Mar 122013

2013 is a time to reflect on the learnings of the last 3 years. We continued the research started in 2010 into public education in the United States. At the time of the last blog entry we were waist high in data and data sets, reviewing results from state standardized tests across the country and other sources. Unfortunately the findings were shocking. The data told an obvious story of generations of children that would be left behind and relegated to a lower income existence of dependence and vulnerability. The most surprising finding from this deep dive into data was how obvious it was that many K- 12 public education systems were systematically failing the majority of lower income children. This silent and well known fact within education was unspoken in many circles, taken for granted as if silently stating “that’s just the way it is.”

Data, comes to the analyst in computer files filled with columns of numbers. The numbers have to be interpreted by the analyst or researchers. We review those numbers and with our experience and knowledge give some assessment and insight into what the numbers mean and often we recommend changes to make the numbers better. This process of analysis, can be done far from any school, without the face to face communication with any teacher or the insight one gets about a school’s capacity to teach from watching the lunch program or the the interaction of the children. But I realized that to really study public education you have to get beyond the numbers and into the schools, districts and organizations that are part of the public educational industrial complex.

To that end we have:

  • worked as a Trustee with a charter school that was about to be closed for poor performance and that has turned around to become a top performing school
  • submitted a charter school application that was reviewed but not approved
  • launched a new and innovative tool for teachers, school adminsitrators and districts used by many states in 2012 that provides student feedback on their classroom experience
  • become a member of an Advisory Board for the State Board of Education
  • initiated talks with district leaders to help in the turn around of failing schools
  • traversed the college application and acceptance process for my daughter

These efforts, in the day to day work of transforming education go well beyond the numbers to provide real insight into the massive challenges that confront the nation.  Still an outsider to the field of education, I consider this exploration – research – with the objective to first understand the field as much as possible and then to find ways to bring about step wise change.

At many times during this journey, what was most discouraging is the realization that the current system is so broken, so massive, so entrenched, so resistant to change – that the US may be doomed to become a second rate power with a high price but low skill work force.  To  snap back from this gloomy outlook one must recognize that the resilience of the American People, if mobilized to action, is probably the greatest force for change.  We will write more about findings in the coming months and discuss what we have found that seems to be working and provide recommendations for step wise change.


Oct 042010

This weekend “Waiting for Superman” opened in the Boston area in two theaters.  The movie is a documentary that follows several children as they try to navigate the public education system in search of a school that will provide them with the best opportunity for their future.  Although the movie seemed a bit too one-sided in its critique of traditional public schools, the stories portrayed are representative of many lives negatively impacted by a failing public education system.    But what seems  to be the most compelling message is the fact that the United States is rapidly slipping further away from its  role as a global leader. 

The crisis in America’s public-school system, which among developed countries ranks 21st in science and 25th in math, is methodically laid out in Davis Guggenheim’s “Waiting for Superman.”  The complexity of the failing system is also exposed and the key message is that the students in many schools are irrelevant to the bureaucracies that exist to maintain the system’s economic status quo.  Unfortunately that status quo does not require students to learn. They only have to be warm bodies occasionally occupying a school chair for the money to flow. 

In the US 10% of our high schools can be classified as “drop out factories,”  a high school where no more than 60 percent of the students who start as freshmen make it to their senior year.  The highest concentration of dropout factories is in large cities or high-poverty rural areas in the South and Southwest. Most have high proportions of minority students.   These factories are a breeding ground for poverty, crime and the disenfranchised.  What the nation as a whole seems to forget is that what we ignore today we will have to face in crisis tomorrow.  The disenfranchised are the ones that terrorists recruit, gangs enroll and prison systems house.  But they return to the streets angry, educated in the sub-culture of crime, marked with a record that precludes meaningful employment, with little prospect for their future and unfortunately finding their prey in the neighborhoods that choose to ignore the problem rather than face it head on.

Education reform, a phrase that hides the magnitude of the challenge, was a central theme in the recent Washington D.C. mayoral election.  The nation’s capital has one of the worst school systems in the country but spends more per students than nearly every other district nationally.  The money flows. Parents in the district send their kids to schools that persistently produce failing results.  A new chancellor tries to make radical change with the blessing of then Mayor Fenty, closing failing schools and removing some of the rampant incompetence so evident by the results. 

But the D.C. reformist, challenging an intransigent system and neighborhoods  seemingly unaware of the negative impact of the failing education system, were  swept out of power by the ballot.  The status quo remains, winning the day, ensuring the economic base of the failed education system continues even if the kids are left behind.  

