January 2010

Why can’t schools change?

by Steve Wyckoff on January 31, 2010

Why can’t schools change? It’s an interesting question. If you ask many educators they would say that schools have changed dramatically. I disagree. I think what goes on inside some classrooms has changed dramatically, but not schools. We do use more technology in classrooms; projectors, computers, smart boards, etc. But what we’re doing inside those walls is basically the same thing we’ve done for over 100 years. And sadly, with pretty much the same curriculum. Oh there have been some changes, but mostly tinkering inside the old format.

Some people believe that we need to change the rules so that schools look different. But then I can show you examples of schools that look dramatically different than traditional schools and are functioning within the same rules, regulations, and policies. So the rules must not be what is impeding our ability to change.

Other people think that a tradition that is over 100 years old is keeping us from changing. That we’ve done school the same way for so long that the belief system, and the culture around schools is too entrenched to change. These people often see parents as the biggest reason we can’t change. That parents demand that schools look like they did when they were students.

Still more people believe that the arcane rules for admission into college keep us from changing. That the emphasis on preparing every student to go to college forces schools to behave exactly as they always have. They believe that the Carnegie unit, Departmentalization, focus on standardized test, etc. are the fault of universities.

A cause that is never considered among educators is that perhaps we lack the leadership to make changes. School administrators are of the opinion that they are no longer managers, but rather leaders. I’m not sure I see any difference in their behaviors from when they were managers. I don’t think that continuous improvement of traditional processes constitutes leadership when there is a need for real systemic change.

There is also a school of thought that educators are risk-averse by nature, and that has a whole, are very, very reluctant to change. But when I talk to business people they feel the same way about themselves. Being resistant to change seems to be, to a large degree, human nature, and not reserved for educators.

And last, but certainly not least, there seems to be an non-articulated argument about the purpose of schools. There seems to be a “venn diagram” of purposes for schools. Prepare kids to go to college, prepare kids for the workplace, to give them a broad liberal education, to indoctrinate them for society, etc. The conflicting camps all want schools to change in a different way, therefore causing gridlock.

I think, in my humble opinion, that each of these is a characteristic of a centrally controlled bureaucracy. And there is no bigger centrally controlled bureaucracy than public education. Bureaucracies were designed to guarantee compliance, and stability in systems and processes. There is no system with more stable systems and processes nor more compliant than public education.

So what do I think the chances of real systemic change are? Zero. Nadda. None. In fact I think the bureaucracy has moved from the state level to the federal level with a corresponding increase in stability and compliance. I chuckle at the federal government’s insistence that they are encouraging real systemic change in schools. My observation is that they are causing exactly the opposite effect. Our schools have become test preparation Academy, whose sole purpose is to prepare kids to increase their scores on standardized test.

So what’s the solution? I believe the solution is “mission impossible.” The elimination of the educational bureaucracy at a time when our country is moving in the opposite direction seems hopeless. I keep looking for that ray of hope, but every time I see one, the results never seem to pan out. I don’t think there is a rule that America has to stay the best. Time will tell.- Steve Wyckoff

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Erie High School: A Shining Star, Or Lost In Space?

by Steve Wyckoff on January 30, 2010

Erie school district has been blessed. By Mike Carson, Rose Frey, Ted Hill, and many many others who were involved in the transformation of their school. Erie high school is unique. What makes them unique is that their focus is on their students, and their student’s futures.

Erie high school has changed what the students learn, how the students learn, and how they organize the students to learn. In addition, while the students do take the state mandated standardized tests, their students are measured in much different ways than almost all other kids across the country.

The curriculum used in Erie high school is based on projects and problems designed by each individual student, based on their own interest, needs, and desires. And the results have been equally unique, students, and I mean all students, have far exceeded the normal expectations we have for high school kids. And, as former superintendent Mike Carson is fond of saying, “It isn’t just the head cheerleader and the quarterback that are doing great things.”

What Erie high school has figured out is how to not just expose their kids to curriculum with all the standards, but how to actually engage the students in meaningful work, whereby the kids learn the things that they want them to learn. Is it perfect? No. There have been, and continue to be, many issues. But unlike school improvement in traditional schools, they are getting better at the right things, rather than just getting better at what schools have always done.

I’ve observed for the last 40 years scores of creative an innovative projects. Some big, some small. The thing that they all had in common was a champion. The sad truth is, as soon as the champion moved on, and eventually they always do, the gravity of the status quo always pulled the project back into the mainstream and morphed it into a traditional program. There seems to be no way to make real systemic change in the educational system.

So I’m watching Erie high school with great interest. The superintendent has retired, as has the high school principal responsible for the project-based, problem-based learning curriculum. Other changes have been made with key personnel. My hope is that the model employed in Erie high school will spread across the state and the country.  The hope is that new champions have replaced the old champions.

