The DeHavilland Blog

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Why does high school fail so many?

Really interesting article in the LA Times a couple of days ago ("Why does high school fail so many?"). They highlight some of the macro issues facing high schools and accent them with personal stories from students.

There are a host of things in this article that could raise your eyebrows, like the fact that we still can't even agree on a definition of "dropout": in the school profiled by the LAT, a team at UCLA put the graduation rate at 48%, while the district maintained that it was 80%, with just 3.5% classified as dropouts.

But what was really interesting, and also prominent in the article, is the fact that we've moved toward a college-or-nothing approach to K12 education.

In the earlier part of the 20th century, we had a "tracking" system, which meant that some people were deemed college material, and directed towards courses that helped them prepare for college, while some (perhaps most?) were put on a vocational track. Today, our stated belief is that every child should be college-ready upon graduation.

Now, I chafe at the thought of people who don't really know our children making life decisions for them like this. But I also think that a college-or-nothing approach is fraught with huge problems. I think one of three things can happen: either you do in fact graduate ready for college (whether you end up attending or not); you drop out (and national dropout statistics indicate that 30% of kids choose this option); or you slip by with a wink and a nod, not ready for college but passed through by a system that either overlooks your shortcomings (social promotion, etc.) or lowers the standards enough that "college ready" students are not in fact ready for college. This third option can be seen in the remedial classes that so many freshmen are now having to take once they get on campus.

So what's the answer? Is there a way to offer more paths through high school, including strong and valid vocational options, without tracking kids? Are kids able to self-track - is it fair to ask them in 8th grade whether they want to go to college? Or can you build a system whereby kids are able to explore their options and given a clear understanding of what each option requires and what it means?

I don't have the answer - but I do know that in a college-or-nothing system, most of the kids are going to end up with nothing.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Are kids not as capable as they used to be?

According to an article in the UK's Guardian newspaper, recent research indicates that kids are developmentally 2-3 years behind where they were only 15 years ago. From the article:
New research funded by the Economic and
Social Research Council (ESRC) and conducted by Michael Shayer, professor of
applied psychology at King's College, University of London, concludes that 11-
and 12-year-old children in year 7 are "now on average between two and three
years behind where they were 15 years ago", in terms of cognitive and conceptual

"It's a staggering result," admits
Shayer, whose findings will be published next year in the British Journal of
Educational Psychology. "Before the project started, I rather expected to find
that children had improved developmentally. This would have been in line with
the Flynn effect on intelligence tests, which shows that children's IQ levels
improve at such a steady rate that the norm of 100 has to be recalibrated every
15 years or so. But the figures just don't lie. We had a sample of over 10,000
children and the results have been checked, rechecked and peer

This study was only designed to measure progress, and not uncover causes. However, Dr. Shayer offers some thoughts:
"We can speculate," he says, "but there's no
hard evidence. I would suggest that the most likely reasons are the lack of
experiential play in primary schools, and the growth of a video-game, TV
culture. Both take away the kind of hands-on play that allows kids to experience
how the world works in practice and to make informed judgments about abstract

This is a potential new factor in the education reform equation: what if the kids just aren't as capable as they used to be?

Parental responsibility has always been the third rail in the education debates - what if this is a parenting issue, assuming Shayer is right about TV and video games being a likely culprit? Who's got the guts to take parents to task, and will parents, who are also affected by our culture of immediate gratification, be willing to take the hard path of turning off the TV and the PlayStation in favor of spending time outdoors?

And how does a need for experiential play align with high-stakes testing starting in the 3rd grade?

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Should foundations share their data?

Interesting commentary in Education Week this week titled "Come Clean on Small Schools." The author, a professor in NYC, takes the Gates Foundation to task for failing to share its data (or, more accurately, only doing so after it was leaked) on the value of its signature small schools initiative.

This is an interesting question: if a foundation wants to help improve the education system and invests in specific initiatives, does it have an obligation to share data on its efforts? It is a private entity investing its own money, after all - certainly it legally has the right to keep its data confidential.

I could also understand a for-profit company not releasing data on its pilot efforts. If I'm testing a new product or program, and the data shows that my approach isn't valid, I'd consider that as internal R&D data - I won't launch the product or program, but I wouldn't be inclined to share information on my failure, primarily for competitive and branding reasons.

