Thursday, March 17, 2011

Rethinking schools

Revamping public education is often compared to fixing a plane while it's in the air. Perhaps that's why so many reform efforts feel more like screw-tightening than redesign.

So I thought I'd share a couple of items on ways to shake things up. (An aside: Does it drive anyone else crazy when people use the hackneyed "thinking outside the box" to describe originality?)

Tamela Rich passed on a link to a New York Times op-ed piece about a Massachusetts school that let eight teens design their own school-within-a-school. They launched scientific inquiries, set themselves a rigorous course of reading and tackled individual and collective projects.

"Perhaps children don’t need another reform imposed on them," concludes author Susan Engel. "Instead, they need to be the authors of their own education."

Colleague Gary Nielson urged me to watch this video in which Salman Khan describes "flipping the classroom," with students watching professionally-made video lectures on their own time and using class time with teachers to do "homework." Khan has created a nonprofit academy of video tutorials that spun off from YouTube videos he made to help his nephews study.

He argues that many students are more comfortable watching videos at their own pace, and the technology allows the best instructors to lecture an unlimited number of students. "If Isaac Newton had done YouTube videos on calculus, I wouldn't have to," Khan says.

Real-life teachers, meanwhile, are freed to "humanize the classroom" by spending their time helping kids apply the lessons.

As a certifiable old fogey, I've always viewed video teaching as a second-rate substitute for the real thing. But this got me thinking: What if my high-school science lectures had been delivered by, say, Carl Sagan or Oliver Sacks? Would that have been better than what I got? Absolutely.
That's my food for thought. If you're reading, watching or hearing about other creative ideas, please share. 


Larry said...

Wow, why not land the plane, put the kids on smaller more streamlined and modern, as you mentioned in this article craft, that will take them higher, faster and farther than we could ever imagine the old one sputtering along and about to fall out of the sky could ever do?

Then use the metal and talents from the old aircraft and make it a specialized space age travel unit envied and fitting in with this whole educational community.

We are having a meeting on Monday at 3PM Panera Bread on North Tryon Stree. to talk about our Schools and find people who want to run for School Board. We need people who support Vouchers.

Observer please join us.

therestofthestory said...

Ann I have not doubt that CMS currently has a number of students who do this already on their own. Remember a year or two ago when a math(?) teacher at Providence HS was homebound and did her lectures and smartboard from her home and simply had a fellow as a monitor for the kids benefit?

I am sure there is a handfull percentage of students who could do a few of their high school/middle school courses themselves. Such is the goal of NC's virtual school. I attend professional trainng myself where I do not have to leave my home and with advances in technology, sure is possible for a small set of students.

Are we better off having troublesome students stay home and attend virtual school? I doubt many have the discipline and attention span to do such. Though it could be a prerequisite to "earning" their place back at the bricks and mortar school. Remember though that most of these students see school as the social or hookup place.

I tend to agree with Larry though that the dinosaur model of public education needs to go. Also its funding must follow the student. Imagine what would happen if students simply registered with the county and state, got their funding sent to them, lined up their own education and simply provided proof (like test results from an approved testing center) they improved at least one grade level to get their second year of funding.

Anonymous said...

I'll tell you what would happen:

You'd have a many-tiered educational system, based on ability to pay. Some "schools" would in fact be nightmares; this is where you would find poor kids.

Some "parents" would steal the school money and spend it on God knows what, claiming that they are "home schooling" their (illiterate) children at age 18.

I'd prefer to see a revamp of the public school curriculum. Not every child is college material. We are just afraid to say that out loud, either because it clashes with our meritocracy view of the world or because it implies many marginal colleges ought to close their doors for good.

Mary said...

Larry, I would be interested in learning more about this meeting. I'm currently a high school science teacher but have thought about the school board off and on. Are you talking about the Panera at University City?

Anonymous said...

I've been using Khan's website for a few weeks and my kid finds it boring.

It is pretty bare-bones stuff, like staring at a blackboard with a disassociated voice talking way over the head of its most likely audience (in my case a Kindergartener working on addition).

Of course, Bill Gates loves this guy, just as he loves Microsoft Certified Trainers who teach to a fairly sophisticated adult audience.

I think it is better used as a refresher for an adult who then customizes it for instruction.

If this is the future of education,then kids who can't tolerate excessive boredom are doomed.

But maybe that's the whole idea.

