Diverse by Design: Episode 3 (Never Teach Alone)

Powerful learning is a relational act; it never occurs alone.

Why, then, do we expect our teacher to hone their craft in isolation?

In episode 3 of the six-part series, Diverse by Design, we meet two of Crosstown High’s inaugural class of teachers, and learn why they believe that co-teaching is the only way to go. So be prepared: their perspective may change the way you think about the future of learning — and what it will require.

The Most Famous Nursery Schools in the World — And What They Can Teach Us

Reggio Emilia, a mid-sized city that sits roughly halfway between Milan and Bologna, is not your grandmother’s Italy.

For starters, it’s more hardscrabble than picturesque — heavily graffitied, with streets and buildings that feel weathered and worn from everyday use. And although you’ll still find the charming clock tower, the cobblestone streets and the Renaissance-era churches in the city center, you’ll also find a city in which one out of five residents is not from Italy itself, but places as far-flung as Ghana and Nigeria, Morocco and Albania, Yemen and Syria.

It is, in short, a microcosm of the changing face of Italy, and of the wider world: nascent, uprooted, and precariously perched between worlds and worldviews.

Why, then, is it also the home to the finest nursery schools in the world?

Recently, I traveled there to find out — along with more than 300 other educators from around the world. We were part of an international study group, scores of which regularly visit Reggio’s integrated public system of more than eighty infant/toddler and early childhood centers to bear witness to what has been created here — and wonder how it can be replicated elsewher

Because Reggio schools don’t exist anywhere else in the world — the closest you’ll find are schools that say they’re “Reggio-inspired” — they’re not well known outside of progressive education circles. But for those that do know, a visit to Reggio is akin to a pilgrimage to Mecca. And after spending five days there, walking the city’s streets, listening to lectures, and visiting several of its schools, I can see why.

Reggio Emilia is a city of altars — to childhood, to imagination, and to the spirit of shared governance and democratic participation. It is magical, but not in a precious way; it is revolutionary, but only because it has had the time and space to evolve; and it is illustrative, but not because it is prescriptive or straight-forward. In Reggio, the whole is always more that the sum of its parts. There are no shortcuts. And yet the path is as clear as can be.

To understand why, you must first travel back to 1945, when, after four years of worldwide war and two decades of domestic terrorism, a group of local residents made an unexpected (and unintended) discovery: one tank, six horses, and three trucks that were left behind by fleeing Nazi troops.

After some discussion, it became clear that by selling what they had found, the townspeople could underwrite an initial investment in their post-war future, and begin to write a new history in the wake of all that had been lost.

The men wanted to build a cinema. The women, a school.

Fortunately, the women won, and within weeks, the construction was underway. A young man named Loris Malaguzzi heard what was happening, and hopped on his bicycle to see for himself. “There were piles of sand and bricks,” he recalled, “a wheelbarrow full of hammers, shovels and hoes. Behind a curtain made of rugs to shield them from the sun, two women were hammering the old mortar off the bricks.

“We’re not crazy!” they exclaimed, unprompted. “If you really want to see, come on Saturday or Sunday, when we’re all here. We’re really going to make this school!”

For Malaguzzi, an elementary school teacher in a nearby town who would in time become the ceremonial leader of the the Reggio network, it was a life-changing moment. “It forced everything back to the beginning. It opened up completely new horizons of thought. I sensed that it was a formidable lesson of humanity and culture, which would generate other extraordinary events. All we needed to do was to follow the same path.”

The bedrock of that path was illuminated by a disturbing wartime lesson about humanity. “Mussolini and the fascists made us understand that obedient human beings are dangerous human beings,” he explained. “When we decided to build a new society after the war we understood that we needed to have schools in which children dared to think for themselves, and where children got the conditions for becoming active and critical citizens.”

Consequently, after seven decades of tinkering and revision, what a visitor will see in Reggio’s schools today are a series of design choices and principles that run counter to the way most of the world does ‘school.’

The goal is not knowledge; it’s communication

In Reggio schools, all adults believe that all children have at their disposal a hundred different languages — and that typically, “the school steals ninety-nine.” By languages, these adults do not mean merely the use of words, but also clay, paper, color, joy, imagination — anything that can help a child communicate his or her inner thoughts with the people around them. “We have not correctly legitimized a culture of childhood,” says Lella Gandini, a longtime Reggio teacher, “and the consequences are seen in all our social, economic, and political choices and investments.”

To counter this, Reggio’s schools are relentlessly child-centered — not to achieve notable results in literacy and numeracy, but to achieve notable qualities of identity formation and to ensure that all children know how to belong to a community. “Our approach offers children the opportunity to realize their ideas are different and that they hold a unique point of view,” said Gandini. “At the same time, children realize that the world is multiple and that other children can be discovered through a negotiation of ideas. Instead of interacting only through feelings and a sense of friendship, they discover how satisfying it is to exchange ideas and thereby transform their environment.”

I know, I know. It sounds amazing, but how do you actually teach that? What’s the curriculum in a Reggio school?

