Reconnecting with the Original Charter Idea

Pay attention to any policy area long enough and you’ll see good ideas twisted out of the hands of their founders and turned into something else entirely. At a certain level, that’s what happened to charter schools. Minnesota just might be the place to start fixing that.

At the Shanker Institute’s blog, Esther Quintero has written a piece revisiting the origins of the charter school concept and the early role played by the Shanker Institute’s namesake, union leader Albert Shanker, in discussing the idea. This was, at its foundation, a vision of collaboration, including the notion of teacher-led schools-within-schools as tools of innovation as well as positive, student-focused interactions between charter schools and traditional district schools. Quintero also discusses the advantages offered by schools working collectively in the same place.

Exploring similar themes, a recent report by the Annenberg Institute at Brown University also calls for a less confrontational relationship between schools, identifying as its first standard for good charter school policy that, “Traditional districts and charter schools should work together to ensure a coordinated approach that serves all children.” They emphasize the counterproductive effects of excessive competition— ideas which we’ve discussed at Minnesota 2020 —and the potential (if too often unrealized) benefits of genuine collaboration between district and charter schools.

This dream of schools and leaders from both sectors working together to build good schools and help each student find the right school is not what most of us have seen, however. The weaponization of charter schools and the market mindset for education minimized the student-centered core of the charter idea. Instead of charter schools being transparent partners with districts in pursuit of equal access to opportunities, we saw the two groups pitted against each other in what were too often marketing and public relations competitions rather than conversations about quality or equity.

As the birthplace of charter schools and a state where some homegrown charter schools are still holding onto the founding dream, Minnesota could be the place to display a healthier kind of charter culture. That doesn’t work if the charter advocates who want to dismantle districts lead the movement, and may well require lower-profile collaboration between individual schools that builds into something better. However it ends up manifesting, a return to the original charter ideal would be better for students than the current arrangement.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Charter Schools 

Investing in School Infrastructure Means Investing in Internet Access

When I was on the speech team in high school, I spent a lot of time pacing in the libraries and classrooms of schools in small towns around southeastern Minnesota. Even with my focus mostly on the speech I was about to deliver, I still noticed the differences in how old the books and computers were compared to my newer, better funded high school in Rochester. However, there was at least one major difference that I didn’t see because I never turned on a computer: Internet access.

Roughly one out of every four households in Minnesota lacks even the lowest rate of broadband access in line with the state’s goals. This affects families struggling to get by in the metro area, as well as in many rural communities in greater Minnesota.

This isn’t just a Minnesota problem, of course, and the countrywide disparities in rural Internet access received some attention recently from The Atlantic. In its profile, it described one rural district in Maryland which was able to use a federal grant to bring reliable access to its students. Teachers were ready to take advantage of the new infrastructure, enabling expanded learning opportunities for students.

Regular readers will know that I don’t think of technology as a panacea, and we shouldn’t expect much from Internet access that goes untapped or that’s used only to replicate the same teaching and learning that was already happening. This isn’t just about iPads versus laptops. Ensuring that students have access to reliable, high-speed Internet access in and out of school can enable a wide range of opportunities.

As we discuss how best to incorporate technology into our school system in a way that changes pedagogy, we need to make sure our schools have the necessary infrastructure. Only then will we be in a position to work with teachers, families, and students to take advantage of these tools in a way that’s genuinely beneficial for learning. Private philanthropy can help, but to truly get the job done, we’ll need greater public investment.

(If you’d like to learn more, check out the Minnesota Broadband Task Force’s report from earlier this year, the Blandin on Broadband site, and/or the upcoming Broadband Task Force meeting on September 25.)

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Technology 

The Growing College Market

Recently, Campus Pride released its top 50 LGBT-friendly colleges and universities list. Out of all the colleges listed, two University of Minnesota schools made the cut (Twin Cities and Duluth). Colleges are now beginning to welcome the growing population of students who are comfortably out about being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.

This is starting to become a trend; colleges and universities are competing to recruit this market of students. According to a Pew Research article, the median age for coming out is 20 years of age. This is right around the time a person is typically in their college years.

Campuses are beginning to launch programs meant to attract and retain LGBT students. These include college fairs, support offices, special graduation ceremonies, etc. “Campuses today want to be called gay friendly. They see they’re going to lose students if they’re not, [and] realize the pool of non-LGBT students is dwindling” says Shane Windmeyer, executive director of Campus Pride, in a Hechinger Report article. It was only three years ago that Elmhurst College, located in Illinois, became the first institution to ask students about their sexual orientation on their college applications.

