Saturday, December 27, 2008

It's Not Rocket Science

The debate over what to do about the sorry state of American education has been raging for decades and what seems to be missing from this debate is common sense. Teaching a child to read, write and do arithmetic is not rocket science. With a few books, a pencil and some paper all three can be accomplished quite easily for the majority of children. You don't need expensive curriculum, highly trained teachers, or computer software to teach the ABC's.  For the last few thousand years, and right up to the present in developing countries, children have learned their ABC's with a stick drawing in the dirt, and they have learned to add, subtract, multiply and divide with pebbles.  So why are so many children failing and dropping out of American schools? Because educational policy does not reflect this common sense. Rather than focusing on the relationship between the teacher and child, the natural curiosity of young children, and the hands-on approach to learning which is natural to a child, American schools put children in large classrooms and even larger schools where they are dehumanized, tested, categorized, micro-managed or ignored. For example, educational research has been done for years and years showing that smaller schools and smaller classrooms work, but instead of taking this research and DOING something about it, American policy makers simply layer on another gimmick.  A perfect example is the plan that one of our local public high schools has to get a grant for every student to have a laptop. While this is a nice idea, especially for students whose families cannot afford to buy them one, research shows that computers do not increase academic achievement in reading and writing.  High school graduation rates peaked in American in  1969 and have been going down ever since. Instead of layering programs, gimmicks and technology on a weak foundation it is time to use our common sense to restore that foundation.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Twelve Levels

Here's a trick question for you. How many different levels are there in a classroom with twenty third graders? Three? Four? In contrast, how many levels do you think there are at our school, which has only twelve students per class but they are in third, fourth and fifth grade? The answer is actually quite simple:  the number of levels in any given classroom is the number of kids in the room. While teachers often put children in reading groups, and there are IEP's for some kids and the AIG program for others, the reality is that every child is on his own level. Dr. Mel Levine,  author of "A Mind at a Time" divides educators into two categories- lumpers and splitters. Lumpers like to lump kids together in groups ("They all have ADHD, they are in the gifted program...") whereas splitters see each child as an individual. We are definitely splitters. It is the recognition of the fact that each child is on her own level that drives our individualized education. In our 3rd-5th grade class we have children who are reading "The Call of the Wild" and children who struggle with the Magic Tree House Series. We have children who are adding and subtracting and children who have mastered long division and have moved on to fractions. We have children who can barely write a sentence and children who can pen coherent paragraphs and yes, you guessed it, some of the advanced readers are in third grade and some of the struggling math students are in the fifth. So where does that leave educators? If the only change that a school made was to give each child a SHORT math and reading assessment at school entry and to then tailor their reading and math instruction to those needs, we would see huge gains. One year a girl came to us in the fourth grade and she literally couldn't add two plus two. Because our program is individualized we were able to take her back to that level and she was able, for the first time in her life, to make slow but steady progress in math. When she finished her first math book her classmates clapped for her, and the self-confidence she gained was infinitely more valuable than the math skills she learned. I remember this when I walk through our classes, and I am so happy to see each individual child getting exactly what they need. 

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


Do you remember what it was like to be thirteen? This week at school is Academic Break Week for the middle and high school students, so I have had the opportunity to spend a lot of time with thirteen (actually 11 to 15) year olds. They are an incredible bunch of kids and I have so enjoyed hanging out with them, and it brings up a few things that I see over and over again with young teenagers. First of all, they are all struggling in some way. Even the straight "A" students with lots of friends and great extra-curricular activities are struggling with adolescence, even if from the outside their life looks perfect. Second, in order to navigate puberty everyone needs a few crucial things, like unconditional love and support from their parents and teachers. Though they sometimes act like adults, adolescents need us now more than ever. But they also need space. If you haven't had a teenager in your house yet here is a tip: when they slam their bedroom door in your face, walk away! (Trust me on this one). They also need to be challenged early and often. Chores, a heavy load of relevant academic work, and the responsibility to practice their instrument or sport keeps them busy doing positive things so that they don't have much time to dwell on the negative. I got an email from a friend yesterday whose child is in 7th grade at a local public school. She complained of gangs, drugs, and an almost exclusive focus on dating. In contrast, yesterday our kids baked cookies and walked down to a park to play soccer together, and the day before that we rode the bus to the Grove Park Inn to see the gingerbread houses.  The teens at my school don't have perfect lives. They stress about school work and dabble in dating, they get their feelings hurt, make mistakes, get angry, and make bad choices. But they are in an environment of empathy and support, where they call their teachers and principal by their first names (and maybe even follow her blog :).  When I was thirteen my parents were divorcing, and I relied almost exclusively on my friends for support. Thirty years later they are still my best friends. I hope these kids know that no matter what happens in their lives they can count on us, because no matter what, it is tough to be thirteen.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Had Any Bad Teachers Lately??

