Category Archives: teaching

CORKING THE BATS: WHY THE ATLANTA SCANDAL IS ONLY THE TIP OF THE NCLB ICEBERG

images-7Cheating is such an integral part of baseball culture that it is almost endearing.

Stealing bases when nobody is watching can get you into the Hall of Fame, for sure.  But I’m talking about real cheating.  Knowingly violating the rules of the game  to gain some perceived advantage– which, in baseball’s long history, takes on many forms and variations. And some are more compelling than others. Like George Brett and his pine tar bat, for example, producing one of the modern game’s most dramatic and memorable highlights.   Or the notorious spit ball.  Or Phil Niekro slipping a fingernail file into his hat so he could scratch out a better knuckleball. Or corking the bats.

images-2But then there are the extremes. Pete Rose bet on his own team.  In 1919 the Chicago White Sox accepted bribes to intentionally blow the World Series.  And more recently, there are regular accusations and suspicions about players  juicing.

Baseball is America’s game.  And so is the cheating that goes on that makes baseball baseball.

And so it was fascinating to watch the shockwaves ripple across the nation when one of our preeminent superintendents and a fistful of teachers were all indicted for their elaborate scheme to doctor their students’ test results.

The horror.  The scandal.  The betrayal. This is public education, for God’s sake.  Not baseball!

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But for those of us who work in schools everyday, it should not be surprising at all that educators went to such unethical extremes to gain an advantage.  When you threaten people with their jobs, their livelihood, their professional careers… they become resourceful.  Welcome to the legacy of No Child Left Behind. High stakes testing is when you have everything to lose and nothing to gain.  When a system that we KNOW is bad for kids is treated as if it is worthy of our outrage when it is violated.

But the real question we ought to answer is this: What exactly is “cheating” when it comes to testing our kids?  When do we cross the line from stealing the catcher’s signs or corking the bats– to intentionally losing the World Series on a bribe?

This week, for example, I discovered the extreme degree to which many of the schools in my district are engaging in test prep with only three weeks remaining until the California Standards Test.  Test prep includes practicing sample test items and drilling in the strategies for how to select a correct answer in a multiple choice item.  The entire school throws out the rest of the curriculum and locks in on a single imperative.  All day.  Every day.  It’s legal.  Even encouraged with a wink– because it can definitely inflate results.

But it’s not good teaching.  It’s not good for our kids.  It doesn’t advance learning.  It doesn’t promote thinking or collaboration or communication or entrepreneurialism or any of the other 21st century skills that will soon be treated as the coin of the realm when the Common Core is ushered in.  In fact, devoting any more time at all to the various state assessment  packages that are now all but obsolete… seems to be the worst form of cheating.  It’s cheating our students of their time for authentic learning. Wasted days and weeks and months in pursuit of a mission that has nothing to do with our children’s future.

So ok… “test prep strategies “are not quite the same as calling for pizzas as you hunker down and change all of your students’ test booklets to reflect correct answers… but it’s still a hoax to pretend high test scores mean our kids are actually  learning.

imagesProfessional baseball is intensely competitive and the rewards are great for those few who excel in it.  So great in fact, that it creates a climate where cheating is inevitable.  But the game is pure and it will survive the scandal.

Educators, on the other hand, are typically driven by an instinct for service and advocacy.  Teaching a child is its own honest reward.  But NCLB was never  designed to promote performance as much as to punish the status quo.  It wasn’t really intended for teachers to improve instruction or close the achievement gap among our children- as much as it was for politicians to quantify their competing ideologies about what they believe matters in our schools.

Atlanta reminds us that we’ve lost our soul as a profession–and as a nation– not because of cheating scandals, but because we legislated the game away.

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Filed under children at risk, Common Core State Standards, innovation and change, public education, school reform, standardized testing, teaching, Uncategorized

BULL’S EYE

I don’t know where the bickering has taken the lawmakers on Capital Hill.  I don’t know if we are closer to a bill that begins to slake American’s out-of-control thirst for guns.  But I found this photograph from Education Week to be chilling:

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These are educators in Clifton, Texas at a shooting range. The new professional development.

