The following is a set of random thoughts that have collected over the past year, month, or so.  I wanted to gather my thoughts back up after a busy year and hope to pursue these topics more completely during the coming year.

Because time is always short, I want to make my posts go more quickly and I may not always reference my sources properly.  You will find many of them in my new .info site (linked at the top of this blog) where you will also find the list of news and blog sources I follow (I’m a Feedly fiend).  Follow them yourself if you’re interested in tracking the zeitgeist of public education as I try to.

Here goes:

  1. Budgeting challenges will not cease in 2012.  Act I will not go away, however ill-conceived it is.  Unending state budget cuts will likely continue as Pennsylvania opts out of its responsibility to education and shifts its support toward moving public dollars to private enterprises that in turn fund political campaigns.  This transfer will drive more burden to homeowners, since PA has yet to develop a method for funding schools other than through the predominant use of property taxes.
  2. Educational Technology (or EdTech) will continue to improve.  eLearning or Blended Learning or Open Educational Resources (OERs) like MIT and Stanford are democratizing education through multiple alternative educational resources (online and offline) and permitting new paths for teachers to be used as highly experienced guides rather than the sole fountain of knowledge in the classroom.  In addition, new technology is being created that can help develop students’ communication, collaboration, creative,  and critical-thinking skills.  This isn’t going away.
  3. STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education took a pause in the past decade or two.  Something about not being cool to be smart has left us with a gap in STEM graduates to propel our economy.  This situation has to end.  If iPads and Twitter are cool, then STEM is cool and we have to promote STEM education for every child to pursue it in their own way.  Even gardeners and auto mechanics need to understand the science behind their work to reach their full potential.
  4. Better student engagement is continuing, often embracing them and their learning through technology, but also by supporting educational engagement through more self- or group-directed project-, problem-,  and inquiry-based learning approaches.  But technology is not the only way that students engage with their learning environment.  Technology is just a new way and one that we need to understand both for privacy and security reasons as well as the social and educational impacts.   PBL and IBL approaches are being explored by many districts so there will be more to report here.
  5. Results Only Learning Environments (ROLEs) sprang up in 2011 after Daniel Pink’s book, Drive, described Results Only Work Environments where employees were given a much freer rein to perform while being held accountable for the results or outcomes.  A number of prominent companies are embracing this approach with success.  In ROLEs, engaging students and giving them the freedom to learn in their own way while remaining focused on outcomes that reflect deep understanding of the material (critical thinking, too) could be a new design for education.  There are already teachers out there willing to experiment with this approach.
  6. I look forward to seeing the expansion of programs to provide mentoring for all students to give our them the benefits of our incredibly diverse community — diverse in education and career choices.  We can help our students network better and get into the best schools for their interests and career aspirations.  In this way, I believe we can also provide support for alternative career paths, remembering that all careers require critical thinking and analytical skills to be successful.
  7. I’m hoping for the end of narrow assessments in reading and math as the benchmarks for a quality education.  NCLB wasn’t wrong in its intent, but in practice it has damaged our educational system and we need to drop back and rethink how we both raise achievement AND support broad skill development in less measurable but often far more valuable skills of creative, critical, and collaborative thinking.  I think our teachers should lead the way.
  8. I’m tired of Michelle Rhee’s teacher bashing.  We need more support for teachers with less presumption that they need constant oversight and externally imposed scrutiny.  Teachers are not the problem.  They are the solution.  They are professionals.  Let’s engage them in a dialog on how to improve education and the teaching profession.  “Working” in our schools should be engaging and inspiring and there is little that can’t be discussed to get us there.  Also, teaching is a team sport, and we need to support that approach where possible.
  9. School climate affects learning.  We need to continue our efforts to end bullying and cyberbullying between and amongst students and teachers.  For both privacy and legal reasons (boards sit as judge and jury on some disputes), it’s tough for board members to know how much of a problem this is, but that doesn’t mean we don’t support measures to evaluate, understand, improve, promote a healthy school climate.
  10. Vouchers will continue to be wrongly seen as a savior when, in fact, they do nothing to improve student achievement, do not provide the magical opportunity to urban schools that they are believed to, and only serve to take public funds out of the public school system handing it to private interests.  (The Atlantic Monthly just published an article noting that Finland has no private schools.)  The public effectively killed the voucher idea in 2011.  2012 will not be easy, but I’m hearing that political races might remove the topic from discussion.  Let’s hope so, and let’s hope that the profiteers that benefit from goofy charter school funding rules will continue to be exposed and held accountable.
  11.  On that note, private and charter schools will probably continue to be unaccountable for the large sums handed to them.  The situation in Chester Upland, where a charter school is suing an already beaten-down district, is horrific, but the situation is a symptom of wrong-headed ideas on education funding, including cuts to our weakest school districts.  The horror is that we’re affecting a group of students and condemning them to a life without the best skills and insights we can give them.  We all lose here, folks.
  12.  I just heard about a new “open campus” concept where students can cross district lines to pursue special courses.  Under such a concept, Cheltenham could be a provider of certain programs (like the arts) while neighboring districts could play to their strengths, possibly optimizing costs.  Interesting idea requiring much more analysis.
  13. We’ll continue the terrific progress of rebuilding and renovating our district.  We can’t be a first class district with third class schools.  We simply can’t afford the money it takes to maintain them.  Our new schools are bringing the best and most economical solutions to building design and to learning spaces.  I firmly believe we’ll see improved student performance as these new schools come on line.
  14. For folks who fear the number 13, have no fear.

