Sunday, October 30, 2016

Getting students active outside of the classroom

Here is a link I was fortunate to have published on the Varkey Foundation blog. It deals with having as a teaching goal to get each student to try something, no matter how big or small, outside of the classroom, and not as a grade or extra credit, but just because they are hooked on something and want to do it on their own! It is a challenge, for sure, but can be done. And if teachers have this mindset, it helps them to encourage applications of the material taught in class, as well as promote creativity and curiosity in students. I think these life skills are generally more important than much of the content we teach in just about any course. The link is here. Note that there are other important blog posts from other Global Teacher Prize finalists on the Varkey site - we can all learn from some of the very best teachers on the planet!

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Educate Illinois School Districts about State Charter Schools and Support HB2660


Charter schools have gained much attention over the past decade, as many seem to think they could be a ‘silver bullet’ in education and make an enormous difference for children and families.  Certainly there are some outstanding charter schools, but at the same time there are also mostly average charters, relative to public schools, and some charters that under-perform compared to public schools. 

In Illinois, the normal process for creating a charter school includes a group presenting their proposal to a local School Board, and then allowing the School Board to vote either for or against allowing the charter school into the district.  If it is a yes vote, then the district works with the charter to arrange the finances for the charter school.  If it is a no vote, the charter group may take their proposal to other districts.  

However, over a decade ago, when a charter school was denied in Woodland School District 50 and Fremont District 79 (in the Gurnee area), a new law allowed the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) to overturn the local School Board’s decision.  Not only did Woodland and Fremont have to allow Prairie Crossing Charter School (PCCS) to run in the district, but the financing formula stated that Woodland and Fremont had to fully pay for the charter school, using its general state aid (GSA) at a per capita cost.  

Today, some twelve years later, Woodland receives about $3.5 million in GSA for some 6600 K-8 students.  But it must then proceed to give $3.1 million to PCCS for only 330 students.  This is over $3 million that any other school district in the state of Illinois gets to keep for its annual budget, but that Woodland must somehow make up.  In the time PCCS has existed, Woodland has lost some $27 million! 

About a year and a half ago, more new legislation created the State Charter Commission, which has seven members appointed by the governor.  The ISBE used to have control of what I’ll call ‘state charter schools’ such as PCCS, but now the new commission has control.  The commission has said in the next decade, it would like to see as many as 100 of these charter schools across the state, where they have sole power to induce on any local school district if it sees fit.  This process has no oversight or control from local School Boards, the ISBE, or the state legislature! 

A second state charter school has been put into the Rich Township District 227 about two years ago, costing #227 multiple millions of dollars already.

Suppose your district spends $10,000 per student total in its budget.  For every 100 students that would attend a state charter school, that is $1 million your district would lose to the charter, and would have to make up.  In an era of already tight budgets, this is devastating to the educational budget of a local district.  

More are certainly on the way.  The issue is not necessarily whether or not one likes charter schools, because for some families this is beneficial, and that is great.  The issue is to change the funding formula so that it does not decimate local school district budgets! 
Hence Woodland, Fremont District 79, and Rich Township have a proposed bill in the Illinois House, HB2660, that changes funding from a per capita cost to the district, and instead take the percentage of state funds (revenue) that a district has in its budget and multiply that percentage by the number of students going to the charter school.  That will determine the amount of money the district would pay the charter school.  The rest would need to be paid by the state, through the GSA funding mechanism, since this new school was in fact created by the state – the state should have some ‘skin in the game’  to fund a school it alone is responsible for.

The two State charter schools that have been created in Illinois have already caused 3 districts to lose a combined $40 million dollars is General State Aid.  These funds are diverted to the state charter without your school district’s consent or ability to deny.
Woodland as well as the other two schools with State Charters located within their boundaries (Fremont Elementary District #79 and Rich Township #227) have fought the good fight expending thousands in legal fees to change how the charters are funded to no avail.  We have been advised by the ISBE (Illinois School Board of Education) that this issue requires a legislative solution. 

This is a crucial time to gain support for a change in how these charters are funded.  We believe HB 2660 may be a solution. 