A guide to college by the Princeton Review states that it’s important for students to do the research and pick a school where they will be the most comfortable. Homophobia still exists in the real world and many colleges still do not support LGBT rights. However, the growing amount of resources available for the LGBT community in the college setting is a good sign that we are on the right path.

As the LGBT rights movement continues to move forward in our country, we should be encouraging colleges to become more welcoming and aware of this diverse group of students. Colleges that are lacking in these programs should look at how they can start better supporting the sexual identity of their students enrolled.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: Higher Education 

Deeper Learning Is for Everyone

There’s a different sort of “different sort of school” out there, and more students should have access to it.

Deeper learning typically combines many different aspects, including a significant focus on student-centered and project-based opportunities and performance assessment that goes beyond the simplistic and decontextualized questions that characterize too many standardized tests. It tends to look very different from the traditional style of education that many adults remember from when they were growing up, and it offers an alternative to the more regimented approaches that get a significant share of the positive attention today.

While no model will be the perfect fit for all students, we should raise questions when only certain groups of students tend to get access to a particular kind of school. Unfortunately, student-centered, deeper learning tends to be concentrated on the higher-paid end of the socioeconomic spectrum, especially when we assume that students from families struggling to get by would do better with tightly controlled, back-to-basics education. Make sure they can read first, goes the argument, and then we’ll see about the other stuff.

However, a recent study by two Stanford professors—Diane Friedlander and Linda Darling-Hammond—challenges the idea that students of color or students from lower income families don’t belong in student-centered environments. Instead, they find significant evidence across a variety of measures (yes, including test scores, but also more telling factors like college persistence) that students whose demographics would put them on the wrong side of the achievement gap can in fact thrive and succeed at the highest levels in student-centered environments.

For schools to achieve these results, the researchers make several recommendations. In addition to always-important characteristics like high expectations and a focus on mastery rather than task completion, they point to small-group advisories for academic support, customization of instruction, and a focus on social and emotional development, among several other attributes. Additionally, when converting from a more traditional model to a student-centered approach, it’s critical that teachers be involved in the process, that staff share the same vision, and that teachers have useful time for collaboration with different groups of their peers for developing and sharing tools and techniques that work.

We need more schools that apply this approach serving all communities, and many teachers are interested in pursuing this kind of work. We need school and district leaders, as well as state and federal policy makers, to give them the freedom, support, and encouragement they need.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Classroom Methods  Curriculum  Student Assessment 


Defining a “Full-Time” Student

I received my Associate of Arts degree at Century College before transferring to the University of Minnesota to complete my bachelors degree. To do so, I made sure to take enough credits that would count towards my degree each semester to stay on track.

 Graduating on time is still a large problem in the college world. In order to successfully complete a two-year and a four-year degree on time, the typical college student needs to take 15 or more college credits per semester. However, federal guidelines that dictate a full-time student are less than the needed 15 college credits to finish on time.

As Complete College America has stated, without achieving the goal of completing at least 15 college credits per semester, the average student will fail to graduate on time. Interestingly enough, federal financial aid policies have set a minimum requirement of only 12 college credits to be considered a “full-time” student. 

With the already high costs of seeking an education, this would be a heavy burden on those who stick to that minimum.

The University of Minnesota has a 13-credit policy that states that no matter how many college credits you take, you will pay a flat rate tuition that totals 13 credits. This policy was implemented in order to encourage the average student to graduate in four years, which will save time and money in the long run.

At my former school, Century College, fall 2014 tuition rates are per-credit based, with one credit costing $160.60. With the pay-as-you-go method, students cannot be fully motivated to aim for the 15 credit target.

Although the community college is the less expensive alternative, the University of Minnesota had a higher graduation rate in four years in 2012 (50 percent) compared to Century’s graduation rate in 3 years (18 percent). 

