Learning 2.0: Writing gets serious when schools become publishers

Ben Heckman, an 8th grader from Framington, Minnesota, is a twice-published novelist whose story was told in a New York Times piece about the growing number of young writers who break into print, usually with a little bankrolling from their parents. Hundreds of teenage and younger authors are publishing every year.

The Times story by Elissa Gootman also illustrates what I call Learning 2.0, the next full-scale upgrade of public education. The authors in her story all wrote fiction, but publishing non-fiction student work also is an important pedagogy, a departure from the century-old acquisition-and-storage model of learning. Publishing student work is an act of exhibition, an invitation for people to view and comment on it, and a validation of self worth of the writer. Publication says that students can do something, know something, and be something.

My exhibit “A” resides at High Tech High in San Diego, where 60 books are listed on the school’s web site, creating both examples of the school’s own ideas about its best work and the transparency through which others can judge it. (I’m writing a case study of the school that should be published soon.)

San Diego Bay begins about 200 yards from the HTH Point Loma campus. It serves as a social and scientific laboratory, and students have written four books about the Bay and its environs. One of them, San Diego Bay: A Story of Exploitation and Restoration, was published by the University of California, San Diego, and supported by the National Sea Grant program.

Through a series of projects developed by teachers Jay Vavra in biology, Tom Fehrenbacher in humanities, and Rod Buenviaje in mathematics, students interviewed Native Americans, Chinese fishermen, and hunters. They followed the fortunes of tuna, sea lions, white sea bass, abalone, and dolphins. They applied Jared Diamond’s themes from Guns, Germs, and Steel to the Bay. They ended by saying, “Only when we realize that all the pieces of the bigger picture we call nature must be considered will we be capable of sustainably using the Bay, and the rest of the world’s environment, to its fullest extent.”

Several other groups of students, and their teachers, have produced “alphabet books” or dictionaries on academic disciplines. Andrew Gloag’s students published Absolute Zero, which illustrates physics terms. “A is for Antimatter,” writes Kathy Anderson, explaining that high energy antimatter engines are still sci-fi stuff, but that PET (Positron Emission Tomography) scans of brain activity exemplify a practical application of the science.

Jenny Morris and a biology class at HTH Chula Vista wrote Alphabet Soup: The A-Z of Cell Biology, about which Morris comments: “This book is living proof that students will aspire to and reach the high expectations you set for them, if you provide a safe and supportive environment in which to try, fail, try again, and eventually succeed.”

Dan Wise’s economics students produced posters explaining economic terms in language a junior high school student could understand. (Students had to test their examples on them. If a sixth grader couldn’t understand, start over.) Think: Could you define a “moral hazard” or a “free rider”? In the process of creating these examples, the students learned the underlying economics, concise writing, and design. They illustrated each defined term with linoleum block prints that became part of the posters, and the posters and definitions became part of a book, Economics Illustrated.

Ben Daley, HTH chief operating officer, sees great value in publishing student work: “I have observed the pride that many students feel at having their words and their work appear in print. One of my high school senior advisees solemnly observed to my advisory group, ‘I’m a published author now.’ I believe that micro-publishing is an opportunity that allows almost any teacher to work alongside students to produce high-quality products in which students not only absorb new information but also transform it to help make it their own, as well as develop important skills such as learning to work well in a group and the ability to effectively communicate one’s ideas.”

Exhibition also creates incentive among students. As HTH art teacher Jeff Robin says, “If you think that you are an artist, but your paintings are only in your mother’s garage, you’re really not an artist; you’re just cluttering up your mother’s garage.” Teacher and students need to know where the project will live. “If you know that the project will be displayed in an art gallery in downtown San Diego and your family and friends are going to be there, you are going to want to do a better job.”

Publishing does not substitute for practice in writing, just as performing does not substitute for practice in music, or playing does not substitute for practice in soccer. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell posits the 10,000-hour rule, the length of time it takes to master most anything. Exhibition as pedagogy does not assert that it creates prodigies; it simply creates more opportunities for practice that is subject to critique. In a way, it’s serious play, and incentivized learning in ways that receiving a traditional red-penciled paper from a teacher decidedly is not.

Charles Taylor Kerchner is Research Professor in the School of Educational Studies at Claremont Graduate University, and a specialist in educational organizations, educational policy, and teachers unions. In 2008, he and his colleagues completed a four-year study of education reform of the Los Angeles Unified School District. The results of that research can be found in The Transformation of Great American School Districts and in Learning from L.A.: Institutional Change in American Public Education, published by Harvard Education Press. He writes the blog Mindworkers.com, where this piece appeared.

Once more around the track of school reforms in Los Angeles Unified

In a new labor agreement that embraces local school autonomy, Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent John Deasy has jumped from one school reform horse to another.

He dismounted the Public School Choice horse, thus ending the era when the school district sought to improve schools through robust competition among district-run school management teams, charters, and other complex operating arrangements. Under what has been called “portfolio” logic, the school district would assemble the best collection of schools it could, putting underperforming ones up for competitive bids while encouraging the ones that were doing well.

The labor agreement now being voted on virtually ends Public School Choice. For the next three years, no charters or external school management organizations can apply, and the district is forbidden to reconstitute a school that is making what the agreement calls but does not define as “reasonable progress.”