The major flaw of the movie “Waiting for Superman” is the lack of solutions considered or discussed.  There are school districts across the country that are making changes, reforming from within, re-aligning the status quo to focus on student performance.

In Massachusetts, one of the largest high schools  has embarked on a path of reform that has shown progress.  Brockton High School re-aligned its teachers, union and administrators to focus on student performance.  It transformed its culture from one in which the status quo of lowered expectations was replaced by a focus on accelerating achievement.  The development of an achievement culture is no small feat for a high school with more than 4,000 students.  But it can be done.  “Waiting for Superman” gave us a glimpse of yet another inconvenient truth of our society.  However, on the ground day-to-day leadership, the likes of Brockton High School,  give us hope that real people – teachers, union leaders, administrators, parents and students – that face the reality of reform can make a difference without waiting for some mythic super – hero that will never come.

New York Times Article on Brockton High School

Waiting for Superman Trailer

 Posted by at 7:53 am
Sep 062010

The United States is facing a crisis of confidence. The fundamental shifts and re-alignment of the economic base of the United States and the world are wreaking havoc on businesses, markets and governments. Uncertainty is very uncomfortable. But as a nation we have lived through uncertainty before. US manufacturers rallied in the days of World War II. As a nation, with a unified vision, we were the major player, bringing a world in chaos back to order. In the 60’s the resolve of a President and the brilliance of American engineering demonstrated that the moon was within reach. The communications systems that link the world today stem from American innovations. Microsoft, Apple, Oracle, Google, Ebay all got their start in the United States. We are a country of innovators and entrepreneurs. What the United States desperately needs now is the innovative drive and entrepreneurial spirit which is the root of American culture.

Consumer demand is based on an implicit household balance sheet and income statement. Americans in their wisdom are saving more because they are looking out at an economic horizon where joblessness may remain high, credit will be much tighter, declining housing prices have reduced perceived wealth and the value of traditional investments have dropped and continue to decline. Over leveraged consumers are prudently cleaning up their balance sheets, paying off debt, curtailing spending and in that process exacerbating the contraction in the US economy. The result is persistent weakness in consumer demand which will not fuel a recovery any time soon. Propping up the economy through supports that are focused on rebuilding this declining consumer demand may be short sighted.

The small business that employs 5 today could possibly employ 10 tomorrow with the right mix of opportunity, human capital and financial supports. The small business that employs 50 could employ 100 if business to business demand increased, the small business management team is prepared for growth and the dollars to finance operational expansion are available. It is this notion of “stepwise” small business growth that is needed now in the United States. The traditional new business growth curve has to be rethought. As a nation we cannot settle for slow small business growth. We need jobs and we need them now! Viable, scalable, small businesses must be identified and “pushed” beyond the traditional small business development growth curve toward a new Stepwise small business growth curve.

Small business owners are not optimistic about the future of the economy or their own business prospects. Many feel as if they have been left out of the largess distributed during this period of economic uncertainty. Small business owners were hit hard by the credit crunch. As demand declined, the need for financing increased to support operations during a time of business downsizing. Lenders were more selective, and the small businessperson became a casualty of government neglect as large banks were bailed out allowing Wall Street to return to its culture of excess. Unemployment benefits had no impact on small business owners, even if their business activity stalled completely. The result of the focus on unemployment payments gave the job seekers life supports while the job makers had to fend for themselves.

Climbing out of this economic downturn will require the United States to regain its global competitiveness. The US consumer is tapped out. We must find ways to open doors to the global economy. Regaining global competitiveness must be the priority. Investments in education, research, and global outreach are needed. Large multinational businesses are able to play the global financial markets to ensure that they maximize the return on their global investments. Local businesses support local economies. Local businesses with global reach will build jobs.

Hopefully, The government will soon recognize that American entrepreneurial drive, American innovation, and the risk taking nature of America’s small business community will be the basis for the economy’s recovery. Tax policies will take much time to cycle through to jobs. Investments solely in infrastructure fund old world sectors focused on US demand. Small business needs access to global demand, similar financial supports given to auto makers and banks and a White House that can inspire a new entrepreneurial wave calling forth the pent up talent of America’s young, America’s entrepreneurs and America’s small business owners. See below.

 Posted by at 7:33 am
Aug 012010

More than 18 months ago I started a journey, driven by curiosity and a desire to make a difference in the lives of children in the US. That led to an intense and often times obsessive focus on gaining a researcher’s understanding of a then unfamiliar “market” called public education. What I found in the process was most surprising.

I had little understanding of the complexity of the public education system before I began. As a layman, outside of the field, like many people I knew that schools existed to educate children and teachers were the professionals we called upon to do that work. I also knew that many children in the system were not being served well, ending up as casualties by dropping out or by getting an education that neither prepared them for college or career.

