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Hope and despair in Waiting for Superman

Waiting for Superman reminded me of how lucky I am that by circumstance of birth and timing, I had access to a good public education and that I got tracked into the “academic” track as a 6th grader. It’s heartbreaking to watch parents who want their children to have more life options and get out of poverty facing few, if any choices, about the school for their child. And their option is winning the lottery or educating their child in a drop-out factory schools - even in suburbia lest you think we are exempted from this problem. Waiting for Superman is a new documentary from the people who made An Inconvenient Truth. Once again, the producers are trying to start a movement and a conversation about the American educational system. 

In this film publicity image released by Paramount Pictures, Geoffrey Canada, standing, is shown in a scene from, "Waiting for 'Superman'." (AP Photo/Paramount Pictures)I wasn’t expecting to like the movie. I was expecting it to vilify teachers’ unions (they don’t look very good in the movie) and I was expecting it to herald Charter Schools (they do come out looking good). I don't believe there is a single villain or savior to this problem.  Most charter schools do worse or no better than the public school alternative. Most countries outperforming us in education have strong teacher unions. 

That said, the film provokes dialogue about the state of our educational system.  

My main takeaways from the movie are these:

1. There are no excuses for a child not to receive a great education. 

Some of these charter schools are working in terrible neighborhoods where more than 30% of the students have no parent in the home supporting their education. And succeeding. How do we replicate that?

2. Only 20% of charter schools are exceeding the performance of the public schools in their area.

These schools need to be seen as successful test labs and their methods should be adopted quickly by the others. If not, failing charter schools and failing public schools lose funding.

3. We’re over-reliant on standardized test scores.

Those tests, which don’t evaluate the skills relevant to 21st century jobs, do show that students are learning to read and do math. Considering that the other schools do not achieve those minimal goals, the tests are demonstrating improvement in reading and math.

4. Tenure is not healthy.

My school doesn’t have a tenure system – employment is at will. Teachers are evaluated and coached regularly. How else would they improve? And everyone in every job needs to continuously improve, including teachers. We also have to treat our teachers with respect so that they want to continue teaching in our school.

5. Our system is designed for the graduate job outcomes of the 1950s.  

It was designed when only 20% of students who graduated were expected to go to college.  The rest went to factories, farms or office jobs.  Today, the economic prospects for people with high school degrees are so limited – and yet we have an educational system designed to send 20% of the students to college.  Colleges report that they have to remediate 50% of their freshmen students because they weren’t well prepared. One of the reasons I love Jewish day schools is that those schools (and the parents who send their children there) traditionally aim at 100% college enrollment without remediation.

Improving school choice will start to address the problem.  The best educators I know are very comfortable with accountability for the education of children – and I wouldn’t want a school or educator who isn’t. But we must be careful not to define accountability by performance on the current crop of standardized content tests that aren’t proven to measure anything other than test taking and test teaching.

The rest of the world – especially Finland – is showing that you can measure student progress and school effectiveness with meaningful assessments that demonstrate critical thinking, communication and creativity as well as content literacy. And in virtually every country outperforming us, they do have strong teacher's unions.  

The face remains that our children and our country are being left in the dust.

Parents need to educate ourselves on what constitutes a good education and it’s not as simple as a standardized test. We must understand the implications of student tracking, IQ testing and content cramming on the education of our children. Educators and policy makers must create assessments that measure what matters across schools so that we can have accountability. And then we must allow progressive educators to experiment. Do more of what works and less of what doesn’t. And spread those lessons far and wide to every school and every district. No excuses.

Start with pledging to see the movie and getting involved in the conversation. Personally, I think it is a matter of national security and our future. I’m thrilled to be involved in the pursuit of excellence in education at our school and sharing what we learn there with other schools.

What are you doing to pursue excellence in education?

Other articles on the movie:

CBS News: Waiting for Superman fuels debate over education

Why blaming the unions is counter-productive

Newsweek's Jonathan Alter on education reform under Obama


Academic excellence and our children's future - a talk with Dr. Tony Wagner

Are you thoughtful and demanding of education? I am. Imagine if you had access to the priorities of the hiring managers from Google, Cisco, Apple, Johnson & Johnson, US Army and more as well as admissions officers from top medical, law and business school to be certain your child was getting the education they'd need to compete in the marketplace as an adult.