The knowledge that the new State Charter Commission can add charters at will with absolutely no authority of the State legislature, Illinois School Board of Education or the Local Districts to deny the charter or control the funding is a ticking time bomb.  This opens up the door to anything from Virtual Charters to Home School Charters to drain what little State funding public schools receive.  With forecasts of 82% funding levels for General State Aid and 19% for State Transportation in FY14, the affected 3 districts will soon have no state funds left.

Presently, there is a group, Virtual Learning Solutions in St. Charles, that wants to set up a virtual school district, and may take 18 districts in the Fox Valley area to the State Charter Commission, trying to force the virtual school on these districts.  They would like to start this in the fall of 2013.  This means 18 more districts are at risk to lose large portions of their GSA to a charter district they do not want.  This will continue to affect potentially any public district in the state of Illinois. 

We need to educate school districts about this, and get them to ask local state representatives and state senators to support the HB2660 legislation that does not punish the local district alone when a charter school is created and forced on a local district by the State of Illinois.  With only 3 affected out of over 850 districts in the state, this is NOT on anyone's radar - but it needs to be.

Let your district school board and superintendent know about this issue.  If they agree it could be a financial impediment to the district budget, should a state charter school be forced on them, then ask them to contact the state rep and senator.  

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Check out Flatland 2: Sphereland, now on DVD

Many of us have likely seen the movie Flatland and/or read the book back in high school. This is a classic book that tells the story of flatlanders, who live on a two-dimensional world, only to be visited by SPherius, who shows two mathematicians of Flatland the 3rd dimension.  It is such a creative way to present the concept of dimension to math students, and the movie has been shown to millions of students around the world.

A sequel to Flatland is now out, with Kristen Bell once again being the voice for the main character, Hex.  It continues the story to where flatlanders want to explore their 2-D universe, but a young mathematician's measurements show something strange - straight lines that are not straight, and triangles whose three angles add up to more than 180-degrees.  This is the basis to the geometry on 3-D surfaces, and this story provides a very good extension on the concepts used in the original Flatland movie.  The notion of a 4th and higher dimensions is brought up in Sphereland, which coincides with modern physics ideas of general relativity and string theory.  In addition, the idea of multiple universes (the so-called multiverse) is used in the story.  Again, this provides a very creative way to add visuals and a story to get students to think about these really strange, abstract ideas in math and physics.  There are also worksheets for many of the math and physics concepts on the Sphereland DVD (yours truly helped out with these).  Check out the Sphereland Facebook site for more news on this project.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Thoughts on What it Takes to be Successful


The most recent book by Malcolm Gladwell, “Outliers: The Storyof Success,” has some interesting findings about those who reach levels of success that are out of the ordinary. 

One of the ideas I found most interesting is that we typically view successful people as those who have a ‘natural ability’ or talent within their field, and that they have achieved success and greatness because of that talent.   We say that about great singers and musicians, athletes, businessmen, scientists, and so on.  But when this is studied, an interesting conclusion is reached.  Almost never is there a case of someone who is considered an expert or master within their field who got there solely based on talent or ability.  Instead, it takes years of plain old hard work to reach great levels of success in just about any field.  What’s more, there is a threshold that is really prevalent in just about any field – 10,000 hours.  That is, it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to master something and reach a level of success that is considered to be ‘outlier’ status.  The Beatles, Mozart, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Michael Jordan, and countless others did not simply arrive one day as one of the greatest in their respective fields.  Instead, the Beatles used to play 7 or 8 hours every night in clubs before anyone knew them as THE Beatles.  Mozart, although a child prodigy, did not compose anything of recognized greatness until he was in his late teens, with countless hours of playing and composing behind him.  Bill Gates and Steve Jobs had about 10,000 hours of programming practice before they made their breakthroughs.  There are many ‘natural,’ gresat athletes, some of whom are better athletes than Jordan.  But no one worked harder or put more time in the gym than Jordan because he simply wanted it more than anyone else. 

