Monthly Archives: February 2013

FEARING SHADOWS: OUR SCHOOLS AT THAT FAMILIAR CROSSROADS

“When you come to a fork in the road… take it.” — Yogi Berra

images-1We stand at a crossroads and I realize I’ve been here before.

If we continue to do what we are doing– to walk a curricular path that is confined to reading and math and mastering only one language — we will not die.  But many of our children will.  Just as they have during this past decade when school reform meant preparing students for standardized tests that ignore the many natural and innate ways in which kids are actually intelligent.

Or we can go back to the old road– the one we all walked through the 60’s and 70’s and 80’s when we were just kids ourselves;  where inequalities were enshrined in law and in our cultural DNA.  Remember that road?  The public school system convulsed from one legal mandate to the next trying to reflect the very Constitution we taught in social studies every day:  Brown v Bd of Education, PL94-142, Title IX, Lau v Nichols, and on. And on… until we got it (sort of) right.  In that era, there were no standards.  No expectations.  No accountability.  And little growth. Children of privilege did as well as they wanted. Children of color… not so much.  And the achievement chasm split the socioeconomic continuum like a great Grand Canyon.  There were haves.  And not.

And now there is a pathway toward the Common Core.  This is where the handwringing begins.Unknown

This is when educators fear a loss of control– as if they forgot their place in the political machinery of public education.  (Don’t you know? Public tax dollars pay for schools and salaries.  Those dollars are allocated by elected officials.  Those elected officials represent voters who demand certain actions in exchange for their votes.  Things like… schools where all children are learning what the community wants their children to learn.)

This is when the loudest voices are often from those who haven’t even read the standards, but envision a set of mind-numbing factoids that every kid will be required to swallow.  They hype their own fear.  The nationalization of learning.  The standardization of our kids.  (Wasn’t there a song about that from Pink Floyd or somebody?)

This is when educators begin to doubt their capacity to behave as they would have their students behave.

After a decade of complaints about the road we were currently on– the so-called reform road– we are beginning anew.  We are on the cusp of another full-scale transformation from basic skills and test prep academies to 21st century skills.

Never in the long (constantly changing) history of public education has there ever been a more promising opportunity to insure that every student has the skills and knowledge and values to compete and contribute in their world:  the ability to think creatively and critically, to seek relevance in daily school tasks, to readily apply new learnings to authentic problems, to communicate effectively in multiple ways and contexts and audiences.

Entrepreneurialism. Innovation. Civic Literacy. Activism. Voice.

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Progress.

At the crossroads, there is angst in the air.  There always is.

But when you come to that fork in the road…

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• More from Kevin W. Riley at the official website of The Milagro Publications

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Filed under 21st Century Skills, California charter schools, Common Core State Standards, El Milagro, Fighting for Ms. Rios, gifted children, innovation and change, public education, school reform, standardized testing, teaching, technology in schools, Uncategorized

DR. ZHAO ASKED THE WRONG 5 QUESTIONS ABOUT COMMON CORE

images-3Dr. Yong Zhao has been a provocative voice in school reform as he challenges educators and public policy experts to refrain from panicking over our children’s consistently low international ranking on standardized tests:

“Although American schools have not been as effective and successful in transmitting knowledge as the test scores indicate, they have somehow produced more creative entrepreneurs, who have kept the country’s economy going. Moreover, it is possible that on the way to produce those high test scores, other education systems may have discouraged the cultivation of the creative and entrepreneurial spirit and capacity.”

As a product of the school system in mainland China, he is perfectly positioned to remind Americans that our advantage in the global economy is our innovation, our creativity, and our knack for entrepreneurialism.

So I was a little surprised by his recent post about the Common Core State Standards and all the misinformed commentors who piled on in the anonymity provided by a typical blog debate.

“I wanted to ask all of us to ask again,” he writes rhetorically,  “if the new world of education ushered in by the Common Core will be better than the old one scheduled to end in a year.”

Fair question.

Then Zhao offers five more questions which he answers in support of his own position:

• What makes one globally competitive?

• Can you be ready for careers that do not exist yet?

• Are the Common Core Standards relevant?

• Does Common Core support global competence?

• What opportunities we may be missing?

His collective answers to these would suggest that he doesn’t think so.  But I have actually read the Common Core State Standards and monitored the developments of the new assessments, and respectfully disagree.

In fact, Dr. Zhao asked the wrong 5 questions.  Here are mine:

 • Are the 21st Century skills—including the ability to be “creative and entrepreneurial”— essential for our students?

 • Would you favor a return to the era of no standards… where educational quality and academic outcomes were solely left to the interests and whims of individual teachers and learning was optional?