Deasy and United Teachers Los Angeles President Warren Fletcher saddled up a new filly — the daughter of school reforms past — called decentralization. The underlying logic is that diversity in approach to schooling is good, that many different models of instruction are needed, and that teachers and administrators know best how to design schooling and to self-regulate their jobs.

They were right to get off the old horse. It was dead or at least hobbled. The 2009 Public School Choice resolution offered by former board member Yolie Flores was an audacious idea, but political pushback tied its legs from the beginning. Its racing life was short. In the first round of applications, the school board rejected Superintendent Ray Cortines’ recommendations and awarded none of the newly constructed schools to charters. The persistently underperforming schools, which had been ordered to write competitive proposals, largely competed against themselves. Few charter or external organizations sought to run them. Conventional wisdom in the charter world is that taking over existing public schools is too fraught with pain and difficulty to be worth the effort; better to start anew.

However, the new decentralization horse does not have a good track record. LAUSD rode this horse hard during the 1990s, and both Deasy and Fletcher could learn from that trial.

The 1990s decentralization horse didn’t get fed enough. Schools that joined the LEARN project were promised budgetary flexibility, which largely never appeared, and added funding, which dried up after a few years.

There may be no food at all for the new decentralization mount. While the labor agreement promises formative assistance for struggling schools and help for planning newly decentralized ones, the state budget shortfall, with more in store next week, may truly empty the feedbag.

The 1990s decentralization horse often didn’t know where the finish line was. LEARN training focused more on adult process skills than hard-core analytics about student achievement. There was no agreement about how to measure the outcomes the schools wanted, and for most of the period California lacked statewide measurements.

The same ambiguity applies now. Will the decentralized schools be judged only by the state’s Academic Performance Index? Will teachers be evaluated by how much they contributed to test score increases? Teachers in general and UTLA in particular loathe so-called “value added” measurements, but they have not proposed an alternative. The expectations for decentralized schools, the means of evaluating them, and the consequences are all up for grabs. Without a finish line, the new school reform horse is as likely to spend its time chewing the infield grass as galloping on the track.

The 1990s school reform horse had inconsistent trainers. Teachers and principals attended sometimes extensive workshops and residencies. (Palm Springs in July. Bring gloves; your steering wheel will be too hot to touch.) They learned the process rudiments of what was called a professional learning community. But these schools were isolated within the larger LAUSD and UTLA organizations. The idea of teacher leadership was rejected by the administrative establishment as improper and by union activists as not being tough minded enough.

The 1990s school reform horse had a short season at the track. LEARN was approved by the school board in 1993 and got under way the following year. By 1999, the race was over. External supporters grew frustrated with LAUSD, and they moved on to foster charter school development, particularly those now called the Alliance Schools. Opposition in the district, school board, and union increased. Victory was declared, but the season ended.

Fletcher and Deasy may have saddled up a better horse. Using the union contract as a reform document gives reform a stable home. Contracts last longer than superintendencies or a union president’s term, and they are good at patterning behavior. Still, neither union nor district could resist the temptation to mire their new ideas on a slow muddy track of committee approvals, school votes, plan documents, and more approvals. It may never get to the starting gate.

I don’t know whether this horse will run, but I’m putting down my bet. See you at the $2 window.

Charles Taylor Kerchner is Research Professor in the School of Educational Studies at Claremont Graduate University, and a specialist in educational organizations, educational policy, and teachers unions. In 2008, he and his colleagues completed a four-year study of education reform of the Los Angeles Unified School District. The results of that research can be found in The Transformation of Great American School Districts and in Learning from L.A.: Institutional Change in American Public Education, published by Harvard Education Press.

The third chair at the bargaining table in Los Angeles

Sometimes the most interesting political commentary is found in the comics … or in the ads.

Monday’s editions of the Los Angeles Times, Daily News, and La Opinion carried a full-page ad from a coalition of civic and community organizations aimed at influencing the negotiations between the Los Angeles Unified School District and its teachers, represented by United Teachers Los Angeles.

The ad itself is pretty bland. “Don’t hold us back” is not exactly a searing catch phrase. But the underlying issues are explosive: teacher evaluation, employment security, and school-site determination of work rules.

Essentially, the ad’s sponsors are drawing up a third chair to the bargaining table. They are attempting to influence both labor and management, but clearly they are in line with the positions and issues articulated by Superintendent John Deasy last summer. The increasingly bold and strident parent and community voice, amplified and modulated with foundation money, changes the politics of collective bargaining and challenges the union’s historic claim on parent loyalty.

In terms of Los Angeles politics, Monday’s ads are at least a semi big deal. Usually, collective bargaining holds little interest for parents and their organizations. It’s thought to be too boring and technical, something best left to the experts to sort through. But historically, when parent and community voice is activated, it tips the political balance. Decades ago, in The Changing Idea of A Teachers Union, my research colleagues and I examined scores of contract negotiations. We found that the usually silent parents were powerful when they got riled up. Thus, the admonition of political analysis: “When a fight starts, watch the crowd.”

So, looking at the ad’s sponsors tells us something about how those on the sidelines enter the fight. Although technically leaderless, the coalition grew from a report issued by the United Way and financed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In addition, the ads were sponsored by the Alliance for a Better Community, Families in Schools, Inner City Struggle, Community Coalition, Asian Pacific Legal Center, the Los Angeles Urban League, and Communities for Teaching Excellence. Former school board member Yolie Flores heads the latter. Each of these organizations has been at least somewhat aligned with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the now-thin school board majority.