I have low expectations. In spite of the fact that their kids are doing exceptional things and are truly well-prepared for the life they’re going to live; and in spite of the fact that it is actually cheaper to educate kids in this model; and in spite of the fact that we are in a financial crisis; I fear that it is impossible to actually make sustainable systemic change in public schools.

Time will tell.

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Educational Reform: Are We Wasting A Good Crisis

January 29, 2010

I had the opportunity earlier this week to interview almost 20 educational leaders. I asked each of these individuals what the biggest issue is that they were facing has an educator in their role. Almost without exception they identified the financial crisis as the single most important issue. No surprise there. But the follow-up question […]

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Awesome Blog Post: You Have To Read This!

January 28, 2010

A friend of mine sent me a blog post this morning from Nick Finck. It’s a 128 slide presentation on Netflix’s corporate culture. It’s very impressive stuff. It begins by talking about the seven aspects of culture: values are what we value high-performance freedom and responsibility context, not control highly aligned, loosely coupled pay top […]

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The Mission Of Schools: What Is, What Should Be

January 27, 2010

Every school district has a mission statement, they’re all pretty much the same. In some way they all talk about preparing students to be productive members of society. But in spite of the fact that society has changed dramatically not just over the last hundred years but in the last 15 years, schools are doing […]

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Standardized Tests: Causal Or Correlational?

January 25, 2010

I’ve given a lot of thought to the standardized test phenomenon. How is it that so many well-intentioned and highly intelligent people can have so much faith in such a detrimental process? I think I might have at least part of the puzzle figured out. We’ve been using standardized tests for decades, and educators through […]

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Is Technology A Tool, Or Entertainment For Bored Kids?

January 24, 2010

I love technology. I’m a gadget guy. I use technology to learn. when I want to learn something new I google it, I look it up in Wikipedia, and I try to watch it on YouTube. And I always try to figure out what is the best tool to accomplish the work I’m doing, and […]

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What Does “Well-Educated” Mean?

January 23, 2010

I’ve been preparing for a presentation that I’m going to do for the school board of one of the largest districts in the state. They are involved in strategic planning, and to their credit they are looking at all aspects of their school district with the intent to improve. My presentation is built around my […]

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College Or College?

January 21, 2010

This post is cross posted with Kansas Career website. Regardless of how old you are you’ve heard for most of your life that you need to go to college. You’ve heard it from your mom and dad, grandmother and grandfather, and even the President of the United States. In fact, from many presidents of the […]

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Reading and Writing, Speaking and Listening?

January 19, 2010

Seems like a simple concept right? Reading, writing, speaking, and listening. I thought about this this morning and chuckled to myself. If you want proof about how the world is changing just take four simple concepts like these and think about how they play out in the 21st century. I hardly ever read any more, […]

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What Is School Reform?

January 18, 2010

It’s funny how we carry definitions around in our head and we assume that other people have those same definitions. When we have discussions about school reform, school redesign, and change, we often times think that we are talking about the same thing as other people but in reality we have very different perspectives. So […]

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School Reform: What will it take?

January 16, 2010

For the last 20+ years I’ve constantly considered what it would take to make systemic change in the public education system. I’ve looked at it from every angle and I’ve changed my mind many times. Apparently, this is another one of those times, because I have change my mind again. In the past I’ve looked […]

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School Reform: Is there any hope?

January 14, 2010

Over the last month I’ve had the opportunity to visit with several friends and colleagues. It’s always great to catch up with people, especially those in your profession, that you don’t get to have a conversation with very often. These conversations were eerily familiar. But before I tell you about the conversations I need to […]

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How does knowledge expand so fast?

January 12, 2010

Often times when I present to educators there is a discussion about the relevance of content. Not the content is irrelevant, but that is changing so rapidly that it is extremely hard to keep pace with the change. We often hear data that says knowledge is doubling every… you fill in the blank, every 12 […]

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Why our kids aren’t prepared for their future

January 11, 2010

One of the biggest issues that we face in education is that we are in adequately preparing our kids for their future. I recently finished Dan pink’s new book Drive, and sure enough more evidence that we’re not preparing our kids for the 21st century. Let me explain. In his book he talks about two […]

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Schools: Fine, Broken, Obsolete?

January 9, 2010

Just a couple of years ago I started asking my audiences if schools were fine, they just needed tweaking; broken, they needed fixing; or obsolete, they need replacing. As you might imagine this provoked some lively conversation. When I first started asking the question the most common answer was, schools are fine they just need […]

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Why our kids come to school

January 8, 2010

I had a thought some years ago while visiting with some students at our charter school. It became clear to me that students do not come to school intending to learn. It was a real epiphany for me because I, like everyone else, assumed that kids come to school to learn, and that’s what the […]

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What’s In A Name!

January 6, 2010

You may be wondering about the name of this blog, What’s Become Clear. Several years ago I had the opportunity to spend a couple of days listening to some of the best minds in America. One of those individuals was Tom Peters. Tom is considered to be one of the great business thinkers of our […]

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