In my private sector focused daily existence these issues seemed distant and far removed from the high impact profit world I was accustomed to. This convenient blindness is one of the root causes for the current state of our schools. After 18 months, I now clearly see that the failure of public education in the United States is a major national security issue.

The United States is falling behind. Many would prefer to stick their heads in the sand, wave their flags and wear their USA T-shirts made in China. There are others that have seen the writing on the wall and have adopted a style of selfish unpatriotic greed which has resulted in job loss to India, China and any other location where profit can be maximized even if it accelerates this country’s decline.

The US Government has been complicit, in some instances offering outright cooperation to economic competitors and in other instances demonstrating such gross incompetence that one might assume it to be purposeful in its intent. Not only are we shipping jobs overseas, we are allowing workers from other nations to flow into the country illegally to take jobs that have been knowingly offered by major US corporations looking to keep their wage rates low. On the other hand the best and brightest among us find the Wall Street lure of fast money and power too strong to ignore – so we lose much of the talent that could transform our nation to a culture of greed and excess.

At the same time we are building schools in Iraq, winning the hearts and minds of the people of Afghanistan, and providing aid all around the globe, we have generations of school children that have not learned basic skills like reading and simple arithmetic. A number of these “failed” kids will graduate to the United States penal system, the largest by far (per capita) of any Western society. Many of these children, left behind academically, will become expert at extracting welfare dollars from a system of supports that is unintentionally enslaving rather than liberating lives. And of course there is the population that will simply self destruct as they fend for their daily survival on urban streets where there is a necessity to pack more fire power than the local police.

Our decline is not only coming from our urban districts. Schools in many affluent communities are behind as well. Many college professors are openly complaining about the lack of preparation, academically and socially, of high school students as they enter college. The result – lack of critical thinking skills, combined with an undeserved sense of entitlement that often results in mental laziness within college communities where the peer pressure of the party culture dominates. Of course most international students are here focused on a purpose – to extract the best education and return to build their lives in their home countries – our economic competitors. There are more honors students in China and India than the total population of the United States. We are losing our global differentiation and our willingness to work together for a national vision.

In this election cycle we will find the same politicians that were complicit in bringing about this decline, using the tools of deception, marketing, sales and statistics to divert the attentions of the electorate from the reality of their future. The “pundits and prognosticators” in their continued efforts to expand their audience will whip up false debates that will divide, distract and deter us from making any national progress. Hidden behind the campaign slogans and direct mail solicitations are politicians that call themselves Republicans or Democrats, sheepishly aligning themselves to party while sacrificing the future of the country.

A national investment in Education is one way out of this quagmire. We must re-arm our electorate with the skills they need to become globally competitive again. We must re-arm our electorate with the knowledge they need so they can become more informed about their future and the future of this country. We must re-tool an education system that has fallen into the hands of political agendas, power brokers and politicians focused on the next election cycle while leaving the children behind.

Our geo-political competitors, with much larger populations, are educating their children to become the world’s future doctors, lawyers, scientists and teachers. Our American kids are becoming obese, dropping out, without skills they can use to contribute to themselves or the tax base needed to support America’s aging population.

Lack of education, few opportunities, a growing underclass, large prison population, and a growing chasm between the haves and have nots – this is a historical recipe that we have seen many times before. That is why I believe that education is fast becoming The National Security issue of our time.

Although this phase of my research is done, I intend to detail specific findings in a series of upcoming blog articles. Comments are welcomed.

 Posted by at 4:59 pm
May 252010

Does equal opportunity for all mean that we are all the same?  Does it mean that high school students share the same goals?  Travel the same academic path? Have the same abilities and interests?  Of course not.  It is time that the debate on education reform focus on the student as an individual and not merely  an undifferentiated member of a racial, ethnic or socio-economic sub-group.

When we examine the life of any one student, we will most likely find within that story a deep and meaningful history filled with sorrow and joy, strife and struggle of some kind, as well as  set backs and opportunities. What seems to be lost from the current education debate is a discussion of the student as an individual.  The policy makers speak in broad terms about sub groups as if in a country as diverse as the United States these subgroup definitions still have real meaning.  These broad labels,  although convenient, are misleading.  They meld together in an undifferentiated classification the richness and nuance of so many distinct personalities, lifestyles and perspectives.  These 20th century labels, once important in the era when counting and quotas were used to set policy, have created a unfortunate paradigm in education that minimizes the individuality of the American student of all races, genders and cultures.

