"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Former Banker/Entrepreneur Describes Innovation to DFER Community

The DFER blog was recently left in the hands of attorney/banker/entrepreneur-turned-educator Leigh McGuigan. She assisted the Bloomberg/Klein dictatorship in NYC before moving to the Cleveland schools to work in the Office of New and Innovative Schools. Like many so-called reformers operating outside of the traditional public schools, McGuigan pulls in a very handsome salary: $170,000 per year, paid for by the Cleveland and Gund Foundations. What does a high-roller like McGuigan think about innovation in public education? From the DFER blog:

July 10, 2009

Leigh McGuigan: On Innovation

I am finishing my week of blogging with one of my favorite topics: innovation. We talk about it constantly, indeed, we worship at its alter. How many times have we heard (and said) that we will transform education through innovation?

Yet as a proud former "Senior Executive for New and Innovative Schools," I can say on good authority that hardly anything we did in our "New and Innovative Schools" was really innovative.

Wait - the head of the Office of New and Innovative Schools says she didn't do anything innovative? Then what was happening in the "New and Innovative Schools?"

Granted, we did a lot of things that were much less dysfunctional than regular district schools. Principals got to hire their own teachers and were able to hire external candidates as well as internal ones. Almost every school had an extended year, extended day, or both. We had five single gender schools. We pushed very hard on parent engagement and asked parents to sign agreements acknowledging their responsibilities. Our high schools were small and all had strong themes that engaged students and were pervasive throughout the school, including Science, Technology, Engineering and Math ("STEM"), Science and Medicine, Architecture and Design, and Early College. Our charter schools included a KIPP-like middle school and a credit-recovery high school where students learned on-line in a supervised setting. We had some, mostly modest, grant support that could be used at the principals' discretion to support student learning.

Ah - so innovation equals longer school day and year, principal hiring (and presumably firing), printing up contracts for parents to sign, avoiding comprehensive high schools, and pushed online learning for struggling students. Sounds like the playbook from the KIPP Kult and Christensen/Chubb & Moe crowd. And right on cue...


I'd love to see some actual, disruptive innovation in education, as described by Clayton Christensen in "Disrupting Class." Here are a few ideas I'd like to try:

Take two or three groups of 15 middle or high school students and pair each group with an excellent, experienced, courageous teacher. Give each group a copy of the relevant state learning standards. Embed each group in a creative and fast-paced organizational culture - say one group with Apple, one group with Facebook, and one group with the leading developer of on-line gaming (and isn't it telling that a lady who claims to know educational innovation doesn't even know who this is?). Give all the adults some "skin in the game," with much glory for the winning group and real commitment by the organizational sponsors (maybe the companies give employee commitment rather than educational grants that year). Then let the groups compete to figure out how to design a way for the students to learn the most, with the only condition being that at the end of 6 months everyone in the group must meet the state standard for proficiency in the relevant learning standards. If they do it, they can spend the next 3 months on any projects that interest them and get credit for the school year. If they don't, they have to go back to regular school. See what they come up with. Then build on it to create an entirely new model for school.

  1. Who can we look to for inspiration for innovation? Corporate America, of course. Take the new national standards (certainly approved by the business world), team up with corporate America to educate our children (Apple, Facebook, and a video game company), escalate the competition, and - of course - keep all the testing. What does McGuigan think about testing? On her very own website, McGuigan dismisses the notion of teaching to the test, suggests test anxiety can be overcome with additional testing practice, embraces the high-stakes/competition aspect of testing, and trumpets the "competing in the global economy" line that seems to obliterate any semblance of critical thinking (for an added bonus, check out two of her sources: a Heritage Foundation "all kids can succeed, forget about poverty" document as well as an evaluation of assessments by Gerald Tindal, one of the University of Oregon professors who sat on the notoriously corrupt Reading First Panel).
  2. And then McGuigan goes for an all-out neoliberal assault on the teaching profession:
  3. Try the modern version of the old apprenticeship model. Let a group of proven teachers advertise themselves to students, taking on only those students who choose them, and paying them only for the students that they take on. Make them completely responsible for the students' educations, with access to good technology and the flexibility to work out the best education plan for each student. Test the students occasionally to be sure that the teachers are getting results, and rate the teachers publicly. The best, most motivated teachers could take on as many students as they could handle, while others might choose to take on fewer and work less. You could offer differential compensation based on students' needs and starting points. Students could stay with their chosen teacher for many years. Run the whole enterprise out of one building so everyone would have a home base, access to equipment and technology, and some group learning, social and extra-curricular activities. This is how many professionals that we trust with children's lives already work--think pediatricians, psychologists, dentists.
  4. (Thanks to my brilliant, innovative, young friend Jonathan Skolnick of New York City schools for this idea. Jonathan calls this is the "piano teacher" model. He points out that "piano teachers have created a successful model in which they take on as many or as few students as they want and can attract. They don't have piano teachers' degree mills that force them into needless debt, and they don't even need a piano teachers union! A new piano teacher can ease into the job, building a practice over time. Everyone talks about how we need to pay teachers more, but what if it's actually the opposite? What if we paid "teachers" less but allowed them to be responsible for only 10 students per year? This would allow stay-at-home moms, busy professionals, and college professors to get involved in teaching. I guess city kids don't deserve private lessons, just government-distributed mediocrity." You can see why I love Jonathan.)
    Build school around a sport rather than the other way around. We already know that sports engage kids much more powerfully than school does. So set up a separate school for the football or baseball team. Put a great coach in charge. Make it the coach's responsibility to ensure that all team members are making educational progress. Let the coach and players figure out how to integrate learning into the sport, rather than how to integrate the sport into learning. (Thanks to Coach Ted Ginn, founder of Ginn Academy in Cleveland and one of my biggest heroes, for showing me how very powerful this idea could be, especially for young men of the inner city.)
    Most of our urban districts are spending in excess of $13,000 per student. Why can't we take this money and redeploy it to fund completely new models? These models could build on what we know engages children, using the teaching power of video games and relying on talented, committed adults who know how to motivate and communicate with children and are willing to be fully accountable for their learning. We have a natural and appropriate reluctance to experiment with children, and that is as it should be. But with high schools that are dangerous, mind-numbing places, with graduation rates under 50%, and elementary schools where less than a third of students are proficient, what, really, do we have to lose?
  5. The anti-union, anti-teacher bias comes out pretty strongly in this last passage. The business model of reform (schools are an "enterprise" that resembles a market) demands teachers actually "advertise" themselves to their students (the consumers); teacher "quality" (measured by testing) is published so parents/students can choose the best teachers; and teachers could be paid less while untrained (and non-union, of course) labor is brought into the market. Build schools around sports teams, embrace video games as educational tools (hell, the military already does this with first-person shooters and other simulations), and experiment on poor children. Could you apply these ideas in an affluent suburb? Not a chance. But DFER is all about creating the newest generation of docile worker bees, corporate CEO's, and surplus soldiers for America's (and yes, now Obama's) Imperial Wars.

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