Models of Education Innovation: What Else Should We Try?

This is my latest post on Huffington Post.

In comments on this and other blogs about education, one of the constant complaints from commenters is that no solutions are proposed, only reasons why some program or policy won’t or doesn’t work. These are frustrating and non-productive since usually the solution is implied (if too much testing is the issue, less testing is part of the solution for example. If very regimented models are being railed against, then less regimented is what is being promoted). I decided sharing some ideas might be productive. I provide just a brief synopsis of each.

We have KIPP, other charter schools and regular public schools trying that model, and it is the model that Race to the Top seems too laser-focused on, let’s try other things too. Here are just some ideas, this is by no means an exhaustive list, add your own in the comments. Some of these ideas would be expensive and others less so. My goal was a great education, not less cost, although if any of these models are found to be  successful, cost savings might be realized over time or perhaps thought worth the investment. NOTE: I’m an elementary teacher, so my ideas are influenced greatly by that.

  • If too many bad teachers are the real reason why children do poorly in school, here is an approach to ferret that out. Since the promoters of this thinking claim that if we just put a great teacher in a classroom they can overcome poverty, health, language issues and more, let’s spend some of the Race to the Top money to find out for sure (and maybe Gates or Broad or someone else could support this too). Let’s assemble a staff of great teachers (award winners? Teachers whose students have great test scores?) and have them take over a high poverty elementary school with horrid scores, for example, and give them 3 to 5 years to turn the school around. To make this model legit, no other funds or special programs, extra staff or health care beyond what is already funded by the school district or grants already in place (because remember, it’s just about the teacher) can be utilized.
  • Let’s try schools that follow the “bottom to the top” model where teachers and other educators on-site have most of the responsibility and autonomy to design the curriculum, pedagogy, assessment and professional development (training). The administration is there mostly in a support role to gather resources, advise and provide other support. Since the teachers/educators at each site make the decisions on what pedagogy and materials they will use, this will look different at different sites. This is a benefit since what each site finds works and doesn’t work can and should be shared.

  • Models that include the example above and provide a broad, rich curriculum for all students starting in pre-school, including science, social studies, physical education, field-trips, during and/or after-school sports programs, arts programs, literacy, health and counseling programs for students and families (as opposed to a narrower curriculum offered in too many schools under NCLB). In addition, since research shows easy access to lots of books makes a huge difference in student reading ability, students in the school (and their families, including pre-school age children) will receive libraries of books for their homes (which would be collected and recycled to others over the years), each classroom and the school library will be very well stocked and updated with books. Technology should be ubiquitous and students should be taught to use it as a tool for learning, exploring, connecting, collaborating and becoming learners. Ethics, safety and responsible use would be taught and discussed daily. Some schools in this model could also try extending the school year and include outdoor education and sports leagues (maybe run by the parks and recreation department). Some of the health monitoring and care may be covered already when the new health care program is fully implemented. This model might be the closest to what they do in Finland, which is the highest scoring country in the world according to PISA scores. I model this approach somewhat during a TEDx talk I gave in Denver in 2010.
  • Re-draw boundary-lines in school districts to make schools as diverse as possible, socio-economically and otherwise. There is research that shows that diversity helps everyone. There are plenty of school districts, especially large districts, where it would be fairly easy to try this intervention on a smaller scale at first. For example, in my school district there are schools where higher socio-economic schools and a lower socio-economic schools already border on each other so long distance busing would not be required, and many students could still walk.

  • All the models above should be tried with ongoing professional development decided by what teachers require to support their teaching.
  • Hybrid approaches using combinations of the above ideas should be tried as well.
  • Any of the models above could (really should) include paying teachers to spend more contract days collaborating, planning and preparing lessons and receiving professional development before and during the school year.
  • Assessment of each model could be done through observation, NAEPPISA, or other assessment.

OK, please add your ideas (the flipped model or anything else) in the comments.

Learning is messy!

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3 thoughts on “Models of Education Innovation: What Else Should We Try?

  1. I think there are so many factors as to why students fail to succeed in school. I feel that teachers do need to have accountability for their students sucess. I agree with the statement that the bad techers need to be weeded out. A system that recognizes these teachers and provides training should be in place. I bleieve they need to be evaluated more often and they need to show evidence of growth. It is hard juggling the ups and downs of being a classroom teacher but in the end, a teacher has an important job that depends on their dedication. You are in or you need to be out!

  2. Dear Brian,
    I like the idea of your suggestion of a “bottom to the top” approach to the curriculum. Since it is the teachers who are in the trenches who better to decide what our students need to be successful. What one school needs will certainly differ from neighboring schools. After doing some research on the subject and reading On Being a Teacher: The Human Dimension, I also feel teachers need time for reflection. This practice can be used with students as well. When we reflect on a lesson and ask for student feedback we will ultimately help our students become better thinkers and self-motivated learners. This can be expanded to include time with our colleagues discussing ours and the children’s reflections to guide the direction of our schools. Once the students have a stake in their learning we will be able to better reach them, and we will discover how to best assist them.

  3. These ideas are less applicable to younger students, but probably start to become more applicable as students are in middle school.

    Since the largest driver of cost in most schools are salaries, the fastest way to reduce cost is to reduce high-salary administrative costs (consolidating management between districts to cut down on the number of superintendents, business managers, special ed supervisors, curriculum coordinators, etc.). Such an effort would be made easier by also implementing your “bottom to top” suggestion.

    A second step would be to increase average class sizes: more students per teacher on average can produce large cost savings. However, the primary goal has to always be meeting student needs – so just as you suggested varying the length of the school year depending on student need, why not also vary class size depending on student and teacher need? Teachers who use approaches such as peer instruction (as advocated by Eric Mazur) or “Whole Brain Teaching” with relatively homogeneous groups of students may find this easiest to implement… however significant resources will still need to be devoted to curriculum development, assessment development, and PD all done with this goal in mind.

    Larger average class sizes won’t work unless teachers can realize efficiencies in assessment (reduction in time spent grading) along with improvements in the quality and breadth of assessment. The “average teacher” will probably also need to improve their “effectiveness” as teachers (classroom management, pedagogy, access to relevant curricular resources, etc.). Wouldn’t it be nice if teachers could use confidently use peer assessment and/or technology to add efficiencies to assessing student work, so that they could spend more “prep” time reviewing formative assessment results than correcting student work? Teachers might then have more time to plan activities for next class with the goal of ensuring that all students are on the path to mastery.