Storming the Castle

Imagine a castle with very high ramparts. Ramparts that grow higher every day. In the castle are suburban homes, good schools, doctors for sick children, 401K plans to protect the elderly. On the vast fields surrounding the castle are McDonalds jobs, over priced health clinics, crumbling schools with exhausted and poorly trained teachers.

There’s a siege. Commanders, with good intensions and few resources, are sending their soldiers against the walls. Some march to their doom. Others are flung on catapults or try to scale the walls with ladders. A few make it over the walls, but the majority lay dead on the field.

Right now, the best chance that most kids have to achieve that American Dream is to finish college and earn a BA. The statistics are clear. People with a college degree have greater lifetime earnings and more opportunities for good jobs than those who don’t have that degree. Workers without a college degree have been displaced by technology and global markets.

By now, all know that. So, education leaders and activists have told students that they must attend college. Students have been given sermons and lectures that they can do it. They’ve been empowered and enlightened. But they haven’t been given the weapons and tools to make it through the battle. The dropout rate is huge, particular for low income, poor students.

Because to get through college degree requires years of training. Students need hard skills — math facts, essay composition, knowledge of science and history — but most can’t pass basic standardized tests for math or reading. They need soft skills – how to organize tasks, study independently, plan for the future. They need to understand the complicated bureaucratic structures of colleges and other college hacks — where do you go when you financial aid check doesn’t come in, how do you create a balanced course schedule, what’s a bursor’s office.

Meanwhile, it’s much harder to finish college these days. Standards are higher, particularly for the STEM classes. A student with a simple college prep high school class in biology will sit in a lecture hall next to a student who took honors biology in his Freshman year of high school, took AP biology in his senior year, studied with a tutor for the Biology SATs, and may have attended a STEM camp at the local community college. They will be given the same final exam, and the kid with all that experience will set the curve. The regular student has no chance.

And students are further away from adults – adults with full time positions – than ever before. They are hurded into massive state colleges with tens of thousands of students. They attend lectures with hundreds of students, where the only person who can answer questions is a temporary worker who has no incentive to answer emails and is struggling financially herself.

The bureaucracies at these schools are Kafkaesque, unable to handle glitches in the system. The glitches are kids, who fail out of that biology class, who have trouble paying a bill, who can’t find those majors that shelter the less educated students.

The bodycounts are high. 84 percent of low income kids drop out of college. They stagger away from the schools, depressed and battered. They blame themselves, their families, and their communities for not preparing them. They are saddled with debt and no degree. They come back home and tell others to stay away. We have to wonder whether it was fair to send them to the battle with so little preparation. We have to assume some of the guilt for the wreckage.

And we have to work to change the system. K-12 schools need to prepare al kids for college in all ways from the hard skills to knowledge of the job markets to the basic college hacks. But without a major infusion of cash, that isn’t going to happen. In some states, there is 1 guidance counselor for every 700 kids. [edited] Test scores haven’t budged in decades.

Some say that the solution is for kids to bypass high schools and start sending kids to the local community college for high school classes (a growing trend). Others say that we need to boost community colleges and technical schools that can prepare kids for real jobs that don’t require a BA. Some high school charter schools are now following students into college to support them.

The conversation is starting to go beyond “free college” and “abolish student loans,” because it’s becoming clear that money, or the lack thereof, is only one small problem in this system. Political leaders haven’t caught up yet. It’s the job of writers and thought leaders to get them up to speed and to do something about the walking wounded, the students who have been chewed up by the system.

SLS 676

This essay by Deirdre McCloskey as she reflects on the last 20 years of life after she transitioned in early 50’s, is so beautiful and sad. How could her children walk away from her? Best thing I read today.

I just downloaded Robert Pondiscio’s How the Other Half Learns. I’ll read it on Thursday during the flight to Chicago for my education conference.

Get ready to hear more and more about trade school. Why? Because a whole lotta students aren’t making it in college.