Like the mayor, the heads of these organizations have ties to ethnic communities, roots in civil rights struggles, and sometimes experience in labor activism. Virtually all are Democrats. So, their opposition to the current state of teacher labor relations is significant. “We need to push both sides,” said Veronica Melvin, of Communities for Teaching Excellence.

UTLA President Warren Fletcher doubts both the representativeness of the ads’ sponsors and their political clout. “They are reflective of the capacity to purchase a display ad,” he said with reference to the foundation and school district support that the ad’s sponsors have received.

Fletcher also thinks that the union better understands what parents want. He points to the recent school board race between retired educator Bennett Kaiser and Luis Sanchez, chief of staff to board president Monica Garcia. Sanchez lost despite the mayor’s support and substantial contributions from unions other than UTLA.

Explosive issues

On the sponsors’ web page one finds a minefield of issues that not only divide management from union but also challenge traditionalists within the union and school district.

The ad’s sponsors want to maintain and protect the Public School Choice program, which Flores sponsored, in which the operation of both newly constructed schools and schools that have failed to meet test score benchmarks are put out to a request-for-proposal process. Groups, including teacher collaboratives and charter schools, can write a proposal to run a school. UTLA would love to have the whole thing go away, and it is particularly opposed to putting newly constructed schools up for bid. There are several issues surrounding Public School Choice that the district and union are supposed to resolve by Nov. 1. But the ad sponsors’ proposals go well beyond what will be negotiated in the next two weeks.

The ad’s sponsors also want to lift the cap on autonomous schools, such as Pilots and Expanded School-Based management structures that were embraced by both the school board and UTLA under former president A.J. Duffy. They also want to further open up areas in the city where parents can choose among schools as opposed to having their children assigned to a school, so-called Zones of Choice.

Regardless of whether a school is run by a charter or the district, regardless of whether it is management or worker dominated, the more autonomy given a school, the larger the threat to the traditional contract. LAUSD is well down the road toward autonomous schools, regardless of what happens with Public School Choice. Nearly a quarter of public school students attend charters, Pilots, magnet schools, and other deviations from a conventional district school. Opening up more teacher-led schools, more schools with distinct academic themes — such as the bilingual immersion schools being designed under Public School Choice — creates a stronger teacher interest in controlling who works there and under what conditions.

The more autonomy is granted to schools, the stronger the pressure to eliminate “must place” hiring processes in which a teacher, through seniority or other means, is sent to a school regardless of whether his or her skills and interests match the pedagogy and ethos the school is trying to develop and maintain. The more autonomy granted to a school, the greater the pressure for elect-to-work agreements in which the school’s faculty make up many of their own work rules and new hires agree to be bound by those rules.

These are huge changes from the tradition of a central contract in which one set of rules governs all teachers. So are the issues surrounding teacher evaluation.

Like most of those who call themselves reformers in education, the ad’s sponsors want to tie teacher evaluation and compensation to student outcomes. This notion of just rewards and strong incentives has gained so much face validity that it is hard to oppose, even when most merit-pay plans in public education have proven unworkable and short-lived.

The problem is that UTLA has been largely mute about alternatives to the current system, which virtually everyone, including Fletcher, agrees doesn’t work. But UTLA’s lack of a strong viable alternative and opposition to any use of student test score data for evaluation puts it on the defensive. Fletcher says internal work on developing an “intellectually honest and durable” system is under way, but that it takes time. But time is short because both the school administration and the newly attentive public have approached this round of bargaining with a righteous urgency.

There is good news for unionism in Monday’s ad. The organizations behind it see collective bargaining and the contract as a vehicle toward better public education. In this, they differ from the Republican forces that have limited or eliminated public sector bargaining in several states. The cautionary news for UTLA is that these organizations have brought their own demands and their own chair to the bargaining table. And they are impatient.

Charles Taylor Kerchner is the co-author of Learning from L.A.: Institutional Change in American Public Education and United Mind Workers: Unions and Teaching in the Knowledge Society. He is a professor at Claremont Graduate University.

Establishing the intersection of “Be nice” and “Know a lot”

No Child Left Behind is apparently disappearing with a whimper, or at least a waiver. The originally bipartisan law has become a bad brand.

The pragmatics of the law’s demise rest in its rather silly calculation of test scores, and the backloading of expectations so that in the final years of the law the majority of schools in the United States would be labeled as failures, something that no state or governor or education secretary could stand politically.

But the problem with the whimpering exit is that we haven’t gotten to the root of the matter or had the political debate about what we want from the schools.

In a recent column in this space, Jeff Camp raises the question of the content of student character: whether and how it should be taught and evaluated. “A simple ‘character score’ would be of little use,” he writes, “the true point of this kind of evaluation would be to drive conversations and self-reflection about things that actually matter.”

But even reflecting on things that matter or engaging in “performance character,” does not take place without context. One needs to know how to connect personal niceness with the nation’s history and struggles. We are not doing such a good job at that.

A recent Southern Poverty Law Center study written by Kate Shuster with a forward by Julian Bond found that academic standards virtually ignore our civil rights history. Or when it is taught it turns into a fable: There used to be segregation, then Dr. King came along, and now everything is all right.