But if your goal is to improve education from an altruistic perspective, wouldn't you want to share as much information on your progress - for better or worse - to allow other people to learn from your investment? If a foundation believes in the value of small schools, invests in pilot efforts, and doesn't see any impact, isn't its best contribution to the field its ability to take the high road and say "we believe in the idea of small schools, but the approach we took didn't work - scratch that approach off the list, education community, and don't throw any more money down that rabbit hole."

That foundation can still explore the value of small schools - perhaps there are better ways to implement, perhaps they weren't capturing information on the areas in which the model was making a positive impact. (Perhaps the impact is not on immediate test scores, but rather in areas such as attendance, graduation rates, sense of community.....).

I'd love to see data sharing, particularly on the part of foundations, go into overdrive - demonstrating what doesn't work ultimately serves education as much as showing what does work.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Interesting education stats

Education Week has a great Harpers-style list of education statistics here - fascinating reading.

Thanks the Christian at Think:lab for highlighting it!

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Six management fallacies for the future

David Batstone has a great post at Right Reality about the changing nature of the organization. He's come up with six fallacies that highlight the change from a command-and-control model to a network model. He lists the following fallacies:
  • Fallacy #1: Management must focus on the internal operations of the enterprise.
  • Fallacy #2: Geography defines the ecology of the enterprise
  • Fallacy #3: Technology drives business operations
  • Fallacy #4: Hire for specialized knowledge
  • Fallacy #5: Performance management is most effective when it rewards individual effort
  • Fallacy #6 Employees who demonstrate exceptional competency should be groomed as future leaders.
You'll need to visit his post to see the complete text, which includes his description of the "next reality" in each case - well worth reading. Also worth considering against the model and approach of contemporary education systems - I suspect there's a lot of truth here for anyone involved in formal schooling.

Monday, January 16, 2006

No parent left behind?

As I finish reading "Is there a public for public schools" (almost finished, btw - will complete my book report soon), I came across a relevant commentary in Education Week by Denis Doyle and William Slotnik titled "Leave No Parent Behind."

They highlight some underreported components of NCLB, specifically those intended to give parents actionable information on their childrens' education. From the commentary:

The No Child Left Behind Act holds school districts accountable for meeting high
standards of student achievement and engaging the parent community.
Specifically, it provides parents with unprecedented rights to gain access to
student and school performance data and teacher-quality information. Parents
also are given options to act when schools are underperforming. Simply put, the
educational law of the land provides new opportunities and responsibilities to
involve parents as rightful partners in school and district improvement.

Well worth reading - happy to have found it as I wrap up the Mathews book.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Plain talk is good talk

Just got an edition of Smartbrief today with this quote from David Ogilvy:

If you're trying to persuade people to do something, or buy something, it seems
to me you should use their language, the language they use every day, and the
language in which they think. We try to write in the vernacular.

I wonder how many members of the public understand terms like pedagogy, differentiated instruction, and the like? And I wonder how many education professionals use this kind of jargon when talking to them?

I like big words as much as the next guy, but when you're trying to communicate with someone, you've got to speak their language. Just some food for thought...

Is there a public for public schools?

I’ve just gotten about halfway through a fascinating book by David Mathews, President of the Kettering Foundation and Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare in the Ford Administration (back in the days before Education became its own department). This book, “Is there a public for public schools?” (definitely worth buying - click here to order it from the foundation), examines an issue mostly overlooked in the education reform debate: what is the role of the community in education?

He provides some needed history on the growth of our schools, discussing how schools were originally run by communities who effectively owned the schools – NOT “felt ownership”, but actually had a powerful voice in schools. This ownership meant that schools were truly community enterprises – even those who didn’t have children in schools played an active role in determining what was taught and also in implementing instruction.

Schools began to break apart from their communities in the closing decades of the 19th century, when “scientific management” methods began to spread. This trend towards specialization meant that community members began to feel unqualified to run their schools, and instead felt the need to bring in education administrators trained in scientific techniques. Unfortunately, as communities began to delegate responsibility for decisions about their schools, two things happened: first, communities became less engaged; and second, this new class of education administrators followed the course of any scientific profession. They began to develop their own thinking, their own jargon, etc. – their own community, in effect – and discouraged input from those (ie, the communities) that didn’t know as much as them.

This trend snowballed of course, and Mathews describes today’s environment as one where the public pays lip service to its commitment to schools, when in reality they feel disengaged and unwelcome, and would prefer not to have their children subjected to a system they feel is not only unresponsive but manifestly unsafe and ineffective. He sees education today as driven by battles between special interests groups, and the lack of interest and involvement by communities means that any top-down reforms enacted by these warring factions will not succeed.