Post Malone is all over my running Spotify play list at the moment.

Models of Education That Are Really, Truly Happening At A School Near You. Like This Isn’t a Crazy Theory. It’s Happening. Get Used To It.

Back when I was in elementary school in the mid 1970s, I read a lot. I would have a stack of books on my side table and read several simultaneously. If I really loved a book — The Boxcar Children, The Wolves of Willougby Chase, Anything by Laura Ingalls or Louisa May Alcott, Betsy, Tacy, and Tib, All of a Kind Family – I would read the book seven or eight times.

Because I loved reading and did it a lot, I got pretty good at it. I was several grades ahead of my peers by third grade. So, that meant that I was bored in regular class. I had already learned that kids hate you if you know all the answers, so I would pretend to not know answers to the teachers’ questions. Pretending to be dumb became such a habit that I was in college before I stopped doing that. Weirdly enough, I had to learn to act dumb again when I moved to the suburbs, but that’s another topic.

What kept me sane in English class was the beloved SRA kit. A quick google search for the “SRA Kit” brings up tons of nostalgic blog posts. In a nutshell, the box contained color coded, short reading passages and questions. If you answered the questions correctly, you moved up to the next level. Every kid worked at his or her own level. So, I could go as fast as I wanted and didn’t have to be publicly shamed for being smart.

Today, this is called individualized learning. With the rise of technology, the proliferation of low-cost chrome books, the popularity of Khan Academy, schools are increasingly looking at how they can leverage technology to supplement regular instruction. In a traditional classroom model, all 30 kids have to learn the same material at the same time. Teachers can’t reach the very smart or the learning disabled. With limited time and resources, they have to teach for the largest group of kids — the typical ones.

The advantages of moving towards the individualized learning model is that everyone is served and can learn at their own particular speed. The disadvantage is that it is heavily reliant on technology, and some kids are bored by machines. There really needs to be a teacher in the room providing feedback, support, and all that.

The more advanced form of individualized learning has a few different names — mastery-based or competence-based learning are most commonly used. This model goes back to the SRA kit. You can’t progress from yellow cards to the orange cards, until you have provided evidence that you really know the yellow cards. So, as Sal Khan explained to me, students can’t move onto do algebraic equations until they know fractions. Right now, in most schools, they do. Schools need kids to move from subject to subject, from grade to grade, as a cohort. But in his new private school and others like his, that doesn’t happen anymore. It’s not about seat time, they said. It’s about showing mastery of a topic.

That system of showing proficiencies in a range of topics is not theoretical. It’s the system in many schools in New England and in many of the top private schools in the country. Our very vanilla school district in New Jersey is considering implementing a system like this here. It’s coming.

Now, many of you might wonder how a kid like Ian, a non-traditional learner, would fare in a school that didn’t ring the bell to change classes every 50 minutes.

Ian already has a version of this individualized learning model within a traditional school and after traditional school. He is in a special ed reading class, but he doesn’t get much out of it, because his learning differences are totally different from the other kids in the classroom. So, in study hall, the school district bought him a reading program — IXL. He plugs through the different assignments. And then I supplement all that with a real teacher after school. He’s made a lot of progress in the past year. I think he’s up two reading levels.

And then some school geniuses put him in the lowest level math class in fifth grade, where he learned absolutely nothing. He was stuck in that level for all of middle school, because his teachers weren’t the sharpest knives in the drawer. So, I took matters into my own hands and signed him up for Kumon, where he learned at his own pace, completing worksheets. And guess what? He’s out of special ed and getting an A in his class.

Because of his differences, he is in the resource room class for science and social studies, where he watches a whole lot of videos on the computer about particular topics. It works for him. He has a better grasp of American history than many of my students did when I taught at CUNY.

I don’t even have time to talk about how community colleges are increasingly taking over the job of high school education. The college model of one lecture and lots self-directed reading/research is basically this individualized education model.

