Education needs to move away from culture of compliance

I recently read a book by Frederick Hess, entitled Commonsense School Reform, and so far my favorite quote from it is “…great schools are not legislated into existence… they require nuanced leadership that forges a sense of shared purpose, rewards creative thinking, and inspires excellence. Public policy cannot mandate great schools any more than it can mandate great leadership of great teaching; it can only make it easier or harder for great schools to exist.â€� But the reason that we have bureaucracies plaguing our educational institutions — that trickles down to our principals and our teachers — is because so many good recommendations get pushed through legislation without a clear, thoughtful strategy. So while states  mandate classroom sizes, teacher requirements, curricula standards, assessment test conditions, etc., all of these just add to the confusing patchwork quilt of “reforms” that are supposed to improve student outcomes. In reality, however, these perpetuate a culture of compliance! As Hess put so eloquently, “Compliance rewards obedience rather than excellence.”

Finland vs. USA
Finland vs. USA

I attended a discussion last week with Harvard Professor Tony Wagner, who presented his findings from his 10-day delve into Finland’s education system–Finland arguably has the best and highest performing education system in the world according to a set of international assessments that the OECD nations partake in (read more about it here and here)–and I was immediately struck by the subtle yet pervasive differences in their culture of education. Wagner kept bringing up that their education system’s foundation was built on a system of trust. State trusts that the districts will manage. Districts trust principals to lead their schools to the highest results. Principals trust teachers to teach effectively and to deliver results. Teachers trust students to be engaged in the classroom and to take responsibility for their education. The culture of trust not only trickles from top to bottom, but also throughout the Finnish society.

Americans, on the other hand, love to do assessments, and when those assessments aren’t stellar (as evidenced by any number of recent studies), we love to play the blame game: it was the teachers’ faults, the principals’, the districts’, the unions; it was because we did not have enough money/resources/support or not enough family involvement. If we are starting our education reform conversation by placing blame, we easily marginalize essential groups of people: teachers, principals, unions, families, schools of education. How can we expect everyone to be bought in to the recommendations and reforms in an environment that is so unsafe? We need to move away from our system of distrust and compliance, and start to cultivate a culture of trust. The question is… is that too un-American?

Waiting for “Waiting for Superman”

I love my classes so far, and I particularly am enjoying Education Policy, which is a course I’m taking at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (which we lovingly refer to as “HGSE,” pronounced HUGS-SEE). I feel like as I have been working in the youth development field, I have been working under many assumptions about our education system and how it is failing our students. Because of this class, I am actually getting a better understanding of the history of education in our country and I can pinpoint to some of the biggest and most pervasive issues that have caused and are still causing educational inequity.

And I wonder how our society will react to the upcoming alarmist (or what I assume will be alarmist) education documentary, “Waiting for ‘Superman“, which has gotten a lot of buzz recently. If you haven’t heard about it, you can view/read more here, here, and here. In short, this documentary has the potential to do for education reform what “An Inconvenient Truth” did for the Global Warming debate — stir up conversations and catalyze action. On a surface level this will be very positive for  the education reform movement, and I predict that it will galvanize our communities and nation toward the movement. However, I am worried that because there are so many policy issues and that the true societal issues run deeper than just education, we may be missing the point. “The gap between beliefs and actions not only leads to contention and confusion, it also generates policies that are irrational in the sense that they are inconsistent with evidence of what works or are not based on any evidence at all.” (Hochschild and Scovronick)

Will this latest reaction from the documentary just be the next short-term fad? How can we capture this impending moment and truly galvanize people toward fighting for long-term results? We keep talking about how institutions (healthcare, school districts, housing, employment, etc.) need to come in, support the issues, and fix the problem. I am starting to get more clarity around where and how reform can most effectively be made, and that seems to be at the local level. My hunch is that until we can reinvigorate the culture of under-resourced communities, we’ll just be pouring money into a black hole. In addition to partnering with these important institutions, we need to take a multi-pronged approach to empower the people that actually live in the communities: with consistent and high quality education for the youth, economic opportunities for employment/capital/venture funding for the adults, and healthcare and housing opportunities for all.

Shifting Education into the 21st Century

A few weeks ago, I listened in on a webinar entitled “Lessons from Abroad: International Standards and Assessments� presented by Stanford professor and renowned education researcher Linda Darling-Hammond (I also attended the Kerner Forum at Stanford a year ago where she was the keynote speaker). It’s been a busy few months since I came out of my sabbatical, and I’ve focused a lot on work and the efficacy of what we do, so I was interested to hear more about international education standards.

Overall the presentation was quite eye-opening, especially in regards to America’s archaic and sometimes obsessive focus on results, to the detriment of actual student learning. She points out that while most US standardized tests (think SAT, ACT, CAHSEE, ABCDEFG…) are designed to assess whether students learned what they were taught in school and focus on recall and recognition of facts, there are a set of international tests designed to assess if students can “apply what they’ve learned to new problems and situations, focusing on inquiry and explanations of ideas.�

How novel.

