Education Reform

Jan 9, 2013 by

I saw the Frontline documentary on Michelle Rhee last night, and it left me with as many questions as answers.

Public education is tricky because it’s non-uniform.  School districts vary based on location, funding, resources, demographics- you name it.  As much as we would like it to be standard and consistent, the reality is quite different.  For example, our local middle school is a modern building, with smart boards in every classroom.  Technology  is used in almost every aspect of learning, from a digital grade book to online assessments, to students submitting multimedia projects via email and dropbox. The students come from a wide variety of homes, ranging from kids of professionals to those of migrant workers.  A middle school I visited in North Carolina this fall had almost 100% minority population, where there were 4 smart boards in the whole school, and one cart of laptops that were held for the sole use of Title I students, and as a result, were rarely used at all.   Teachers often did not assign homework, because many of their students were spending the evenings caring for parents and siblings, and legitimately could not be counted on doing work outside the classroom according to the teachers.

In the world of national standards, all the students in both schools are to be held to the same standard of learning, and the teachers to the same level of achievement for their students.  This makes sense, in that once all these students hit the real world, they will all be competing for the same spots in college or the job market with students from more affluent and academically challenging environments.  How do we make sure that the kids in this particular North Carolina school receive an education that will enable them to effectively compete with kids from our local school?  How do we start to attack the problem?

Michelle Rhee, according to the Frontline documentary, found all sorts of problems in the DC schools.  She set a goal of doing what was best for students, and keeping their interest at heart, which ended up involving getting rid of a lot of teachers and principals that were deemed to be under-performing, and closing schools with low enrollment.  Closing schools and consolidating in order to avoid wasting money on building expenses and duplicate resources (including personnel) makes logical sense- especially when it provides additional funds for all the students in the District in the bargain.  That’s simply good management, but it’s painful, since it meant jobs were eliminated and some kids would no longer be going to their neighborhood school.

The Gates Foundation released a report this week addressing what it has found to be potential better metrics for teacher evaluation.   They also have released some metrics on personalized learning, which reflects much of what we discuss here on differentiating instruction:

There is a small but growing effort to rethink fundamental aspects of our current system. The central idea is that the system should be designed not for uniformity, but instead to meet every student’s individual needs.  At the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we call this a shift to personalized learning. We are particularly interested in whole-school models that incorporate each of the following principles:

  • Student Centered: designed to meet the diverse learning needs of each student every day
  • High Expectations: committed to ensuring that every student will meet clearly defined, rigorous standards that will prepare them for success in college and career
  • Self-Pacing & Mastery-Based Credit: enables students to move at their own optimal pace, and receive credit when they can demonstrate mastery of the material
  • Blended Instruction: optimizes teacher- and technology-delivered instruction in group and individual work
  • Student Ownership: empowers students with skills, information and tools they need to manage their own learning
  • Financial Sustainability: sustainable on public per-pupil revenue within four years
  • Scalable: designed to serve many more students if it demonstrates impact


It’s clear that effective teaching requires not only a thorough knowledge of the curriculum, but a sense of the students and connecting with them to make learning vibrant and exciting.  That’s not always an easy task.

Even in the after school program where I volunteer, I know that I get better at running my class each time I do it, and that it requires reflection, asking the students about what went well and what didn’t, and considering what to tweek and try differently the next time.  I know that the mix of students I get also changes what I can do and I need to be adaptive to student needs, not just wedded to my idea of a utopian curriculum.  The overall critical points need to be taught, but the order and the method I choose might vary, depending on the day and the mood of the kids, as well as whether all the tech is working properly.  The key, I’ve found, is to use my base knowledge and my general plan as a base or launch pad for the actual teaching that is done, which involves a bit of improv.   From talking with academic full time teachers, they also say that the lesson plan is like any battle plan- it never fully survives contact with the enemy, as they say in the military- the enemy gets a say as well, or in this case, the students get a vote in how the lesson is going to go, and how much of the plan gets executed as written or needs to flex as needed.