Students should be prepared by Day 1 to understand what schedule they need to follow. Although different student resources have been implemented at the college level, such as Century’s GPS Lifeplan, they do not do enough to target the student before they reach college. We should be planting the knowledge of what the future student needs to know before they fall behind. Classes on what to expect in college would make a lot of sense to be taught at the high school level. Better preparedness would go a long way for the incoming student.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: Higher Education 

Waiting for Superpolicy

One of the themes running through 2010’s Waiting for “Superman” and many branches of education reform rhetoric is the notion of a “sense of urgency.” It’s the idea that the issues in our school system (whatever the speaker may have diagnosed them as being) are so pressing and so immediately hurting kids that we must change them dramatically and as quickly as possible. But can that be counterproductive? Is it true, as Matt DiCarlo of the Shanker Institute has written, that “kids can wait for good policy making”?

DiCarlo wrote that as part of a longer piece in mid-2013, arguing that good policy making often takes longer than the politics and rhetoric of school improvement can tolerate. It’s an idea he revisited recently when he diagnosed one of the major political problems of testing-and-markets oriented reformers. In his analysis, reformers often overpromise on both how significant the results of their proposals will be and how quickly those results can be achieved.

In some ways, it’s a variation on a theme discussed by longtime educator and reformer Larry Cuban, who devoted a blog post in late August to discussing the “School Reformers’ Pledge of Good Conduct” first described in Charles Payne’s book, So Much Reform, So Little Change. Some of the key parts of that pledge are, “I will not overpromise,” “I will not expect change overnight,” and “I will not try to scale up prematurely.”

How can we reconcile these arguments—informed as they are by a detailed understanding of the real history of various reform attempts in this country—with the sense of urgency that so many of us across the ideological spectrum feel? Not easily, that’s for sure. When we can see individual children struggling, it’s natural to ask, “How long will this take?”

Maybe the answer lies not in the particular policies we settle on, but how we get there and who is part of the process. A more inclusive decision-making process that welcomes teachers and families as valued voices in the long work of improving schools will be long and messy. It will also, however, put more hands on deck since more people will have been involved in considering options and selecting a direction in which to proceed. This also allows change to happen school by school and district by district, on the terms set by each community. It’s a form of empowerment we need more of in today’s attempts to address educational inequity.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Education Reform 

Getting Psychological in Less Traditional Schools

Context, we’ve been told, is everything, and that’s certainly true when exploring options for improving education.

Yesterday’s article discussed psychological approaches to improving student engagement and learning that emphasize growth mindsets and students’ sense of belonging in school. These are important shifts in how students perceive their schools and their teachers, and one aspect I didn’t have space to discuss was how they might look different in “alternative” pedagogical models like student-driven, project-based learning.

It’s been a while since I’ve written about project-based learning in the student-driven context. As a short recap, it’s a much more student-directed model for learning than the traditional teacher-led classroom. Students initiate their own projects in consultation with teachers, agreeing on the standards and measurements the project will apply. As one might imagine, the way teachers communicate high expectations, growth mindsets, and a sense of belonging in this system will look different.

In fact, one could argue that teachers using this model are already required to be more attuned to these factors than teachers in the traditional model. The project design process requires regular and explicit communication about expectations, rigor, and assessment. Teachers are more often going to be co-learners with students, especially when the student is exploring a topic that’s less familiar to the teacher (while still being in the discipline). The most effective ways to keep students motivated as they execute their plans for their projects will tend to reinforce growth mindsets, and knowing that everyone else is experiencing something similar will hopefully build that sense of belonging.

In many ways, the systems used in “alternative” schools may already be addressing some of the under-utilized but important routes to learning and student engagement. We would do well to think more seriously about moving these pedagogical models into the mainstream more often, in consultation with the teachers who will be carrying them out (many of whom would already love to do this, but who find themselves constrained by narrow, test-obsessed requirements).

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Classroom Methods 

A Three Dimensional Definition of Achievement

If not test scores, then what?

Ron Berger, one of the leaders in the Expeditionary Learning model, recently wrote a post for Education Week’s “Deeper Learning” blog in which he criticized the one-dimensional definition of educational quality that he sees reigning today. While he acknowledged the importance of basic skills, he also argued that tests of those skills are only one aspect of what we should focus on. He went on to discuss the importance of two other areas: quality of work.and strength of character.

Early in the post, Berger writes, “[C]onsider this: to get passing grades, students must behave (at least much of the time) and turn in acceptable work (at least much of the time). This is a far cry from instilling in students an ethic of excellence for who they are and what they do.” It’s another way of saying that settling for behavioral compliance and good test scores is actually setting the bar too low. Unfortunately, the attention to those narrower definitions has shrunk our view, leaving too many schools scrambling to address those pieces at all costs while neglecting other aspects of education that also make a big difference for kids.