She goes on to mention how schooling evolved through the ages from “The School of the Church� in the middle ages to the Industrial Age’s emphasis on educating for discipline. It made sense back then because workers in factories and other industrialized functions required routine manual and cognitive behavior to be successful. But the demand for skills changed, especially over the last 20 years with rapid growth in technology, social and cultural contexts.

The education challenges today and in the future are to prepare motivated and self-reliant young people to analytically think and interact via multiple mediums.

Welcome to the Knowledge-based Society, kid.

So what can be done to take our slow and bureaucratic education system to the next level – to prepare our youth to be competitive for the knowledge-based society?

1) Improve the use of technology in schools – Remember your school’s computer lab? Get rid of it! I envision a future where students don’t have to go to a lab to access computers, where the technology is built into every classroom and seamlessly integrated into the learning experience. Imagine if teachers used technology to have real-time student assessments so that they can adjust their teaching techniques and styles as quickly as their students can text their classmate across the room.

2) Institute summers of service – Americans need to stop wasting summers! I don’t necessarily think we should have year-round schools, but I imagine a future where instead of wasting away at home playing video games, students are engaged in summer learning activities, like community service or entrepreneurial endeavors. Check out this cool start-up social venture that shows amazing promise for this initiative: Summer Advantage.

3) Invest in recruiting, retaining, and developing teachers – By strengthening the professionalism of the teaching force, teachers will not only get the training that they need to continuously grow, but teachers will also want to stay in their profession. There are interesting models out there that are experimenting with performance-based pay for teachers, most notably in Washington, DC and Singapore, and while I don’t know if that specific change will create the desired results, I do know that teacher compensation needs to rise to that of comparable civil servants.

4) Institute leadership training for principals and school leaders – Outstanding principals drive schools, teachers and students to achieve better results. School leadership is an important and sometimes misunderstood piece of the education puzzle. At a meeting with a principal at one of our partner schools recently, she constantly joked around about how tough her job was and how her marriage was at stake because of all of her responsibilities. Yet the culture and tone that the principal sets impacts the quality of instruction, the development of staff, and orderly administrative tasks. Because it can be lonely at the top, principals should routinely collaborate with colleagues and receive leadership training from seasoned coaches.

5) Implement assessments to inform investments & improvement rather than to deny diplomas and sanction schools – This last one is a Linda Darling-Hammond staple, as I have heard her say it at several events. Because of No Child Left Behind, American assessments are obsessed with results. “Assessment systems should support the learning of everyone in the system, from students and teachers to school organizations and state agencies.� School systems need to take back the power of assessments so that they can be used positively.

Anyway, there’s my end-of-the-year rant on the education system. Click here to read more about the Darling-Hammond’s webinar.

Which of the five improvements above do you think will be the most important for the next generation of education? Or do you have an idea for an improvement I didn’t mention?

Pushcart Classroom Earns Filipino CNN’s Hero of the Year Award

Pushcart Classroom
Pushcart Classroom

It’s not too often that I hear good news coming from the Philippines. But recently I was inspired by a story about a Filipino man who was awarded CNN’s Hero of the Year. Efren Peñaflorida grew up in poverty-stricken Cavite City near Manila. His experience growing up surrounded by gangs and violence inspired him to divert kids from similar situations. Eventually he and his friends started Dynamic Teen Company to reach out to slum kids by conducting classes on the streets using specially designed street pushcarts. His pushcarts, rather than holding food and other goods, held a chalkboard, books and other classroom supplies.

In this time of thanks giving, I’m reminded how fortunate Americans are. The state of our education system, albeit not perfect, is at least a democratic attempt at making sure all children are getting the education that they deserve.

Efren Peñaflorida reminds us, “We should all start the change from within. All of us, we should open our minds and hearts to accommodate to the needs of the less fortunate and release the hero within. We are all capable of contributing to our community and to our country.”

Read more about his story on HuffPost and Asian Journal.

On Becoming a New American Part 2

Tomorrow, February 11, at 3 pm I’ll be heading to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office to “appear for an interview on [my] Application for Naturalization” (aka take my test for American citizenship).

I can’t exactly put to words how I feel about this impending moment. Imagine patiently (and sometimes impatiently) waiting, wishing, wanting, praying for something to happen for 19 years.

Nineteen years I’ve waited for this moment.

Even though the test itself is going to be cake, I can’t help but feel this overwhelming sense of anxiousness, nervousness, sleeplessness, giddiness. I think about all of the bumps on the road that my family and I traversed to eventually lead me (to lead us) to this day, this test, this final formality, and my heart feels an overwhelming sense of desire to breathe a deep and ancient sigh of relief. Like I had been holding my breath for nineteen years, waiting for someone to pinch me and tell me that it wasn’t all a dream.

I feel eight years old again. Open, curious, excited, happy. And falling-over dizzy because I can finally see that the world is truly full of endless possibilities. There’s so much possibility and love that I can hardly take it all in.