The curriculum is not fixed; it’s emergent

By design, Reggio schools were created to protect children from what Malaguzzi called the ‘prophetic pedagogy,’ or an education built on predetermined knowledge that got delivered bit by bit — a format Malaguzzi felt was humiliating for both teachers and children because of the ways it denied their ingenuity and emergent potential.

Consequently, Reggio teachers have no predetermined curricula (as the behaviorists would like), but neither do they work as constant improvisers. Instead, every year each school delineates a series of related projects, some short-range and some long. These themes serve as the main structural supports, but then, as Malaguzzi says, “it is up to the children, the course of events, and the teachers to determine whether the building turns out to be a hut on stilts or an apartment house or whatever. The teachers follow the children, not plans.”

To see this in action is part of what makes Reggio so magical, and the central feature it requires is a very different notion on the part of adults as to what their central role is, and is not. In this sense, teachers (and there are two in every classroom) are not there to deliver content, but to activate the meaning-making competencies of all children. As Malaguzzi put it, “they must try to capture the right moments, and then find the right approaches, for bringing together, into a fruitful dialogue, their meanings and interpretations with those of the children.”

Context, in other words, matters more than content. And the physical environment, after adults and peers, is the third teacher.

The space is not ancillary; it’s exalted

This is why every Reggio schools feels like a collection of altars. Great care is given to the construction of space, and to the conditions into which children will explore their hundred languages. Intricate patterns of stones snake through an outdoor courtyard, inviting children to continue the pattern, or to begin a new one. A bright orange slide cuts through thick stalks of bamboo, just because. The art materials are ubiquitous, and organized, and easily accessible. And the boundary between inside and outside is always as permeable as possible.

Here, the light is always able to come in.

It’s why Malaguzzi called the physical environment the Third Teacher. And it’s what led the celebrated psychologist Jerome Bruner to take particular note of a group of four-year-old children who were projecting shadows onto a wall on the day of his visit. “The concentration was absolute, but even more surprising was the freedom of exchange in expressing their imaginative ideas about what was making the shadows so odd, why they got smaller and swelled up or, as one child asked: “How does a shadow get to be upside down?” The teacher behaved as respectfully as if she had been dealing with Nobel Prize winners. Everyone was thinking out loud: “What do you mean by upside down?” asked another child.

“Here we were not dealing with individual imaginations working separately,” Bruner concluded. “We were collectively involved in what is probably the most human thing about human beings, what psychologists and primate experts now like to call ‘intersubjectivity,’ which means arriving at a mutual understanding of what others have in mind. It is probably the extreme flowering of our evolution as humanoids, without which our human culture could not have developed, and without which all our intentional attempts at teaching something would fail.”


The community is not apart; it’s integral

That sense of intersubjectivity is everywhere in Reggio Emilia; it is, in fact, the clearest measure of the school’s longitudinal success. As former mayor Graziano Delrio put it, “We in Reggio Emilia believe that we should manage our cities with the objective of building an equal community, acting for the common good of citizens to guarantee equal dignity and equal rights. We assert the right of children to education from birth. The child is therefore a competent citizen. He or she is competent in assuming responsibility for the city. I often quote this statement by John Adams, the second president of the United States: “Public happiness exists where citizens can take part responsibly for public good and public life. Everywhere, there are men, women, children, whether old or young, rich or poor, tall or short, wise or foolish . . . everyone is highly motivated by a desire of being seen, heard, considered, approved and respected by the people around him and known by him.”

Indeed, the success of Reggio schools would not have been sustained without meaningful partnership and support from its elected leaders. Today, almost 20% of the city’s budget goes towards its early childhood education programs. There is no neighborhood more desirable than another because of the schools; the system has equity throughout. Parents are integral to the success of each school, and play an active role in shared governance. And the spirit of civic participation here, in a city founded by the Romans in the second century B.C., and in a community that can trace its collectivist tendencies back to the craft guilds and communal republics of the medieval 14th century, is what led a mayor of an Industrial city in Northern Italy to proclaim that the infant-toddler centers are “public common spaces where the multitudes aim to become a community of people growing together with a strong sense of the future, a strong idea of participation, of living together, of taking care, one for others. The school expresses the society through which it is generated, but school is also able to generate a new society.”

The bedrock is not love; it’s respect

Finally, this.

It is easy to imagine that all we need to do is love children more, or give them more space, and the rest will take care of itself. But what I witnessed in Reggio was less a case of adults loving children — though surely, they did. Instead, what I witnessed was a level of listening, attention, and care that came from an unwavering belief that all children, even the newest among us, are social beings, predisposed, and possessing from birth a readiness to make significant ties with others, to communicate, and to find one’s place in the world of others.

“We think of school for young children as an integral living organism,” said Malaguzzi, “as a place of shared lives and relationships among many adults and many children. We think of school as a sort of construction in motion, continuously adjusting itself. Either a school is capable of continually transforming itself in response to children, or the school becomes something that goes around and around, remaining in the same spot.”

