Superb story from Donna Neary, a UK student, Next Gen Alum, and teacher in Jefferson County Public Schools. Donna is using the power of deeper learning, project-based instruction, and performance assessment to transform the lives of immigrant children that move to Louisville.
Donna tells her own story well, so I will not elaborate:
Full story: https://www.edsurge.com/news/2018-05-07-inside-the-project-based-program-that-s-turning-refugees-into-high-school-grads
In my quest to understand the best models nationally for potential use here in Kentucky in our public schools, I've come across Acton Academy. Acton is a network of schools (around 80 listed on their site) based out of Austin, TX. It is the ideological child of Jeff Sandefer, a former business teacher at the University of Texas and founder of the Acton School of Business. Before that, he was a multi-millionaire off-shore oilman and venture capitalist. He is also a fan of for-profit education and has influenced education in Texas to this end.
Acton's primary model, what they are most known for, is that learners are completely independent with only rare interventions from adults. Students set their own goals, manage their own projects, and hold themselves and other students accountable. Their "quests" are their projects and the students are encouraged to take on quests in which they try to change the world in their own ways. Here is their 15 min. short documentary:
To get this independence, they rely heavily on online learning platforms like Khan, Dreambox, and MOOC platforms like EdX. From my review, this heavily online platform reliance probably concerns me the most. However, learners also read a lot of books. At the high school level, the expectation is 4 life-changing books per year.
The big difference between Acton and other networks like Summit or Big Picture is that Acton is focused on micro-schools and seems primarily designed only for smaller private or charter schools. It is more of an "unschool" and thus scaling will be harder.
A book was written about the story of Acton by one of the founders if you want to get the really deep story.
To start an Acton school, there is a $10,000 entry fee which gets you access to the tools, the name, and the network. Thereafter, you have to share 1% of the revenue with the network (not entirely sure what that means, but that is likely a big number). Like other networks, there are requirements to be a member such as satisfaction surveys. There is a new Acton Academy starting in Nashville TN this fall (2018) if those in Kentucky want to see a close one.
The Getting Smart Podcast Interview is here:
Overall, this particular network is not a good fit for Kentucky's public schools. What they are doing with learner independence is something very unique and laudatory. I can easily see how it would work well with many learners on a daily basis and would lead many of those students to find deep rooted passions which they could hopefully translate into careers.
However, the network fees, the small school nature, and their mission (including the for-profit part) are poor fits for our public schools. The push for growth coupled with that for-profit nature are particularly a reason for pause.
Thus, let's learn from them. Let's embrace more independence in our learners and more entrepreneurism in our leaders. Our own public school kids should be enjoying quests driven by their own world-changing passions. These are all things we can do within our existing systems.
When Summit Learning came to Kentucky for the first time at Next Gen a couple years ago, I was completely awe-struck. I told the audience members I felt like we were all driving different versions of Toyota and a Ferrari just drove by.
In the couple years since, I have not really changed my opinion. There is something particularly special and powerful about this type of network combined with that type of platform that feels very much to me like the future.
So, since then, I've been even more curious about new networks of schooling. There are a growing number of these networks (although at the price of $0 Summit seems the most popular) and they are expanding into Kentucky.
None of this, of course, feels particularly different than what Ted Sizer was trying to do with the Coalition of Essential Schools, it just feels like a modern iteration.
So, this is a bit of a deep dive into my thinking about these networks and how they are hinting at the upgrade of public education we all want so badly.
Quick story then a link for something you should read from Kentucky.
A couple years back a veteran school leader was analyzing Next Gen and after speaking for a bit and experiencing it himself ... he said to me something akin to "you are dealing in hope at Next Gen."
He said it in a way that felt like we were "selling hope" so at first I cringed. I want to sell learning or growth or better experiences for kids. He sensed that and clarified that giving people hope is not a bad thing, indeed it is one of the best things. In systems that might feel hopeless or situations that cause a teacher to lose faith, pathways to hopefulness are crucial. In public education these days, especially when talking large scale change, it is easy to find hopelessness and difficult to discern hope.
