April 2013

Fairfax County, which is headed by one of the nation’s finest superintendents, Jack Dale, has recently posted up a comprehensive website about PISA/OECD testing in their district, and it is fascinating and impressive in many ways.

The video above, produced by America Achieves, which is active in the OECD testing initiative in the US, offers a nice overview of the Fairfax program, and demonstrates the seriousness of the way in which they in the district intend to use and apply the results to improve learning.

PISA testing, newly available for individual schools and districts under the name of OECD test, was recently praised by Tom Friedman in his column, and has long been admired by thoughtful and informed educators such as Tony Wagner.   Simply put, it is a better kind of test, much more designed to evaluate students abilities to use what they have learned to tackle new and complex problems, evaluating their application and analytic skills.   Below is a video about the PISA test. (more…)

It was terrific to have the chance this month both to see the keynote from Angela Duckworth at NPEA and to have 90 minutes sitting with her in a small group conversation with the SSATB Think Tank.

As many now know, she has become something of “the guru of grit” in the last year or two, particularly with the attention brought to her work by the writing of Paul Tough in his book and New York Times magazine cover story.  She is an Assistant Professor at the University of Pennsylvania.  I wrote about her work, her TEDx talk, and the Tough book previously here. 

images (4)Duckworth opened her keynote with the message that academic skill development is always interwoven with so-called “non-cog” skills.

The stuff kids need to learn in school is hard.   It’s really hard.  But it is not too hard.  Every child in my classroom– whether it took two hours or twenty hours– could learn this.    It isn’t quantum mechanics, it is Algebra.    In other countries most kids get it because they have the expectation that everyone can do this and they have attitude that it just takes a lot of work to get there.

IQ is not the limiting factor for most of our children.” We shouldn’t tolerate lower expectations for some kids.

Algebra is hard in another way- psychologically, for instance.  Is it hard to persist when it is challenging.

“if you can build non-cog skills, you will boost academic achievement. It is NOT either/or, but BOTH/AND.”

The message, of course, about the value of persistence, is not just for our kids: it is for all of us.   As she explained, and tied it to her own work and the work of everyone in the audience at NPEA, doing the hard work of providing quality education to disadvantaged youth, “It’s not a one year or two year project for any of us in life, tackling something hard and trying to make a real difference.”

angeladuckworthGrit is about “remaining loyal to your commitments.  Perseverance and Passion for long-term goals. Achievement = talent x effort. Anything multiplied by 0 = 0. Grit is about some talent but more about passion and perseverance.”

But we are all deceived, so much of the time, by the false impressions most others give off of gently gliding along the surface, like a duck with no worries.    “We need to show kids, and help them see, that below the waterline we are all paddling furiously.”

Duckworth emphasized the importance of not just teaching grit in some narrow method, but of deeply “Building a culture of grit, making it self-conscious and publicly visible for all.”

In an amusing and telling example, she shared the importance in Finland of a term roughly equivalent to grit, “sisu.”   There, she explained, Sisu is surfaced constantly:  “How’s your sisu today?”  “I’m feeling a bit down in my Sisu this week.”

Duckworth, speaking to an audience whose lives are devoted to helping students succeed in K-12 and collegiate education, stated the problem boldly and baldly: “We are not succeeding– we are getting kids well prepared academically, but they’re still not succeeding in college and careers– what do we need to do differently?”

We need to research, design interventions, experiment, and study results.  (more…)

St. George’s: A Distinctive Model Addressing the Achievement Gap

I had the pleasure of seeing this presentation last week at NPEA: I found the program described extraordinary and profound, and the presentation inspiring and moving.

The slides include in the beginning some colorful (and tragic) images of Memphis and some appalling stats about the poverty there, but the key pieces begin on slide 42.    The graphs are for some reason a tad off-kilter in this slide format, but I think they are still mostly legible.

The story runs like this.   An independent (private) suburban/affluent/nearly entirely Caucasian PK-5 school until about 15 years ago, St. George’s now is a three campus PK-12 school.  That story by itself is anything but unique.    The difference is this: one of those three campuses hosts a second, entirely parallel educationally, elementary program, but in a mostly African-American (but now also increasingly Hispanic), inner city Memphis neighborhood.

Both programs are of course entirely equally St. George’s; the ECE and elementary students at each campus regularly do activities together, such as Skype conversations, field trips and as they grow older overnight trips;  and both elementary campuses feed into a single middle/high school campus.   Whereas because of geography the suburban campus is mostly white (though less so now than it used to be) and the Memphis campus is mostly non-white, (though not entirely– it is appealing to Caucasian families seeking a diverse urban educational experience), the 6-12 campus is an integrated multi-racial program.

I believe myself to be very knowledgeable about NAIS/independent schools nationally, and I have to say, I don’t know of a single other comparable program.   I asked Bill Taylor, St. George’s head who presented this session along with his excellent Memphis campus principal, whether he was aware of any similarly structured institution, and he told me he was not.

St. George’s success in closing the achievement gap for the Memphis campus students is breathtaking, and evidenced by the stats seen on slides 45-50.   Slide 45 demonstrates that 100% of their 3rd grade students have achieved reading proficiency, compared to 42%state-wide and 20% in Memphis.  In the upper elementary grades, slides show proficiency rates in the sixties to eighties– not perfect, but still vastly higher than the city numbers.