This is the path. These are the ingredients. But none of it is possible until, as the great theorist David Hawkins once said, we realize that “the more magic gift is not love, but respect for others as ends in themselves, as actual and potential artisans of their own learnings and doings, of their own lives, and thus uniquely contributing, in turn, to their learnings and doings.

“Respect for the young is not a passive, hands-off attitude. It invites our own offering of resources. It moves us toward the furtherance of their lives and thus, even, at times, toward remonstrance or intervention. Respect resembles love in its implicit aim of furtherance, but love without respect can blind and bind. Love is private and unbidden, whereas respect is implicit in all moral relations with others. Adults involved in the world of man and nature must bring that world with them to children, bounded and made safe to be sure, but not thereby losing its richness and promise of novelty.”


To learn more about the Reggio Children Foundation, and/or to register for an International Study Group, visit https://www.reggiochildren.it/?lang=en

The Age of the Individual is Upon Us

One year, early in my teaching career, I got reprimanded for giving too many “A’s.”

“You can’t give everyone the same grade,” I was instructed. “Give a few A’s and F’s, and a lot of B’s and C’s. Otherwise, everyone will know that your class is either too easy or too hard.”

This was unremarkable advice; indeed, it was as close to the educational Gospel as you could find. It was human nature in action.

And, apparently, it was completely wrong.

“We have all come to believe that the average is a reliable index of normality,” writes Todd Rose, a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and the author of The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness. “We have also come to believe that an individual’s rank on narrow metrics of achievement can be used to judge their talent. These two ideas serve as the organizing principles behind our current system of education.”

And yet, Rose suggests, “when it comes to understanding individuals, the average is most likely to give incorrect and misleading results.”

In fact, the origins of what Rose calls “averagarian thinking” had nothing to do with people; they were adaptations of a core method in astronomy — the Method of Averages, in which you aggregate different measurements of the speed of an object to better determine its true value — that first got applied to the study of people in the early 19th century.

Since then, however, this misguided use of statistics — by definition, the mathematics of “static” values — has reduced the whims and caprices of human behavior to predictable patterns in ways that have proven almost impossible to resist.

Consider the ways it shaped the advice I got as a teacher, which was to let the Bell Curve, not the uniqueness of my students, be my guide. Or consider the ways it has shaped the entire system of American public education in the Industrial Era — an influence best summed up by one of its chief architects, Frederick Winslow Taylor, whose applications of scientific management to the classroom gave birth to everything from bells to age-based cohorts to the industrial efficiency of the typical school lunchroom. “In the past,” Taylor said, “the man was first. In the future, the system must be first.”

Uh, yeah. No.

Of course, anyone who is paying attention knows that the end of the Taylorian line of thinking is upon us — and Rose’s book is but one of the many factors that will expedite its demise. “We are on the brink of a new way of seeing the world,” he predicts, and “a change driven by one big idea: individuality matters.”

In systems thinking, there’s a word for this approach: equifinality — or the idea that in any multidimensional system that involves changes over time, there are always multiple pathways to get from point A to point B. And the good news is that this revolution in thinking is already underway – it’s not just evenly distributed.

The bad news is that most of us have no idea that a revolution is occurring. Instead, we are stuck in the familiar notion that most American schools are failing, that the problems are too big to tackle, and that our slow and steady decline into, well, averagarianism, is inexorable.

I am here to tell you this is not true.

We know more than we think we do.

We are further along than we think we are.

And so, in the coming months – approximately every ten days for the foreseeable future – expect a new story that is about solutions, possibility, and the people and communities whose work is lighting that new path.

The Age of the Individual is upon us.


The Beautiful Struggle

I’ve yet to meet a grown-up who, at some point, hasn’t felt a bit like a hamster in the wheel – spinning mindlessly towards some opaque goal, and for some abstract, poorly understood reason.

Life can feel that way sometimes.

So you can imagine my surprise when, while visiting a small public high school in the Excelsior neighborhood of San Francisco, I encountered a group of boys working on an indeterminate project out of plywood and a handsaw.

“What are you guys doing?” I asked.

“We’re building a human-sized hamster wheel,” they replied.

Of course they were.

That’s because they were students at the June Jordan School for Equity (JJSE), where the goal of every adult is to help every young person see the world for what it is – and what it needs to become.

To do that work well, say co-directors Matt Alexander and Jessica Huang, a school must help children make sense of the world they inhabit. “This school was explicitly founded to be a force for social justice,” Huang explained, “and to do so for the kids in our city with the greatest need for it. We’re a college prep school, but our primary concern is not getting kids into college; it’s putting them in a position to have good options, and helping them see the both the oppressive aspects of our society, and the ways to make it better.

“The only way to get off the wheel,” she added, “is to realize you’re on it.”

Since its founding by a group of local parents and families in 2004, JJSE has resided in the same single-story building at the Southern edge of San Francisco, in a neighborhood that doesn’t even make it on to the tourist map.