Anonymous said...

The unspoken problem with "vouchers", of course, is that once you start taking gubmint money, you start getting gubmint interference.

Your wonderful private schools will be turned into clones of public schools run by educrats
who are even more detached from the actual classroom than they are now.

Also, the unspoken problem with this whole Pay For Performance boondoggle is what will happen if (Gawd Forbid...) someone actually gives raises that "discriminate" against a teacher in some "protected" class such as gender, religion, national origin,or race.

(And don't think that hasn't already happened, BTW.)

By the time they adjust their "value add" formulas to compensate for potential discrimination lawsuits from teachers, they will add no "value" at all.

Wiley Coyote said...

No serious discussion on revamping education in ANY public school system can take place until you find out who your students are.

I have harped about this for years and will continue to do so until the Federal Government allows each school system to fully audit the school lunch program with independent watchdogs.

Until we get a handle on the true number of poor students who truly need help, nothing will change.

Another Observer article today talks about a group trying to keep middle school sports, which costs about $1.4 million dollars each year. This group wants to solicit donation from the private sector to fund the program.

The problem with this is that CMS has absolutely NO clue as to how many students qualify to play free. They use continuing FRL numbers PLUS state that if you aren't FRL but having a hardship, your fees will be waived. How ridiculous is that?

Since the FRL designation touches every aspect of how funds are directed, for such things as free lunch, free sports, free AP/IB tests fees and higher per pupil spending, why would we NOT demand verifiable data to make sure those truly in need get benefits and those who don't be dropped from the rolls?

I've said before that if the numbers regarding lunches are correct and 60% of CMS sample audits show they don't qualify, that translates into POTENTIALLY 44,000 students who should be made to pay for their lunches.

Translate that into middle school sports. If 3,000 students play sports and 1,500 students play for free (CMS doesn't track who these students are), then 900 students could be playing for free based on the 60% who don't qualify for FRL. Based on the analogy above, this group soliciting funds may not need as much to keep the program running than they think, because those 900 parents would be contributing to the fund.

Revamping the system by students, teachers or anyone else, has to start with verifiable baseline data. To continue ignoring that fact wastes time, resources and money.

Anonymous said...

Sudbury Valley School ( has gotten consistently great results for over 40 years, yet that NY Times piece on students designing their own education didn't even mention it.

Rev. Mike said...

Couple of points--
1. First, your opening analogy begs the question of where else but in public education would the pilot violently resist someone trying to fix the plane;
2. Second, is not the current system of making high school students take classes online because we won't even staff the classes needed to graduate just a matter of degrees relative to your suggestion about virtual classes?

Anonymous said...

As stated in one of the first comments, good teachers already are using video lessons of the "professional" teaching the topic. "Using technology" requires this as a norm today.
The increase in the number of students taking VPS courses is amazing! It has grown over the past two years to the point that all CMS high schools and some middle schools now have students taking the courses on line.
The jury is still out on the effectiveness of VPS but today's students will buy into it faster than any boring or incompetent real person standing in front of them.

Anonymous said...

What about virtual public schools?

To save billions what about creating virtual public home schools complete with online readers for books and testing?

In college they call it online courses. Talk about cost cutting? No need for expensive busing brick and mortal schools or excessive administration expenses and no free lunch programs.

Teachers could work out of their homes also.

On another note isnt it odd there has been zero looting or crime in Japan with a quake and tidal wave 900 times bigger than than the one in Haiti?

Anonymous said...

There is a virtual school in NC... It's called The North Carolina Virtual School... and I REALLY like the idea that someone put forth---these repeat disruptive thugs, hoodlums, and charming brats... they can STAY HOME and take the classes online. If mom and dad or grandma or just mom with no dad not sure who dad is, can't afford a computer and internet... TOO BAD! We can't subsidize everything for you...your child was getting education on the taxpayer's dime and they didn't care---so, you either provide it by getting a computer and internet for little darling or they stay an illiterate a-hole until they realize their life is nil without some form of education---if they are OK with that---good riddance.

And bleeding hearts---don't give me the, "we will have to pay for their public assistance"... NOPE b/c if we changed those rules to say, we won't support you unless you can show a diploma--well... problem solved. As it is now---little baby girl can drop out, have a kid and get a check--she keeps getting checks as she keeps getting kids and never finishes her education... which is idiotic. Which drains society more in the end?