One reason for that shrunken focus is the ease with which basic skills and compliance can be assessed relative to the other dimensions Berger is arguing for. As he writes, “Measuring student work and character is not easy. It's messy. We can't quickly rank students and schools in those areas.” It’s also an understandable behavior. Policy operates from the top-down and is prone to a technocratic bent that emphasizes neat systems, clear outcomes, and appropriate incentives. How can we demand accountability when we can’t easily rank and measure what we care about?

That’s one of the key questions we face today, and any answer we generate is likely to leave someone disappointed. Still, if we are to stop confusing the thermometer for the illness, we have to think more broadly. Pursuing community-based accountability, where teachers and families work together to define their goals for students and agree on the tools they’ll use to assess progress towards those goals, should get more attention on this front, as should democratic engagement between schools and communities in general.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education 

Student Debt, Evidence of Impacts, Piling Up

While working on the accompanying article linking student debt to slow economic recovery, we turned to friends at Minnesota Housing Partnership to learn what they were finding.

Sarah Strain, research and communications intern at MHP, pulled together research and links that might be helpful for anyone doing similar research going forward. For that reason, we offer the following links from both MHP and Minnesota 2020 as reference points and encourage others to delve more deeply into this rapidly growing economic crisis.

A good starting point is a Washington Post article using Goldman Sachs research about student debt holding back home purchases.

Two Wall Street Journal articles provide similar evidence and analysis. In one, surveys showed about 27 percent of mortgages were denied because of student debt. Another article quotes Harvard and former National Economic Council economist Larry Summers as saying student debt is holding back both housing and broader economic recovery.

Market Watch, meanwhile, deduced graduates with student debts needed one-third more income, or $8,969, than debt-free millennials to own a home.

Good research data gleaned from Federal Reserve studies are offered by Beth Akers and Matthew M. Chingos at Brookings Institution. Among their troubling findings is that one-fourth of increased student debt results from more education—graduate degrees—that are assumed to be important for America to continue progress.

A good summary of above findings was offered by Lisa Prevost in the New York Times in which home buying declines by the 25-34 age group is well below drops for other cohorts after the housing crash.

Bringing all this close to home in Minnesota, the Institute for College Access & Success has solid research on both national and state data findings through 2012. Start here for an overview on Quick Facts About Student Debt. State data are available on the related Project on Student Debt site.

Posted in Economic Development | Related Topics: Higher Education  Personal Finance 

The Long History of Blaming Teachers

The paradox of teaching is that it’s seen as noble, missionary work when it isn’t the refuge of the lazy and incompetent. We see this in how teachers are portrayed in movies—especially movies about teaching —as well as in the rhetoric pervading all sides of our current reform debates. But has it always been this way?

Well, maybe not always, but certainly for a long time. That’s the conclusion of Dana Goldstein’s new book The Teacher Wars, which provides some historical perspective to the development and treatment of the teaching profession in the U.S. Different reviews have highlighted different aspects of the book, but the running theme is that criticism and (occasionally overwrought) concern about teachers have been with us for decades, if not centuries.

One review extrapolated Goldstein’s description of teachers’ symbolic role in moral panics about education to compare the popular portrayal of teachers (and their unions) with that of “welfare queens” since the 80’s and post-9/11 Muslims. These are groups of people who are made to represent, and sometimes asked to answer for, social problems that are much broader than these groups’ actual impact.

Goldstein’s book also describes the intentional feminization of teaching (one part gendered moral essentialism and one part economics, what with women costing taxpayers 50 percent less at the time) and the destructive removal of many African-American teachers during school integration after Brown v. Board. She also discusses the rise of unions, tenure, and pensions, including the surprising-to-today’s-eyes collaboration between teachers and good government reformers of the time to create those tenure and pension systems.

She also lays out the past attempts to use testing to improve teaching, with their decidedly unimpressive results. As Goldstein put it in one interview, “In the 1920s and 1930s, we saw a huge push to evaluate and judge teachers based on kids’ test scores, and then saw it happen again in the 1960s and again in the 1980s…. And each previous time, it failed.”

Moving past rhetoric and symbolism to empower teachers and to encourage collaboration between excellent teachers and those still in the early stages of growth would serve everyone better than repeating the mistakes of years gone by. Teachers should be trusted allies, not scapegoats.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Teachers 


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