For Excelsior’s longtime residents, the anonymity has been a good thing. Since its inception in the mid-19th century, Excelsior (which means “ever upward” in Latin) has been a refuge for working class families. Yet as median home prices continue to soar in San Francisco – and space remains finite – Excelsior is starting to gentrify, a development I heard about repeatedly during my time at the school.

“We’ve lost several of our strongest teachers in the past few years because they just couldn’t afford to stay in the city,” said Giulio Sorro, himself a longtime teacher at the school, and, like his colleagues, someone who embodies the best of the profession. “With more middle-class white parents moving in, we’re starting to hear new voices that see our black and brown kids not as assets but as deficits to their own kids. That’s going to change things. It’s already changing things.”

It may seem like the gentrification of a San Francisco neighborhood is a storyline that runs parallel to the lifeblood of a school that is trying to help its students become the first in their families to go to college, but at June Jordan, those sorts of incongruities are in fact the river running through the center of the school’s entire approach to learning.

The first hint of this occurs the moment you arrive, as I did on a recent sunny morning. The school, which shares space with a larger charter school, is surrounded by a ring of trees and greenspaces. Hillsides littered with houses, like favelas, poke up in the distance.

You must enter through a parking lot in the back, which is lined by a procession of graffiti. A particularly striking one near the school’s front doors, in colorful purple and a highly stylized script, quotes Martin Luther King to reinforce the spirit of the place:

Peace is not the absence of conflict, but the presence of justice.


At first blush, the inside of the school feels familiar: wide hallways lined with lockers, low ceilings, and hastily-tacked up posters for next week’s afterschool meeting or upcoming dance. Yet one thing, for a high school at least – let alone a high school serving young people whose lives have been disproportionately clouded by trauma and adversity – feels decidedly unfamiliar: the ubiquity of laughter and levity.

I asked Sorro about that, just before the start of his 9th grade Health class. “We have to redefine education,” he said while his students filed in around us. “What are we here for? Is it to compete with China and India? Is it to get into college? I don’t think it should be about those things.

“I believe good teaching is good teaching anywhere, but there’s a whole other mind-state here. Young people of color, coming from oppressed communities in America, it is set up for these kids not to make it – you can see it.”

In response, June Jordan’s diverse team of founders crafted a mission for the school that was designed to help young people of color “make it” in three key ways: as Community Members who live with respect, integrity, courage and humility; as Social Justice Warriors who stand against oppression and work to create positive change in themselves and their communities; and as Independent Thinkers who possess the intellectual skills they need to succeed.

There are other essential design principles. June Jordan is a small school – just 250 students. Students are assessed not by taking standardized tests, but by presenting detailed portfolios of their work. Teachers teach subjects, but their most important job is to integrate the school’s six habits of mind (perspective, relevance, original research, precision, evidence, and logical reasoning) into the curriculum. Every student has a personal advisor for all four years. And every member of the community – from students to parents to staff – has a meaningful, accountable voice that shapes the overall health and wellbeing of the school.

“Too often,” explained Mr. Alexander, who, like Ms. Huang, was a teacher at the school before becoming its co-director, “everyone in schools is driven by the spirit of compliance, or the idea that there is someone external to the school who needs to come in and turn it around. It’s the mindset of your job being to fix something, or to do something to people instead of building capacity or doing the work with people.

“But if you really believe in democracy,” he continued, “and you really believe that everyone has equal dignity and worth, then you have to build everyone’s capacity and let everyone be their best selves. The accountability has to go that way, too – our primary accountability is to one another, not to the state or to test scores. Our main job is to build that capacity and to recognize that everyone comes with strengths and abilities. But you have to create the space for people to develop that – and it’s really hard.”

I asked Alexander and Huang how the school went about doing that.

They talked about schema theory.

“We know from the research,” Huang began, “that your brain builds schemas, or organized patterns of thinking, in order to understand your environment. We’re hard-wired to look for patterns; it’s what kept us alive thousands of years ago. So everyone is doing this, all the time, and when it comes to education, we have an eerily consistent set of schemas we have all called on for generations. So the bulk of what we do is construct a new counter-narrative that helps kids see the invisible layer of schema that has held us all unnaturally in place for so long – from institutionalized racism, to inherited feelings about what a math class can and cannot be, to internalized notions of inferiority. This helps them start to figure out how to disrupt those patterns, and imagine a different set of possibilities.”

To make this more actionable, the school has developed a pedagogy that encodes what teachers like Sorro are setting out to do. Indeed, over years of work retreats, trial and error, and sustained, challenging, collegial revisions, June Jordan’s faculty and staff have articulated an approach that is, in their words, “expressly designed to help our students understand the forces of marginalization they have experienced growing up, and begin the process of freeing themselves from oppression, especially the internalized oppression which we see preventing so many students from meeting their potential.”

The physical manifestations of this are ubiquitous at the school – from a clear set of preferred teacher behaviors to the classrooms themselves, which feel like bursts of color and texture and collage, and in which probing academic and personal work is always in some vital stage of unfolding.