America is a great country.  A major source of that greatness comes from the diversity of the population.  But mention the term diversity and we first think about race, ethnicity, culture or gender.  We are losing sight of the diversity of individual personality in this country while at the same time focusing too much on these divisive and soon to be irrelevant broad racial, ethnic and gender labels.  Take 15 minutes and talk to a student in high school.  The conversation may reveal a child that is disinterested in education, unmotivated and struggling.  Talk to another student and you may find a child that is so future focused that they are searching for every opportunity, advancing along a self  directed path to a future they have long envisioned for themselves.  Talk to another student and they may be comfortable in school, although challenged by the work load but enjoying the academic ride not sure where it may lead.

Classifying these students by race, ethnicity or gender does not provide any insight into the best ways to reach them with the right guidance and instruction. Does it matter if the unmotivated student is White, Black, Hispanic, Gay or other?  Clearly it shouldn’t.  But unfortunately it does.  And because of this reliance on these outmoded 20th century broad labels, the education reform debaters are not discussing  the  needs of individual students.  So we create policies that attempt to close an achievement gap based on 20th century definitions of required knowledge and 20th century categorizations of students that provide no insight in how to teach or reach them.

It may be more valuable to classify students along a continuum of motivation than it would to adhere to a classification based on ethnicity.  A “Motivation Continuum” would cut across race, class, and culture.  Gaining an understanding of the underlying motivation and future vision of a student would provide key information critical to the development of strategies to engage and encourage them on  their individual educational journey.  Measuring motivation is hard.  Self reports are not precise and assessment is politically difficult.  So instead we use race, ethnicity or gender to classify students because it is easy and has become politically accepted.  But it is time for a new framework to be developed that considers the student as an individual with distinct, individualized motives and abilities.  A hastily considered framework is offered below.

The Student as Individual Framework

The “Student as Individual Framework” proposed is not intended to describe large social groups.  The framework recognizes that within any socio-economic group there is much diversity and in many instances there may be more commonalities among members of different races, ethnicities and cultures.  This framework is not intended to describe any or all students.  It is instead offered as a paradigm that would encourage a shift in focus from the achievement gaps of large undifferentiated social groups to the needs of the student as an individual learner.

Review the testing data from nearly any city in the US.  Within schools that are generally underperforming you will find students that have beaten the odds, not succumb to institutionalized low expectations, demonstrating their abilities by outscoring most of their peers in their respective states.  The framework above can capture and classify these students in a way that would allow for a meaningful discussion about enrichment programs, school choice or other intervention that would enhance and focus their self directed energies.

The framework can also be used to describe unmotivated students in the wealthiest suburbs or the poorest inner city schools.  Clearly moving students from the lower left portion of the framework to the upper right is the most desirable path.  But pragmatic action has to be the priority.  Well intentioned broad policy may marginally move sub-groups forward while leaving behind those most able to contribute to themselves, their communities and this nation.

As I talk with students, I am struck not by the color of their skin, the language spoken at home or the income of their parents.  What seems to come out most in a conversation with young students is their relationship with the world around them, their curiosity to explore that world, and their relationship to their own future.  Are they curious? Do they question?  Are they passionate about something?  Do they have a vision for themselves?  Are they followers or are they leaders?

The framework attempts to understand these attributes and to classify them into convenient categories that can be used to discuss educational strategies intended to move individual students forward.

  • For those not yet proficient onward to proficiency.
  • For those that are not  motivated onward to becoming self motivated.
  • For those with advanced proficiency onward to greater challenge and development
  • For those with limited interest in academics onward to more meaningful alternatives

Each individual taking a distinct journey not necessarily to the same destination but to one that hopefully will be uniquely suited to their vision of where they want to go and their ability to attain the needed knowledge to get there.

Motivation and Drive.  Is it reasonable to assume that it is easier to guide and coach the self motivated student than it is to encourage a chronically unmotivated student?  What do our schools offer those students that have “checked out“ mentally from the classroom, showing no motivation to participate in the learning process?  The opposite question is as important.  What are schools doing for those students so self directed and driven that they are finding academic success in school communities where failure is the norm?

The Student as Individual Framework also considers  the academic ability of the individual.  This is potentially politically incorrect because it suggests a truism that many prefer to ignore.  Some people are just smarter than others.  This is a phenomenon that cuts across race, ethnicity and culture.  The ability to understand math concepts, the nuance underlying great literature or the scientific constructs of the world around us is not universal.  There are those that quickly grasp the method, meaning or principle of the subject matter while others will forever struggle to get to basic familiarity with the same.  This is a fact of life.  Equality of opportunity does not mean that we are all of the same ability.

