Author Archives: internationalednews

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.

 

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