In one class, for example, students were using the facts from a real case to play out a scenario about sexual harassment and the creation of a hostile work environment. In another, a group was strategizing how best to show their support for students at another school that had recently experienced a widely publicized racist incident. And in Sorro’s classroom, each person was asked to briefly share one thing they did over Spring Break that had benefitted their health – and one thing that hadn’t.

“I went to Pismo Beach to drive ATVs,” said one young man, innocently enough.

“And why was that good for your health?” Sorro asked.

The answer he received was a reminder that part of the reason the school culture feels so light is because the burdens their students carry feel so heavy. “I have a lot of anxiety,” he explained, “and I have a real rage in me; sometimes going really fast is the only thing that can make me feel better.”

Later, after several other intense and highly personal recollections from the previous week, Sorro asked the group, “Is it always good spending time with family?”

“Family can be poison sometimes,” said one student. Sorro nodded calmly. Throughout the class, his demeanor stayed constant; he did not over-react to the highly charged stories, or under-react to the quotidian ones. “In my teaching I try to go to the depth and the heart of it all,” he explained. “You have to put it all out there. I believe in going to the pain – and to the love.”

That duality – the intellectual and the emotional, the pain and the love, the heavy and the light – is what makes June Jordan such a different place to go to school.

“We try to create space for real collegial accountability,” Huang explained towards the end of the day. “We have real honest conversations here about the things that matter to us. But that’s taken years to build – years to build.

“What it means now is that if you have an idea, you understand that it’s your land to work here. That’s an Emiliano Zapata line: ‘The land belongs to those who work it.’ No one is going to do it for you.”

I reflected on her words as I walked the hallways of the school, which were blanketed by quotes, murals, and personal reflections.

Written across an upraised fist above a doorway were the words of Shirley Chisholm: “You don’t make progress by standing on the sidelines, whimpering and complaining. You make progress by implementing ideas.”

Down another hallway, just past a mural honoring two former students who were shot to death, I saw a sign telling me: “Healing doesn’t mean the damage never existed. It means the damage no longer controls our lives.”

And then, just outside a classroom, I found the JJSE Secrets Wall, where all members of the community were invited to anonymously post a secret (no matter how silly or somber) – and, in so doing, perhaps feel less burdened by its weight.

I don’t like myself.

I smoke weed.

I tried to kill myself.

Depression rules my life.

I feel like my parents won’t be proud of me when I’m older.

I can’t live without my Playstation!

I grew up around drugs, police, and losing family.

It felt jarring to see such naked admissions posted so publicly, and in such an otherwise-traditional looking place. But that is precisely what makes the June Jordan School for Equity so special. Spend time here, and you will feel the dialectical pull of the world as it is, awash in both beauty and heartbreak; and the world as it ought to be – empathetic and equitable, devoid of the mindless churn of the human-sized hamster wheel, and reoriented around a different sort of body in motion: the wheel of democracy, which, though it grinds slowly, propels us steadily toward justice, and the society we seek.







As Fifty States Reimagine Education Policy, Four Are Ready to Offer Guidance

What makes a mind come alive?

How can one community impact every child?

What do schools need to be changing from, and to?

And how can states set the conditions for lasting change?

In theory, these questions have always mattered. In reality, they are about to matter a lot more now that the United States Congress is poised to reauthorize its central education policy for the first time in thirteen years – and usher in an era of state authority on everything from school accountability to teacher education policies.

Now that the balance of power is shifting back towards the states, what should they do with it?

That’s the riddle of the moment – and it’s one the Innovation Lab Network (ILN) has been trying to solve for years.

A network of states that work collaboratively to transform their respective school systems, the ILN includes several members that are fostering meaningful, systems-level changes in their states. And now the ILN is ready to share some of the insights of that work – by way of four short films and a website of related resources – in the hope that other states will parlay their newfound autonomy into decisions that can lead to, as the ILN puts it, the “Next State of Learning.”

In New Hampshire, for example, state officials have done away with the Carnegie Unit – the form of credit which, beginning in 1909, made time, not learning, the key metric by which high schools nationwide would measure student performance. In its place they’ve established a core set of competencies that all graduates need to develop in order to graduate – and they’ve allowed students to demonstrate mastery of those competencies in a number of ways: via a school course, an internship, or a course of independent study. In addition, eight districts are experimenting with a way to assess student learning that relies less on standardized tests, and more on locally developed performance tasks.

According to Ellen Hume-Howard, a longtime educator in the state and the Curriculum Director for the Sanborn School District, what’s driving all of these state-level changes is an observation that many would find self-evident: “One of the things that has been really fascinating for me around what’s happening in New Hampshire is that so much of it is what classrooms teachers have thought we should have been doing for quite a long time. It’s really driven by common sense: If we’re serious about putting students at the center of what we do, then we need to change a lot of the things that have been in existence for a long time. There are simply a lot of practices that no longer fit.”

