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Could the Pandemic Put and End to the Artificial Construct of Students “Falling Behind”? Could it Shine a Spotlight on the REAL External Factors that Stymie Academic Progress?

December 25, 2020 Comments off

Common Dreams contributor Steven Singer wrote a compelling essay excoriating those who are wringing their hands over the students who are “falling behind” as a result of the pandemic. In the middle of his essay he makes these unassailable and clear points:

Let’s get something straight: there is no ultimate timetable for learning.

At least none that authentically can be set by educators or society.

People – and kids ARE people – learn when they’re ready to learn. 

And when they’re ready is different for every person out there. 

You can’t stomp around with a stopwatch and tell people they’re late. Your expectations are meaningless. It’s a matter of cognitive development plus environment and a whole mess of other factors that don’t easily line up on your Abacus. 

For example, many kids are ready to learn simple math concepts like addition and subtraction in Kindergarten. Yet some are ready in preschool.

That doesn’t mean one child is smarter than another. It just means their brains develop at different rates. And it’s perfectly normal.

In the early 1990s when I was trying to implement a mastery learning program I used the examples of two professional basketball superstars of that era: David Robinson and Michael Jordan. Both of them were late bloomers in terms of their physical development.

David Robinson was 6’5′ when he enrolled in the US Naval Academy. While attending there, he grew another 6″. Had he grown to that height BEFORE enrolling in college he would not have qualified for the Naval Academy because he would have been too tall. And because his ball handling skills were middling for a 6’5″ Division One forward or guard, the traditional college powerhouses overlooked him.  But those same skills were extraordinary for a 6″11″ center! As a result, he became an All-American player who was heavily recruited by professional basketball teams when he was eligible to play after completing college and his two years of service. The San Antonio Spurs built their franchise on his talents.

Michael Jordan was unable to make the varsity until he was a junior in high school. As a skinny 5’10” sophomore he was overlooked by the coaching staff in Wilmington NC. But he was determined to play basketball and was a JV sensation. Like many teenagers, Jordan had a growth spurt that year and ultimately made the varsity at his high school, at UNC, won Gold Medals and NBA championships, and became the iconic figure all other players are measured against.

Both David Robinson and Michael Jordan “fell behind” their age cohorts at one point. But a combination of their late maturity and determination enabled them to “catch up”. Not every athlete becomes a professional any more than every student becomes a Rhodes scholar. But when we apply universal yardsticks to unique individuals end up casting aside individuals who possess talents that haven’t emerged.  Few of us possess the persistence of a David Robinson or the grit and determination of a Michael Jordan. Many children who hear that they did not make the varsity because they were “behind” can enjoy athletic pursuits when they “catch up”. The “lesson” of David Robinson and Michael Jordan isn’t about persistence and grit: it’s about our the bogus expectations we set for children: the “ultimate timetables” that are used to decide that some children are “ahead” and others are “behind”. We need to give students the opportunity to learn when they are ready to learn and know that when they are ready to learn is different for each child. 

MAYBE the pandemic pause that is occurring will help drive this message home. MAYBE two years without standardized tests and using technology designed to tailor instruction for each child will make policy makers really that “ahead” and “behind” are relative and not absolute terms. If that is the case, we might break the stranglehold of the factory school that has gripped us since the turn of the last century.

Steven Singer puts the whole “ultimate timetable” debate in an even broader context, arguing persuasively that the only people who benefit from this mindset are the businesses who want to avoid paying for the basic needs of children and only view schools as a source of employees. He concludes his essay with this:

The problem is systemic. You can only solve it by changing the system, itself.

A system that places dollars and cents over life and health will never be acceptable. And that’s what we’ve got. Still.

So don’t buy the latest version of corporate school baloney.

Our children aren’t falling behind.

They’re surviving a pandemic.

Fix the problem and they’ll be fine.

Fix the system and they’ll THRIVE.

But beware of know nothing policymakers who don’t have our best interests at heart.

Pay them no mind and the only thing left behind will be them.

Michael Horn’s REAL Lesson of the Pods: Being on a School Board is Hard Work

December 17, 2020 Comments off

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Michael Horn, frequent Forbes contributor and co-author of books on “disrupting schools” wrote an essay on the trade-offs his family and others had to make in order to implement a program they THOUGHT they agreed to with a teacher they agreed to hire. The article is written in a “lessons learned” format but it omits a few overarching lessons.