Does anyone honestly think armed teachers make our school safer?

I’m thinking about  the lockdown we experienced last year when some tweaker off the streets  jumped a fence and entered one of our classrooms with a knife in his hand.  I’m thinking about how many teachers I passed on my way out to confront him in the classroom.  The look in their eye.  The terror. I have no idea how many people might have been hurt if one of those panicked teachers had whipped out a gun (they would keep it locked up, right?)… managed to load it (locked in a safe, un-loaded, right?)… aimed it at the wild-eyed  intruder and commanded him to drop his weapon.  And of course he wouldn’t have complied any more than he complied with me when I offered to escort him off the campus.

So what do naive, common citizens do when they are armed to the teeth and staring down an stranger at their school and the whole episode does not seem to go according to the script from the “School Safety Plan” or the last tv show they watched that made it all look so easy and antiseptic.

What happens when a teacher kills an un-armed visitor who poses no real threat at all?

What happens when a teacher starts spraying bullets through classroom walls into areas where other kids have “ducked and covered”?

What happens when the intruder quits laughing long enough to take her weapon away from her– and now instead of being armed with a pen knife he is armed with that freaking gun?

UnknownThe NRA has figured it out.  They know how Apple Computers benefitted from their partnership with schools (considerably more than schools benefitted!) and how the endless cycle of technology upgrades has affected their stock market fortunes. They see thousands of schools, millions of educators, and an endless stream of future customers sitting in desks learning about the Second Amendment of the Constitution. They see momentum building off of the Sandy Hook tragedy, and they want to ride it all the way to Wall Street. It’s a bull market.

They see pictures of entire school districts teambuilding out on the firing range. Target practice for God and country;  improving public education in the bargain.

Not me.  I still see that terrified look in our student’s faces as they ran out of that classroom, fleeing for their lives.  And the relief when it ended so quietly and peacefully.  No one hurt.

Nothing good will come from more guns in places where they don’t belong.  Just more red dots on the HP map depicting the number of gun deaths since Sandy Hook:

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Filed under children at risk, Common Core State Standards, El Milagro, Fighting for Ms. Rios, gun violence, innovation and change, President Obama, public education, teaching, technology in schools, Uncategorized

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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THROUGH THEIR EYES

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IDEO, the Palo Alto company famous for designing Apple’s first mouse back in the 80’s, has since created user-centered solutions for everything from computer games to ice cream scoopers, defibrillators and shopping carts.  As one of the world’s leading innovators in Human-Centered Design,  they even create strategies to address such social issues as poverty, nutrition, health, water and sanitation, economic empowerment, access to financial services, and gender equity throughout the world.

It should not be surprising that they also have some thoughts about designing our schools from the perspective of the students who attend them every day. Everything from the culture of school environments and education reform initiatives, right down to more user-friendly student desks.

And, of course, Aiden also has some ideas about school designs as he develops his journals in Fighting for Ms. Rios.

Ultimately, Fighting for Ms. Rios is not just about a kid and his teacher.  It’s deeper than that.  It’s a case for intentionally designing student-centered schools around a culture of what the corporate world refers to as “deep customer empathy”.  Authentic relationships.  Mutual respect. Caring. User-centered design!

imagesThe notion of “empathy” is a central tenet of Dev Patnaik’s book called Wired to Care. Patnaik, a renown business strategist, writes about how organizations of all kinds prosper when they tap into a power each of us already has: empathy, the ability to reach outside of ourselves and connect with other people.  He believes that when people inside a company develop a shared sense of what’s going on in the world, they see new opportunities faster than their competitors. They have the courage to take a risk on something new. And they have the gut-level certitude to stick with an idea that doesn’t take off right away.

In Patnaik’s view, people are naturally “wired to care” and many of the world’s best organizations are, too. But they must learn to stop worrying about their own problems and see the world through each other’s eyes.

