Friday, November 5, 2010

The Difficulty of Solving Your Own Problems

We had our most recent Innovative School Thinking Meeting last night, November 4, 2010. The group has dwindled to a select few individuals consisting of: one middle school principal, one superintendent, one board member, one semi-retired principal, and one director of technology. We started off sharing the video of Katie Salen and her work with the New York City public middle school Quest To Learn. The Innovative SchoolThinking committee is expected to be looking to the future, 2020 and beyond in terms of how our schools should be in order to provide the best education for the students they serve. The difficulty with attempting to determine the future, beyond the obvious, is being able to provide a story, or to create a story, that provides a vision for all stakeholders for what schools can be in 2020. Ultimately, that is one of the goals that we would like to get out of these committee meetings. This is no small task, especially when you're looking at: 1. An institution that have relatively been the same in how the operate for over 100 years; 2. All members of the committee are products of these institutions, and in our case; 3. Overall our schools in our district have been on the whole quite successful.

However, the need for improving our schools and creating a new story is a result of the projected and ongoing changes that are occurring in our community. Two examples of these changes are the massive influence that technology has had in the last 15-20 years and the projected demographic changes in population projected for our little "neck of the woods." The influence of technology on how we live in this day and age is unmistakable. Unfortunately it has not yet translated, or lived up to its potential in our schools. There are many reasons for this and though we constantly struggle with improving our use of technology, it is happening in very small steps. For example, when a member of the committee asked me about a class that is part of one of our 1:1 student laptop initiatives, she witnessed students creating sentences using some
identified vocabulary words. She was wondering if this was what we meant in terms of under-utilizing the technology. I would have to say if this was the extent to how these computers were being used, then yes they are being under utilized. But if what she witnessed was just the first part of a series of activities that had students then electronically share, evaluate, modify, record, re-synthesize the collected work into a new format, which can be done very easily electronically (GoogleDocs, VoiceThread, etc.); then that extends the initial use of technology she witnessed to one that is much more appropriate.

The second glaring need is the fact that we have not been able to narrow, or close the achievement gap. What we (royal we) have been doing has not made a big difference in lowering the achievement gap for minorities. This effects us as a district because by 2025 in California the projected Hispanic population in California will go from approximately 29.1% of the population in 1995 to 43.1% of the population in 2025. We have a very large Hispanic population in the central valley and if we continue to educate our students in the same way, it would seem logical that an increase in the students that fall into the achievement gap category would mean an increase in students who are not achieving. This responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of our schools.

Here is where the difficult part comes in to play, can we create a story that provides a road map or a vision to address our needs in a more global approach. In our short discussions last night two ideas related to implementing change stuck out, the first was the strategy which I would label as abrupt and to the point. It was a more "top down" approach, as opposed to bottom up approach. This strategy seems to fit mostly with some of the more popular charter school enterprises we hear about in the news. They can capitalize on their ability to focus on a specific clientele or population that is disenfranchised with the current state of their neighborhood public school. This approach works for the specific clientele but it does not appear to scale well. The problem I see with charter school innovation is that it provides only pockets of innovation and ignores the larger institutional changes that are needed when addressing, for example, the needs such as technology and the achievement gap. Change on a larger scale is far more complex. An entire district, and the schools within the district, do not appear to have the ability to adopt a change model that is more suited to a nimble individual school. The second idea shared was one where the larger systematic change happens more gradually and smaller actions led by passionate, enthusiastic small groups of individuals. These small actions are programs that are very different than what is the norm at a school; they must be compelling, engaging and excite students. One example suggested was something similar to what is being implemented at Quest To Learn, using game theory and design but on a smaller scale, possibly an extended day program at a middle school. If implemented correctly, the belief is that the enthusiasm for this type of program would spread across a campus, affecting parents, and the conversations that take place inside school, during collaboration meetings between staff, and outside of school in the community. A successful program like this could lead to a community in favor of funding more technology across the district, such as site wide 1:1 computer initiatives, digital texts, district created digital "texts," and support for infrastructure that would support wide use these types of tools.

But let's hold on for a second, we may have an even larger problem, and that is, are we even capable of formulating a story to address our needs? Steve Hargadon has a very nice post in Redu, Factory Schools: A Debate where he writes that the popular opinion right now is that our public schools are broken. "If there's a more general acceptance that the story or narrative we've told ourselves about the purpose and value of education for the past 100+ years is now broken, there's also an awareness that we don't have a ready replacement for that story." Compounding this idea are the facts that one, many of our schools have been doing quite well up to this point, and two, we are all products of the existing system. On Ewan McIntosh's blog, he shares a post titled Culture Popped: what can pop culture teach museums, the arts and education about engagement. In the first few slides he has a quote from Clay Shirky, "Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution." And one from Upton Sinclair, "It is difficult to get a man to solve a problem when his salary depends upon his not understanding it." Mr. McIntosh's presentation was not referring to schools and education in general, but was more business focused, but I can't help but think some times, that at some unconscious level, we in education suffer from this malady at least in regards to coming up with new stories.

We measure the success of our students based on the structure of a 100 year old paradigm. If we are really thinking about doing things better in schools, shouldn't we be measuring students using a paradigm that does not make us conform to the existing paradigm? For example, last
night someone mentioned the fact that there have been attempts to change things in the past, for example in the 70s. The result of some of those early trials were children starting third grade with a kindergarten reading level. Or in another example, of a state assessment for math that was more critical-thinking focused. It resulted in utter failure by the students and as a result the assessment was never used again. If we are really thinking outside the box, maybe a model of instruction that results in a student, in what we would now call third grade, with what we would call now, a kindergarten reading level is okay in our new story? Maybe the assessment that we were using to evaluate our students math and critical thinking skills was right on target? Maybe we were not doing a good job at instructing our students and providing them with the skills we were trying to assess them on? Or maybe we should have just evaluated our scope and sequence a little more closely and made some modifications?

My involvement with the school innovation committee has generated many more questions than even a faint outline of a new story. How long can we continue on the current path? What will the ultimate results be if we do not address them now? Is there a problem to address? Will it all just
sort itself out on its own? Can we afford to let it? ...

*(Image Creative Commons licensed courtesy of sjdunphy via Flickr)