Good news today. I haven't had time to finish reading all the articles about Mr. Duncan but I do know this- he believes that school should be run like a business, and I agree.  He also believes that the key level of change at the school is the principal, and being one myself I KNOW that is true. At most schools you will hear parents say, "Well this year is great because my child got a good teacher, but last year was awful because he had a bad teacher..." If a school is structured properly, and run properly, "good" and "bad" teachers should never be an issue. There isn't any room for a "bad" teacher at my school. When a school is small, EVERY teacher must be top notch and as principal it is my job to make sure that every one of them is. But more importantly the structure of our school makes the CHILD the focus of the classroom, not the teacher. When children are given individualized work and are responsible for doing the work with the teacher's guidance, rather than the teacher at the board lecturing, you can imagine a completely different definition of  a "good" teacher emerging. Whenever a teacher presents a new topic to a classroom you have a similar situation. A third of the kids already know it, a third aren't ready to learn the new topic because they didn't get the last one, and maybe a third are actually willing and able to learn something new. Of course this model produces what two-thirds of the class would call a "bad" teacher. They are either bored or lost most of the time! Hopefully Arne Duncan has seen some of this first hand and hopefully he will be open to the suggestion that getting rid of "bad" teachers won't solve all of our educational problems.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Real Reform or Lip Service?

There is an interesting article today in the NYT about who President Elect Obama will choose as his Secretary of Education. The two choices represent the two camps of thought about educational reform in America. One camp is basically pro-teacher's union and advocates higher teacher pay and more and better credentials for teachers. The other camp is anti-teacher's union and wants higher standards, more standardized testing, and bad teachers to be fired. Unfortunately neither of these approaches will do anything to solve the educational crisis in our country. Two of the best teachers at my school didn't even go to college.  It isn't a degree or a credential that makes a great teacher. It is creativity, love of children, dedication, common sense, perseverance, a positive outlook, organization, follow-through,  I could go on and on. What American schools need is innovation. Innovation is not about credentials, it is about ideas. When Larry and Sergey were in their garage creating Google, did anyone ask for their degrees?  I don't think so. If our new president is serious about educating the citizens of tomorrow,  I have a few ideas for him. And they don't have anything to do with the teacher's union.

Billy Jonas Visits

Billy came to school on Friday to teach the kids a few songs that they will perform on stage with him at the concert on Sunday, December 21st at the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium for the Hands of Hope concert. When he asked us how many kids he would be teaching and we said sixty, he was a bit taken aback. "Well as long as there is a wall of teachers in the back..." To keep the peace of course, but it was totally unnecessary. Our kids, age 5-15 were all engaged and perfectly behaved. Afterward, Billy commented on it and stayed to talk to us about our school and our educational philosophy. The genuine interaction between our teens and our little kids, and the level of interest and enthusiasm from all ages were surprising to him. We have come to expect it. When you give children choice, have high expectations, and challenge them often, they rise to the occasion.  And rise they did. Even the normally snarky middle school students let down their guard after a few minutes and let themselves be affected by Billy's brand of positivism and spirituality. It was a joy to see, and the line of children afterward who stayed to share with Billy made me so proud. They told him what instrument they play or what their favorite song of his is. But the sweetest comment came from 7 year old Grace, who just like a little adult simply said, "I just wanted to thank you for coming." I couldn't have said it better myself. 

Thursday, December 11, 2008