Ms. Rios had a natural gift for empathizing with her students and Aiden writes about it constantly.  In “THE NINTH JOURNAL: The Last Day” he says:

During that time Ms. Rios found hope and inspiration in her students. She believed in every last one of us from Trinity to Atticus Hinzo to Rafael to Angela to Charlie Flowers and Remy Padilla and Vera Ruiz and Inca and even Lester…and me. And Raymond. Especially Raymond.

Raymond, is a special needs student who was placed in her classroom to test his ability to adapt to every-day school routines.   He struggled… (because he had special needs!)  Ms. Rios’ class would have been the perfect placement– but she was a brand new teacher and too easily influenced by Wanda, the burned-out teacher next door.  As we come to know Ms. Rios from Aiden’s writings– a natural born teacher wired to care– we realize that giving up so quickly on Raymond was very much out of character for her:

In his few short weeks with Ms. Rios, he had taught her more about teaching than any university or workshop or conference or colleague ever could.  She knew in her bones that she had given up on Raymond far too soon and she vowed to never let that happen again.  She regretted listening to Wanda.  She should have been Raymond’s advocate.

From that day forward, Ms. Rios never quit believing in her students. No matter what.  She remained resilient. (From “Lambs”)

It is possible (and critical) to design and manage schools–including the systems, services, relationships and programs– from the student out… instead of the outside in.  But to do so, we truly have to see the world through our students’ eyes.  That’s really what “deep customer empathy” is all about– and why, by the end of her first year, we come to regard Ms. Rios as such an extraordinary teacher.  And why Aiden becomes the voice of children in schools everywhere.

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THE MILAGRO TRILOGY

For a while I was blogging all the time. Right here.  Some really, really good stuff.  I cranked out blog post after blog post– at least once a week– usually on Saturday mornings.  I would consistently check my stats and it looked like, depending on what I wrote, I’d have quite a few people dropping in.  Then something happened.  I got so tied up in writing and editing my second book, I couldn’t pour any more creative energy into sustaining my blog.  So I didn’t.

Now “Fighting for Ms. Rios” is complete and soon to be released.  It is a story told by a highly gifted fourth grader named Aiden who is not only an extraordinary young writer, but he is amazingly perceptive about adults and their schools. And he can fight.  Aiden writes a series of nine journals over the course of the school year, chronicling his experiences with his friends and with his remarkable first year teacher– Ms. Rios.

I had lots of people edit my book and at one point even had it placed with a publisher called Park East Press.  But I realized publishing can be a sleazy business if you get caught up with the wrong folks– and Park East Press turned out to be the wrong folks.  So I wrestled my manuscript back from them and decided instead to join the hundreds of other entrepreneurial writers and inventors and musicians and filmmakers who value their voice… and I placed my book project on Kickstarter.  Check it out.  There is even a book trailer there.

In the meantime… “Fighting for Ms. Rios” will be released on bookshelves and Kindles in September.  But that’s not all.  I’ve nearly finished a sequel called “Broken in the Middle,” where our gifted little writer, Aiden, is now in 7th grade and struggling to rise above the worst adversity that a kid will ever face.  The theme of the book is resiliency, and it is a hopeful story.

And of course there is a sequel to the sequel.  In “Catching In A Crowd” Aiden is a senior who attends a very unusual charter high school.  He is a decorated high school athlete, but the real offers are coming in from schools that specialize in creative writing.   In the final book of what has now become the Milagro Trilogy, Aiden’s journey through the K-12 system is complete.

So that’s where I’ve been.  Writing the Milagro Trilogy instead of blog posts.  But I intend to resurrect my blog, if for no other reason than to update you on the progress of the Trilogy and Aiden’s latests exploits.

Let me know what you think.

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BEYOND YOUR SCHOOL’S TATTOO

A few years ago The Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology released a study on the trend of tattooing. In it, they estimated that 24% of the population between the ages of 18 and 50 had at least one tattoo. But that was five years ago. It is likely much higher now.