They’ve reached the same conclusion in Maine, where legislators have stipulated that by 2017, all graduates will be assessed by specific, demonstrable skills– not time-based determinants of credit. For educators like Derek Pierce, the principal of Casco Bay High School in Portland, that has made all the difference. “Schools are getting better at breaking down the walls and recognizing that the world is where we need to do our learning,” he said. “In Portland we’re super fortunate to have a lot of support from our local school board and our district, and even the state in the kinds of practices that we’re doing.

“We’re not fighting against the tide to support kids to have a more personalized path to reaching their goals.  The state of Maine supports proficiency-based work, and it’s helped to have legislation that supports our values – it strengthens our standing in the community to know that we’re not just making this stuff up.”

In Colorado, there are examples like the St. Vrain School District, which decided several years ago to remake its entire feeder system into one that could provide high-quality STEM training to its students – the majority of who are low-income and Latino. When they decided that training needed to continue after graduation – by way of a program called P-TECH that lets graduates complete a two-year associate’s degree for free – they approached their legislators for help.

It sounds strange – educators approaching their legislators for help. But according to Gretchen Morgan, the Colorado Department of Education’s Interim Associate Commissioner of Innovation, Choice, & Engagement (and a former teacher and school principal), that’s the sort of arrangement more states should be preparing to follow. “I think our role at the department isn’t necessarily to seek specific legislation. But we are in a unique position to know who’s doing things in different parts of the state. And so, being able to bring them together so they can learn and build momentum is our role; it’s to help facilitate those conversations.

“What happened in St. Vrain is a good example,” Morgan continued. “There was a district doing some really good work around STEM. They had found some great partners to work with. And they wanted to have P-TECH legislation passed that could enable them to partner in stronger ways and set up a high school with some very specific characteristics. Because we knew they were working on that, we tried to put them in places to talk with other people who had similar interests. And now we have a pathway for those kids that can extend beyond their high school graduations.”

And then there’s Wisconsin, a state whose highly partisan political climate makes the passage of legislation particularly challenging. How, then, have they been able to establish themselves as a leader in the push to make learning more personalized for every student?

Part of the answer comes from an innovative approach to governance: twelve cooperative educational service agencies (CESAs), independent of the state, that exist solely to help local districts coordinate services and receive the type of professional learning their educators feel is most important towards advancing their professional practice. According to Jim Rickabaugh, the head of the CESA in Southeastern Wisconsin, “If the things we offer districts are not the things that they want and need, we will cease to exist; it’s all fee for service. That means we have a clear role to play, and part of it is connecting local districts to the state in ways that make everyone feel they are less driven by compliance, and more by a need to generate deeper levels of commitment among learners, educators, and the communities they serve.”

This sort of culture is evident in places like the Waukesha School District, where a number of schools have begun providing alternative approaches to teaching and learning. As Assistant Superintendent Ryan Krohn puts it, “The primary function of education over the last 150 years was to efficiently deliver instruction. Well, the function has changed. The function is now to ensure high levels of learning for all, but the designs are still about efficient instruction. So we need to come up with a set of designs that match that, and here in Waukesha, we’re starting to see examples of redesigned systems that ensure high levels of learning for all students by flipping the script and providing students with the ownership of this work.

Look across those four states and the work they have undertaken, and you start to see some patterns: a clear emphasis on local engagement and authority; compelling examples of district-level innovation and change; an “urgently patient” approach to systems change; and a clear understanding that if public education is going to be reimagined for a changing world, young people – their strengths, their passions, and their own unique paths to proficiency – must be placed at the center.

How this new era of school reform unfolds remains to be seen. But it’s notable that a move to make learning more personalized and restore local authority in decision-making has already generated strong bipartisan appeal.

Perhaps, then, the ILN’s question is the right one to be asking: In this post-NCLB policy climate, where will the Next State(s) of Learning emerge?


This is why we need to take teacher salaries seriously

It comes courtesy of my friends at the Teacher Salary Project (on whose advisory board I sit). And it should make all of us embarrassed and unsatisfied.

Kory is a full-time public school teacher in San Francisco. She’s also a mom struggling to pay her bills, which means that in her spare time she drives a car for Lyft.

There are a lot of teachers like Kory, which should constitute its own national crisis.

Hire a Czar.

Call in the National Guard.

Declare a state of emergency.

And yet . . .

Consider this: if teacher pay had risen in proportion to per-pupil spending since 1970, the average teacher would make more than $120,000 today. Yet today the average starting salary for teachers in our country is $39,000.

The average ending salary—after 25 years in the profession? $67,000.

And here’s the thing: this is not a difficult problem to solve — it all comes down to what we value. Outgoing education secretary Arne Duncan said as much last week, when, as part of a larger condemnation of our racist adult imprisonment and student disciplinary policies, Duncan proposed the following:

If our states and localities took just half the people convicted of nonviolent crimes and found paths for them other than incarceration, they would save upwards of $15 billion a year. If they reinvested that money into paying the teachers who are working in our highest-need schools and communities—they could provide a 50 percent average salary increase to every single one of them. Specifically, if you focused on the 20 percent of schools with the highest poverty rates in each state, that would give you 17,640 schools—and the money would go far enough to increase salaries by at least 50 percent.