So, it’s happening, people. It’s happening, because it does work for some kids. It’s happening, because we’re slowly working towards a system with fewer teachers or a system with lower expectations for teachers. It’s happening, because people don’t want to pay for traditional schools.

So, with changing notions of education comes a changing needs in school structures.

School Buildings Matter

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I spent nearly two months, off and on, researching the state of our schools for an article that The 74 published last week. When I dove into stories in local newspapers, I was shocked at what I found.

There were stories about students and teachers suffering in overheated classroom, mold on the walls, administrators begging local taxpayers to pass local bonds, boilers on their last legs. Everyone that I spoke to on the phone used words like “crisis” and “desperate” and “unthinkable.”

Local newspapers were full of these stories. It’s probably one of the biggest concerns of local school districts, along with costs of special education and healthcare costs for teachers. But there has been very little written in the national press on this topic. I think that Warren is the only candidate who addresses this problem with a proposal for additional federal spending on schools.

It’s a tragedy that isn’t getting nearly enough attention by the national press or by politicians. Students are missing school and having their instruction interrupted, because the buildings are already falling down. In another five years, the situation will be worse. And people who know about schools know this.

Why don’t people care? Well, maybe because the teachers unions haven’t taken a strong enough stand on it. They want money to go to the teachers first, which isn’t totally crazy. Maybe it’s because the public thinks that this is an urban-only problem and won’t affect them, which is wrong. A. Suburban schools are falling down, too. And B. Ugh.

But the fact that schools are all falling down at the same time does offer some opportunities. Opportunities to rebuild and create new learning centers that reflect modern educational needs.

One guy told me that schools should look like modern workplaces. If students are going to work in a modern workplace some day, they should be ready for it. What does that mean?

When Steve got his first job at a big named Wall Street firm, I remember stepping out of the elevation with the kids in the stroller to meet him for lunch one day. As someone who had spent most of my life in university classrooms, I was shocked.

His office building which took up nearly one whole block of Manhattan was a big open space. A football field with long desks and computers. Something like this.

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Modern schools should look like this, at least at the high school level.

Each kid would have their own desk, their permanent space. They then would go into small conference rooms in the interior of the building where they work with teachers and other students in small groups to work collaboratively on projects or to get mini-lectures on Descartes or Napoleon or The Civil War. Rooms would be filled with natural light from full length windows.

The school day wouldn’t be broken up into 8 modules made up of 50-minute classes. Instead, students would have various learning goals that they would have to master at their own pace. Some students could plug through Algebra 2 in six months; others might need two years.

There is a strong movement to ditch the old system of year-long classes and instead work towards mastery of particular topics. Oh, look I wrote about this movement a couple of years ago for Edutopia.

I talked about this concept with my brother-in-law, who is the director a major architecture company. He said that their firm does a lot with higher education, because colleges have all the money, but not with K-12 schools. He said he would hollow out existing buildings and then rebuild the floor plans to look like this.

If rebuilding schools happened simultaneously, using common plans, with well-vetted construction companies, with federal dollars, it could happen. It might even bring costs down, if buildings were constructed using green technology and modern methods of insulation.

Neglected school buildings, and their coming demise, might be an opportunity to rebuild better and more efficiently.

Never Give Up

When Ian was really little, like five years old, I had a meeting with a high level special education administrator. I was pretty miserable at that time. I didn’t feel like he was getting enough support for his disability or being appropriately challenged. We knew that he was smart. His test scores were in the 99th percentile. But he had SO MANY issues at that time.

He could barely understand what people were saying to him. His ability to comprehend language went down to zero when he was upset. His pre-school teacher would pass him written notes during those times, because he could read, but he didn’t understand what she was saying.

He frequently screamed or got upset, but couldn’t tell people what was bothering him. Looking back on it, he was just scared all the time. You would be too, if you didn’t understand what people were talking about. He had lots of sensory issues; he couldn’t tolerate loud sounds, bright lights, clothes.