In the future world, as described in a very worthwhile book called 21st Century Skills, Bernie Trilling and Charles Fadel describe a new paradigm for learning that include skills well beyond those traditionally measured on standardized tests or taught in our schools today.  The authors provide compelling arguments that the current K-12 school paradigm needs to be reviewed and possibly re-thought. In the new globally connected 24/7 world, education must include multi-cultural exposure, engaging team oriented work, and technology enabled curriculum which offers the promise of differentiated instruction to support the individual learning styles of our students.

Consider the following questions as they are plotted on the Student as Individual Framework.


Obvious Implications

Shifting focus from race and socio-economics to underlying student motivation is more difficult when debating education policy and reform.  Math skills can be tested easily with multiple choice questions.  English proficiency can be also tested with well researched questions on reading comprehension or vocabulary.  But how can you accurately test and measure a student’s desire to learn or their interest in academic pursuits?  Is motivation a better predictor of success in college and career than raw skill assessed in a series of multiple choice questions given in a multi-hour exam in a setting far removed from the requirements of college or the world of work.  Understanding how motivated a student is in their learning should provide valuable insight and guidance to teachers and lesson planners.  It is well known that the more engaged the student is in the process of learning the more they learn. Moving away from the convenient and often times damaging 20th century concept of the achievement gap toward a focus on individual progress will change the debate in ways that will positively impact students of all types. It is time we start to focus on  individuals and not sub-groups.

 Posted by at 12:07 am
Apr 252010

Parental Influence Framework

The framework below is offered to foster discussion about a key group of influencers in the lives of children.  We score kids based upon their academic results continually.   But each child starts their education at home, within their families, communities and cultures.  Our current system of standardized testing takes a snap shot – like capturing runners at the instant when  they are crossing the finish line ribbon.  What we do not have a good measure or understanding of – is how far each has traveled to get to the test day.  Parents are the primary  teachers and perhaps we need to design a method for evaluating them and their influence both positive and negative.  Here is one hastily considered proposal.

  1. Involved, networked and engaged
  2. Willing, able but unknowing
  3. Un-empowered and disenfranchised
  4. Overburdened / incapable
  5. Self absorbed
  6. Apathetic

The Need For a Framework

Conversations with teachers in communities that have a very high population of lower income students tend to focus on the daily classroom battles they have to fight to first maintain order and secondarily to teach.  Discussions with teachers from more affluent communities center on the need to provide meaning to students of all abilities.  Classroom discipline for these teachers in affluent communities is much different and may be more focused on the use of cell phones in class rather than  screening for weapons or warding off gangs that are vying for control of school territory.  Teachers in low performing schools are complaining that they are being blamed, almost exclusively,  for students that are academically unprepared and low performing on standardized tests.  But many teachers can make a coherent and convincing argument that they are working with the “products” of social  and familial systems that have failed, in many cases long before a child enters school.

In Massachusetts the school year is minimally 180 days long.  During these 180 days the law states that students must receive 900 hours of structured learning time (excludes lunch, recess, study hall, etc) which equates to 5 hours per school day.  Generally school will start at 7:30 and finish at 2:00 or 2:30 (including lunch, recess, study periods) – about 6 or 7 hours under school supervision or 1,260 hours in school during the year.  On the surface this may seem like a lot of time but not when compared to the rest of the child’s life.  The table below demonstrates that students are generally in the supervision of the school only 21% of their waking hours.

Days in Year         365 Days in School                  180
Hours per day           24 Hours in school day                     7
Hours per year      8,760 Hours per year               1,260
Adj for sleep time (8hrs)   ( 2,891 )    
Available hours per year     5,869 % of available hours 21%


During the time away from school the child is influenced by their parents, household circumstance, community, interests, peers and of course mass media.  When it comes to supervised time these children leave the school and return to their homes to be supervised by parents and guardians.  The result and impact of that out of school supervision is not rigorously measured in the same way that we measure the time spent in the school. 

An obvious but often times politically controversial question must be – What is the role of parents/guardians in the education of their children?  How do we account for the influence of the remaining 79% of a child’s waking hours on their achievement scores and on the achievement gap?  Parents and their role in their kid’s success seems to be getting little press these days and that is unfortunate.

Parents are not homogeneous.  We all know at least one parent that is on their kids back night and day creating a pressure cooker environment about the need to do well to get into one of the top schools.  These high stress parents may have all of the Baby Einstein collection, had the headphones playing Mozart during infancy, and took the time to research the best pre-K schools years prior to when their child would have been ready to enter.  For every one of these highly involved parents we also can find those parents that may have too many children, none of which are cared for well and few if any encouraged to achieve much of anything.  These parents may comply with the law, sending their child to school, but feel it is the school’s job to educate them to whatever level is required.