I've pondered this a lot since that moment and I've come to the place where providing pathways to hope is just part of the leaders job. In fact, it is critical to culture and growth of a school.
So, that struck me again as I read the story of Knight Middle in Louisville, a school that is part of Next Gen this year but has been on a growth journey for a few years. Their principal, Cathy Gibbs, said:
Cathy strikes me as just such a hopeful leader. When you take the reigns of Knight Middle clearly a person has internal hope (or they probably would not take the job). But, the more difficult leadership question is whether they can provide external hope. Can you provide a vision, backed with execution, that goes from hopeless to hopeful? Being a "hope dealer," as Cathy says, is not something to cringe at it is something to celebrate. In today's world, it is too rare.
This is how it works. Leaders, hope, culture, student voice, execution, persistence ... over time, everyone adjusts and raises their game. You don't get all of what you hope for, but what you do get changes kids' lives. Remember, leaders don't really make change happen. Teachers, kids, and families are the change agents within school systems. But, stories like the one at Knight Middle start with a leader and a pathway to hope.
I love documents like transcripts. They tell a story of what is really important in a learning system. To us in Kentucky, it is GPA and ACT and that's pretty much it. That's the story we are telling about a kid at the end as their ticket to the next step.
It doesn't need to be this way. Transcripts can tell a richer story. In this 8 minute video, I tell you how.
Kentucky's motto adopted 6 months after our founding is my favorite motto amongst the states (yes, I reviewed them all ... also good, Rhode Island & Virginia). These meaningful mottos make for poor state flags, but are good words to live by generally. And in Kentucky, the motto and my experience of a decade of the Commonwealth are tightly fit together. From my experience, Kentucky as a state is the most unified state internally and perhaps the most unifying of all the 50 states, living as it does between north and south, and so many other divisions, trying throughout our history to bring the distinct parts of America together.
Kentucky, though, finds itself right now out-of-step with our motto. As I write this, thousands of teachers are marching on the capitol. Name-calling on all sides has been rampant. And, worst, we have stopped listening to each other.
Such moments will exist in the course of human events. Marches have proven to be quite useful and progressive tools over time. Perhaps this is one of those times. I'm proud of the teachers for standing up for their beliefs against powerful forces seeking new shapes for education in America. However, the spark that lit this fire in particular, pensions, was in need of reform and this administration was willing to tackle it, however poorly that was executed. At some point, everyone stopped listening, started shouting, rammed through last minute bills, and shut down schools. Where did that get us? Where did that leave our kids?
We know where this road of division leads. It leads backwards. It leads Kentucky back to the pre-KERA days. Kentucky largely stood above our southern neighbors by abstaining from both divisive policies and discord amongst schools and educators. We worked largely toward a shared vision established, and funded, at KERA. And, we made serious progress. Devolving back into division away from our shared goals will only hurt our children.
Perhaps the days of KERA have run their course and it is time for a new shared vision for public education in Kentucky. Reasonable voices, I know, can find such a shared vision for us. But, I also know that national conservative voices that have done so much harm to public education in other states should have no seat at the conversation and no place in our vision in how to execute our mandate to provide "an efficient system of common schools."
But, the vision from which we cannot stray was written down at our founding. It has served Kentucky well for 226 years.
United we stand. Divided we fall.
Money ... matters.
Do ... let my friend Bruce Baker tell you more about the research.
Don't ... let political leaders argue that money does not matter.
The research that led to the myth that money (or schools in general) don't matter that much for learning has been debunked. Schools do matter and the quality of the school does matter.Read More
I've been leading deeper learning work here in Kentucky now going on a decade. One thing that troubles me is that we as a community struggle to link the concepts of deeper learning and equity together. A recent interview with Carmen Colemen and John Marshall of Jefferson County on this was good, but not as great as it could have been had we been able to articulate with specificity how these ideas go together.