But there is something that comes along with the 10,000 hours.  In many instances, such as Gates and Jobs, timing (i.e. pure luck of the draw) cannot be overlooked.  Gates and Jobs, if they were born a few years earlier, would have likely been in technology, but so far into a career that it would have been difficult to find the time or have the freedom to make the changes they had in mind.  Had they been born later, they would have missed the period of just 3-5 years where personal computing breakthroughs and access became a hot fad and everyone had to have one.  In other words, society has to be at a point where it is ready for your idea or product; otherwise, it will not have a chance to take off. 

Studies of IQ show that those who are of ‘genius’ stature on paper are not automatically guaranteed success in life.  And what is the biggest factor rather than the IQ value?  It is cultural upbringing and what the parents did for careers!  Now, these are highly correlated factors for anyone to attain success, but it also shows up for genius level IQs, too.

 In a classic project by Lewis Terman, he selected a pool of some 1400 childhood geniuses (called the 'Termites') based on IQ, using the assumption that high IQs was the driving factor for success.  But Terman then followed these students over many years, all the way through college and into their careers.  The findings for their success split almost exactly along the split of families that were middle class on up and low income families.  In middle and high income families, parents practice what Annette Larens calls ‘concerted cultivation.’  This is where parents are actively involved in their children’s lives and education, the homes are filled with books, a sense of entitlement is picked up by their children, and talents and interests of the children are pursued.  In lower income families, there is a different way of raising children she refers to as ‘natural growth.’  Parents provide basic needs of the children (food, clothing and shelter) but are largely absent from their children’s education and interests, there are few books, and parents rely on others to focus on specifics of their children’s needs – teachers are responsible for teaching, doctors are responsible for their health, and so on.  So the child is largely on their own as far as growth and finding their way in the world.  This is a feature of low income families, regardless of race.

This leads to an interesting suggestion for education.  What the findings in this book suggest is that it requires a full community to help low income children.  And, most importantly, THIS NEEDS TO BEGIN AT AS YOUNG AN AGE AS POSSIBLE.  The attitude of success, a sense of entitlement, being read to and having access to books, ensuring that students and parents are aware how the education system works and what opportunities are available, and so on, need to be part of the education system for young, poor children.  Parents are not doing this for most children who fall into this demographic, so the system must – if this does not happen, then we already know the results, which is effective failure for academic success of these kids.  To me, this sounds so similar to Hillary Clinton’s ‘It Takes a Village,” and in my experience it is true.  I have seen this work for Excite children where I work, and I have seen kids who make it to high school without any support – they are beaten emotionally, are far behind academically, see no chance of success that is related to anything academic, and are just putting in their required hours in school, with no opportunities as part of the picture.  It is largely too late for many teens, which is why we need to be doing this on a regular, massive basis in elementary schools.

There will be more to come on some of this.


Monday, August 13, 2012

The Semantics of the ‘Did you or Did you not Create your Business’ Debate


The silliness of the presidential campaign season is in full gear.  Not much substance in August, as the two campaigns need to do anything in their power to focus on negatives of the other side.  One of the topics under debate, if you want to call it a true debate – probably a war of words is more accurate – is built around a comment made by Pres. Obama, to the effect that someone who has a successful business did not do it entirely by themselves.  Gov. Romney and his surrogates make it a point at any speech or interview to make the comment that the Republicans DO think that that same business owner did create his or her business on their own. 

Both sides are correct, but of course cannot simply go on to provide the details that show both are correct because both want the issue. 

Did Bill Gates come up with Microsoft on his own?   Well, in the sense that he co-founder Paul Allen developed the idea for a software company that would have a graphics-based operating system to do the same and much more than the old DOS system, absolutely.  It was their ideas that led to the formation of the concept of the company.  Romney and the Republicans have a check in their column.

However, I believe the point the President is trying to make, and he and his surrogates make this point at all their speeches, is that forming a company that is successful absolutely takes the countless hours of hard work from the founder, but is not at all possible without help along the way.  Gates, for instance, would not be where he is without the teachers at his school that allowed him to use one of the few personal computers available in the vicinity for countless hours.  To get a company going almost always involves the assistance of the banks to get the loans and seed money, or family and friends to help put pieces in place.  One can get extremely detailed with the ‘village’ view, where it takes all the public infrastructure like roads and bridges and airports and shipping services to get your product to market, and the public school system that allows an educated work force from which to hire your employees, and all the other companies and stores and employers of the world that provide jobs to the masses so you have customers to be able to afford your product, and so on.  It truly does require a community with MANY parts in order for any business to start up and succeed over time.

