Saturday, April 17, 2010

The achievement trap, another inconvenient truth

Go the the website for the "Race to Nowhere: The Dark Side of America's Achievement Culture". Watch the three-minute trailer.  Look for a screening near you.  Heck, organize a screening. It's a documentary film by a parent, Vicki Abeles, for parents, educators and anyone with an empathetic heart about the staggering increases in homework kids get and the resulting sleep deprivation, sedentary lifestyle and depression - even suicide - among kids who pick up on the pressure to 'excel', 'succeed', 'achieve' and 'win'. This is the other side of the 'achievement gap'.  This is the 'achievement trap'.

Monday, November 23, 2009

In Praise of Elinor Ostrom

Does public education have to morph into more of a distributed rather than centralized system in order to become truly representative of the "public"? I have always thought so. But, how to make the case without seeming to overlook those who will be elbowed out? Recently, to my delight, my faith in the unconditional wisdom of everyone was scientifically and economically validated when  Elinor Ostrom won a Nobel for her "new science of governance for a new age" by applying  the "practical economics" ("A Nobel for Practical Economics" of voluntary associations and communal ownership to protecting the shared common good. I apply her logic to education.

No. Ms. Ostrom doesn't mention education per se. But, given that an exuberant, well-loved, and healthy childhood is a common good that deserves shared protection, allow me to make the leap from the governance of our shared natural resources like fisheries and grazing grounds to the governance of our shared human capital like teachers, parents and students.

Ms. Ostrom's research finds that natural resources and the common good are best protected by local, knowledgeable, voluntary associations with rules designed by enlightened locals to fit a "local ecology".  Distant, publicly regulated entities or privately owned for-profit markets do NOT protect the shared common good better than local enlightened and invested associations. Ms. Ostrom's work lays to rest "the tragedy of the commons", the long-held justification for distant authorities to regulate locals for the sake of the common good because, so the theory goes, locals can't be trusted to protect the common good due to greed, politics and ignorance. Hmm.

The opposite turns out to be true.  Locals actually are BEST at protecting the common good because local knowledge leads to rules that make sense and work for local conditions.

The solutions proposed by the WSJ education task-force assume the opposite of Elinor Ostrom's conclusions. The CEO's of the WSJ education task-force assume that the social and moral responsibility for the public education system rests solely with government and business. No teacher, parent or student is on the task-force.  The only references to teachers, parents and students are as distant, problem-persons to be "rewarded", "denied", "removed", "educated about consequences", and "mobilized". The overriding belief of the moderator and the task-force appears to be that government and business are wiser, more responsible and more innovative and productive than the single teacher, parent or student.

This is not true. Government and business are NOT wiser, more moral and more entrepreneurial that the single individual teacher, parent or student. The single individual is at least as, if not more so, wise, moral and entrepreneurial than government-regulated authorities and privately-owned markets. Systems, in modern times, have to be designed around trusting the individual, not to make the individual dependent on a system.

Looking through the lens of Ms. Ostrom's research that small & local is wisest, more moral and more protective and entreprneurial, we see that the WSJ moderator and task-force solutions assume "the tragedy of the commons". Our current education system thinking assumes that the single, individual teacher, parent or student are lazy unless prodded with "high expectations" and matching rewards and punishments made up by distant authorities.

Applying Ms. Ostrom's research, I invite the WSJ task-force to consider five alternative recommentations.

An Educated I N D I V I D U A L: The Top Five Alternative Recommendations

1. INDIVIDUALIZING EDUCATION IS OUR TOP PRIORITY. Given that 25 years of standardized. "outcomes-based" education has given the nation and business "alot of subprime ... human capital", "dismal graduation rates", "teachers bailing out of the profession", "parents frantic", "student performance [that] pales next to competition abroad", and "business [that] can't find the talent it needs in the work force that our education system produces" let us stop and think about policies to support small, local enlightened associations of teachers, parents and students instead doubling down on more of this obviously failing strategy. If what's working are small, "pockets of excellence" then let us create a system that encourages a network of many small pockets of excellence.