Parents do have a responsibility to and for their children.  In fact, American values, a term I use very cautiously because it has been so corrupted in political circles, seems to have a common thread of ensuring that each generation of Americans was able to move up the socio economic hierarchy beyond their parent’s starting point.  The classic American immigrant story is the father or mother that worked whatever job they could find, made sure their kids were ready for school each day and placed their hope for the future of their family on that next generation.  Could it be that the failure in our schools and the current  “achievement gap” is also a reflection of an erosion of core values in our society?

This line of questioning led to many conversations with teachers in both affluent and lower income schools.  The result of those conversations is captured in a framework that describes a hierarchy of parental involvement and engagement with their children’s  education. 

On one extreme are those parents that are well versed in the mainstream culture, understanding the requirements of success, understanding the college admissions process and possibly shaping their children’s future from Kindergarten.  These parents are highly involved, very aware of what is needed and networked into the right sources of information and opportunities.

On the other extreme are those parents that have all but given up their parental responsibility to others.  They are so apathetic about their children’s education or self absorbed that their children are more likely raising themselves.  Some  may be incapacitated due to substance abuse,  incarceration or a lack of desire to fulfill a parental role.  These parents are discussed often by teachers because their children need more guidance, motivation, encouragement and support.

Between these two extremes are parents that are more than willing to do what is best for their children but simply do not know how or where to begin.  In these economic times there are other parents, some with the strongest desire and best of intentions for their children, that simply do not have the time to give them as they navigate a labor market that requires multiple jobs to make a living wage.  These parents are so over burdened with work or illness that they have to sacrifice their parental role for the family’s economic survival.  Of course there are also parents that believe that the schools know best and therefore they should allow the school system to do what is best for their children.  They may be intimidated by the school’s authority and leave their child’s future to the so-called professionals.  The “drama” filled lives of some very self absorbed parents may also creates an environment where children are treated as if they are distractions burdening their parents and taking time away from their parent’s social “activities.”

  1. Involved, networked and engaged
  2. Willing, able but unknowing
  3. Un-empowered and disenfranchised
  4. Overburdened /  incapable
  5. Self absorbed
  6. Apathetic

Does the Framework Ring True?

Some would argue that in very general terms the children of each of these parental categories present very different challenges for teachers, school systems and policy makers.  Are the over achieving high stress Type A students more likely to come from the Involved, Networked and Engaged  or from Willing but Unknowing parents?  Could it be that children that are not academically motivated are more likely to come from households where Apathetic or Self Absorbed parents reside?  These are tough questions.  But the framework is not intended to describe all or any.  It is intended to be a basis for questioning assumptions, talking through social issues and opening a dialogue that is more expansive than the current focus solely on the school portion of the day. These issues, although possibly politically charged, are necessary when discussing education reform pragmatically.  The framework provides cover for a meaningful debate because it is  distanced from the underlying issues of class, race, socio economic standing and cultural heritage.

Strategic Implications

Standardized tests are designed to measure academic skills.  But they assume, implicitly in the way their results are used, that students are starting from the same point. How do you measure and account for the fact that the distance that a student has traveled in their journey through their individual socio economic hurdles may be a better indicator of success in this new emerging, multi cultural, digitally connected, global work world?  Should we therefore be reconsidering our reliance on measures of “raw” academic output tallied on the day of the test.  Or should we also be measuring  how much a child has learned over their academic career, no matter the starting point and familial circumstance?

Questionnaire on Topic (please provide your opinion on this important topic)

We have developed a 3 minute questionnaire to get your feedback on this Framework.  Please cllick here to take the survey .  After you complete the survey you will be able to see the current results which will be posted as they are collected.

 Posted by at 9:53 am
Mar 232010

Most of the focus of the “Achievement Gap” is on moving students, especially those that are not at grade level, to a level of proficiency that can be measured on standardized tests. The math MCAS in Massachusetts is the state wide test given to students in grades 3 – 8. The latest results of the test are illustrated in this achievement “pie” which shows results for the state: 17% are failing, 30% need to improve academically, 33% are proficient and 20% score at an advanced level.

If there is $1,000,000 to spend on these students –  how would you allocate it? 

Most of the funding would be spent helping those that are being left behind, failing in the subject material, to gain skills that move them toward proficiency.  The funds so allocated would help constrained district budgets to add special remedial programs for those students that have not been able to extract  learnings from their daily classes (for whatever reason).  Is the focus on moving those most in academic need appropriate,  providing the greatest societal return?  The question seems sterile and clinical as if we are not talking about children, families and communities. But it is a question that should be asked even if politically incorrect.