In the end, ideas and concepts for products and services aredeveloped in many different ways, by individuals and small groups of individuals.  It does take that willingness to take on often truly staggering risks for an individual to put everything on the line and invest the time, effort, money and other capital into the project of developing a company.  Many do have wonderful ideas, but cannot take that step into a risk of losing possibly everything, so kudos galore to those who can and do take that giant step into the unknown!  They deserve to reap the benefits should that idea and company take off…capitalism at its finest.  But there is also truth to the fact that one cannot sell a product or service if there are no potential customers or ways of getting the product to those potential customers.  This is where the ‘it takes a village or community’ mindset comes in.  This is the ‘big picture’ view of success. 

So BOTH are right!  Can we please just move on and get to the main issues that Americans are worrying about???  

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Can we learn from the Master, Leonardo da Vinci, when it comes to Education?


Can we still learn from one of the great minds in the history of the western world?  I am referring to Leonardo da Vinci.   While not a great deal is known about da Vinci’s early life, he likely did not have much of a formal education.  He was not university-bound, was not well-versed in the classics, Latin, and other subjects, and throughout his life he was largely self-taught.  Along with this, he also made sure to put himself in situations where he would meet other intellects of the fifteenth century so he could learn and collaborate with them.  One of the most important lessons to learn from da Vinci’s approach to and thoughts on education is his mantra, Learn by Experience.  To get a feel for how da Vinci approached life and learning, I recommend Da Vinci’sGhost by Toby Lester.

Da Vinci fumed at inaccuracies and blatant mistakes that existed in some of the textbooks of the day, where scholars simply believed what was written down.  Why would these ‘scholars’ never question accepted ideas and principles?  A good example of this might be how the Aristotelian, intuitive conclusion that heavy objects should fall faster than lighter objects was truth, simply because it made sense to the mind.  For many centuries people simply accepted this, and not long after da Vinci, Galileo finally actually did the experiment to disprove this long-held conclusion.  I often wonder if da Vinci ever did this on his own, but never published it.

Leonardo took a different path, one that in modern edu-speak could be called ‘active learning’ or ‘engagement in the learning process.’  He observed Nature, did experiments, built models, sketched scenes, did dissections of animals and humans (to learn about anatomy), studied architectural designs both for artistic features as well as from an engineering perspective, collaborated with other experts in the fields he was studying, kept prolific journals with all his thoughts and ideas and re-read them to keep the ideas fresh, and never stopped asking endless questions about seemingly everything around him.  Granted, some might say that the pace he thought about everything, and the fact that he could think about any subject at any time, was superhuman, and obviously this is one of the near unique minds in human history and we can never expect us or our students to have this level of non-stop curiosity and drive to learn, we can and must learn from da Vinci’s approach and attitude to learning.   Learn by experience.

This approach was certainly picked up half a millennium later, in the 1930s, by John Dewey.  Dewey was perhaps the most influential educator/philosopher of education in the United States during the twentieth century.  In his published essay, “Experience andEducation,” Dewey argues that traditional classes and traditional teaching (i.e. lecturing with the intent that students are sponges for information and will simply learn from a babbling teacher) must be replaced by an evolving active learning process.  This is the progressive education approach in Dewey’s language of 1938.  As we presently debate what is best for the 21st century student, teacher and classroom, could it be that we finally listen to and accept what da Vinci practiced five hundred years ago?   I hope so.

Dewey writes that ‘traditional’ education, where all students move together through classes at the same pace and the teacher and textbooks provide the information students must study, produces an attitude in students of “docility, receptivity and obedience.”  The subject matter and rules and standards of conduct are simply passed down from generation to generation, as education prepares students for success in life.  The curriculum is not challenged from year to year.  There is not necessarily any logic behind the order things are studied, and subjects are disconnected from each other, meaning kids are going from math class to science class to English to social studies, and they learn about topics with no relationship between the topics.  Math topics are done in their order, with no consideration of how those topics may be related and applied in science, and reading strategies and vocabulary in a reading class are not at all related to vocabulary and the readings being used in social studies, etc.