The ability to make sense of history, and thus to “act nice” in a social sense, rests on knowledge coupled with schooled training in public action. Action without knowledge is simply gut-level response and know-nothing politics. Knowledge without action is a waste: test scores without a purposeful anchor. (Shuster, whose doctoral research at Claremont Graduate University finds a lack of efficacy in state minimum competency tests, illustrates that point in her dissertation.)

As California looks hard at how it assesses schools and students, it needs to look at the intersection of nice and knowledgeable.

Charles Taylor Kerchner is Research Professor in the School of Educational Studies at Claremont Graduate University, and a specialist in educational organizations, educational policy, and teachers unions. In 2008, he and his colleagues completed a four-year study of education reform of the Los Angeles Unified School District. The results of that research can be found in The Transformation of Great American School Districts and in Learning from L.A.: Institutional Change in American Public Education, published by Harvard Education Press. He writes the blog Mindworkers.com

Look to experience, not policy, to assess 21st century skills

Learning to collaborate and to solve ill-defined problems are to the 21st Century what industrial discipline was to the last hundred years, according to those who have studied what employers and society need. They need to be considered basic skills, just as are reading, math, and science, and they are one of the key elements of Learning 2.0.

By the turn of the millennium, it was clear that jobs requiring routine thinking and skills were giving way to those involving both higher levels of knowledge and also some applied skills, such as expert thinking and complex communicating, that are not well captured by most current educational standards or taught in the conventional curriculum. Teamwork, for example, is taught mostly in extracurricular activities.

But how to do this? If we as a society want creativity, if we want working together, where do we teach it? How do we assess it? The current policy path links new basic skills with a new generation of tests that will be a part of the Common Core of standards.

But the tests and the Common Core face a very long developmental chain and growing political opposition. A whole series of decisions has to fall the right way for tests and curriculum to emerge and be adopted. And all that happens before classrooms start to change.

Consider, for a moment, a parallel policy pathway. Instead of using educational policy to produce new tests that are to drive instruction, why not turn the process upside down and create accessible forms of learning that involve the new basic skills? Let changes in learning drive the tests.

By reversing the process, we would adopt the developmental strategy of “permanent Beta testing” made famous at Google. Get changes in learning and on-the-ground evaluation first, and build tests and curriculum based on the experience of thousands of users. Start from the bottom, not from the top. Cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham, whose Why Don’t Students Like School? should be on everyone’s reading list, argues that seeing what works requires that some kind of assessment plan be in place and admits that measuring 21st Century skills is extremely difficult. Yet, there exist demonstration projects that carry with them both the capacity to evaluate and some experience developing instrumentation and professional practice.  (In a longer essay, I discuss the potential of study groups, project-based learning, and rethinking subject matter teaching to introduce 21st Century skills.)

We can probably advance 21st Century skills as much through grounded experimentation as we can through explicit public policy.

Charles Taylor Kerchner is Research Professor in the School Educational Studies at Claremont Graduate University, and a specialist in educational organizations, educational policy, and teacher unions. In 2008, he and his colleagues completed a four-year study of education reform of the Los Angeles Unified School District. The results of that research can be found in The Transformation of Great American School Districts and in Learning from L.A.: Institutional Change in American Public Education, published by Harvard Education Press. Check out his blog, Mindworkers.com.

Design schools so students become real workers in education system

Most education reforms start with the premise that adults need to work harder so students will learn more. But ultimately, maybe quickly, that premise is self-defeating. Regardless of the pedagogy used, who governs the school, or how long teachers toil, students are the real workers in the system. Building around that reality is one of the five key elements to bring about Learning 2.0, the next full-scale version of public education.

Thinking of students as education workers invites us to consider them as producers rather than consumers of education. In truth, of course, they are both. Outside of education, and particularly in medicine, the system has recognized that good outcomes depend much more on what clients do than what professional practitioners do. The “prosumer” relationship, as futurist Alvin Toffler called it, is built into integrated health care systems.

Health maintenance organizations provide their clients with handbooks and web sites for self-diagnosis and treatment. The standards of professional care are available to clients and their advocates. Rather than threatening professionals, building client knowledge allows a more productive and deeper relationship to exist between patient and professional.

If students are the real workers in the education system, those who design public education need to ask what sort of responsibility is reasonable to ask students to take for their own education, and how the system should be constructed to best motivate students to take such responsibility.

The phrase “student as worker” was popularized by the late Theodore Sizer to counter the common perception of a teacher as a deliverer of instructional services. In Sizer’s Coalition of Essential Schools, student-as-worker is associated with a coaching or guide-on-the side kind of teaching in which students themselves grapple with projects and problems. But the notion of student-as-worker extends beyond the always-charged discussion about coaching versus direct instruction; it asks how student motivation can be increased in the design of schooling.

Motivation and the equation of learning

Motivation is the third element in the equation of learning – Learning = ƒ(Content, Motivation, Time) – and the most underutilized of the three in education policy.

Students understand that their “job” is to go to school. They come to school because they are required to, and in most communities the behavior is socialized, but in a great many cases the job that students are trying to do in school does not involve education. “The job” may be seen as having fun, hanging out, socializing. After a two–week tour of a western country’s schools, a Chinese educator reported: “I understand now; school is mostly social.”

