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A Perfect Confluence

Regis Shields participated on a panel “Rethinking Notions of School Time and Class Size” at the Education Week “Innovation Insight” conference on May 13, 2011. The following is the basis for her remarks.

What’s the opposite of a “perfect storm?” A perfect storm is “a combination of events which are not individually dangerous, but occurring together produce a disastrous outcome.” What phrase do we use to describe a combination of events which are not individually transformative, but occurring together produce radically altered and positive outcome? I am not sure our language has a phrase.  What about… A perfect confluence? Ok it’s not sexy….I am open to suggestions. 

What we have right now in education is the possibility of a perfect confluence:

  • The Core Curriculum and the development of related assessments;
  • The introduction of innovative technology;
  • The redesign of teacher evaluations and compensation structures;
  • The evolving and dynamic understanding of brain function;
  • The dramatic reduction in available resources.

The Opportunity to Revolutionize K-12 Education

What do all these have to do with class size and student time? By considering these events together and implementing them with vision, we have the opportunity to revolutionize k—12 education – those “notions of school time and class size.” However, considering them separately and within our current structures, these events have the possibility of further entrenching us in structures and organizations that are 100 years old which no longer serve our student population or the needs of our complex and dynamic society.

Let’s even consider the title of this panel—“Rethinking Notions of School Time and Class size.” The danger of this title—using the phrases “school time” and “class size”—is that it brings our minds immediately to the 180 day school year, 7 hour school day, in the school building down the street and to the traditional individual classroom with 25-30 students assigned to a single teacher.  When we start with these structures, even though we know they no longer work for us, we tend to tweak around the edges or just layer our new structures on top of the old structures. As we confront this “perfect confluence,” we need to seize the opportunity to break down the walls of the school and the classroom and rethink these notions more expansively and more fluidly—perhaps instead of thinking about “school time” and “class size” thinking in terms of “learning time” and “learning groups.”

Revolutionizing the teaching job

As a nation we are finally in a place where we are seriously rethinking teacher evaluations, tenure and compensation. This is long overdue and critical. But, as we rethink and reinvent we must understand how changes impact other parts of the education system. Are we designing a new teacher evaluation and compensation system that weds us to traditional structures and classes? For example, if we design reward systems that rely mostly (or too much) on linking/tying individual student scores to individual teachers, we make it harder to create research-based structures that promote flexible groupings based on skills and knowledge and promote teams of teachers working together with students and improving practice. Students’ outcomes should absolutely be a component of a teacher’s evaluation. However, rather than design an evaluation system that dictates structure, we should structure learning based on research and best practices and design an evaluation system that reflects and facilitates it.

Revolutionizing “Class size”

Ashley Park Elementary School in Charlotte, North Carolina (See ERS video, Video: Turnaround in Action) is a perfect example of applying school designs that transform the teaching job and class groupings. As a turnaround school, it has made enormous achievement gains after implementing a structure they call the “family model.” In this family model all the teachers on a grade level have joint ownership of students. For example, the two third-grade teachers share responsibility for all 40 third-grade students, which allows the teachers to work together to design the day around student needs, co-teaching where appropriate or dividing the students into different size groups for different lessons. Special education teachers, teaching assistants, tutors and facilitators join in for core subjects, so group sizes at any given time can vary from two students to more than 30.

Revolutionizing grades

Next let’s think about the Common Core Standards. Over 40 states have adopted the standards and related assessments that are currently being developed. The standards are organized by grades K-12. With standards and assessments organized by grades, do we run the danger of locking ourselves into our current grade and classroom structure even though we know children learn at different paces and in different ways? We should use these Standards as a means to free us from traditional structures.

Take for instance Adams County School District 50 which has adapted what they term a “standards-based education system.” The district has replaced the traditional notions of grade levels and students instead groups students by academic levels of 1-10 and they progress based on their mastery of subjects and not the length of time they have been in school. Students can be in different levels for different subjects. All students change classes throughout the day, and move up to the next level of instruction—and a new set of teachers—as they are ready. The notion of quarters, terms or semesters does not exist.

Revolutionizing time with technology

In “The Rise of K-12 Blended Learning” a recent publication by Public Impact and a couple other organizations, they cite the book “Disrupting Class” which projects that by 2019, 50 percent of all high school courses will be delivered on-line. That will only be a revolution if we rethink when and how these courses are offered. I hesitate to admit that I remember when I could only make a telephone call from my parent’s kitchen, because that is where the phone was—affixed to the wall. Or I could only watch my favorite TV show on a certain night, at a certain time, in a certain place—in the family den. It has become commonplace and ingrained in our culture that these activities are no longer bounded by time and space. As the technology progresses, why should learning be bounded by time (both day and year) or space (the classroom or the school house)?

Currently in most places, we haven’t removed those boundaries with respect to the use of instructional technology. Instructional technology is used mainly for remediation, to supplement instruction, or to offer one-off courses that schools don’t offer. Usually, these activities are happening in a classroom with an assigned teacher.

However, take Rocketship Education, which currently operates three “hybrid” charter elementary schools in California. This model of education combines classroom teaching with on-line individualized instruction. Students spend a portion of their day in learning labs that individualizes instruction through on-line learning and small group or one-on-one instruction. The structure purports to have students master the basic skills during this period of time, while teachers in the classroom time can leverage these basic skills to spend time focusing on critical thinking skills and higher order learning.

Fiscal constraints can force innovation

And, finally the dramatic reduction in state and local revenues that has occurred over the past couple of years is a perfect example of a missed opportunity—a potential transformative event—that should have forced us to rethink expensive and antiquated structures and practices that no longer support student achievement, such as dollars tied up in minimal class size reduction. A recent article at edweek.org by Phi Delta Kappa—“Leading through a Fiscal Nightmare” quotes one superintendent: “Innovation has almost ground to a halt. You can’t push forward with new innovations without the funding to see them through.” Yes, innovation requires more funding if it is layered on old structures. But, if those structures are unwound, and resources—time, people, and money—are used in truly innovative ways, then “innovation” should not be completely halted during tough fiscal times.

If this is to be a moment of perfect confluence, then not only do we need to shake up our thinking or notions, but we also need to deconstruct the laws, policies, contracts that have grown-up around and solidified these notions. These include, but are not limited to State certification requirements that require certified teacher supervision of learning, state and district graduation requirements that are tied to the Carnegie unit, and teacher contract provisions that dictate class sizes and the length and structure of the school day and year. Some of these changes will be harder than others. Industries and society have evolved around the notion of summer without school. Others, such as class size and structure, are only bounded by our imagination, courage and political will.

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