Does this sound familiar to you as you think back to your own education experience?  It certainly does for me!

Dewey’s vision of what he called progressive education paints a different picture.  Education should provide a means to cultivate individuality. It should allow for some free activity, which will get students involved with their learning, rather than just sit and absorb information from teachers and textbooks.  Students must be able to learn through experience (ah, da Vinci!).  Present issues and topics in life should be included in curriculum, and not just the ‘classics’ that have always been studied and may have no relevance any more for students – so the curriculum must be changing as the times change.  Education must teach children how to think and solve problems of any kind.  To be good at this, part of the process must show how different subjects are related, to provide students with a broad arsenal to attack problems. 

This is a very different way of teaching and learning than the traditional way of education.

Activity over boredom.  Relevance over tradition.  Problem solving and direct experience over memorization.  Experimentation over drill and kill.  Synthesis and analysis over prescribed solutions.  Differentiation over one size fits all.  Trial and error over cookbook, fill-in-the-blank activities (such as labs).  Current events and issues over same old problems in old textbooks.  Application to the real world over classical, ideal problems if there is no relevance for the modern student.  Multi- and interdisciplinary lessons over isolated topics.  Variety over singularity.

Education is the means to individual growth in Dewey’s progressive model, so students have developed the habits of mind, knowledge base, and skills necessary to handle a dynamic world, rather than study the same old things that assume the world is static

It is my experience that there is still a good majority of teachers who are teaching the way they were taught, which is much more the traditional way.  This is in part a product of the No Child Left Behind law, whose very foundation is the factory line version of cookie-cutter education.  All students must learn at the same pace, learn the same material, and pass the same tests.  It emphasizes the very one size fits all model that da Vinci would scream at and Dewey is dismissing.  And any hope of expanding a progressive model in education has been thoroughly thwarted by national policy.  It is the epitome of teach to the test that we presently have, and is completely counterproductive to 21st century skills, with creativity at the top of the list, our young people need to be productive and successful in the fastest changing world we have had in human history. 

We simply MUST learn from the master, one Leonardo da Vinci, and allow kids to have guided exploration of the world on their own, and give them a chance to experience topics relevant to their world, and not the past, rather than rely on the spoon-feeding of information, as if our children are intellectual infants for the first 18 years of life.  

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Why are we expecting miracles for getting out of this economic 'downturn?'

We have been in a serious economic recession/depression since about 2007, when rising unemployment, home foreclosures, and a near banking collapse began to show their teeth.  And the U.S. obviously was not alone, as this has been a global disaster.  There is no way around the fact that, with globalization of markets and deep interdependencies between various national economies, when one country suffers, it is conceivable that the ripple effect through this complex system results in global consequences - when one of those countries is the U.S., or if it is the European Union, then it will more quickly result in a global disaster.

And now we are in the midst of a U.S. election campaign season.  Our leaders and wanna-be leaders are out there telling us that they have 'The Plan' to quickly get us out of this financial mess.  Oh, it is so tempting to believe them.  For those who have been out of work or taken pay cuts over the past four or five years, this is music to the ear.  But the trouble is, history certainly does not support these claims.  I think the American public is rightly wary of anyone stepping up to the microphone saying it will be essentially 'easy' to get out of this mess.

The Great Depression began more or less in 1929.  This is the only period in modern history with a worse economic meltdown than what we have seen presently.  That lasted at least a full decade, and the main engine for getting us out of that period was a world war, that forced millions of people back into work either in the military or in factories to get our war machine in place.  We will never know how long, absent WWII, the depression would have lasted otherwise, if all we had in place were political 'economic recovery' plans or policies.  I suspect it could have lasted another decade.  Another financial collapse of significant magnitude happened in the 1980s, when Japan was on the rise and many thought it could surpass the U.S. as the major economic power.  They still have not fully recovered, and this is well into its second decade for Japan.  Obviously there are large differences between Japan and the U.S., and different economies and interests, but the point is major collapses tend to not be solved or see good recoveries in just a couple years.

