Monday, March 15, 2010

Maybe the problem is we call it School

@mcleod @willrich45 @djakes

Last year I was involved in a huge school reform project. The idea was to start a new charter school that was sponsored by our local ISD. We were going to call the school Wasioja Valley School. Wasioja Valley School would be a blended online-F2F school where a classroom or two would be leased in ours and neighboring district high schools. The school would exist as a school spread across many schools. The classrooms would be real places but the school itself would be virtual comprised of digitally connected classrooms. The education our charter school would offer would be project-based and learner-centered following the Edvisions model. I wrote the charter grant, assembled a team of educators from our neighboring school districts, I spoke at countless school board meetings, I got district superintendents and school board members involved. I also got people from outside our district involved who had experience starting charter schools and who had experience with they type of pedagogy this school was to employ. Everything seemed like it was falling into place. It was very exciting.

Then, when the time finally came for our school board to officially vote to sponsor this charter school our board chair offered it up for a vote and no one seconded the motion. There it was, no further action could be taken. The only statement regarding it from another board member was something along the lines of, "I am nervous about what this might do for our school."

To pour salt on the wound, a year later I find out that the district has to make $156k in one time budget cuts because of a funding shift by the state government. If they had approved the charter school it would have brought $650k into the three district consortium through federal and state grants (that would have been $216k per district) which would have more than covered this deficit. To help the district cover this temporary budget problem I have now taken an 18 month leave of absence to work for another school (I probably would have had to do this anyway).

So, what was the problem? Wasioja Valley School seemed to be the kind of reform our schools need. It would have addressed the unique needs of learners not served well by our traditional model of education while helping to support the system already in place that does work well for a great many students.

Three things I came across this week seem to answer this for me. First, there is this story shared on a post by Will Richardson (and I am sorry for reprinting the whole thing, don't usually make a habit of it but felt justified in this case):

Recently a school administrator shared a story that reminded me why I need to spend more time talking to more people outside of the echo chamber.

She said that a group of parents had requested a meeting to discuss the methods of a particular teacher and his use of technology. It seemed this teacher had decided to forgo the textbook and have students write their own on a wiki, that he published a great deal of his students’ work online, that he taught them and encouraged them to use Skype to interview people who they had researched and identified as valuable voices in their learning, and that he shared all of his lectures and classwork online for anyone, not just the students in his class, could access them and use them under a Creative Commons license.

When the administrator got the phone call from the parent who wanted to set up the meeting, she asked for some sense of what the problem was. The reply?

“Our students don’t need to be a part of a classroom experiment with all this technology stuff. They need to have a real teacher with real textbooks and real tests.”


Then, there is this video by a former UNL student who beautifully explains the problems Wasioja Valley School was trying to address:

Finally, I think my answer might be in this TEDxTalk by Scott McLeod:

In that video he mentions that everyone has a preconceived notion of what school is and that we need to educate the public about what school needs to become. Perhaps the problem was we called our reform effort Wasioja Valley School. Had we called it something else I wonder if we would have had a better chance. Perhaps Wasioja Valley Academy would have been a better choice. We did have discussions about it and in the end the problem largely had to do with the fact that this model of education did not fit well with the conceptions people had of what school was supposed to be.

So, now the new question I am struggling with is, "Is it OK to let schools fail?" Is it ok to let our schools become dangerously irrelevant? Perhaps all our collective school reform efforts are in vain. Perhaps we are barking up the wrong tree. Perhaps the common concept of what school is is so ingrained into the public conscious that changing it is near impossible. It takes a long time to redefine a term, do the changes in the world our reform efforts are trying to address require a redefinition faster than it can happen? Perhaps our energy is better spent constructing the next thing, the thing we replace our irrelevant schools with. Perhaps the answer is not school at all but something else entirely. What should we call it? What does it look like? In different speech Dr. McLeod gave to the NEA this winter he said that in our efforts to transform schools into 21st century learning environments that there can be no sacred cows. Perhaps we need to consider "school" in that list. But then, we get into the same argument regarding the word "school" as David Jakes does here with the word "teacher."

1 comment:

Mrs. Tenkely said...

How very sad. The parent comment stopped me in my tracks and left me stunned. They have no idea what damage they are doing to their children by wanting everything to be the way that it was when they were in school. No idea what damage in done when no one seconds a motion to start a new school initiative. There are immediate effects (extra dollars that would have been available are not) and long term effects (students are not adequately prepared in the future). I think we need to be better about getting the word out about what true learning looks like. We need the community and parents to share our vision. I guess what we really need is to meet the community where they are at. Unfortunately right now where they are at is watching talk shows, and reading tabloids. How do we get there?