He doesn’t see any of this as malicious: nobody is out to destroy our kids. In fact, all parties are trying to do what they believe is right for education. But in the end, it's clear that the community has been effectively shut out of education, except for specific opportunities dictated by the schools (primarily when funds and manpower are needed – certainly not in areas with substantive input), and when you deprive someone of input, they don't feel any connection or obligation to resulting output.

He highlights the disparity in thinking between schools and communities with the results of a 1992 survey which state that nearly 60% of Americans thought that parents and other members of the community should have more say in allocating funds and deciding the curriculum, compared with only 15% of administrators and 26% of teachers who felt this way. Later in the book he goes on to say:

Efforts to involve citizens, though well intentioned and sincere, sometimes
unwittingly treat the public as a means to ends that educators have in mind. In
talking to people about public participation, I realized that some see this as a
technique whose effectiveness is judged by how well it helps schools reach their
objectives. The public schools really are the public’s schools, and the public’s
involvement is not by sufferance of the educational authorities. Citizens belong
in the schools’ hallways because they are their hallways. If they are given the
impression that they are welcome to participate only if they can do something
that educators think worthwhile, this puts the cart before the horse (i.e.,
treats citizens as means) and disconnects the public from the

The public is not a means to the ends
of educators, and people know it. They react adversely to many of the techniques
used to involve them; though educators intend to empower, people feel
manipulated. For example, the common practice of having the community discuss
its needs, on the assumption that this will make people feel “involved” – while
consultants and staff members develop curricular reforms based on long-held
professional preferences – gives people the sense that educators are
experimenting with their children and not listening to what they are saying.
Researchers say practices like this have created a “legacy of

More on this as I make it further through the book – but already I’m thrilled to find someone talking about an incredibly important, and too often overlooked, component of education reform. It helps me consider the failure of many reform initiatives in a new light, and also better understand one of the pillars of the success of some new school models (such as the Big Picture Schools which require parents to co-apply, in effect, with their students, and utilizes community engagement, such as internships, as a fundamental component of the learning process).

I hope this book has a happy ending…

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Doing more with less

There was an interesting article in the Baltimore Sun by Andrew Rotherham of Education Sector on January 4 about the mistaken idea that we'll be able to keep increasing funding to public education like we have in the past.

He notes that from 1970 to today, we have increased spending on education from $3500 to $8000 per student (those numbers are inflation-adjusted), but that we will realistically not be able to continue increasing spending for three reasons:

1) Demographic Changes. Our population is getting older: in 1995, 13% of the population was over 65, and by 2030, that will grow to 20%. Not only will that reduce tax inflows, it will also raise costs to federal and state governments as they cover their obligations for social security, medicare, and other entitlement programs. What's more, this older population will not have a stake in education, making bond issuances and other sources of public money harder to come by.

2) Policy Decisions. Even in this time of large deficits, and even as the fiscal crunch referenced above looms large, tax cuts and low taxes are very popular, which severely limits the ability to increase state and federal money going to public education.

3) Political Shifts. Persistent achievement gaps, coupled with the poor conditions and performance of many urban schools, are causing some minority parents to look outside the traditional Democrat/teachers union bloc for political options. This, according to Rotherham, has the potential to shatter the political coalition that has supported greater funding for public schools.

I've heard from many others about the impact that demographic and political trends are going to have on education in the future, and Rotherham offers a concise summary in this article. Whatever the solutions, they better not require more money...

PS - Note that Rotherham is also the force behind
EduWonk - one of the best edublogs around.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Nine common-sense lessons from business

While attending the US Chamber’s Business Education Network Summit in October, I heard several people calling for business to share its expertise with education in areas such as change management, data analysis, and scaling successful initiatives. This makes sense: because businesses live or die by how efficiently they operate, one can look to the experiences of successful companies and take away meaningful insights. However, having observed education for a number of years, it occurs to me that education may be in need of some more fundamental lessons from business than the ones discussed at the summit. The following is a good starter list, but is by no means complete.

More hours in equals more work out. If Susan puts in more hours at the office than Bob, odds are that Susan’s going to accomplish more and move up the ladder faster. Yet at a time when our schools are dropping in international rankings, we’re putting in less time than schools in other countries (an average of 180 days, versus the international average of 201). Why is summer break an inviolate right? How many of our students are still farming and need to be off during the summer? Let’s put summer back on the table – heck, like the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) schools, let’s even put Saturday on the table – and put in the time needed to boost learning.