Yet, at the core, students want to be successful in something. If they can be successful in school, they’ll take that. Success in education will be the job that they want to get done, but there are always attractive alternatives, which puts a premium on the design of education. Clayton Christensen and Michael Horn ask: “How do schools fare against these competitors as something that students can hire to be successful and have fun with friends? Miserably in many cases. The primary mechanisms in most schools for doing these jobs are explicitly separated from education. Activities such as athletic teams and musical and dramatic arts performance groups, which are mechanisms for feeling successful and making progress, are ‘extracurricular’ activities rather than ‘curricular’ ones, which speaks volumes.”

The Chinese educator tells students a story: Study hard, succeed in school, and you will have a better life. Guaranteed. That guarantee is much harder to sell in an affluent country, and it is becoming much less sure, so the meaning of success needs to be embedded in doing a meaningful job in school.

The task of schooling needs to be rewarding in itself. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who studied the psychology of optimal experience, which he calls Flow, “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”

But these psychological highs are the rewards for concerted effort. “Contrary to what we usually believe, moments like these, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times … . The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to the limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is something we make happen.”

Educators have sought the holy grail of creating motivating experiences for more than a century, but the batch process structures of schooling make it difficult to build in flow. The bones and muscle of schooling believe that it is their job to deliver instruction rather than build an education system that will motivate students to choose education as the reason they come to school.

Consider the three conditions necessary to create Csikszentmihalyi’s optimal experience:

  • involvement in an activity with a clear set of goals that in themselves create structure,
  • a good balance between the task at hand and one’s perceived skills, and
  • immediate feedback.

‘Flow’ and batch-process schooling

These conditions are hardly ever present in the industrial-era, batch processed school. Other than “get the assignment finished,” immediate achievement goals are hard to come by or they appear meaningless to students. Matching skills and tasks is hard so that inevitably a large chunk of the class is either lost or bored out of their skulls. Feedback comes with long delays at the end of the week, unit of study, or in the case of standardized testing, sometime in the next school year.

Hidden paths toward success

Too frequently the goals, and the pathway to them are hidden. For students to use school for the job of learning, they and their families need to know the secret codes of education success. Students would know what one has to do to get into college. Students and their parents would know how to transition from English Learner status to fluency. Students would know how to get help and where to get it. Professional class families often transmit these codes because educational achievement has been part of their own experience. It’s tougher for poor and working class families. School-based programs can convey some of the codes, and there is strong evidence that such programs increase graduation from high school and transition to higher education.

Programs such as the Society of Students, begun by teachers in the Boyle Heights community of Los Angeles, teach resilience, social-emotional skills, and aspiration to elementary students. AVID has spread to schools throughout the country. And a number of donor-driven programs, such as Bright Prospects, which serves students in the Pomona area, have a good track record in successfully lighting the pathway through college.

As beneficial as they are, all these programs are indicators of systemic failure; if the core structures of schooling performed as they should, the secret codes would be built into the system for everyone, not as special programs.

Balancing the difficulty of the task to perceived ability, the second element of optimum performance experience, is usually handled through ability grouping, but the technique leaves a lot of students behind convinced that they are dumb, and their performance usually falls to meet the increasing lower expectations of the class: a race to the bottom.

Create interesting problems

But better designs are within reach. The secret is not to create success all the time, but to create interesting problems. Cognitive psychologists, as well as computer game designers, are building adaptive technologies that build in repeated trials, and lots of tough, interesting problems on the way to ultimate success. Daniel Willingham likens the process to a novel with tension and plot twists every few pages to keep reader interest as the ultimate resolution of the story drama moves to a conclusion.

Adaptive technology does not have to reside within a computer. At High Tech High in San Diego, most courses are qualified as honors courses. Students of all abilities take these courses. Each student decides whether they want do “honors” work, attempt the hard problems. Some don’t, but many change their perception about what they are capable of.

If students are to be motivated as workers in the educational system, they also need immediate feedback about how they are doing and what to do about it if the results are not what they want. Adaptive computer technologies may help here, but computers are not necessary.

At the project-based learning schools I have visited, students got rapid feedback both because the structure of the project required student critiques, sometimes with adults and sometimes with other students. But most often students knew whether something was working or not because of the project itself. The work told the worker whether he or she had been successful. Adaptive technology built into games provides immediate feedback and task adjustment. That’s good educational design.

Charles Taylor Kerchner is a research professor at Claremont Graduate University. More of his work is available at www.mindworkers.com.

Remix of knowledge acquisition and practice are elements of Learning 2.0

The words “remix” and “mashup” entered the vocabulary as descriptors of life in the digital age.  They are also key to what I am calling Learning 2.0, the next full-scale version of public education.

At the simplest level, these new terms are represented by three teenagers using Apple Garage Band to combine bits and pieces of music into their own composition.  At a more complex level, the process of remix changes the nature of authorship, as it did for a recent book on digital learning in which the authors of the draft posted their text for comment and addition.  Hundreds of people responded, and the book draft is still undergoing revision even after its publication by a university press.

Remix and mashup are linguistic markers for a growing practice of peer-produced learning, one that extends the instinct for tinkering and play into an approach to learning and scholarship.  As pedagogy, these new words signal moving away from consumption to participation and from concentrating our attention on teaching to concentrating on learning.  The shift in learning is not necessarily computer driven.  As Connie Yowell, director of education at the MacArthur Foundation notes: “Our digital media and learning initiative is not about technology, turning our backs on teachers, or throwing out traditional literacy skills.  It is about what people do with digital media — especially the potential for peer-based learning.”  Indeed, the instinct for peer learning by doing infused the philosophy of John Dewey a century ago.

