MontessoriPublic issue on charters and choice

MontessoriPublic is a new print and online publication from the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector, an organization that celebrates and supports public Montessori schools and programs. The latest issue includes a series of articles on charters and school choice, including the opportunities and potential threats to Montessori from these policies.

I was honored the editor invited me to submit an article. You can access the issue here (my piece appears on page 10). Though it initially wasn't what I intended to write, the article wound up being about my own experiences as a Montessori dad, and how Montessori has deeply impacted my thinking about pedagogy, as well as my commitment to school choice. Every family, regardless of income or ZIP code, deserves access to a wide variety of great education options, including Montessori. And Montesssori schools need the kind of autonomy enjoyed by charter schools to remain true to the method.

I hope this issue of MontessoriPublic deepens understanding in the Montessori community of the complexities and importance of school choice, and helps school choice advocates better appreciate the place of Montessori in the education marketplace.


Making Montessori work in the charter school sector

Three Signs
This month the Thomas B. Fordham Institute released a fascinating study, Three Signs a Proposed Charter School is At Risk of Failing. The report searches for indicators in the applications of proposed charter schools that were associated with those schools eventually posting low student performance. The authors found three signs associated with eventual charter school failure: 1) a lack of identified leadership for self-managed charter schools, 2) a lack planning for specific, intensive interventions for at-risk students, and of particular interest to me, 3) whether the school was proposing a "child-centered" curriculum or instructional approach like Montessori or Waldorf.  

The findings of this study are useful to policy-makers and those involved in charter school authorizing, especially here in Kentucky where we've recently moved to become the 44th state to allow charters. All of these risk factors for charter failure are worth pondering, but I'm specifically interested in the third finding regarding schools that intend to use a more non-traditional, "child-centered" approach. For several years I've been writing about my desire to see more public schools and schools of choice embrace such philosophies, especially Montessori. Three Signs is a warning that charter applicants and authorizers need to think very carefully about how to make such innovative strategies successful.

The authors of Three Signs examined charter school applications from four states (Colorado, North Carolina, Indiana, and Texas) and looked for elements that were associated with whether the applicant turned out to be a "low-performing" school, defined as being in the lowest 25% of schools in student achievement, and below the 50th percentile in academic growth in their early years of operation (previous research has indicated that if a charter is low-performing in its early years, it will likely remain so). Three patterns emerged:

1) Failure to identify the principal, or strong principal candidates, in the school's application resulted in a 51% likelihood that the school would be low performing. This pattern did not hold if the applicant was affiliating with an existing charter school network.

2) If the school intended to work with at-risk populations of students, but failed to describe "an intensive academic program that includes high-dosage, small-group instruction or extensive individual tutoring," the school was 61% likely to be l0w performing.

3) If the school intended to offer a "child-centered, inquiry-based learning model, such as Waldorf, Montessori, Paideia,  or other experiential models," it had a 57% chance of turning out l0w performing.

When a charter school application had two or more of these risk factors, the chance of failure increased to 80%.

The researchers recommend that, rather than simply reject charter school applications with these risk factors, authorizers think about how to mitigate against these risks and increase the likelihood that such schools can actually succeed.  For example, authorizers can insist that applicants provide a carefully crafted rubric and strategic plan for recruiting, selecting, and retaining high-quality leadership applicants, and ask applicants who intend to work with at-risk students to intentionally elaborate on their intervention and student support plans.

Regarding the issue of schools that want to use experiential models of learning, the authors of Three Signs point out that charters are intended to be innovative and try approaches that would be more difficult in traditional school environments, and that 20-30 percent of existing charters utilize such models. Montessori programs in public schools have increased by 50% since 2000, and half of these are charter schools

But such programs require extensive and specialized training for teachers, and the researchers speculate that some of these charter schools may have lacked sufficient supports so that child-centered strategies can be implemented with fidelity. Moreover, some of these methods involve multi-age grouping of students which may, if learning is not personalized to students' individual readiness levels, result in a misalignment of curriculum with materials assessed on state tests. Three Signs suggests authorizers take care to ensure that charter school applicants who intend to use innovative methods take these issues into careful consideration.