This being said, metrics on judging teaching needs to be part “the plan” and another part “the execution” along with outcomes- how well did the kids actually absorb what you were trying to teach them?  How effective are they at applying that knowledge to a new and novel situation?

Teachers don’t graduate from school with all these skills in place.  They need on the job mentoring, and continuing education.  They need a place where they can ask questions, share tips and tricks, and engage with colleagues in a safe environment, where they can admit what’s going well and where they may have challenges, without always feeling like their job is on the line if they admit any weakness.  But at the same time, kids deserve to be taught by someone who knows what they’re doing, just like every patient deserves good medical care, even from a doctor who just finished their residency.  We know these teachers and doctors will get better the more experience they have, but helping them learn to be better requires acknowledgement they aren’t perfect, just like no student or patient is perfect as well.

I admire Michelle Rhee for making some tough decisions and not running a popularity contest.  I admire her for putting kids first, but part of that is also treating the adults in charge of the student’s learning with compassion and  guidance as well as consequences for non-performance.

Teacher’s unions have often defended teachers who have been shown to be ineffective, based on longevity, tenure, or other reasons, and that’s clearly not always appropriate.  Michelle Rhee’s monetary incentives to teachers and schools for achievement improvements may very well have lead to cheating, in order for the  adults in the game to profit from those outcomes.  Yet if the incentives were placed differently- instead of cash bonuses in every teacher pocket, could the incentives be more “team based” in terms of more resources for the students and schools for higher achievement?  Could the incentives be placed in such a way everyone in the school benefitted instead of just the teachers or administrators, especially since it was based on student achievement and what the students themselves accomplished?  I think you might still find teachers willing to tamper with results if it meant a laptop for every student in the school, but probably less frequently than if it meant an extra $8,000 in their paycheck.

We ask much more of teachers now than in the past.  Some teachers have even lost their lives protecting their students, and if we’re going to ask for that level of commitment, we had better learn to respect them and compensate them for that difficult work.  The perceived harshness of Michelle Rhee, even in the name of progress and reform, caused as many problems as she tried to solve.  Perhaps working with appropriate carrots and sticks is really the best way to work towards education reform, rather than taking a slash and burn approach, no matter how much we may all need a real wake up call.

And for the rest of us out there, including myself, who assume we know everything about education because we went to school ourselves, we have to be patient and realize that solving the education issues in our Country may be much more personalized per school, per district, and per state than pushed down in a top down approach from the Department of Education.


Watch the Frontline special below:


Watch The Education of Michelle Rhee on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

Cultural Change

Mar 16, 2012 by

As I look at Differentiated and Personalized Instruction, I see it as a philosophical approach to teaching.  It requires that learning become more student centered, and even student-directed, which is a big cultural shift in most classrooms.  So many classrooms remain “Captain of the ship” oriented, where command and control is valued over interaction.

Likewise, teachers remark about how administrator 10 minute observations often seem silly or not reflective of what happens most days in the classroom.  Teachers feel comments are not particularly helpful nor do they seem to offer any mentoring guidance that the teacher finds useful in day to day practice.  The end all and be all seems to be evaluation by pupil performance, and the interest in instructional methods starts and ends there.

But I worry students, like my sons, are losing the joy that learning can be.  Creativity is undervalued.  Collaboration is undervalued.  Kids are merely widgets moving through the system rather than people.  And in part, this is because the teachers and administrators as well are being treated as objects rather than people by every part of the system.  This cog is either doing its job or needs to be replaced.  But in reality, each member of the system can perform better when its “gears” mesh better with the other parts of the system, and it doesn’t have to do all the work alone.

It’s the reason setting a positive culture in your classroom and in your school is critical to success- probably even more so than test prep.  Let’s take the psychological phenomenon of priming as an example.   If kids and teachers feel valued and like they are doing good work every day, they will naturally feel more competent when it comes to test time.  Confidence and a belief in success is perhaps not as important to the outcome as the actual knowledge, but feeling like the task ahead is manageable and not hopeless is key to everyone’s engagement in the process and ultimate accomplishments.