A glimpse of this world can be found in Exhibition Night at High Tech High in San Diego.  Students at High Tech High learn from a pedagogy that deliberately integrates things that schools and society have sought to separate: head and hands, school and community.   Thus, students in biology demonstrated their latest fieldwork, the DNA typing of samples from San Diego Bay.  The students’ trips to the shore are not casual encounters, but real science that has led to six published books.  Science is linked with history and language arts.  As biotechnology teacher Jay Vavra says pointing to the English classroom across the hall, “Remember Cannery Row?   I’m Ricketts; he’s Steinbeck.”

Once a year, High Tech High students present their work to parents and the community.  These evenings are more than Science Fair; the act of explaining one’s work is part of the curriculum.  Exhibition Night included student-written plays, a textbook on economics illustrated with linoleum block art, a conceptual art exhibit that was the product of lessons in geometry.  The crowd pleaser of the night was a homicide scene complete with a dead mannequin, crime scene tape, and blood splatters.  In his lab coat, the presenting student shows listeners how he and his fellow students were able to use geometry to determine the height and weight of the perpetrator and the type of murder weapon.  (Conclusion: The teacher did it; her DNA was found on a toothbrush left at the crime scene.)

Head and hand integration are also present at The Stanley E. Foster Construction Technology Academy, a San Diego Unified School District high school just miles away from High Tech High.  The school has broken down the traditional 7-period high school day into instructional blocks that allow students to pursue traditional academic subjects and exciting projects at the same time.  In 2007, some 81 percent of the graduates were accepted in colleges.

Unfortunately, educators and policy advocates are deeply divided about how and whether to create schools that combine learning and becoming.   Recently, Robert Schwartz, academic dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, did verbal battle with Kati Haycock, president of Education Trust, with Haycock saying that career-focused programs would mean giving up on the resources that low-income and minority kids need to succeed in school.

Schwartz and his colleagues had recently published Pathways to Prosperity that, among other things, criticized the college-for-all strategy as doomed to failure without much stronger career-oriented programs. Although the employment market is steadily demanding more education, they note, the largest employment bulge, and the greatest wage premium, appears for jobs requiring post-secondary licenses or certificates rather than bachelor’s degrees.

Linked Learning combines head and hands

Schools like High Tech High and the Construction Technology Academy have allowed practice to transcend the century-old debate over the value of academic versus vocational education.  They want both.  They believe the symbiosis engages students who would otherwise drop out or who would glide through high school’s path of least resistance.

Several California educators and organizations have been attempting to craft a practical solution.  Under the names Multiple Pathways or Linked Learning, policy advocates such as Jeannie Oakes at the Ford Foundation and David Rattray at the school and employer partnership, UNITE-LA, seek to create policies and practices that bring academic and career education together, getting beyond tracking.  Los Angeles Unified schools provide some vibrant examples:

Ninth grade students at the School for Global Studies near downtown Los Angeles tackled a project to support undocumented students who are headed to college, a homegrown version of the Dream Act.  Their task, the shell of a project designed by their teachers, was to design a fundraiser that would help these students with enough money to pay for their college applications.  The students I heard thought that luscious strawberries dipped in chocolate would be a sure seller.  They used their algebra skills to plot a break-even point and figure profit margins at different production levels, their English language arts skills to promote the effort, and their digital media skills to produce a mouth-watering video.

In the process of completing projects, students learn teamwork and self-monitoring.  They divide up the work and hold one another accountable.  If a student fails to produce, it lets the whole team down, and they—the other students—will intervene with the errant student and his or her parents.  Students also learn important oral communications skills.  Meanwhile, the students’ teachers continue to provide lessons, quizzes, and reading related to California standards and the test items and question forms used on the California Standards and the high school exit exam.

At a training facility near LAX, the Police Orientation and Preparation Program links the school district, West L.A. College, and the Los Angeles Police Department.  Students, who can come from any school in the city, enter as seniors or as community college freshmen.  The high school students can finish their college-entry required courses and earn college credit while finishing high school.  In two years it is possible for a high school senior to have graduated, earned an AA degree, and received a certificate qualifying them to work in a private security firm.  They also have a leg up on candidacy for the LAPD academy.

The police preparation program and Global Studies Academy prepare students for college and careers simultaneously.  In California, unlike many other locations, the state’s flagship university reviews individual course descriptions from public and private high schools to determine whether they meet entry requirements, known as the A-G requirements.  More than 5,600 courses, about 20 percent of all career-technical education offerings, already satisfy University of California entrance requirements.  UC also sponsors the Curriculum Integration Institute, where academic and career technical education experts meet to design integrative model courses.