That sounds like killing two birds with one stone to me, but it still doesn’t address teachers like Kory.

Where would the money for those raises come from? Take a look at this pie chart, which shows where our discretionary spending is allocated, and see if you can come up with any ideas:


2016 campaign issue, anyone?

Who is willing to make this issue their own?

And what might an educational-industrial complex actually engender?

How can we ensure better teacher quality?

I’m a big fan of the New York Times’ Room for Debate series, in which a central question is asked of five different folks.

Today, the question was about how to ensure and improve teacher quality. And although they didn’t ask me, here’s what I would have said:

The problem — and the solution — has to do with the way teachers are currently trained and prepared for the classroom. Most teacher preparation programs, whether they’re public universities or private organizations, still act as though what matters most is subject expertise and behavioral management skills.  Those things do matter, of course, yet most of the new teachers I know have said they felt unprepared for the actual challenges of the classroom, and for understanding how to meet the myriad needs of her students. As a result, it’s typical to hear stories of young teachers spending late nights reading books or searching for resources online – a result of the sizable disconnect between our theories and their realities.

The amount of turnover most schools endure is also anathema to the establishment of a healthy, sustainable culture. Take the two schools I spent a year observing for my most recent book, Our School. Bancroft Elementary lost an average of 25% of its faculty every year, and Mundo Verde’s inaugural staff was almost entirely made up of first- or second-year teachers. More significantly, by the time Our School was released, only one of the four teachers I wrote about – Mundo Verde’s Berenice Pernalete – was still teaching at the same school. Rebecca Lebowitz is now in Boston, getting her PhD; Molly Howard is there now, too, helping set up the elementary school program for a charter school in the Expeditionary Learning network; and Rebecca Schmidt is now working at a non-profit in D.C. It’s encouraging that all four of these talented women still work in education – and it’s notable that the reason three of them left their previous posts was because each felt it had become impossible to do the job effectively and sustainably. And no wonder, when one considers that teachers today are being asked to customize their instruction for every individual child, and do so with minimal experience or relevant training. “If you are a student in an American classroom today,” writes Celine Coggins, founder and CEO of Teach Plus, “the odds that you will be assigned to an inexperienced teacher are higher than they have ever been. In fact, right now there are more first-year teachers in American classrooms than teachers at any other experience level.”

The response to this “capacity gap” is not to stop hiring the young teachers or keep employing the old ones, but to start ensuring that all teachers can diagnose and meet the developmental needs of every child. And the good news is there are already valuable models we can look to as our guides.

Take America’s medical schools. As any M.D. knows, different schools have different strengths and weaknesses. But one thing every medical school shares is the belief that a strong medical training is built on a dual foundation of two courses: anatomy and physiology.

In education, no similar consensus exists. Worse still, most programs give short shrift to the two most important things a teacher needs to know: how children learn, and how they develop.

Think about that for a second. Our country’s teacher training programs, by and large, pay little attention to how well prospective teachers understand the emotional and developmental needs of the children they propose to teach. But there’s nothing preventing teacher-training programs from adapting the Medical School model – as Yale University’s James Comer has suggested – and establishing a similar two-course foundation for all prospective educators: Developmental Sciences, which would give teachers a foundation in the cognitive, social, emotional, ethical, physical, and linguistic needs of children; and Learning Sciences, which would give teachers a solid foundation in understanding how people learn.

Meanwhile, to better support the millions of teachers who are already in classrooms across the country, we must craft evaluation programs that honor the art and science of teaching. One of the few things all sides seem to agree on is that teacher evaluation systems are in need of an extreme makeover; for too long, they’ve been little more than pro forma stamps of approval, and they’ve done little to nothing to help teachers get better.

In too many places, however, efforts are underway to craft systems that disregard the art of teaching in favor of the (misunderstood) science of measurement. These sorts of systems are more about pushing people out than lifting them up, and they continue to act as though the intellectual growth of students (and a narrow definition of it at that) is the preeminent measure of an effective teacher.

We should blow them all up and start over.

A prerequisite of any evaluation system should be its capacity to help teachers improve the quality of their professional practice via shared, strategic inquiry into what is and isn’t working for children in their classrooms. These new systems shouldn’t be afraid of quantitative reports, just as they shouldn’t devalue qualitative measures. And they should assess teachers by their effectiveness to support children across the entire developmental continuum.

There are several illustrative efforts underway. If you’re a policymaker, take a close look at what they’re doing in Montgomery County, Maryland, where a program called Peer Assistance Review, or PAR, uses senior teachers to mentor both newcomers and struggling veterans. And if you’re a teacher, consider getting certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (nbpts.org), a teacher-run organization that uses a performance-based, multiple-measure, peer-reviewed process to identify and acknowledge the definitive standards of accomplished teaching and the process by which the profession can certify whether or not a teacher meets those standards.

