Monday, January 03, 2011

We've Got Good Test Scores, Now What?

Michael Goldstein's blog, while often exasperating, is the most candid view I've found into the mind of the thoughtful side of "no excuses" school reform. Today he features a long email from Spencer Blasdale, former leader of the Academy of the Pacific Rim charter school:

I took another look at Lemov’s book last night. I was struck by the notion that kids can pay attention for “age + 2.”

That means that a 12 year old 7th grader has a 14 minute attention span. That, in turn, means that you have to pace your 60 minute lesson in quick chunks.

If they are to succeed in college, however, students need to be able to concentrate for long periods of time and persist with difficult texts (and math problems and artistic challenges).

What no excuses school is creating this type of environment and these types of demands on students? Few, if any.

What can I learn from my own kids?

My first and third grade daughters are in a Montessori school. They have a three hour work period in which they are expected to concentrate on challenging tasks ranging from Mad Minutes and silent reading to writing an autobiography or an essay about three stories that they have read. The skill of persisting through challenging work is taught in different disciplines.

They can each talk about a “great work” that they are producing. My first grader is in love with writing stories. My third grader is trying to solve “the longest long division problem in the world,” for example.

If this independent school for upper middle class students had a “student attention metric” it might look like “age x 5” instead of “age +2.” That is, a 10-year-old could focus for 50 minutes, not 12 minutes.

What does this mean for no excuses teaching and schools?

What I typically see in no excuses schools is that less than 10% of teachers are able to get kids to think, persist, create, express, evaluate, etc.

There are a number of things you can take from this and the whole piece. First off, pointing out posts like this is probably a good way to convince people to not be so candid. Second, it is still hard for me to believe people really send their kids to Montessori schools and run "no excuses" schools for other people's children, but there it is. Of course they do. And their friends send their kids to suburban International Baccalaureate charters and private schools. Third, perhaps the only hope for high school reform is to just sit around and wait until these people re-learn, what, the lessons of the '60's? At this rate they might get there in 10 more years.

The problem though is that Common Core and other current initiatives will tend to lock in the "status quo" and forestall such "innovation." Let's review, for example, IB's definition of "international education:"

  • Developing citizens of the world in relation to culture, language and learning to live together
  • Building and reinforcing students' sense of identity and cultural awareness
  • Fostering students' recognition and development of universal human values
  • Stimulating curiosity and inquiry in order to foster a spirit of discovery and enjoyment of learning
  • Equipping students with the skills to learn and acquire knowledge, individually or collaboratively, and to apply these skills and knowledge accordingly across a broad range of areas
  • Providing international content while responding to local requirements and interests
  • Encouraging diversity and flexibility in teaching methods
  • Providing appropriate forms of assessment and international benchmarking

Common Core, Race to the Top, etc., takes us further from that vision, not closer.

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