As well as university standards, Linked Learning requires real world, craft and artistic standards.  For example, ACME animation, a non-profit organization, connects high school and college students with professional animators.  ACME grew from the teaching experience of Dave Master, who started an animation program at Rowland High School, east of Los Angeles, in 1977.  High school students begin as auditioners, but even from the start their work is subject to professional standards and critique.  No sugarcoating.  And the same method—not unlike introduction to the historic artisanal guilds—is used for more advanced students who want to earn a living in animation.  Professionals donate their time, and more than 3,000 students in 35 schools and colleges nationwide participate.  Four of these schools are in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

The remix of head and hand is a powerful idea, but Linked Learning or Multiple Pathway schools have to work as organizations.  Because combining head and hand runs counter to many of the deep structures of American high schools, the multiple pathway idea becomes tractable because each pathway is usually contained in an “academy” within a larger school or a small school, such as a magnet, charter, or pilot school.  Thus, the capacity for remix, linking head and hand, lies partly in public policies that allow substantial autonomy and self-determination at the school level.

It’s difficult work, but it is one of the areas of education where California is a national leader.  The James Irvine Foundation has heavily supported Linked Learning, including founding ConnectEd, the California Center for College and Career.  A number of organizations, including the Buck Institute,  and the New Tech Network provide introductory training and an extensive library of projects that schools can adopt.

Charles Taylor Kerchner is Research Professor in the School of Educational Studies at Claremont Graduate University, and a specialist in educational organizations, educational policy, and teacher unions. In 2008, he and his colleagues completed a four-year study of education reform of the Los Angeles Unified School District. The results of that research can be found in The Transformation of Great American School Districts and in Learning from L.A.: Institutional Change in American Public Education, published by Harvard Education Press. Readers can follow his writing at http://charlestkerchner.com/

Besides anger, action and ideas can emerge from the worst of times

My anger grew this past weekend as I watched teachers demonstrate and heard story upon story of obscene class sizes, schools without counselors and librarians, and young men and women being laid off because they were foolish enough to follow their passion to teach our children.

Anger is a funny thing, though. It can be the dark side of depression and hopelessness, or it can be the bud of strategy. While now is clearly the worst of times, it is also the very best time to think, plan, scheme, and politick about the future of public education. Three aspects of the current condition make it so:

First, the mind and psyche need to flee the darkness. At historic times of darkness, we seek the light, because doing so gives us hope. The 37th Congress, meeting in the depths of the Civil War, passed the Morrill Act, which underwrote public colleges and universities across the country; the Homestead Act, which opened land west of the Mississippi to settlement; and the Pacific Railroad Act, which provided funds to link the coasts.

Second, bad times offer the opportunity to build differently. When times are flush, the public instinct is to do more of the same rather than to design something new. During California’s last big period of flush budgets, it poured billions into unsustainable class size reductions. Those funds may have temporarily helped a cohort of students—some of the same students that are now being frozen out of places at the state’s college and university system because of cutbacks—but they didn’t fundamentally change or challenge century-old practices. (The prospect of money again “coming in buckets” has been forecast by analyst Rob Manwaring.)

Third, thinking anew is the first stage of political action. Public education, particularly in the cities, has become a bad brand, something that no one wants to buy. Only with a better idea, and a clear notion of how to move toward it, will a viable political coalition be possible. Taxpayers in general, and business interests in particular, need to believe that education is worthy of investment. Labor in general, and the California Teachers Association in particular, needs to believe that better jobs for teachers can be had by moving forward

It is imperative to move forward. In an earlier post in this series, I described Learning 2.0, the next full-scale version of public education, and in subsequent posts I will describe some of its elements in more detail. I was brought to think anew about public education by a realization that our current system, Learning 1.0, is unsustainable.

The current system is unsustainable

The current situation is surely bad. But those of us who have studied urban districts, in particular, know that it has been bad for a very long time. Los Angeles Unified has bumped from fiscal crisis to fiscal crisis since 1969. Jeffery Mirel’s history of Detroit locates the seeds of decay as early as the 1940s.

How can this be? California, like other states, has put a lot more money into its education system over the last 40 years, and those dour economists who crunch the numbers look up from their databases and accuse educators of simply being “rent seekers,” economic-speak for these-people-are-out-for-helping-themselves.

But if one probes inside the gross numbers, one finds the reason that the current system is vulnerable. Using data from the National Center for Education Statistics, Paul Hill and Marguerite Roza show that the number of core classroom teachers per 1,000 students in 1999 was only slightly higher than it was in 1960. However, “other teachers,” which includes those in special education, increased from fewer than 2 to 37 per 1,000 students, and “other instructional staff,” which includes classroom aides, increased from 2 to more than 20. Overall, the growth of staffing in public elementary and secondary classrooms increased from around 40 positions to more than 100. Richard Rothstein has documented a similar change in school staffing patterns using data from district personnel records.

Much of the systemic cost increase is found in categorical programs, each with its own funding stream, and each with its own rules, enforcers, and expenses. A special education student, for example, is about twice as expensive as the norm. Current policy thinking, including Gov. Jerry Brown’s education platform, leans toward deregulation of categoricals, giving districts more control over how they spend their money.

Deregulation won’t do it. It will help, but the largest and most expensive of the categorical programs are guarded by both interest groups and civil rights law that trumps ordinary statutes and regulations. At best, deregulation will have a marginal effect. And even after deregulation, public education will still be saddled with the same system for producing learning that was designed in the early 20th Century. Our goal then was to someday graduate as many as 15 percent of our students from high school.

That’s why we need redesign.