They explained in the session that some additional educational interventions were called for– a slightly longer school day, an additional teacher in some classrooms– but on the whole, the effect, they believe, is a result of a combination of the quality of school culture, the excellence of their instructional program, and the height of academic expectations they have for all students.

In my opinion, every independent school, particularly K-12 programs,  in the US should be examining the extraordinary and exemplary St. George’s model, and exploring whether when they can match it.  Perhaps it will take a decade, (perhaps two), but it shouldn’t be impossible– indeed, now we know it isn’t impossible.

Bill Fitzsimmons is the long-time Dean of Admissions at Harvard, and truly an important“dean” among university admissions officers.   I spent a few hours with him last week, listening to him present on a panel at NPEA, the National Partnership for Educational Access,  and then discussing admissions with him during a small group Think Tank conversation about the issues entailed in admissions assessment.

(Not e that quotes are roughly paraphrased from my notes on our conversation, and are not verbatim).

Fitzsimmons clearly loves his work.   He told us he is himself a first-generation college-goer, and reflects on that regularly in his work.    On April 10, a date you’d think would be a bit hectic for an Ivy league admissions dean, he spent two hours with our Think Tank, from 830pm to nearly 1030pm!

In the opening NPEA panel, to which he contributed greatly, much of his message was the importance he placed, and the progress Harvard (and other Ivies) are making, on widening access to under-represented populations, particularly now the lowest family income groups.

He told us of taking the Harvard undergrad population in the past six years or so from 11% to 17% Pell Grant eligible.  We’ve come a long way from asking ourselves whether “we were truly going to be  players in the educating of future leaders or boutiques for the wealthy and advantages.” “Private higher ed is back in the game.”   For 90% of Americans now, in contrast to ten years ago, it will cost less per year to send kids to Harvard (and other elite privates) than to their in-state flagship public institution.”

Still on the panel, he emphasized: “We need to look at all the human qualities of all our applicants, in all their complexity.”

In our smaller Think Tank conversation, he reminded us issues around expanding admissions criteria are neither new nor narrowly restricted: in the seventies Dean Willingham (?) of Williams College argued for the importance of selecting applicants for “persistent followthrough” which presages today’s focus on “grit,” and even today in China, land of the GaoKao, they are creating ways to accommodate rural applicants with lower test scores but greater perceived character traits than their urban peers.

Fitzsimmons told us that in round numbers at Harvard, which is as most know extraordinarily selective (2200 admitted out of 35,000—note that these 35,000 are those high school seniors self-selecting themselves to apply to Harvard), roughly 75% are admitted exclusively or especially for cognitive qualities, and 25% are admitted for the “bump” their applications get by demonstrated compelling non-cog attributes.    To compare these two groups finds no difference, he told us , in their success rate as undergrads: both have extremely high graduation rates, both at about 98%.

He said that among the things most important for their process is the teacher and counselor recommendations—particular when a student is rated as “one of the best in the past ten years.”

He also was emphatic about the importance of welcoming any and all student work which applicants wish to share: “we’ve been big on the portfolio piece for a long time.” (more…)

DL2013Is “DL” the West Coast Educon many of us have been seeking?

Last Friday and Saturday I had the great pleasure of visiting a school I view as a true flagship of the 21st century learning movement, High Tech High in San Diego, and attending the first annual Deeper Learning Network conference, DL2013,which was held on the campus there.

It was dynamite, and I am very grateful to our hosts.  It was sponsored by the Hewlett Foundation, which works in some relationship still a bit unclear to me with the Deeper Learning Network, about which more can be found here. 

As a two-time attendee at Educon, held every winter at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, I’ve often wondered what is, and what might emerge as, the West Coast equivalent?   What can those of us West of the Mississippi attend to have the experience which is Educon?  (I’ve written about Educon here).

Clearly, and happily, DL has the potential to be exactly this.

Several similarities jump out:

  1. Hosted by a flagship, PBL, student-centered, tech-savvy, 21st century school, with every session sitting in an actual, exemplary classroom.
  2. Presided over by truly inspirational, brilliant, 21st century learning philosopher-practitioners (Chris Lehmann in the case of Educon, Larry Rosenstock and Rob Riodan in the case of DL2013). 
  3. The right size: 200-500 attendees, no more. 
  4. Both share a set of highly admirable principles which they seek to uphold and promote in every thing they do: student centered, inquiry based, connected and collaborative learning.
  5. Great food provided, with every effort made to support and sustain community and connectedness. 
  6. Presence of students as assistants (though at SLA educon students play a larger and more managerial role). 
  7. An expectation sessions will be conversational, inclusive, inquiry based, with an attitude of c0-learning. 
  8. A sense that this is a convening of activists in a movement as much as a meeting. 
  9. A notion, supported by some intentional practices, that the event is in support of relationship building and networking to be sustained after the event. 
Larry Rosenstock

Larry Rosenstock

I enjoyed having this very conversation at the event with Diana Laufenberg, a longtime SLA teacher and Educon organizer, who, off-hand, was the only person I saw at DL2013 whom I’ve seen also at Educon– though I am sure there were others.  Our conversation certainly informs this post.

Differences:  there were several, though to be clear I don’t mean any of these observations as criticisms.

1. There was much less Twitter participation, and, I’d say, seemingly many fewer bloggers present and participating at DLN13.   Educon is a bit of a blogosphere/Twitter homecoming, or at least that is how I experience it, in a way that this DLN isn’t (yet anyway) to my observation. (more…)