2. LOCAL COUNCILS OF ENLIGHTENED INDIVIDUALS. Invest resources in cultivating local wisdom, social responsibility and entrepreneurship.  The charter movement is a perfect example.  One law allowed for many flowers to bloom and then it began self-organzing.  The only hold-up is distant regulators creating bottle necks and stalling improvisation. When Districts start to support schools, rather than schools propping up Districts, change will be here.

3. CREATE EFFECTIVE SCHOOLS OF EDUCATION.  Invest in the input and you have to invest less in crying over the output. Schools of education need to tie research into children's cognitive, emotional and physical development into how to teach and what to teach and when to teach it.  Working with the child, rather than against the child, will prove to be the magic bullet. Schools of education ought to connect with schools to create feedback loop of ongoing learning and experimentation between teacher education and teacher classroom experience.

4. TRANSFER OWNERSHIP OF EDUCATION FROM GOVERNMENT AND BUSINESS TO SCHOOLS OF EDUCATION & WORLD-CLASS CORPS OF TEACHING PROFESSIONALS. As long as distant authorities treat teachers, parents and students as threats to the shared intellectual commons, this will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Business has demonstrated these last 25 years or so that flattening the governance and trusting in the brilliance of the individual makes the business smarter and faster and more fun.  And it makes the trusted person actually brighter! Instead of going backward and dreaming up more layers of regulation, let business ring the bell for a local, distributed network of entrepreneurial and self-organizing networks of teachers, parents and students linked up with universities.  Then we will be a collective, national "learning organization".

5. INITIATIVE TO TELL THE EXTENDED PRE-NATAL - HIGH SCHOOL STORY OF ENLIGHTENED PARENTING. Get IDEO to think of a way to do this. Youtube, social networking, neighborhood meet-ups - Make "Parent For America" part of the "Teach for America" agenda -- brainstorm, brainstorm ... Get IDEO together with Po Bronson' Nurture Shock, Waldorf early-childhood educators, others. Make if fascinating and entertaining like Annie Leonard's "Story of Stuff". 

If government and business continues to make and recomment policies that empower distant authorities over empowering individual persons, we will not only not evolve as a social organism, we will go backwards. Witness this summer's eruption of mental and emotionally-challenged town-hall meetings. From this point forward, we evolve one enlightened person at a time.  We get enlightened by being personally responsible, not just being "held accountable" with carrots and sticks by external and distant authorities.  The days of distant authorities getting between the wisdom of the local parent, child and teacher unit is over.

25 years of Big Standardization, Big Education Industry, Big Union Outcomes-Based Education, RIP.
25 years of Small, Local Personal Responsibility-Based Education, Hello.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Dial back the bubbling machine!

 Ever on the prowl for signs of the times and openings for Waldorf education to be of impact, an FYI:

Edutopia is producing a "webinar" with Linda Darling Hammond next Tuesday on the subject of assessment, "The Race to the Top is on, and it's being driven by the next generation of standards. Learn about how top-performing nations assess student learning and examine its implications for the next generation of U.S. assessments." 

I've signed up for both the morning and afternoon sessions in order to get Linda's latest thinking and her behind-the-scenes perspective on how to proceed with a more human approach to that ol' devil assessment. 

Even though I don't share the exact values expressed in Obama's "Race to the Top" strategy, whatever gets the subject of evaluation on the table is fine with me. Here in Hollywood that's called "I don't care what you say about me, just spell my  name right".  

A move to evaluate for learning and reflection and innovation instead of ONLY for quantitative numbers and statistics, is, I think, central to transforming education around the child and the human spirit.  I believe the sooner Waldorf education counters the prevailing winds with the Waldorf education approach to evaluation and assessment the better. Criticism is not enough. People need concrete ideas to examine and try out.  

And of course, the more of us merging our energies the merrier, so, if you have time to check in on the webinar .... follow the yellow brick road ... 

Rest assured, we in Waldorf education have many like-minded souls looking at a human-centered approach to evaluation: A recent example: At "Sustaining Innovation in Evaluation"  GOOD magazine and the "design thinking" company, IDEO, pair for a "bloginar" on this question.