The heart of making differentiated instruction work is creating an environment of trust and collaboration- creating a classroom that values mutual respect and cooperation- a community.  The classroom should function like a family.  Sometimes, it may be more dysfunctional than we’d like, but striving for an environment where everyone feels valued is simply a more humane environment that will foster and facilitate learning even without a lot of other changes.

If there’s one thing I could wish for all of our schools, it would be that they become a much more compassionate and community oriented institution, where competition of individuals for a few precious resources takes a back seat to making sure everyone gets what they need rather than just what they want.  It’s a subtle shift, but critical.  As long as we continue to push schools to be factories of knowledge cramming, we lose more and more of the humanity we need to instill in our kids as well as our teachers.  A loss of this sort is less tangible than test scores, but all the more devastating by the wreckage it leaves in its wake.  As Seth Godin said recently, we have to Stop Stealing Dreams and start learning how to create schools that foster them instead.



Other priming links worth your time:

Understanding Differentiation

Jul 28, 2011 by

Differentiated Instruction has a mixed reputation.  It’s seen as potentially transformative, allowing all students to learn and understand the lessons and materials in the classroom.  It sounds like a great philosophy and ideal, almost like the dream of a perfect school.  Yet the devil is in the details- how do we make this dream a reality?  How can I start to differentiate in my class?  Where do I start?

Many teachers assume that DI is impossible, because they assume it will require essentially individualized lesson plans for each kid in the classroom.  When it’s often difficult to make sure kids with IEP’s get the accommodations they need, how would this work if every kid had their own plan?  It’s enough to make anyone crazy.  But let’s take a moment and look at another profession where people need to be treated as individuals, but without a group template or process, it simply wouldn’t work at all- Medicine.

My husband’s an OB-GYN.  He knows how the whole process works, from conception to delivery and beyond, and generally what tends to go wrong in between.  He needs to be a good diagnostician, which means being able to tell when a patient is progressing according to the general plan, and when their condition deviates from the norm and needs special attention.  He has to recognize some problems before they occur, and prescribe treatments to prevent conditions, as well as treat problems when they come up.  This is taking a basic treatment model for a condition- “pregnancy” and applying it to all different people, of different ages, races,  with pre-existing conditions and more, and tweeking it just a little to make sure the outcome is the best it can be for two patients- Mother and Baby.

If we apply this same template to teachers, teachers have to know how a normal student progresses through the year.  But then the teacher has to look for warning signs of a kid being in trouble before they actually get there, and do what’s needed to prevent problems before the occur.  They also have to know how to help kids who are really struggling, and know what tips or alternatives to use to make sure that child gets what they need as well.  That’s differentiating.

In our book, Jenifer and I discuss the hierarchy of needs in the classroom, based loosely on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  We made the following chart:

When students are in the classroom, they need to have their basic needs for “food clothing and shelter” met before they can really concentrate on the bigger things they need to concentrate on, like learning.  This means one of the key, foundational elements any teacher can do is create a classroom environment where kids feel safe and welcomed.

If you’ve ever wondered why we insist kids have a good breakfast every morning, it’s in part to make sure they have the energy to learn, but it’s also so they are not distracted by worrying about being hungry.  Some teachers I know even keep a box of snacks in their classroom- packets of goldfish or other things- to help make sure any hungry child has something to eat.  It makes the children feel more secure, and it makes the job o teaching just a little easier for the teacher as well.  Some other teachers keep a few hoodies or big sweaters from a thrift shop in the classroom, in case a child is cold for the very same reasons- when a child has a basic comfort need unmet, the chances they will concentrate on the business of the classroom goes down.

This is why the first step to creating a great classroom, even before we start talking about other steps to differentiate instruction,it’s about creating a classroom where you and the kids feel comfortable. Maybe even like a “third period family” for the time they are with you.

The more the kids have a sense of what is expected, that you will be fair, and that they are expected to respect each other, the more willing they will be to take risks and make mistakes when learning.  They’ll be more willing to go try a problem on a board or work in a group if they feel comfortable and that they won’t be humiliated or singled out for sharing their ideas.