• Is the ability to think deeply, read closely, invent, create, collaborate and apply their learning essential for educated citizens of our global society?

• Are these skills what you want  for your own children?

•  If this is not what is called for in the Common Core State Standards—what is?

images-5In 1990, the SCANS (Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills) report captured the consensus of corporate America when it described the skill sets that were critical for young people as they entered the work force of the 1990’s.  The report is called “What Work Requires of Schools”  and consists of two main sections:

Three- Part Foundation: Basic Skills (Reading, writing, mathematics, speaking and listening,  Thinking Skills (including creative and critical thinking, problem solving, decision making, and reasoning) Personal Qualities (responsibility, sociability, self management and honesty);

Five Workplace Competencies: Interpersonal (including teamwork and leadership),  Managing Resources, Information, Systems, and Technology.

In a March 1992 article for ASCD’s Educational Leadership, Arnold Packer, the SCANS executive director wrote;

“Students won’t learn SCANS skills by osmosis nor will schools meet new standards without fundamental changes in teaching methods and materials.  The most effective way to teach skills is in the context of real-world situations and real problems.  Students should not be filled with abstract data to be recalled for a test and forgotten, but rather, they should begin by applying their knowledge.”

For more than a decade, many progressive school systems relied heavily on the recommendations from the SCANS report as they defined their own standards for students.  Then NCLB began testing for only one component from SCANS (basic skills in reading and math) and the rest gradually disappeared.

Many of us who are actually leading in K-12 public schools remember the SCANS report and have been arguing that NCLB does not prepare children to compete in college or eventually become contributing citizens to our world—global or otherwise. We have warned that missing from the current basic skills pablum is an equal passion and reverence for creativity, invention, authentic thinking, teamwork, complexity, initiative, perseverance, LANGUAGE… and relevance.  Not just “content” standards in basic skills… but “performance” standards that are authentic and empowering.

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In the 21st Century we call these 21st Century skills and colleges and employers are still looking for them.

To counter the race to the bottom over the past decade, I have advocated that our teachers infuse 21st Century Skills into everything they do.  With Common Core and the assessments currently being developed, this is exactly the curriculum we will shift to.

So all the drama around “common” state standards across the country is puzzling.  Sort of.

It is apparent that many of the individuals who argue (at least in blog threads and twitter) against the Common Core state standards– haven’t read them!  “Standards” do not equate to standardization.   They don’t compromise local control of schools. But they do set a high bar which every student will have to eclipse no matter what else local schools want to do.  To me, it’s an issue of equity.

Dr. Zhao is fully aware that Americans eschew standardization.  But he fails to address that thorny little problem we have with differences and diversity.

We ought to excel at 21st Century skills!  But America’s potential global advantage in education is also our greatest weakness.  We have the most diverse student population on the planet, but have failed to develop a school system that simultaneously celebrates each child’s uniqueness while insuring that every student has fully developed the skills they need to compete at any level and any walk of life they choose.

The public school system has been designed to never change… and so it rarely does.   Thus, the achievement gaps that reveal disparities in terms of race, ethnicity, native language, and in some areas, gender have not gone away.

This is where a profound difference between Common Core and the “accountability system” engendered by NCLB is apparent.

NCLB is a punitive system that is not focused on what children actually need to be successful in their lives.  In many ways it was created to expose public schools as ineffective, and drive institutional change through unfunded mandates and threats.  The result – for all the wrong reasons– was a hyper-focus on multiple choice testing and test prep in a narrow band of the curriculum (basic skills in reading and math).

No wonder the teachers in Chicago went on strike to protest the use of test data in their evaluations.

No wonder the teachers at Garfield High School in Seattle staged their own little  Arab Spring and refused to administer the MAPS assessment.

No wonder parents are standing behind their classroom teachers.

No Child Left Behind targets educators.

The Common Core, on the other hand, re-focuses our schools on the needs of children. With the stated emphasis on college and career readiness—(What Workplace Requires of Schools)– it has “north star” potential  in the quest for the uniquely American concept of equity. If implemented with integrity, it will assure that every child, in every community, has access to a highly trained teacher and a curriculum designed to promote 21st century skills.

Dr Zhao asks rhetorically: Do we want individuals who are good at taking tests, or individuals who are creative and entrepreneurial? As if we have to choose between the two.

If the vision of common core is realized, we will have both.  Our students should excel at taking authentic tests that are as innovative as we expect American kids to be.  And in the spirit of local control, that is exactly the vision of El Milagro.

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Filed under 21st Century Skills, California charter schools, charter schools, college, Common Core State Standards, El Milagro, Fighting for Ms. Rios, innovation and change, post-secondary education, public education, school reform, standardized testing, teaching