Work during work hours. Why have we not aligned the school day with that of the business world? Shifting the school day to traditional business hours makes sense not only to give students more of the rest they need (research has shown that a lack of sleep has a detrimental effect on school performance), but also to reduce childcare issues for parents. Does anyone think it’s a good idea to have a six-year-old waking up at 5:30am to get to the bus stop by 6:30am every day? Or to have kids get out of school at 3pm when their parents can’t leave work before 5pm? A simple time-shift solves a host of issues for students and their families.

What gets measured, gets done. Salespeople have sales quotas; production managers must produce a certain volume of product without exceeding defect rates. In fact, just about every job has certain measurable aspects that allow people to be evaluated. NCLB may be far from perfect, but the fact that it’s forcing us to be accountable – both for success in reading and math, and even more importantly for the success of all children thanks to the requirement for disaggregated data – is a critical step forward towards better outcomes. Let’s drop the debate over whether we measure and start focusing on what and how we measure.

Listen to your customers. Education’s job is to instill in children the skills and knowledge they’ll need to become productive workers and citizens. The people who receive these children – the universities, businesses, and communities they’ll soon join – are our customers (they also happen to pay the bills). Education can take a page from marketing departments everywhere and determine what kind of “product” these customers want from us: what makes a good college student? What makes a good employee? What makes a good voter? What makes a good neighbor? And let’s put that information front and center as we rethink the education we’re giving our kids.

Give people the tools to do the job. Technology has transformed almost every industry, and it would be difficult to find successful professionals working under the conditions to which we subject our students. Can you imagine four businesspeople sharing a single computer (the desired ratio for students, according to the federal government)? Can you imagine severely restricting the internet access of today’s knowledge workers, or of limiting their computer use to drill-and-kill applications? Almost forty years ago, Marshall McLuhan talked about the disconnect between the immediate and in-depth world our students live in outside the classroom, compared to the world students see inside the classroom, where information is broken out of its context and doled out in metered amounts. It’s hard to appreciate what schools offer when you have total and immediate access to information and technology once you’re gone.

Set clear expectations. In business, expectations are normally clear: do these things, and fulfill your job requirements; do these additional things and you may move up the ladder. In education, it’s a bit more complicated. After reviewing the standards of several states, for example, Achieve Inc. discovered that successful completion of the standards will still not ensure that a student is ready for college. Think about that: you do everything they tell you to do, and then you find that you’re not ready to move up the ladder. It’s unfair to employees or to students, and it needs to be fixed.

Empower your people. Employees work best when they’re doing something they enjoy, at which they feel skilled, and which they believe is relevant. For students, it’s not hard to allow them to explore the things they enjoy and in which they’re talented – self-study, or at least self-selected projects, are relatively simple to implement and assess. In terms of relevance, students can make a difference by doing work that helps a community of their choosing, either local or interest-based. You’ll get the same level of loyalty and engagement out of students as you get from workers who feel capable of making a contribution and then making it.

Pay for talent. Companies know that you have to pay more to attract good talent. While education may be different in some ways – there are plenty of examples of great, passionate teachers who stay in education despite the pay – there are also plenty of examples of great teachers who simply can’t afford to stay in education, and as a result leave for higher-paying jobs in private industry. (This is particularly true in high-need areas like science, math, and technology.) And this doesn’t include the teachers who have to moonlight or work summers in order to supplement their incomes, when that time could be spent educating their students had those teachers been able to make a living wage. It’s time to reward good teachers and pay them a competitive wage.

Give people the skills they need to succeed. Companies institute training programs to impart skills that will help employees do their jobs better. If the job of our kids is to be prepared to join the world as workers and citizens, shouldn’t we be spending more time on the life skills that will mean the difference between success and failure when they’re on their own? More than one million people declare bankruptcy every year, and the national savings rate is close to zero – yet it’s rare to find financial education of any consequence in our schools. We have the distinction of being the world’s first overcommunicated society, according to marketing consultant Al Reis, bombarded by hundreds of marketing messages every day – yet efforts to bring media literacy into our schools have had limited success at best, and lag far behind other industrialized nations. It’s time to start focusing on the skills that will allow our students to live in contemporary society.

These all seem to be common-sense suggestions. I can only hope that the increasing participation of business in education will not only bring advanced lessons, such as those of change management and the like, but also that it will allow education to take a fresh look at its assumptions and feel the freedom to act on them wherever it’s in the best interests of students, teachers, and the stakeholders that benefit from our education system.