Dr. Tony Wagner did that research and synthesized his findings in his book, The Global Achievement Gap, which is a must read for anybody who cares about K-12 education. 

Tony interviewed business and civic leaders around the world to ascertain what skills and attributes they needed from their workforce. His research demonstrates that US educational policy in the last 25 years is not generating a competitive citizenry that can grow the US economy in the 21st century. His book highlights the seven survival skills for success in the 21st century and the schools and programs innovating to ensure their graduates have at least the 4Cs and potentially the Seven Survival Skills.

According to all the leaders he interviewed, the 4 most critical survival skills are:

  • Critical thinking and problem solving – evidenced by students who ask really good questions
  • Collaboration – evidenced by students working together and leading by influence
  • Creativity, curiosity and imagination – the ability to develop many different possibilities, quickly
  • Communication – both oral and written communication

Tony has no doubt that K-8 education can develop these four critical survival skills in our students. My school's entire faculty committed this year to developing the assessments that enable us to track progress on these survival skills. They are committed to accountability in education – by measuring what matters and tracking our students’ and school’s progress.

It’s reasonable as you think about Academic Excellence to think about content literacy. In order to demonstrate mastery of any of these survival skills, students must be literate in facts – but no high school or college professor complains about students’ lack of content knowledge.  They know that students (and workers) today can access content in real-time from their laptop, iPad, phone. They report that students cannot write, organize their work, manage their time or set up study groups.

The remaining three survival skills are agility and adaptability, accessing and analyzing information, intiative and entrepreneurism. Do you observe your children learning these skills at their school?

The seven survival skills are built upon a solid social, emotional and ethical foundation. Qualities such as empathy, integrity, kindness, self-motivation and personal excellence are critical. Does your school and religious institution explain why these "qualities of the heart" matter?

How do you define academic excellence?  How do you measure attainment of it? Do the seven survival skills resonate with you? 

This post is an adaption of a Board Buzz post on the Wornick web site.



Back to School - how to know if your school is great

It's back to school season! This is the time-tested way we learn what our children will study for the year, meet and assess their teachers. Other than being a student myself, I really don't have any idea how to evaluate a teacher or a school.  And I don't think I'm a minority. 

A new movie with a ton of buzz, Waiting for Superman, is about the challenges facing disadvantaged children in getting into a good school - charter or otherwise. I'm looking forward to seeing it next week and I'll post a review. Here's Thomas Friedman's assessment. 

Elevated view of teacher assisting student with lesson (10-11)

I live in a privileged area - we have "excellent" public and private schools. How do I know? Actually, all I know is that we don't have bad schools because we have a high graduation rate and a high college matriculation rate. Apparently, test scores are high too. This constitutes "excellent" on a statistical basis. But statistics don't apply to individual cases and this definition doesn't really work for me.

What makes a school great?
  1. Small class sizes?
    Nice to have, but not really impactful except for the most disadvanged students.
  2. Cutting edge curriculum and technology?
    It's important for students to learn how to use technology, but differentiating teaching to match learning styles and students' different abilities is much more important.
  3. High standardized test scores?
    Pretty much predictive of nothing except test-teaching and community affluence. Doesn't predict academic success in college. Doesn't assess creativity, collaboration and communication needed for lifelong success. And the gov't is looking to evaluate teachers based on year on year test improvement.

What then? Great teachers. Every class.

The funny thing is that schools that have more than one or two great teachers seem to have a lot of great teachers. And great teachers - who differentiate instruction and materials to the needs of each child, focus on teaching them how to think and create rather than regurgitate - have a huge predictive impact on academic and personal success.

I think the secret is that schools with great teachers not only hire great potential teachers, but make their teachers great through professional development and assessment. They have a culture of excellence and a shared understanding of what constitutes excellence in teaching. In my professional realm, I continuously invest in my team's professional development, provide real-time feedback and do formal assessments every year.  At Wornick - our school, the teachers are participating in weekly learning circles, mentoring each other, assessing and supporting each other in the classroom and having formal evaluations twice a year. This is the impact of our new Head of School's commitment to excellence - she's building a system that creates, cultivates and retains great teachers. 

Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook announced a $100M grant to Newark schools to help improve outcomes for their students. Newark already spends twice as much per student as the national average ($24K) and has very low success educating its youth. It's an incredible gift. I hope Newark Mayor Cory Booker considers teacher development and assessment as a tool to radically impact all students.

Does your school invest in developing and evaluating it's teachers? Do your teachers have a culture of striving for continuous improvement and excellence?  If not, are you hoping that by luck your child will get a great teacher?



Are you T1D Aware? Type 1 Juvenile Diabetes

I'm very lucky - my children are basically very healthy and don't get injured very often in spite of their best attempts. We give thanks for this luck every day. In the discussions about helicopter parenting and "failure to launch" (as well as kindergarten redshirting) the focus is on the potential problems. It's important for parents to be aware of real problems - such as Juvenile Diabetes type 1.

This week is the start of a T1D Awareness campaign to help parents identify if their young child has signs of type 1 juvenile diabetes.  This type of diabetes doesn't have to do with diet or obesity and it can show in young children.  T1D is serious and potentially deadly, but manageable.  

From the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation - signs of type 1 diabetes include:

  • Urinating more
  • Often thirsty
  • Feeling tired
  • Losing weight

Clearly there is a difference between feeling tired after a long day of camp versus sustained tiredness. T1D can be detected with a blood test if you observe these symptoms in your child.  To learn more, visit the JDRF facebook page and please spread the word to increase awareness of this treatable condition.




Redshirting kindergarten and gaming the system

Sunday's New York Times, a forum on and pre-K parent conversations currently seem to revolve around the same question - are you starting or holding back your summer/fall child. The gist of the conversation is what is the decision parents can make that give their child an edge. How do you "game the system" is what I've read and heard. 

The real question is what are parents trying to do by trying to "game the system" at all. Some children are smarter, some are more athletic, some are sensitive, some are creative. There's no finish line and there's no guarantee of lifelong success and happiness. I value education tremendously as the gateway to life's possibilities - but my experience has been that the admissions criteria of some of our areas "top schools" for kindergarten are ill-informed and not supported by research. Here's an example - many top schools use aptitude testing on 4 year olds to determine academic ability and readiness. The problem - the IQ test, for example, has up to a 30 point average score change for the same child between ages 4 and 8 (see NurtureShock for the detailed research).So a high scoring 4 year old has the distinct possibility of being an average 8 year old. All you are testing at age 4 is the rate of maturity - and it basically balances out (early, average and late bloomers will be what they will be) by 3rd grade. And the behavioral tests to see if the child can "endure" kindergarten have also been proven to be misguided and non-predictive of later academic success - NurtureShock again.


Young Boy Learning About Science

The holding back phenomenon started with the self-esteem movement and the thought that children who are younger feel worse about themselves. That's been thoroughly debunked. Self-esteem doesn't have to do with age in kindergarten. The children who do better in kindergarten because they are older KNOW they are older than the other children. There's no self-esteem benefit from "beating" someone you should beat. Self-esteem comes from working hard towards a goal and accomplishing it - not coasting to it.  


The New York Times article quotes parents who are very concerned about the maturity span in each grade. As Dr. Jessica wrote on Friday, there needs to be a date when children MUST start school so that we can eliminate 18 month age spans. But even then, some children will physically mature before others and as parents, we have to figure out how to navigate that with our kids.  I suspect parents always did have to do that...

At the end of the day, parents need to stop worrying about getting into the "top" or most prestigious schools and look a bit longer term. Are the gradutes succeeding in middle school and high school? Are the parents committed to a well-rounded education that includes creative efforts, collaboration and critical thinking? Setting up our children on a "Race to Nowhere" (good movie - we're screening it at our school in early November) is the most likely path to burn them out.

We started our children true to grade at a progressive private school that doesn't believe in the testing I mentioned above for the reasons I mentioned above. Our graduates are independent thinkers, strong collaborators and campus leaders - and they genuinely love learning. That's about all I expect of the school - the rest of their success is up to them.  

What do you expect of your elementary school?