At STEAM I've seen first hand how our school models, instructional strategies, and supports can change lives and I know deep in my bones these concepts work together. But, I'm a professor, we need more than just feel and a few good stories. Even if we don't have years of solid, peer-reviewed research we at least minimally need to be transparent and articulate our best case for how deeper learning models make schools more equitable places. And then, yes, we need some peer-reviewed research testing those hypotheses. So, here goes:
- Decreased discipline. This is the easy one. At STEAM we have the lowest discipline rates amongst high schools in the city and some of the lowest in the state. We all know that over-discipline issues with minority populations continues to be a challenge for our schools but deeper learning models have shown an ability to reduce overall discipline substantially. I do not think it cures the inherent bias that might reside in the system against minority and poor kids, but a lot less discipline overall is a good start.
- Skills: Lots of people like to talk of Graduate Profiles and that is useful for educators. For the kids, though, it is a simpler, more natural task to develop skills. One develops skills in the process of doing real things. Some of our projects call for managing a budget, for instance. That's a skill. Managing a project to completion. That's a skill. Calling out a team member not pulling their load. That's a skill. Cold calling to ask for an internship placement. That's a skill. It takes practice and, thus, some failure. From an equity standpoint achieving those profile skills are lovely, but the opportunity to do and fail and try again while doing real things ... that's the good part.
- Mentoring. Any educator can tell you that relationships matter, a ton. Most school models, though, keep kids at arms length. A given teacher, particularly in middle and high school, may have a relationship with a child that only concerns the academic material. For many kids, though, they need more than that. Deeper learning models typically make time and build structures around these relationships. Whether it is the mentoring model of Summit, the Advisory Model (Science Leadership from Philly always impressed me), or another approach the understanding that children need deeper relationships and support are central.
- Authentic Projects, with a Social Justice bent. In my experience, when you give an English or Social Studies teacher a task of forming and working with students on a Project Based Learning unit, more often than not those turn into social justice focused projects of some sort. You can browse the High Tech High Project Cards and pretty quickly realize there are topics here that we would not normally open the door to in school. Now, trying to do social justice and talking about deeper questions relative to society does not necessarily equate to higher test scores, but if motivation and efficacy are huge underlying challenges, I've found it is a lot easier to motivate kids on authentic social justice projects and in doing that work they build more self-efficacy.
- Student Choice/Agency: In addition to teacher-created authentic projects, deeper learning models embed more student choice into the curriculum through passion projects, 20% time, and even choice within broader teacher directed projects. Kids will naturally choose to their curiosities, removing one of the more troublesome structural issues within schools which is that many suburban middle class white teachers are making choices for Black, Latino/a, Appalachian or other children who had different formative experiences. We have learned this so many times over at STEAM and been surprised/impressed with how much our children can achieve when they get to choose to learn from what matters to them. Dr. Marcia Carmichael passes along this useful link to an EAQ article which highlight how to get better at student voice within high school reform (and as they point out in a useful graphic, letting students get to youth leadership skills is used infrequently but the most impactful for kids).
- Learning Outside of School: If you add up 2-5 above and then let the kids leave school ... crazy powerful things start to happen. When kids get to select their own internships, engage in authentic challenges, develop community mentors ... it leads to a proliferation of new skills, confidence, opportunities, etc. Big Picture Schools is most known for advancing this model, but any school can do it with a bit of courage. Here is a kid written story on what we do at STEAM. But, here's the catch, you have to let all kids go (this is the part that most schools mess up). There will be some degree of failure and kids trying to get by with some things, but the learning is so overwhelmingly massive that managing the small amount of trouble is worth it. From an equity standpoint, kids from impoverished families get access to organizations and institutions to which they might not otherwise get access. If you hang out in a hospital every afternoon for a semester, it is not too hard to start seeing yourself working there, develop a few vital mentors, and enroll at the nursing program at the community college.
