”] (China Education Daily)

England
Pisa Tests: UK Rises in International School Rankings (BBC News, December 3, 2019)

Estonia
Estonia Tops Tables in PISA International Education Rankings (ERR, December 3, 2019)

Finland
PISA: Gap Between Girls’ and Boys’ Reading Skills Largest in Finland (YLE, December 3, 2019)

Germany
German Education System Has Room for Improvement: Report (DW, December 3, 2019)

Iceland
Icelandic Students Below Average in Reading (Iceland Monitor, December 3, 2019)

Ireland
Pisa Rankings: Irish Teens Among the Best at Reading in Developed World (The Irish Times, December 3, 2019)

Japan
Japanese 15-Year-Olds Rank High in Math, sciences, but Reading Down: PISA Exam (The Mainichi, December 3, 2019)

Malaysia
Malaysia’s Ranking in Pisa Improves (Malay Mail, December 3, 2019)

Northern Ireland
Pisa Tests: NI Pupils Better than World Average at Reading (BBC News, December 3, 2019)

Philippines
Philippines’ Dismal Pisa Scores Spark Soul-Searching Over State of Education (South China Morning Post, December 8, 2019)

Poland
Polish Students’ Results in Top Three in International Study (The First News, December 3, 2019)

Romania
PISA 2018 test results show over 4 in 10 Romanian students don’t understand what they read; education minister not that worried (Romania Insider, December 3, 2019) 

Scotland
Pisa: Mixed Report for Scottish Education in World Rankings (BBC News, December 3, 2019)

Singapore
Pisa 2018: Singapore Slips to Second Place behind China but Still Chalks Up High Scores (The Straits Times, December 3, 2019)

Spain
Spain Receives Its Worst Ever Science Results in PISA Test (El País, December 3, 2019)

Switzerland
PISA Study Finds Swiss Students ‘Still Behind’ on Reading (Swiss Info, December 3, 2019)

United Arab Emirates
UAE Is Up 8 points in Mathematics According to PISA 2018  (Emirates News Agency, December 3, 2019)

US
U.S. Students Gain Ground Against Global Peers. But That’s Not Saying Much (Education Week, December 3, 2019)

It Just Isn’t Working’: PISA Test Scores Cast Doubt on U.S. Education Efforts (New York Times, December 3, 2019)

U.S. Students’ Scores Stagnant on International Exam, With Widening Achievement Gaps in Math and Reading (The 74, December 3, 2019)

U.S. Students Show No Improvement in Math, Reading, Science on International Exam (U.S. News, December 3, 2019)

U.S. Students Continue to Lag Behind Peers in East Asia and Europe in Reading Math and Science, Exams Show (Washington Post, December 3, 2019)

Vietnam

VN Gets High Scores but Not Named in PISA 2018 Ranking (Vietnam News, December 6, 2019)

Wales

Education: Why Have Wales’ Teenagers Under-Performed? (BBC News, December 3, 2019)

 (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.