My heart is full. Has been full for a few weeks or maybe months now (maybe even years?). I’m thankful for my beautiful family who endured the struggle, who never gave up, and who constantly teach me about the true meaning of family–now I can rightfully join you all! I’m thankful to my coaches, mentors, team, you know who you are–constantly pushing and challenging me to shine. I’m thankful for friends new and old, for walking with me and sometimes carrying me when all I wanted to do was slap you away.

When I walk into that sterile government office tomorrow, I’ll be bringing you all with me in my heart, mind, and soul, because you’ve always been with me.

Here’s to releasing, nay, exhaling the last 19 years and starting a brand new chapter–a chapter from an eight year-old boy’s dream, from a mother’s wish, and from a father’s determination.

Related Post: On Becoming a New American

Bill Gates Released Swarm of Mosquitoes on VIPs

Bill gives a talk on world health and education at this year’s TED conference! He says, “There’s no reason only poor people should have the experience [of malaria]” after he set the mosquitoes loose on the crowd of some of the world’s most prominent thinkers. Brilliant.

He then goes on to discuss his foundation’s focus on making great teachers: “Even though I was a college dropout, I had great teachers.”

“How do you make education better? Having great teachers was the key… If the entire US had top quartile teachers, the entire difference between us and Asia would be gone in a year. It’s simple, all we need is the top quartile teachers.”

But how do you shift the culture of teaching to focus on improvement and to be data-driven? Well watch his 20-minute TED talk here:

Creation of the Obama ’08 Logo

Obama Logo Design 1
Obama Logo Concept
Obama O Logo Lapel Pin
Obama "O" Logo Lapel Pin

I can hardly contain my excitement for Obama’s unprecedented campaign, historical win, and forward-thinking plans. I celebrated the big inauguration in Chicago, Obama’s “hometown,” after College Summit Rap Director training, which I will get to in a later post. And the city was awash in the the now-iconic “O” logo.

Watch the following videos of the creative process behind the brainstorming and eventual creation of the Obama ’08 logo from VSA Partners. The design strategy was so artfully done, and the impact is clear–as we all can see from the many “O” marks on paraphernalia ranging from bumper stickers to t-shirts and even tattoos.

Bill Gates Talks Successes & Failures in First Annual Letter

I feel like a Bill Gates fanboy. He’s one of the few public figures that I seem to continually bring up in my posts because I think so highly of his move from Microsoft to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation six months ago. When he first made the announcement that he had planned to do that, it was an acknowledgment to the entire world that we are facing extremely grave social problems, and that it was going to take commitment from talented people to solve those problems. And it was like a high five for the nonprofit sector. Thanks Billy.

Recently, Bill released a public letter about the foundation’s  efforts to improve education and global health, as well as the impact of the economic downturn on those efforts.

What I liked about the letter was Bill’s candid review of the foundation’s successes and failures, particularly in the education field. He discusses that even though they’ve made over $2 billion in grants to create better high schools over the last nine years, “Many of the small schools that we invested in did not improve students’ achievement in any significant way.” Rather than investing in existing schools to improve their systems, the foundation will focus on creating new schools out of radical charter school models that work, like KIPP, and invest in systems that will foster the creation of better teachers. He said, “If you want your child to get the best education possible, it is actually more important to get him assigned to a great teacher than to a great school.”


He also praised the Obama administration for committing to education despite the recession and dwindling tax revenues, as we saw with the education portion of the stimulus plan.

I also wanted to point out that the foundation’s website says “Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation BETA.”

Seriously? BETA? Come on… What’s up with this beta culture spreading to the nonprofit sector?

Check out the lengthy letter at this link or by clicking the pic above. If you don’t want to read all 20 pages of the letter, I’ve picked out a few choice excerpts from the U.S. Education page after the jump:
Continue reading Bill Gates Talks Successes & Failures in First Annual Letter

Are We Entering a New Era in Federal Education Spending?

 According to this New York Times article, “The economic stimulus plan that Congress has scheduled for a vote on Wednesday would shower the nation’s school districts, child care centers and university campuses with $150 billion in new federal spending, a vast two-year investment that would more than double the Department of Education’s current budget.”

The bill would increase 2009 fiscal year spending on Title I, a program of specialized classroom efforts to help educate poor children, to $20 billion from about $14.5 billion, and raise spending on education for disabled children to $17 billion from $11 billion.

Those increases respond to longtime demands by teachers unions, school boards and others that Washington fully finance the mandates laid out for states and districts in the Bush-era No Child Left Behind law, and in the main federal law regulating special education.

“We’ve been arguing that the federal government hasn’t been living up to its commitments, but these increases go a substantial way toward meeting them,� said Joel Packer, a lobbyist for the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union.

The federal stimulus plan’s implications on education are massive and will probably change the course of history for countless young Americans. I’m glad that we, as a nation, are starting to make education a high priority.

Click here to read the article at NYTimes.

Related Post: The State of the American Education System is a Disaster…