First, and most importantly, getting from a consensus on a plan to the execution of the plan requires a teaching staff that has a clear understanding of the plan and a complete commitment to it. I found it interesting that a group of articulate and educated parents who reached consensus on a plan were unable to find a teacher who could execute that plan in a way that satisfied their needs. Mr. Horn, I hope, now appreciates how daunting it is for a school board representing hundred of parents with wildly divergent ideas about how schools should operate to reach consensus on a plan let alone the effectiveness of the teachers who are responsible for the execution of the plan!

Secondly, Mr. Horn should appreciate the work that goes into the oversight of schooling: the many daily decisions that their lone teacher had to make with the pre-screened children were easy compared to those made by a teacher working with, say 25 students with varying backgrounds and varying support at home.

Thirdly, the parents in the pod saw the give and take trying to acquire instructional equipment for ONE teacher. Imagine if these parents had to make that decision for an entire school district!

My takeaway from Mr. Horn’s article is that parents like him should have a deep appreciation for the school board members they elect now that they realize the challenges of strategic planning, personnel oversight, budget decisions, and the unique needs of each parent.

de Blasio is Being Sane and Sensible: Acknowledging Mistakes, Looking Forward, and Embracing a “New Normal” Based on Technology-based Personalized Learning

December 12, 2020 Comments off

Two articles I read yesterday morning make me believe that after floundering and fouling up the opening of schools in New York City this year he is doing two things politicians seldom if ever do: he is acknowledging his mistakes and planning more than one news cycle ahead. And from what I’ve read, his plans have merit.

Yesterday mornings Gothamist article by Sophia Chang and Jessica Gould opens with these paragraphs:

Acknowledging the inconsistent and rocky school year for New York City’s public school students due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a plan Thursday to address educational loss and achievement gaps — starting next year.

“The foundation will be laid through this school year to get ready for a very different school year that begins in September,” de Blasio said at his press briefing Thursday. “In September, there will be a new normal.”

The 2021 Student Achievement Plan will commence with diagnostics measuring how students are doing with educational benchmarks in September, said Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza at the press briefing.

De Blasio emphasized this will not be high-stakes testing, but rather assessments for teachers to understand their students’ needs.

The Gothamist article also referenced the creation of a “one-stop digital learning hub” and the establishment of a “Parent University” in several languages to teach families how to provide assistance to kids, and “intense mental health assistance for school communities”.

A Chalkbeat article by Christine Veiga covered the same ground, but offered an elaboration on the proposed assessments, indicating that they would be formative NWEA-like assessments as opposed to the summative assessments that were the lifeblood of NCLB. In describing the testing protocols, Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza indicted he planned to “give more assessments to gauge what students already know” and then “tailor digital lessons to catch students up in subjects where they’ve fallen behind”.

“Can you imagine the power of an individualized education plan for every student?” Carranza said. “Just think about identifying the explicit skills that students need to work on and the plan that we have to help them achieve a mastery of that explicit skill. That’s what we’re talking about with the digital curriculum.”

Ms. Veiga thought Carranza’s plans sounded suspiciously like “personalized education”, which she views as

…an approach that uses technology to tweak lessons based on a student’s progress. The approach has gained momentum in school districts across the country, with the backing of technology and software companies, as well as donors. There are reasons to be skeptical, however.

And she offers a list of those reasons before noting that in some instances in New York City with students who have fallen behind “personalized learning” HAS worked… and the district could use its experiences since the outbreak of the pandemic to inform the methods they can use going forward:

Some of the city’s transfer schools — which serve students who have fallen behind in credits, and often focus on individualized instruction and intensive counseling supports — have impressive records of helping students catch up. Small group tutoring, done well, can also be effective. Asked about tutoring, Carranza said it could be a possibility, but funding is likely a challenge and a wide scale program will require support from colleges and other community institutions.

The education department is proposing making “high quality digital curriculum” available for every school, and a “digital learning hub.” Carranza said more students will now have access to devices and the internet, and teachers have gained new digital skills that should be tapped to help students catch up, even outside of school hours.

The new normal that we’re talking about post-pandemic has really created some opportunities for us to individualize instruction and really tailor instruction for students in a way that we just didn’t have the ability to do back in March,” Carranza said.

I am an advocate of technology-based “personalized learning” and wish that public school leaders had been in the vanguard on this initiative instead of venture capitalists and tech CEOs… But as Mr. Carranza and Mayor de Blasio note, teachers HAVE developed the comfort with technology required to make this approach work. The key to making it work for the students who fell behind as a result of the pandemic, though, is clear: “…funding is likely a challenge and a wide scale program will require support from colleges and other community institutions.

In some respects I think that the challenge of funding– which is unarguably daunting— will be easier to get than support from colleges and community institutions… and harder yet from the parents of students who are successful in school!