It will always be true, in teaching and in the natural world, that not everything can be measured, just as it’s true that there are ways to measure aspects of teaching and learning that go a lot deeper than basic-skills test scores. The challenge is to find the balance between the elusive but evergreen art of teaching, and the emerging but illustrative science of the brain.

We can do both. And we can start immediately.

In Trying to Reduce Class Sizes, Are We Trying to Solve the Wrong Problem?

Are smaller class sizes the key to breathing new life into today’s public schools, or a misguided effort to solve the problems of a dying era?

I am surprised to say I have come to believe it’s the latter.

First, let’s be clear: the arguments for reducing class size are well known, and have a well-established research base. As Leonie Haimson, the founding executive director of the New York-based Class Size Matters, has said: “There is robust research showing that smaller classes lead to fewer disciplinary disruptions as well as higher student achievement and engagement – in fact it is one of the few education reforms that has such robust research behind it and a multitude of proven benefits.” In one notable study from Tennessee, for example, which included 79 elementary schools and the random assignment of nearly 12,000 students, results showed that whereas all children in small classes did better on test scores, the gains for minorities were roughly twice that of white children, dramatically reducing the achievement gap.

Why is it that smaller class sizes lead to everything from higher test scores to lower disciplinary referrals? As Great Schools explains to prospective parents on its website, it’s “because there is a greater opportunity for individual interaction between student and teacher in a small class.” And as a similarly impressive set of research studies have shown, high-quality, high-trust relationships between adults and children are the foundation from which everything else in a healthy school must grow.

Another compelling argument for smaller class sizes comes from analyzing the current state of play in K-12 education. After all, it’s one thing to work in a school or system that prioritizes holistic child development and growth; it’s another to work towards that goal amidst a larger system in which child development is less valued than, say, higher test scores in reading and math. In the former, everything a teacher does or wants to do flows downstream, and is aided by the supportive currents of well-crafted policies. And in the latter, everything a teacher values most can only come from struggling against the current, and finding success through subversive practices.

In such a context, appealing for smaller class sizes is logical and important, and, in the short-term, it makes good sense.

If you take a longer view, however, there’s a subtle underlying assumption of both the research and the advocacy for smaller classes – and it’s one that unintentionally reinforces our fidelity to the Industrial-era model of schooling.

Think of it this way: if a teacher is at the front of the classroom, imparting a lesson to everyone, the only way he can do that in a more personal way is if there are less students in the room. And if a teacher is charged with corralling the individual attention and energy of a roomful of students, his efforts to impose discipline and order will only be aided by having less bodies to manage.

But what if we viewed school with a different set of guiding assumptions? What if, for example, the default mode of instruction didn’t depend on the transmission of knowledge via a single lesson? What if the philosophy of learning was that children should learn from one another as much or more than from any adult? And what if the model of discipline was not based on restricting a child’s movements, but on unleashing them?

In fact, these are the theoretical underpinnings of Maria Montessori, whose theories of child development have informed the creation of more than 22,000 schools around the world – and who, based on a set of assumptions about teaching and learning that diverged sharply from the Industrial-era transmission model, actually preferred larger class sizes, not smaller ones.

In her classic book The Absorbent Mind, Montessori, who was trained as a scientist and whose theories of learning were continually revised and revisited based on her direct observations of children, explained her rationale this way: “When the classes are fairly big, differences of character show themselves more clearly, and wider experience can be gained. With small classes this is less easy.”

The University of Virginia’s Angeline Lillard, a professor of psychology who has studied the extent to which Montessori’s century-old theories have been affirmed by 21st-century research, unpacks Montessori’s preference for large class sizes a bit further. “She believed that when there are not enough other children in the classroom, there are not enough different kinds of work out for children to learn sufficiently from watching each other work, nor are there enough personalities with whom children can practice their social interaction skills.”

“In traditional settings” in which class sizes are reduced, Lillard explains, “when one person is teaching the whole class simultaneously, that person would have more attention to devote to each child, and fewer children would conceivably allow for better teaching.” By contrast, “when children are learning from materials and each other, having more varied possible tutors and tutees, a greater variety of people to collaborate with, and more different types of work out (inspiring one to do such work oneself) might be more beneficial.”

In other words, smaller class sizes help increase the likelihood of better relationships, but they do so via a theory of teaching that no longer serves our purposes. Montessori schools (and schools like them) also create ample space for relational bonds to develop, but they do so via a theory of teaching that is aligned with what we now know about how people learn.

What should we expect in either case? A deeper investment in non-cognitive skills like persistence, motivation, and self-esteem; fewer disciplinary referrals; higher graduation rates; and greater levels of engagement and well-being.

The difference is this: whereas both approaches will improve our capacity to do all of the above in the short-term, only one requires us to radically alter the long-held assumptions we hold about teaching and learning. So let’s keep pushing for smaller class size – but let’s also start explicitly acknowledging its short-term value, and simultaneously demanding a wholesale revision of how we think about, evaluate, and define adult roles and responsibilities in our nation’s schools.

(This article also appeared in Huffington Post.)