There are students that with slightly more attention, encouragement and self motivation could become proficient, achieving a standing within their respective grades that may serve to inspire them  to become self motivated learners.  These students may require differentiated instruction to ensure that the material conforms to their learning styles and abilities.  This group also needs motivated, well educated teachers with expectations of performance that will not accept less than proficient performance.  This group is large and the gains made will impact many children, families and communities.

Another  “achievement gap” that goes mostly unreported is the gap in the “advanced” scoring students from one community to the next.  In some affluent communities, their advanced scoring student population is in the 40% to 50% range.  In other communities, mostly lower income, the percentage of advanced scorers may be as low as 4%.  In  Massachusetts, 20% of students score at an advanced level on the math MCAS across grades 3 – 8.  Is it possible that many students that have the capability to score at an advanced level are merely passing at proficient.  In other words are we so focused on getting to proficiency for the underserved communities that we are missing those students that could easily achieve an advanced score if they had been in an environment where that was the expectation?

Should finding students that have the capacity to achieve advanced scores on tests like the MCAS  be as important as moving failing students forward?  Some could argue that it is.  The data clearly shows that within even the most dysfunctional school systems in the state there are small groups of advanced achievers significantly outperforming their school peers and the majority of students state wide.  These students are truly outstanding.  It is easier for an achiever to find their place in districts where advanced students are 40% or more.  But those students that are achievers in districts where they are obvious exceptions are remarkable and they should be identified as such. 

These are future leaders, that through some of the most trying situations, have been able to demonstrate ability that come easy to others.  Finding these students, providing them with encouragement, a great education and more importantly a sense of a like minded, academically focused, community is imperative to the future of this state and this country.

If we have $1,000,000 to spend – how much are we spending on them?  How much are we investing on developing the leaders that will bring our communities out of the grip of generational poverty?  Find the leaders, invest in them, educate them with real world knowledge, inspire them to service and they will change their world.

 Posted by at 12:25 am
Mar 112010

Education reform seems to be a popular subject these days, sharing the news spotlight with the likes of elections in Iraq, trouble in Greece and the ongoing health care debacle in Washington.  Today the Wall Street Journal published an article about a possible growing trend to move to a 4 day school week as a means to stretch the shrinking budgets of some states. 

According to Chris Herring of the Wall Street Journal:

“A small but growing number of school districts across the country are moving to a four-day week, in a shift they hope will help close gaping budget holes and stave off teacher layoffs, but that critics fear could hurt students’ education….

Some schools, meanwhile, say they are turning to the four-day schedule as a last resort. In North Branch, Minn., school Superintendent Deb Henton said her 3,500-student district, facing a $1.3 million deficit, is simply out of options.”

The US education system is now becoming a harbinger for many other infrastructure systems in the country.  We are spending billions annually educating kids in public schools.  Yet a large percentage of these kids are performing well below their respective grade level.  And this is occurring in an environment where many states have already lowered their education standards. 

As a country it seems that we are waking up to the failure of education at the same time that we are facing an uncertain and perilous financial future.  Although the Obama administration has taken on the challenge of upgrading education, they are also struggling to find ways to upgrade a massive health care system, regulate financial markets that have nearly collapsed, ensure that we are not attacked by a growing horde of enemies, negotiate with a congress that is out of control and appease foreign bankers that are buying more and more influence in the United States. 

The data from most states tell the story of a public education system that is producing too many children that will simply not be competitive in the global market where technology rules, math is an essential skill and a lifelong ability to acquire new knowledge will be the requirement.  In 2006, around 400,000 15 year old students from around the world were randomly selected to participate in a global test in 57 countries.  This test, administered by the  OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is used to gauge the preparedness of students globally. 

The United States ranked 25th of the 30  OECD countries in math, behind Canada, Korea, Australia, Japan, Denmark, Ireland, United Kingdom, Poland, Germany, France and Spain, to  name a few.  Our 15 year olds dropped in their relative world standing yet again.  At the same time that emerging markets are investing in education as a means to ensure their global future, our states are cutting the school week because they cannot find the funds to pay for custodial and cafeteria support for an additional day. 

A large part of the success of charter schools that serve inner city lower income communities can be attributed to the extended school day.  Teachers in one charter school in Boston have the luxury of 2 distinct hours to teach math to children from neighborhoods where the norm is under achievement.  These schools are finding that the extended day provides them more time to engage students, and it provides students with a safe, academically focused alternative to their homes or the streets.  The results – higher scores on standardized tests in math.