Now, when he hears songs from that time or an old movie pops up on the TV as we’re flipping through channels, he runs out of the room. He said that those images and music trigger “nightmares.” He said that he gets flashbacks. I think he suffers from PTSD from autism.

Anyway, I was in this office with the administrator to request that he be held back for a year, so he would have another year to grow and catch up with his peers. She said no, because it would cut short his time in high school when they would have to train him for a job. In other words, she looked at him and saw someone who would need lots of training to stack shelves in Walmart. She had sized him up at age five and wrote him off.

Twelve years later, Ian took his PSATs this month. He spent an entire day at a band festival yesterday, playing bass drum and marching around the field. He blended in. He still has language deficits, sensory issues, and nervous tics, but he’s also rocking his talents in music and computers. He has a future ahead of him. A good one.

Every year, he gets better. This year’s band festival went much better than last year. He’s less likely to get irritated with peers who do random things. He doesn’t need an aide to supervise him. He chatted with classmates. I get lovely notes from his teachers, who tell me that he’s continues to surprise them.

Here’s what I’ve learned from raising a kid with autism — brains heal. They don’t heal completely, of course; Ian will always have his struggles. But with lots of work and opportunities, brains do get better. So, sizing up a five-year old and predicting adulthood is not only useless, it is harmful.

That administrator urged me to stop being so miserable and accept my kid’s limitations. She suggested that I spend more time on my career. Just the week before, another administrator had told me to stop worrying and to get a manicure.

I am so glad that we didn’t listen to them.

Johnny Still Can’t Read

It was a bad week to write anything about schools. The NAEP test scores came out, and that’s the big story. Nobody cares that school buildings are falling down, when the kids can’t read. I might argue that it’s all tied together, but I won’t today.

Let’s just talk about the scores themselves. Basically, scores have stayed flat for thirty years. Only 1/3 of American kids are on grade level for math and reading.

The big question is why. Brace yourself for a 1,000 thought pieces on this topic in the next few weeks. Is it because the teachers aren’t teaching phonics? Is it because kids are glued to their cellphones? Is it because parents are working too much and aren’t helping their kids? Is there enough teacher accountability? Do we need more charter schools?

I don’t know. I think we need more of everything, and there’s no one right answer.

But what really has me worried is what happens to these kids as they become barely literate high school graduates. We’re pushing them off to colleges, where they get stuck in remedial classes that are trying to teach skills that they should have learned in middle school. Most drop out of college; others major in things like Leisure Studies or Sports Management and then can’t find a proper job after graduation. There are fewer jobs for adults without those basic skills.

I’m not sure why education isn’t a national priority. I don’t know why it isn’t the top issue in a presidential election. I’m not sure why we push education stories to the back pages of newspapers and journals. For me, it’s Ground Zero for a better world.

Skimping on School Buildings is Creating a Crisis

The aging school buildings of Arizona’s Glendale Elementary School District were no match for the late summer monsoons of 2016. With foundations made brittle after years of prolonged water damage, flooding seeped in. A structural engineer feared that walls would give way.

School leaders scrambled to find new spaces for nearly 1,500 students until outside contractors could remediate waterlogged walls and floors and reinforce foundations in two buildings. Some students were shuttled to another school in the district; others were sent to a neighboring town.

Superintendent Cindy Segotta-Jones didn’t want to make the students relocate. But with aging buildings desperately needing repair after years of underfunding, she had no choice. “You can’t tell me that it doesn’t impact their learning when they’re in a different environment,” she said. “These disruptions are not fair to children.”

America’s schools, many built in the late 1960s and early 1970s, are due for a major overhaul after decades of inadequate funding made worse by the 2008 recession. These old buildings are only getting older — in Glendale, where some schools date to the 1940s, drainage problems make them vulnerable during the rainy season and aging air conditioners frequently conk out as temperatures soar to 115 degrees.

More here