I am no historian, I am no economist, so I will not be able to cite theories or provide many other examples supporting this thought without doing some research.  But I am fairly confident in stating that the politicians are blowing smoke.  I think they understand this.  Rather than stepping up and being honest with us (to his credit, President Obama has repeatedly told us this is not going to be fixed overnight, which is not a politically smart thing to say), they continue to try and win votes with the development of fantasy sales pitches about how they are the economic savior.

The thing to think about is how did this happen.  There are so many contributions, but the well-known major contributors include government fiscal mismanagement (two unpaid wars, historic tax cuts and loss of revenue, increased spending, health care costs rising well above inflation and higher entitlement costs, etc.), pure greed in a highly unregulated banking system (through increased DEregulation during the 1990s and through the Bush administration), which allowed millions of careless loans and financing of businesses and mortgages to be made, where the lendees could not possibly afford the loans over the long term.  We were in a period where we, the American citizen, was spending more on credit than we were ever attempting to save.  Personal bankruptcies were beginning to explode, and record per capita debt developed.  As bad as credit card debt is, our college graduates are coming out with even higher college debt.  This by itself, along with a very difficult job market for graduates, is a long-term issue some are finally talking about - we have set up the next generation for long-term financial problems.  And this in a group that historically spends a lot of money that the U.S. economy depends on. This is why Obama has made such a big deal about keeping college loan rates low, which nearly doubled due to some in Congress that were threatening to double the rate.  And another stress on the economy for the past two or three decades: the average American worker's wages have been flat when adjusted for inflation.  By the way, the upper couple percent of American's wages have went up a few hundred percent...and they get the largest financial support through tax policy and loopholes.

Our economy depends on consumer spending.  About 2/3 of the economy is through consumers buying stuff.    It is a fair statement to say that we cannot see much improvement unless there is more spending, which requires people to have jobs that do not just have flat wages over time.  The middle class drives the economy.  When the middle class cannot spend, we have trouble.  The wealthy are not making up the difference, even though many have been taken care of quite nicely throughout this crisis.  Spending must come from somewhere - the government is the only entity capable of such spending.  This was the logic behind the 'Obama stimulus.'  It probably prevented an official depression, as it helped keep another million or more people from losing their jobs.  I don't agree that it was a complete waste of money as the right suggests.  It leads to higher deficits, absolutely.  But in the short term the government spending is one of the few things preventing things from getting even worse.

The rest of the world is not doing well, either, which means any U.S. recovery is affected and slowed down. Even China and India have seen substantial slowing of their economic growth the past two decades.  China cannot maintain double-digit growth forever.  And of course Europe is an absolute mess right now.  None of these circumstances suggest it is possible for the U.S, to have a speedy recovery as the politicians suggest and want us to believe.

Do we try a balanced approach to get our economy moving?  Some spending cuts and some revenue?  Don't go too far in either direction, but have a balanced attack and diverse recovery portfolio?  Or do we cut taxes more for the wealthy, and go solely with spending cuts?  With the middle class suffering, and likely will suffer a bit more since spending cuts will affect everything from being able to buy food (some want cuts to food stamps) or afford college loans or lose unemployment support or lose health insurance (some want to simply repeal the ACA)...average Americans will not be able to spend more if all we have are reductions in government spending, in fact many will need to spend even less!  This is not an economic recovery since it depends most on consumer spending!

This is going to last quite a bit longer.  Regardless of who is President.  But I personally believe the approach Obama wants to take makes more sense than what Romney is suggesting (I would like him to state three things about his plan that are not part of the Bush plan that was largely responsible for the collapse).  We will see what happens with the election, but for the sake of the country the refusal of the parties to work with each other has been disgusting and detrimental to the prospects of reducing the time it will take to get some relief for Americans and the world.  It has only been five years, and history tells us to expect a number of years to come....we cannot afford to wait for political games to play themselves out.