Busting out of traditional notion of school demands taking risks

Maybe I’m too close to it. I’ve started schools, run schools, taught in schools, gone to school, visited schools – and they all look pretty much the same.

As I imagine what schools might look like, I bump up against my preconceived and ingrained notions of what school has always been – seat time, mandated testing, teacher credentialing, students in rows of desks, classroom management, staffing, custodial needs, and on and on and on. These stereotypes throw up barriers to any new notion of what schools could actually be. And I know that I am not alone. Even “breakthrough models” of schooling are currently organized around these traditional structures.

This coming weekend’s Maker Faire Bay Area (May 19-20) takes my insane hobby of imagining what future schools might look like into sharper focus. EdSurge and  Maker Faire created a pavilion focused on DIY learning in schools – schools that will need to look and function much differently to support this type of learning.

Even with this, I cannot help but think that they won’t look much different than today – unless:

  • We become comfortable with taking risks in schools;
  • Technology becomes more seamlessly interwoven into student learning experiences;
  • Online content providers evolve beyond video lectures with multiple-choice assessments.

Risk is a four-letter word

Our school systems fail in very predictable and repetitive ways. The same schools have been failing the same demographics of students for generations. And yet when something even slightly different is suggested to improve learning outcomes, we ask for a deep evidence base that proves this new strategy has worked before.

Alex Hernandez, of Charter School Growth Fund, proposes a FabLab for school – a place where educators and wannabe educators can try out their new models of schooling in a risk-tolerant and safe environment (after school and summers).

More summer programs should be tinkering in this same way. At SMASH Academy, Level Playing Field Institute is doing just that. While students are still attending classes, each student has a laptop and works through a tech-enabled, project-based curriculum for 5 weeks. Instructors, mostly local high school teachers, are encouraged to try things that they are not trying at their regular school, particularly things using technology. The hope is that these practices are workshopped over the summer and then imported into their year-round classrooms.

Online Learning 2

The more celebrated and highly utilized online learning experiences provide short videos and text followed by multiple-choice or similar assessments. Teachers then get analytics about their classes and students. Some see this as an improved instructional model. For me, it is a more efficient instructional model if what we are trying to do is ensure students receive a compulsory education as evaluated by statewide mandated assessments. What if we want students to thrive in a 21st century economy?

This is another place SMASH is innovating. Piloting a new platform, called MySciHigh, teachers and students will be immersed in a project-based, blended learning environment where students complete interactive tasks online and in the classroom. Once students prove proficiency of the standards, they unlock an online, cooperative project that requires them to apply everything they learned throughout the unit by creating something original and new. While online education and project-based learning are not new, the marriage of the two on a scalable platform is.

We need to stop pandering to our “digital native” students and provide structures and platforms that better enable their success – and success not just on statewide measures of assessment, but on outcomes related to college and career readiness. Through MySciHigh, we hope to tap into what motivates students to learn at the highest levels and see technology as part of the means to get there. While we have some big hypotheses based on years of research and practice, we are going to listen to our student and teacher users, apply real-time data and feedback, and keep improving through a nonstop process of inquiry.

Could this change schools for the better? Possibly. But if we do not take risks and apply the Lean Startup methodology to schools, we’ll fail generations more of the same students – and that is just not OK.

Robert Schwartz is the Executive Director of the Level Playing Field Institute. He spent three years as Chief Academic Officer for ICEF Public Schools in South Los Angeles, leading the strategic expansion of the academic program. As the founding principal at ICEF’s flagship high school, the first three classes achieved a 100 percent graduation rate, with 97 percent accepted to four-year universities. Prior to that, Robert taught middle school science in East and South Los Angeles. He graduated from Binghamton University with degrees in Biology and Classics, and earned his MA in Urban Education Policy and EdD in Urban Educational Leadership from USC.

Computer programming should qualify as foreign language for UC

In 2002, ten African American and 39 Latino students enrolled and declared a Computer or Information Sciences major at all of the University of California schools. Six years later, eight African American and 25 Latino students graduated with that degree, according to UC’s office of the President. There is clearly an opportunity gap for students of color in computer science.