So these are just some of the topics I will continue to monitor and discuss.  Comments and suggestions are always welcomed.

Overall, I believe our schools are terrific.  Our teachers are terrific.  Our community supports strong, diverse, creative, and cost-effective public education for all of our students.  The budget situation is tough, but this is a great time to be on the Cheltenham School Board.

Have a wonderful year!

Almost from the start of my term on the Board, I have struggled with how to understand value and affordability metrics in education.  As an engineer, I’ve been taught to analyze any system for its structure of performance, feedback, and control.  This is the essence of any accountability system.

Of course, the difference is that schools are not machines and students are not widgets that we can mass-produce, but they are systems.  Both schools and students are vastly more complex than machines, so we should not hope than any simple system of metrics can adequately guide us with feedback or control, as they might with more simple systems.  This is why we have to be very cautious about using the PISA and NAEP reports, interesting though they may be, to guide our perspective on the full range of services and courses that we offer at our schools.  Producing quality adults requires a much broader set of experiences than can be measured by the simple math and language arts testing that is currently done, and we certainly cannot limit or guide funding based on a desire to generate high performance in only those subjects.

One major challenge is: how do we measure a quality educational experience, one that produces a productive, creative, and engaged population; and thus how do we get credit for and be accountable for providing the kind of education that produces that population.  And this accountability applies to everyone in the system, not just a subset, say, of teachers.

Given that we are, today, driven by these few metrics, another challenge is: how do we embed broader knowledge exposure into these core courses so that students have the full enrichment needed to appreciate a subject and the bigger picture.  I have begun to see research and implementation of project-based learning as a way to do exactly this.  I’m encouraged by the new ideas and have supported examinations of project learning in our local discussions.

From what I’ve learned in just the last year, school districts are under intense pressure to cut costs for all but the “most essential” courses and services.  But who makes these decisions and how do we decide what is most essential?  Today, it is often the state legislature with little input from district leadership or teachers.

Please don’t misunderstand me.  As an engineer, I’m a big fan of math, science, and technology education, so-called STEM education, but one obvious casualty of our laser focus on math and language arts has been our fading offerings in the arts and humanities across the nation.  While we are required by state laws to offer certain courses outside of math and language arts, cost constraints are placing great pressure to do only the bare minimum to meet those requirements and to focus much of our effort on performance on a only a few metrics.  This is just wrong with potential serious consequences.

Our democracy and, indeed, our humanity is dependent on the maximization of population with knowledge across a broad array of subjects.  Only then can we hope to benefit from the diversity of perspective that will enable us to continue to solve our greatest cultural and scientific challenges.  We have to find a way to make offering a broad range of courses part of the the economically incentivised accountability, feedback, and control systems.

I’ll close with two recent articles that highlight the importance of supporting the humanities and encouraging students to “go beyond the core”.  While costs are always a factor, I believe we cannot let the economics tied to using a narrow set of metrics drive the humanity out of education.

“Don’t underestimate value of a liberal arts education”, Professor Victor Hanson, Hoover Institution, Stanford University

Minnesota program encourages 8th graders to “go beyond the core” in selecting their high school courses. 

I welcome your perspective on this subject.