Charles Taylor Kerchner is Research Professor in the School of Educational Studies at Claremont Graduate University, and a specialist in educational organizations, educational policy, and teacher unions. In 2008, he and his colleagues completed a four-year study of education reform of the Los Angeles Unified School District. The results of that research can be found in The Transformation of Great American School Districts and in Learning from L.A.: Institutional Change in American Public Education, published by Harvard Education Press. Readers can follow his writing at http://charlestkerchner.com/

New culture of learning: Triumphant return of Dewey and child’s play

Two of the gurus of the Internet age have written a charming, compelling, and ultimately romantic book about what learning could be.

In the opening pages of A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change, Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown lay out the dimensions of “arc of life” learning, “which comprises the activities in our daily lives that keep us learning, growing, and exploring.” (The book is self-published and is available exclusively at Amazon.com.)

A New Culture of Learning starts out with a story about a nine-year-old named Sam. He started playing with a computer program called Scratch, created at MIT to help kids understand the basics of design. Sam learned a lot. Within a few minutes he could create basic animations, but then Sam found out he was not alone in his efforts. A community of other kids was online, and when Sam posted his game others could experiment with it, comment, build on it, and collaborate. Sam had entered the new culture of learning: play, collaboration, questioning, and imagination.

New learning may be child’s play, but it is vexing to adults, and it brought to my mind a much older volume featuring playful children connecting learning to the community: John Dewey’s School and Society, published in 1900. Dewey, too, wanted schools to individualize learning experiences, wanted to connect schooling to learning about the means of production, and wanted kids to explore and discover.

I am attracted to the world that Thomas and Seely Brown describe, a world that creates a “bounded and structured environment that allows for unlimited agency to build and experiment within things within those boundaries” – in other words, a space with rules and lots of freedom within that space. As the authors later reveal, their concrete version of the new culture of learning looks a great deal more like a massive, multiuser computer game than it does a conventional classroom. Much of what they advocate in A New Culture of Learning is consistent with my thoughts in Learning 2.0.

But the story of education in the 20th Century is in large part a tale of how Dewey lost. Despite his damning commentary on waste in education, Dewey’s pedagogical ideas fell victim to the organizational mandates of industrial efficiency. Where Dewey had sought individualization, industrial efficiency produced a batch-processing system. Where Dewey had sought matching school to student, industrial efficiency created tracking and social separation.

No less than Dewey did, the advocates of new learning face an existing institution that needs substantial positive incentives to change. Technology may change our children’s heads, but it is the legislatures and interest groups that will change the rules of the game.

(For a longer review of A New Culture of Learning and Dewey’s School and Society, click here.)

Charles Taylor Kerchner is Research Professor in the School Educational Studies at Claremont Graduate University, and a specialist in educational organizations, educational policy, and teacher unions. In 2008, he and his colleagues completed a four-year study of education reform of the Los Angeles Unified School District. The results of that research can be found in The Transformation of Great American School Districts and in Learning from L.A.: Institutional Change in American Public Education, published by Harvard Education Press.

Why the politics we’ve got won’t produce the schools we need

Why, one might ask, should California, the headwaters of the digital revolution, be stuck in the eddies of an early 20th Century school design?

The answer lies partly in culture and partly in politics. Almost all the politics of education concerns rearranging adult power and privilege. Relatively little political energy is spent consciously designing a contemporary system of public education that addresses the needs of today’s students. That should change.

Schooling faces a major redesign problem. Learning 1.0 is a century old. Now we have the opportunity to redesign education, creating Learning 2.0, a more flexible, personalized, and experiential form of learning. The capacity to do this comes partly from the Internet’s network technology but mainly from changing how people think about learning. More than their schools, it is people’s heads that will need rewiring.

To get to Learning 2.0, California badly needs an agenda change from regulation and contention to capacity building. First, the state needs to create and use the capacity to design learning using 21st Century information tools. Rather than designing “one best system” as the developers of the early 20th Century learning model sought to do, we must adopt the notion of continuous improvement and redesign, what Google calls “permanent Beta testing.”

Second, we need to carefully deregulate. In many ways, charter school law discriminates against existing school districts, making it easy for charters to be innovative while failing to scrape four decades of regulatory barnacles from the hull of district-run schools. Gov. Jerry Brown promised deregulation in his education platform. In addition to fiscal flexibility, he and the state school board should foster the ability to blend education technology into district-run schools.

Third, California needs to invest in a learning infrastructure for students. Think of it as a combination of Facebook for school, the best computer game you ever saw, and a smart app for your mind. By thinking of the student as the end-user rather than designing educational products that will be attractive to a textbook adoption committee, the state can vastly open up learning to new participants, approaches, and ideas.

Over the last year, I have visited schools where people think outside the conventions of the acquisition and storage model, and where learning is organized in engaging ways. Synthesizing these experiences and the rapidly growing research literature on learning, technology, and open education, it is possible to sketch the design of Learning 2.0. Over the next few months, I will be coloring in some of the elements of a modern learning system and the ways we might get there. The first of these postings can be found at Conditions of Education in California, and at www.mindworkers.com.

Charles Taylor Kerchner is Research Professor in the School Educational Studies at Claremont Graduate University, and a specialist in educational organizations, educational policy, and teacher unions. In 2008, he and his colleagues completed a four-year study of education reform of the Los Angeles Unified School District. The results of that research can be found in The Transformation of Great American School Districts and in Learning from L.A.: Institutional Change in American Public Education, published by Harvard Education Press.