And the most popular tattoo? It is the tribal band, a sun or butterfly, or some Chinese script that one can only hope means what you think it means when you commit to wearing it for the rest of your life.

A tattoo is all about commitment and communicating your “brand”.

So I wonder why our parents and our teachers don’t routinely get tattoos of our school logo. Come to think of it, I see all kinds of tattoos every day at my school, but I have never seen even one that promotes our brand.

That’s troubling. Not because I want to see a bunch of tattoo designs of our school, but because tattoos are the the ultimate expression of a customer’s faithfulness to a product. The single most powerful indicator of customer loyalty is when clients willingly share their positive experience with family and friends and urge them to see for themselves. It is the concept of “net promoter”.

And how do citizens of a capitalist and democratic society express their product loyalty? Through their frequent patronage. By word of mouth. By wearing a tee shirt (Hard Rock Cafe-London?) Through Twitter and Yelp and Facebook.

And by affiliating oneself to an idea… symbolically captured in a tattooed brand: the mercedes benz hood logo, the channel interlocking “c’s”, the nike swoosh, the flirtive persona of the playboy bunny, the venerable “NY” of the New York Yankees.

If you were to Google tattoo designs for Harley Davidson you would find pages and pages of them and no shortage of examples carved into every conceivable body part. It is a small price to pay for attaching oneself to the notion of raw power, independence and engineering excellence. Tattoos are, among other things, metaphoric.

If you Google tattoo designs for your school, on the other hand, chances are you won’t find any. You won’t find my school either and that’s the problem. Our stakeholders would sooner ink images of automobiles or household appliances or tobasco sauce to their forearms than their neighborhood school.

There may be some reasons for that:

• Product brands are familiar and reliable and often represent an attribute that an individual is willing to “advertise” for the rest of his or her life. It is less about the product and more about the metaphor. And our schools don’t make good life-long metaphors.

• When schools do show up as tattoos they are logos for universities like USC or Notre Dame or the bright red “A” of the Crimson Tide. But don’t be mistaken. These tattoos are not in tribute to the math department or to the fine services rendered over in accounting. They represent football teams that win more than they lose. Teams with history and swagger. We all like a winner. The Trojans may be on probation but they certainly aren’t in Program Improvement.

• Perhaps most importantly, if someone is willing to tattoo the icon of a business or product to their body, it is because that brand is incontrovertible and well defined. There is no going back. There is, for example, no debate about who (or what) the Apple or Target icons represent.

The neighborhood elementary school? That’s a different story.

But if people have a positive enough experience in the marketplace, if they are so passionate about a product that they feel it in their bones, if they are willing to shout from the rooftops, to at least buy the (Ferrari) tee shirt until they can afford the car– then you have a brand that works.

And if people are willing to compromise their career aspirations for a visible tattoo, to endure the stinging pain and fuss with the healing process, to brook the criticism from mom and the in-laws, to say nothing of their jealous friends’ incessant chiding–it is only because they believe so deeply in what that brand represents.

And, sadly, that is why there aren’t a lot of public schools represented in tattoos. Neither for metaphoric value. Nor for the sake of sentiment.

When it comes to our experience in public schools, there simply is no “brand” identity that invokes the kind of passion required to allow some 19 year old to carve a Chevy monster truck with Bridgestone tires into your ribcage. We forfeited that responsibility to the marketing genius of politicians who chose instead to brand public schools in a far less generous light: as ineffective, archaic, moribund sinkholes that waste taxpayer dollars.

Time for a different brand. Time to promote the extraordinary capacity of teachers and schools to not only engender amazing academic results in whatever test you want to gives us… but to simultaneously prepare students for a future that they will actually inherit– one that will no doubt require them to think, create, innovate, problem solve, communicate (in multiple languages) and work effectively with others.

What would that brand look like? And would you be willing to tattoo the icon to your body if it all lead to extraordinary results?

(This post also appears on LeaderTalk)

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