“Two years ago, Barr had asked L.A.U.S.D. to give his charter-school-management organization, Green Dot Public Schools, control of Locke, and let him help the district turn it around. When the district refused, Green Dot became the first charter group in the country to seize a high school in a hostile takeover.” -From The Instigator published in The New Yorker May 10, 2009

This weekend, the New Yorker and the New York Times profiled some radically effective innovations in US public schools. The dreadful state of many US urban schools has been a stain on America’s conscience for many years. The quote above comes from The New Yorker profile of Steve Barr and his Green Dot Public Schools. Writing in the New York Times, David Brooks reviewed the very successful Harlem Children’s Zone project.

These projects present fine examples of what’s possible and. perhaps. what we should expect from our students and teachers. The Harlem Children’s Zone and Locke High School also demonstrate the tremendous power and resolution of individuals in the face of adversity. One hopes that they will usher in a wave of change schools across the country so that getting high-quality education for our children does not require civil unrest and mass protests in each school district. Unfortunately. the prospects look dim for widespread, radical re-making of existing schools through either peaceful or hostile means. However, new technologies and emerging social structures may bring about a silent revolution in education.

In their book “Disrupting Class,”  Christensen et al. offer an insightful analysis of the problems:

“The fact that schools are in the lower-left world of disagreement helps us understand why certain remedies that reformers have experimented with in the past have not worked. The model asserts, for example, that financial incentives, like pay-for-performance schemes for teachers, will not work. Most of these schemes have failed because their efficacy is predicated upon a modicum of agreement on what is wanted and how to get there. The board of almost every school district has a vision statement and strategic plan for how to achieve its vision. But the boards find that these rarely cause their diverse constituents to line up and cooperate in pursuit of those plans. Instead, they get caught up in the daily conflict and compromise that are inherent in the lower-left realm of disagreement. The scary thing about this situation is that democracy—the primary tool that the law allows—is effective only in the upper-right circumstance, when there already is broad, preexisting consensus on what is wanted and how the world works. And what is worse, like all the tools in the matrix’s culture quadrant, democracy is not an effective tool for radical change. So is it possible that changing public schools is impossible?”

In this quote, Christensen is referring to a simple diagram where one axis is degree of agreement on goals (what people want from education) and the other axis is the amount of shared understanding of how the world works. Christiansen argues that moving from the lower left (no shared goals or common understanding of how to achieve them) to the upper right (general agreement on both what the community wants and how to get there) requires some “strong-arm” techniques such as Barr’s “hostile takeover.”  While such methods can be shown to work, sometimes by outside players like Barr, other times by a strong mayor asserting control over a district, they don’t scale well and are not easily repeatable.

While Christiensen remains pessimistic about the prospect of directly changing existing schools, he’s quite optimistic that these schools and the nature of education will soon change. The main point of the book is that a major disruption is already occurring in education but happening outside the traditional school framework. He cites many examples in other industries to show that these innovations will soon (within the next 5-10 years) bring about major changes in traditional education. For example, he extrapolates from current data to predict that in less than 10 years 50% of student “seat-miles” in post-secondary schools in the US will be student driven, online courses. (UnaMesa’s Student Notebook and Virtual Interactive Classroom pilot projects are very small examples of free tools that might help support these types of student driven, online courses.)

I recommend reading the whole book for anyone interested in the topic. The numerous analogies and stories from other industries make this work especially accessible to education outsiders and people with a Silicon Valley perspective.

Disrupting Class : How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns
(Clayton M. Christensen, Curtis W. Johnson and Michael B. Horn)

Here are a few clips that seem most relevant to this discussion. Those of you with small children may be most interested in the Hart and Risley study cited below which shows that talking to your infant before 12 months of age dramatically increases their IQ (as measured at age 3).

Chapter 1: Every student learns in a different way. This idea—that students have different learning needs—is one of the cornerstones of this book. A key step toward making school intrinsically motivating is to customize an education to match the way each child best learns. As we explain in this first chapter, schools’ interdependent architectures force them to standardize the way they teach and test. Standardization clashes with the need for customization in learning. To introduce customization, schools need to move away from the monolithic instruction of batches of students toward a modular, student-centric approach using software [ed. and mobile] as an important delivery vehicle.

In public education, the influence that teachers’ unions can wield over textbook and instructional software adoption decisions looms so large that many would-be school reformers have abandoned hope of significant change. We suspect, however, that when disruptive innovators begin forming user networks through which professionals and amateurs—students, parents, and teachers—circumvent the existing value chain and instead market their products directly to each other as described above, the balance of power in education will shift. Administrators, unions, and school boards will capitulate to the fait accompli of larger and larger numbers of students acquiring and using superior, customized learning tools on their own. This also points to a road forward for those venture capitalists, foundations, and philanthropies that hope to invest with impact in education.

Hart and Risley tracked the cognitive achievements of the children in their study as they grew older. They administered the Stanford-Binet IQ test to these children at age 3 and found a powerful, direct correlation coefficient of .6 between the number of words the child had heard and the size of the child’s vocabulary. When they eliminated “business talk” from the word count that the children had heard and looked only at what they termed “extra talk” (discussed below), the coefficient of correlation between the words spoken to the child and the child’s measured IQ was .78—about the highest correlation that could plausibly be measured.

Cognitive capacity is developed in infancy: the children of lower-income, poorly educated, inner-city parents are trapped in a multigenerational cycle of educational underachievement and poverty. If their parents are not prone to engage in sophisticated, fully adult extra talk, their children will start school seriously disadvantaged and fall further behind from there. The children’s self-confidence and enthusiasm for academic effort, in turn, will dissipate so that by the time they become parents, they inflict the same disadvantages on their children. This is, unfortunately, a generally sound explanation for why improving inner-city schools has proven to be an almost insurmountable problem.

But there is hope. One of the most important findings of the Risley-Hart study was that the level of income, ethnicity, and level of parents’ education had no explanatory power in determining the level of cognitive capacity that the children achieved. It is all explained by the amount of language dancing, or extra talk, over and above business talk, that the parents engaged in. It accounted literally for all the variance in outcomes. “In other words,” summarized Risley, “some working, poor people talked a lot to their kids and their kids did really well. Some affluent business people talked very little to their kids and their kids did very poorly. . . . And there is no variance left for race either. All the variation in outcomes was taken up by the amount of talking, in the family to the babies before age 3.

One could very well argue that the Harlem Children’s Zone and Green Dot schools provide empirical validation of this theory. Improve the child’s overall environment and you can bring their performance up to be on par with the most well off in society. Let’s hope we can find ways to bring about that change without widespread civil unrest!


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