In Silicon Valley, across California, and around the nation, there is a vast shortage of computer programmers in the tech industry. Tech companies have had to rely on outsourcing their programming needs. Meanwhile, high schools in California and across the country are being chastised for not preparing students, particularly students of color, to be able to major in STEM fields in college – what the need for outsourcing is blamed on. What if a simple change by the UC system could help bridge this gap?

Recently, I took the introductory Rails for Zombies course for Ruby on Rails. Ruby, as it is known, is one of the newest and fastest growing programming languages on the web. I was a double major in college – biology and classical languages – and have always loved learning new languages. That’s all Ruby on Rails is, after all. There is unique vocabulary, confusing punctuation, and alien grammar. Ruby is replete with idioms, synonyms, and shortcuts that only those entrenched in the language understand. It is very much a foreign language.

The UC system should be innovative and grant high school students credit for learning a computer language as their “E” requirement of 2 years of a “Language Other Than English.” All California high school students, in order to be “UC eligible” (a standard supported by most educators in California), must complete a series of courses at their high school deemed the “A-G” requirements.

  • A = 2 years of History/Social Science
  • B = 4 years of English
  • C = 3 years of college prep math (4 recommended)
  • D = 2 years of lab science (3 recommended)
  • E  = 2 years of language other than English (3 recommended)
  • F = 1 year of visual and performing arts
  • G = 1 year of a college prep elective (computer science currently fits in here)

The UC approves high school courses to fit in each of the categories for individual high schools through a process that involves the submission of a detailed course syllabus by each school for each course. Statewide, only 35 percent of students complete a-g requirements upon graduation (by subgroup: Whites: 41 percent, Asians: 59 percent, Latinos: 26 percent, African Americans: 27 percent).

I see the potential of affluent districts rushing to implement a policy such as this while lower-income districts struggle to find the resources (human and technological). In order to ensure that this is fairly and equitably implemented and to monitor its impact, begin it as a pilot program in high schools with the lowest percentages of A-G eligibility. In this way it can tackle three issues together: (1) opportunity and achievement gap; (2) increasing need for computer programmers; (3) the lack of diversity in the tech industry.

Tech companies should then adopt districts and provide them with their slightly used computers expressly for the purpose of teaching computer science. They should also think about dedicating an employee to oversee the program and teach the courses. One teacher/tech employee can reach almost 200 students a year. If that’s not building a diverse pipeline in tech, I don’t know what is. Companies would probably need to release that employee only once or twice a week as online programming courses continue to pop up and the programmer could pop in to provide targeted guidance for the school and students and answer questions remotely. If I’m pushing 40 and can learn Ruby using an online course, I’m sure any 15-year-old can.

Computer Science provides students with marketable skills other languages do not while still providing the same cognitive benefits of learning a foreign language. Empowered with computer science skills, students will see a path forward in college and career in one of the highest paying and fasting growing job sectors.

Robert Schwartz is the Executive Director of the Level Playing Field Institute, a San Francisco-based non-profit that promotes innovative approaches to education and the workplace by removing barriers to full participation  by underrepresented groups. He spent the three years before that as Chief Academic Officer for ICEF Public Schools in South Los Angeles. Prior to that, Robert taught middle school science in East and South Los Angeles. He earned his EdD in Urban Educational Leadership from USC.

Opportunity gap widens when schools shortchange science

With the current state of public education, students are having their choices for post-secondary education and training limited as early as kindergarten. The highest paid, fastest growing jobs over the next decade are in STEM-related fields, according to the federal Department of Labor and Statistics. Yet our students, particularly students of color and those living in poverty, do not have access to such careers.

Look at the latest NAEP science data, where California students are at or near the bottom. Why is that the case? Because science is barely taught at the elementary school level. The API algorithm created for California overemphasizes math and English and, as Peter Drucker stated, “what gets measured, gets done.” Science is simply not measured.

By the time these science-deficient students reach middle and high school, they are so far behind in the prerequisite skills and knowledge needed to be successful in rigorous high school science – and, by extension, college STEM courses – that these high paying, fast growing jobs are not an option. While we are slightly reducing the achievement gap based on standardized test scores, we are greatly exacerbating the opportunity gap.