- "Special" Education: Having been involved in crafting a deeper learning school, my thoughts here probably warrant their own post (or book). Suffice for this purpose to say that how we do special education in much of schooling is far away from something we could label as "equity" or even the original intent of the law. I actually bubble a bit with anger thinking about it. Anyway, deeper learning models are more accessible to nearly all children, including most of those that have an IEP. In fact, I'm convinced presently (but open to alternative arguments) that many kids are given an IEP not because they have a disability but rather that the classroom structures they are in are dysfunctional. Deeper learning models permit a wider variety of kids with skills to interact and get a benefit from the time spent in classes. They also let the teachers get off the sage on the stage mentality and provide some extra 1-1 support when needed. On the whole, at least at STEAM, we have found that the normal classroom experience works well for nearly all kids with small doses of extra support sprinkled on top for both IEP and non-IEP students when needed.
- Stop Tracking: From my experience with deeper learning models, there are usually not "tracks" or AP classes or special classes. When we separate children based on perceived ability (based on test scores) we harm everyone in the process. That is not to say that Deeper Learning models do not allow children to separate in terms of the work they are doing at a given moment, just that a single English class or a single PBL should be capable of flexing to each student. Then, on the next project that calls for different skills, the abilities reshuffle and different kids are the high performers. Overall, that is a more equitable approach.
- Transparency. Accompanying many deeper learning transitions is a lot more transparency into the black box of the classroom. This happens in multiple ways. First, digital transparency. Whether it is Summit, Canvas, Classroom or some other LMS usually these transitions come with a 1:1 program and digital sharing of resources, grading, and communication. It is not perfect everywhere, but this transparency helps on the equity front by making clear what's happening in the classroom and how, should they need it, students might fix and even solve learning deficiencies noted by teachers. Second, exhibitions: One critical element of inquiry and project based models is that students show their work at exhibitions. These exhibitions make transparent the learning that is happening both within and between students. It can make "gaps" more noticeable for everyone and this transparency helps to keep everyone, including the kids themselves, focused on helping to equate expectations.
- Buying Time: Let's just be honest, one of the biggest equity challenges out there is that kids from poor families just have to start their adult lives a lot sooner for a variety of reasons. While deeper learning schools embrace the task of practicing adulthood, they are still schools where children are protected as children. Deeper learning model schools keep kids in school longer buying them more time to practice adulthood in a protected environment before being subjected to the rigors and punishments of adulthood outside school. This might seem counter-intuitive or even a small thing, but it isn't at all. Research has shown deeper learning models graduate more kids and enroll more kids in college. Lots of wealthy kids don't develop into adults until their junior year of college, but that's fine since they are still in school, mom might still be washing clothes, etc. Kids of poverty don't really get that option. Every day that passes where we can close that time gap is a small victory. Adolescents gets more time to be young adults rather than heads of households.
So, there you go. If pressed on the link, I'd answer something like that. Feedback welcome.
Now, there are other great voices on this, none respected more than Pedro Noguera, perhaps. In fact, he gave a great lecture at University of Illinois a few years back on this exact topic (video embedded). This lecture corresponded to a paper he released with Linda Darling-Hammond and Diane Friedlaender. Also, these authors teamed up to write one of the three equity chapters in this great book, Rethinking Readiness, published a couple years back. The other two chapters looked at equity issues with dual language students and unique learners.
Competency Works also just released a new look at how Competency models and equity link together which is really robust. You'll notice that some of our ideas overlap. Also, trusted sources on educational equity, such as the Annenberg Institute, have devoted significant effort to understanding and promoting deeper learning ideas. Further, some of the more high profile events, such as the Deeper Learning conference at High Tech High, are focusing on this topic explicitly (see video, which features a Kentucky teacher at the 1:38 mark). So, keep reading, go do some research yourself, and definitely help to shape these ideas for us in Kentucky. In fact, I welcome feedback on great thinkers, sources, or experiences that you have had that link these together. Comment, tweet, or email me.
In closing ... this conversation has to deepen. We can't speculate that deeper learning and equity are the same thing, we need to provide details on how learning models that promote progressive, inquiry, action oriented learning ... lead to equity of opportunity and students emerging from our schools equally ready to take their own brave next steps which contribute to our diverse, socially just society.