Thursday, January 11, 2007

What can the KaosPilots take to the world?

What can the KaosPilots take to the world?

Here are just three newspaper headlines from The New York Times in the month of November: “Schools Slow In Closing Gaps Between Races”; “Most Students in Big Cities Lag Badly in Basic Science”; “As Math Scores Lag, a New Push for the Basics”.

Historically, public education has been the ladder of opportunity in America. Families could come from anywhere in the world, and even if they didn’t speak English, they could put their children into the public schools of America’s big cities, confident that their children would learn the language, would get an education, and would begin the journey to a better life. In large measure, the promise of the American Dream has had as its first principle the idea that public education—that learning—is not only the grat equalizer but also the great enabler.

Why? Because deep down, we all want to believe in the even grander ideas of democracy and a society that operates as a meritocracy. We want to live in a country—or a world—where your effort and your talent will take you as far as you want to go; where the historically limiting factors of race or gender, religion or national origin give way to individual aptitude, however it is measured or defined. Your gift, your passion may be music not math, counseling not consulting, or environmentalism not entrepreneurship. It doesn’t matter; one is not more “worthy” or “important,” more “valuable” or “acceptable” than another. What does matter, in an ideal sense, is a commitment to study, to learning, and a love of life-long learning.

But before there can be life-long learning that has to be a beginning. The first steps of public education have to be strong and solid before the higher rungs on the ladder can be climbed.
And today, not only in America, but also around the world, public education is a massive, systemic failure.

In the United States, the response has been national legislation: The No Child Left Behind Act. This measure was designed to create performance benchmarks in English and math—test scores—that America’s school children are required to achieve. Then schools and school districts are held accountable: If their scores don’t measure up, they risk losing their federal funds. In worst case situations, the school districts could be taken over.
This approach is failing, failing as miserably, massively, and systematically as the schools have failed for years.

So here’s where we are.

There is widespread agreement that good public education is essential to the future—for the well-being of individuals, for the well-being of societies, for economic reasons and for social and political reasons.

And there is widespread agreement that what’s being done now, both in education and to reform education, isn’t working.
After that, there is little agreement.
Is the problem not in the schools and in the classrooms, but in the families? Are parents at fault?
Is the problem not with the students, but with the teachers? In the United States, the teachers’ union is very strong—is that the problem?
Is the problem not with the teachers, but with the administrators? Is there too much bureaucracy?
Is the problem not with the administrators, but with the elected officials? Are elected school boards to blame for flawed policies and bad budget priorities?
Is the problem financial? Are teachers underpaid? Are we putting too little money into our buildings and facilities?
Is the problem class size? If the ratio between students and teachers were smaller, would student performance go up?
Is the problem in the curriculum? Perhaps we’re teaching the wrong things, or in the wrong way?
Is the problem in the way we’re teaching? Perhaps our pedagogical techniques haven’t kept pace with the times—do we need more computers and fewer blackboards, more experiences and fewer books?
Is the problem just in the society—are we simply witnessing the gradual breakdown of social standards and social order, an inexorable erosion of old-fashioned virtues? Is what’s missing as simple as structure, accountability, and no-nonsense discipline?
Everyone has an opinion; few have data.

But there is one source of data worth taking a look at. Several years ago, the State of Arizona decided to take a serious look at the future of public education as it concerned Hispanics. The concern: that “demography is destiny”—and that if the state didn’t find a strategy to improve the educational performance of its fastest growing population, its economic future would be severely jeopardized.
Using a methodology developed by Jim Collins, whose book Good to Great has become a must-read for leaders in all kinds of industries and sectors, including not-for-profits, Arizona tried to isolate the variables that could account for a public school making the change from being a “good” school to a “great” school.

The findings may not be surprising; they may, in fact, be nothing more than common sense. But they do help to change the discussion about education to something based on facts and data, and not mere opinion. Some of the findings are:

*The most important person in determining the overall performance of a school is the principal. The principal sets the standards, inspires the teachers, and establishes the overall tone for the school and the direction of the school.
*While it is true that measuring performance is important for accountability, measurements have to be done for each student—averages don’t matter. What matters is how each student is doing. And progress has to be measured every week, so that interventions can be made before learning problems escalate. If a student doesn’t get a certain kind of math problem, the time to take corrective action is immediately.
*Working with students isn’t just a matter of each teacher taking responsibility in his or her classroom; it takes a team of teachers to see the whole student, and to address learning needs and learning styles as a group. Principals who get their teachers to work together are the kind of leaders whose schools create real learning gains.
*When it comes to curriculum, there is no “silver bullet.” School districts have a bad habit of believing that one reading program or one math system is somehow going to elevate their students’ performance—just because of the teaching methodology. The Arizona study says that’s just plain wrong—there is no “best” curriculum. Far more important is that a district pick a system and stick with it, rather than making frequent changes in search of the right one. When it comes to curriculum, too much change is a problem, not a solution.
But these findings are currently confined to Arizona, and even there, I’m sure, there is still great disagreement on how to implement them—or whether to implement them at all.

I’d like to believe that the KaosPilots can become a contributor to the larger conversation about public education and the future, not only in the United States but also around the world. As a board, we were asked at our meeting in Aarhus, “What can the KaosPilots take to the world?” As a school, I think one thing the KaosPilots can contribute is a calm, considered inquiry into what it will take to make public education work as a positive force for as many people around the world as possible.
When it comes to education, what works for the KaosPilots—and how can those principles be identified and then applied to other educational programs?
Over the years, what have the KaosPilots learned about education—what key knowledge can we distill that could help others who are grappling with improving education?
What do the KaosPilots see as the key ingredients to making public education work better?
How can the KaosPilots get involved—either as individuals or as a school—in efforts to improve public education?
Are there examples—in Denmark or around the world—of public schools that are working? Where are they and what could they teach all of us? What best practices could be distilled and transferred for the benefit of others?
As the KaosPilots enters its next phase—and as the new international board develops and grows—I’d like to see education become a focus and a contribution. The KaosPilots have much to teach—and always more to learn—about the essence of learning and the promise of education.

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