Education logic states that if students are lacking basic knowledge and skills in math and English, they’ll never be able to be successful in life, so the best way to impart this knowledge is by teaching more math and English. However, how this manifests itself in the classroom is in the form of more of the same types of instruction that have proven ineffective for generations of students of color. This gets replicated in middle school and high school, where all of a student’s elective courses are replaced with more math and English – taught the same old way. Many of these elective courses were the only things keeping students in school and now, without that motivation, they drop out. Highly affluent districts fall prey to this trap in a different way; in order to keep their API scores so high, they over-teach math and English to the detriment of science (and history, art, writing, PE, music, etc.).

So, there is little to no science instruction in elementary school, and then middle and high school science teachers bemoan how they have to water down their curriculum because students do not have the requisite English and math skills, let alone scientific processing skills needed to be successful. The opportunity gap continues to grow.

The cruel irony of the dearth of science instruction in elementary is that teaching science, integrated with math and English, will actually raise test scores more than the pervasive overly rote math and English drills. This leads to two recommendations regarding science instruction:

  • At the elementary school level, teach hands-on, inquiry-based science for at least 45 minutes a day and integrate it with math and English.
  • At the secondary school level, teach skill-building science courses accentuating the depth of the subject as opposed to trying to cover every single concept in the standards.

Let’s look at each of these recommendations.

Science at the elementary school level. Science is not a subject that can be effectively taught in isolation. By integrating it with math and English concepts, students can begin to understand that all of these subjects have practical applications in the real world. Science would serve as the motivator – the hook – to get students excited about learning. In order to do this, we need to redirect our already diminishing resources and professional development away from test prep and towards the materials, supplies, and training needed for teachers to effectively integrate science into the curriculum.

Imagine a 2nd grade classroom. The first science standard states, “The motion of an object can be observed and measured.” Students could learn by seeing diagrams on a worksheet, or the teacher could do a demonstration of a toy car racing down a ramp, timing how fast it goes, and then designing an experiment where the students measure how fast it takes different objects to roll down that same ramp.

Maybe one student asks the question, “Does it matter how steep the ramp is?” That takes the lesson in a different direction. Meanwhile, in math, they take the data and apply it to the math standard, “Students understand that measurement is accomplished by identifying a unit of measure, iterating (repeating) that unit, and comparing it to the item to be measured.” Moving on to English, students then follow the writing standard to explain what they learned: “Students write compositions that describe and explain familiar objects, events, and experiences.” In history, the class explores the standard, “Students differentiate between things that happened long ago and things that happened yesterday” from the perspective of “How does the speed of travel between now and long ago change the way our society works?” It just took me 10 minutes to do that, including researching the standards.

Science at the secondary school level. I’ve already mentioned how little science gets measured – so why try to cram 9th grade brains with every bit of biological minutia? Instead of identifying the deficiencies we see in our students and throwing up our hands, we need to view these deficiencies as opportunities to teach students the concepts and skills they are missing, no matter in which discipline those skills lie.

For instance, instead of teaching “conceptual physics,” where all of the math is taken out, use physics as the vehicle to teach the math concepts students need in order to solve complex problems. If it takes two or three times as long to teach a standard, who cares – only 15 percent of high school students in California are even taking physics, and less than half achieve at advanced or proficient levels. Teaching students how to conduct an experiment; create graphs, tables, and charts; and write up a proper lab report with a conclusion and analysis is one of the things often left by the wayside, because it is deemed too time consuming. However, more labs and fewer lectures would also help students develop the skills they need to be more successful in all of their subjects – if the teacher is willing to teach all of the skills a student needs to present data and write a good lab report.

We clearly have an educational system in our state that is doing little to close the achievement gap and doing even more to expand the opportunity gap. Instead of trying to work harder at the way we’ve always done things, let’s think about different ways to work and give that a try.

Robert Schwartz is the Executive Director of the Level Playing Field Institute. Before that, he spent three years as Chief Academic Officer for ICEF Public Schools in South Los Angeles, leading the strategic expansion of the academic program from three schools with 500 students to 15 schools with 4,000 students. As the founding principal at ICEF’s flagship high school, the first three classes achieved a 100 percent graduation rate, with 97 percent accepted to four-year universities. Before that, Robert taught middle school science in East and South Los Angeles.