By understanding a bit about Maslow’s hierarchy and how it effects a student’s motivation to learn and willingness to take risks, it will be easier to start thinking about ways to meet the individual needs of the students in your classroom.  And just like a doctor, the changes will often be changes that apply to many kids, not just one, and the small tweeks to head off problems in advance will serve everyone in the classroom well.

Related Posts

Howard Gardner on Education

Jun 13, 2011 by

This is a great video of Howard Garner, the “father” of multiple intelligences, from the Edutopia website.   Jenifer and I moderate a group on Differentiated Instruction and personalized learning on Edutopia, and we’d love to have you join us there as well. We’re hoping that our book, The Differentiated Instruction Book of Lists, will help classroom teachers make  personalized learning and project based learning a larger part of a student’s school experience, especially because this is the knowledge they rake with them, not just a series of facts stored in their brains.  The video is well worth the 7 minutes- let us know what you think!

Human Centered Education

May 25, 2011 by

I attended a great education “unconference” this past week- Educamp Philly.  EduCamp was attended primarily by teachers and administrators, and most sessions discussed challenges facing education, both philosophically as well as integration of technology into the classroom. I gave a session asking the question “How can we bring differentiated instruction to professional development?” in order to try and gauge whether forming individualized education plans and project based learning principals for teachers seemed to be a logical and reasonable approach.  I’m becoming more and more convinced that the basic good teaching and learning concepts we all know and love are equally applicable to adults as to children, but somehow, we seem to forget that these principals are true when it comes to professional development.

For example, in every school, the teachers will fall along a normalized curve regarding their tech skills and comfort with computers.  There will be those who are gadget and gear heads, always exploring the outer boundaries of what’s possible, those who are willing to try new things if they know they’re there, those who only want to give it a whirl if they can ensure success before they start, and those who are a bit phobic and doubt the usefulness of all these new toys as another fad or  false promise, because they’ve seen so many trends come and go in the past.  If you think about this, this may mirror the distribution of kids in any classroom- a few geeks and gifted students who will always need more challenge; the high achievers motivated by grades and performance; the middle kids who try hard and learn, but aren’t the gunners; and the kids who are hard to reach or don’t seem to care, or need special help to make sure they can pass.

Therefore, if we know that in order to meet the needs of the kids in the classroom, we should consider adopting differentiated instruction and personalized learning for kids tomeet their own learning styles and needs, why would the same thing not hold true for the adults?

Should we consider rethinking professional development?

Paying consultants and speakers to come in and tell us about the proverbial school on the hill can be inspiring, but often this shining example is met with resistance because no one ever sees that they have the ability, if they pull together, to achieve similar results. However, if we move to a model of professional development based on teachers setting up a learning plan based on what they need and want to achieve, professional development can adopt a project-based learning model where teachers can have firm goals of what they want to achieve over the course of a school year, and a plan on how to achieve it.  By checking in every other month or so, teachers and administration can gauge progress and offer help in areas where a teacher may be stuck or need to re-evaluate and adjust goals.  This method of professional development, if supported by administration and other teachers would go a long way to help achieve the supportive personal learning communities we all talk about.  It will be a demonstrable experiment on whether differentiated instruction and project based learning works, helping teachers to gain the confidence needed to integrate this approach into the classroom for their own students.  More importantly, in the end, teachers will have something tangible to point to, indicating what they have learned and how they have potentially increased their student’s learning and achievement in the classroom in the process.

Just like the marketplace in the “real world” becoming more customer-centric, education for adults and for students needs to adapt and become more learner-centered and focused. Project based learning, personalized learning, and individualized education and professional development plans may be one way to achieve this.

I’m dying to hear what you think, including any and all obstacles to making this a reality.  how would this play out in your school?  What barriers are there to acceptance?  What would have to happen to make sure your professional development was not one-size fits all and seemed more meaningful and engaging?  Share your thoughts below!