As towns and cities struggle to manage budgets in this era of excessive government waste,  they are finding that the large allocation, normally set aside to ensure the progress of our future generations can be tapped to pay for today’s spending.  The sacrifice we are making today will be felt for generations as our ability to compete globally slips away and our ability to fund a future for the aging baby boomers is as uncertain as our ability to provide for generations of future workers that are facing declining wages.  As the rest of the world advances in the race to global competitiveness we are stuck  on the sidelines trying to balance budgets that are forecasting deficits for years to come.  The surplus money that we had for a short time has been spent on two wars, tax cuts, and government spending encouraged by well connected lobbiest.  What we are left with is deficits, in our national budget and in the education and skills of future generations of Americans.

TV News Story on Districts Near Atlanta ,   All Things Consider Discussion (March 9, 2010) , South Dakota Joins in as well

 Posted by at 6:00 am
Mar 042010

The debates in Washington continue over matters big and small.  Education reform is one of the big issues that is drawing support from the unlikely team of Al Sharpton and Newt Gingrinch as they tour the country together and engage the media, explaining the urgency of reforming a system that has failed so many for so long.  New solutions are being devised and  will be funded by The new Race To The Top Initiative which is a $4.35 billion incentive program designed by the United States Department of Education to spur progressive reforms in state and local district K-12 education.   But the relationship between governmental spending on education and results needs to be explored before good money is wasted on failing systems.  This is the capital conundrum, embodied in the DC school system.

On most any measure the public schools of the District of Columbia are at the bottom of so many lists except one.  When you look at spending per student across the country, DC ranks at least third and given some new data that has been made available it may be first.  In 2006 it is reported that , DC spent $14,324 per student slightly  behind New Jersey ($15,691) and New York ($15,981).  Yet with this spending we have a school community that is a poster child for the need for fundamental reform that may require much more than new investment in failing schools.  Once again the data provides some insight.

In 2009, the 32,375 DC students  in grade 3 – 10 sat for their Math standardized test.  55% of those students received scores that indicated that they were not performing at their respective grade level.  20% were at a level that is called “Below Basic.”  On the NAEP standardized math test which provides a national measurement allowing state by state comparisons, DC was at the bottom with all other states outperforming their scores. 

The DC public school population is predominantly Black (83%) with a small white population (5%).  The Hispanic student population is 10% and the Asian student population is 1%.  In a September 2009 presentation authored by Cathie Carothers, Assistant Superintendent of Elementary and Secondary Education, two highlights out of three discussed the progress made in test scores and the fact that progress is being made closing the “achievement gap” when compared to white students in the DC schools.  A closer review of the report and the public data shows that progress IS being made when compared to scores from 2006 where only 35% of students were proficient in reading and 27% were proficient in math.  But once again we hear discussion about this so-called “achievement gap.”  In this instance the benchmark for achievement is 5% of students across the DC system. 

The numbers, although inconvenient, are there for all to see, analyze and discuss.  These 5% white students in the DC systems have an 85% math proficiency rate, while Black students have a 40% math proficiency rate and Hispanics a 53% math proficiency rate.  Cutting the data another way provides more insight.  No school that has a math proficiency rate less than 50%, 81 out of 134 schools in total, has a white population large enough to be counted in the state’s reporting.   The benchmark that is being used in this so-called “Achievement Gap” measure is not only a small minority of students (5%) but they primarily attend only 12 of the 134 districts schools.  

Many of these 12 schools have math proficiency rates that are  in the 80% range.  But they are not reflective of the rest of the public schools in the DC area.  Most have a very small lower income population in the single digits compared to the aggregate of 70% lower income student population or more across all schools in DC.  .  In essence these 12 schools are most likely havens in the DC public school system where the “Achievement Culture”, discussed in prior blog entries, can exist in some form. 

The DC aggregate  school budget, with estimates of $20K per student, funds both the dysfunctional schools as well as the few havens which have managed to create a culture that differs from the majority of the schools in the district.  Money alone will not create an achievement culture.  And as we can see in so many examples, it is this achievement culture that must be fostered, nurtured and developed.  Schools are only one link in the chain of success. 

The capital conundrum is that the easiest and most politically expedient weapon in the government’s arsenal is the funneling of tax payer dollars to an issue of interest.  But the school district which shamefully exists in the backyard of our nation’s home is a reflection of the failure of government to recognize the complexity and the unfortunate reality of the social issues that have plagued us and may weaken us beyond the point of recovery.

 Posted by at 6:44 am