I appreciate the researchers' thoughtful discussion of these issues, and I certainly hope charter applicants and authorizers are not discouraged from pursuing child-centered philosophies. Some of the most exciting examples of education innovation I've seen are where schools are attempting to integrate a rigorous curriculum with Montessori methods, especially with at-risk learners. But I have also observed how difficult it is to implement such approaches with fidelity. Schools require strong structures of teacher training and development and appropriate resources  or they easily lapse into a weak version that Montessori dad and author Trevor Eissler calls "Monte-something."

Such resources and supports do exist, however. The National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector is devoted specifically to helping public Montessori programs, whether in charter or district-run schools, implement the Method with fidelity. The other findings from Three Signs also suggest that, to enhance the success of charter schools using experiential models of learning, applicants and authorizers must take careful steps to ensure strong leadership and thorough plans for student interventions and supports. 

Other research data, while limited, indicate that when Montessori is used with fidelity student achievement can be enhanced. I hope charter school applicants, operators, and authorizers, especially here in Kentucky, will pay attention. 

Usual disclaimer: All views expressed on this website are mine alone and do not reflect the opinions of Western Kentucky University (my employer) or the Kentucky Board of Education (where I serve as a member).

Related posts:

Why Knowledge Matters: The Most Important Education Book of 2016


Update, 1/22/17: A version of this review has been published in the Bowling Green Daily News.

E. D. Hirsch is well known in education circles as a long-time advocate for "cultural literacy," the notion that there is a body of knowledge all educated people should master to be effective and virtuous citizens. Despite the immense popularity of Hirsch's books (I use his What your First Grader [etc.] Needs to Know series with my own children) and the advent of the supposedly more rigorous Common Core State Standards, curriculum has continued to erode in American schools, especially in the early grades.

Hirsch's latest book, Why Knowledge Matters: Rescuing our Children from Failed Educational Theories, is a blistering indictment of this trend away from rigorous content and its effects on the most disadvantaged students. Hirsch vividly describes how the over-emphasis on skills to the exclusion of knowledge coupled with vapid state standards and problems with standardized reading tests have exacerbated achievement gaps. His call for a renewal of rich content in the early grades based on social justice concerns as well as research on student achievement and learning theory is extraordinarily timely and makes Why Knowledge Matters, in my estimation, the most important education book of the year. Parents, educators, and policymakers should read it closely.

The basic problem, as Hirsch describes it, is that elementary schools have shifted toward an overwhelming emphasis on reading as a skill. Students spend hours each day learning reading techniques like how to sound out words, how to find the main idea of a passage, or how to do "close reading" of a text. In turn, time spent on social studies, science, the arts - essentially everything except reading and math - has been drastically reduced in the early elementary grades. The effect on reading tests in the short-term is positive: general trends in student achievement show elementary reading skills have improved. But achievement levels are stagnant or even declining at the middle and high school level, and Hirsch argues that's because students have been denied access to the kinds of rich content knowledge they need to read widely across a variety of subject areas.

This effect has relatively little harm on students from affluent families who absorb knowledge by osmosis through their lives outside of school. But for students of poverty whose parents can't take them to museums or on vacations or expose them to the wider world through reading and cultural opportunities, the impact is to make them fall further behind and deny them the information they need for economic and academic success.

The system is unfair to children, but also to teachers, who are often given the blame for lackluster student achievement. Hirsch argues that reading tests are invariably tests of content knowledge. But because elementary schools lack a rich, carefully-designed content framework, reading tests aren't actually measuring the impact that teachers have made on students, but rather what students have learned (or have not learned) at home. 

Hirsch cites a wealth of data from U.S. schools in his argument, but also devotes an entire chapter to education in France, which provides a helpful case study since that country has a single, unified education system. According to Hirsch, France has an excellent and well-organized preschool curriculum which helps narrow achievement gaps early, but like the U.S., France went through a shift toward skills-centrism in the early grades with well-documented negative effects on student learning. French educators are now calling for the return to a clear and common curriculum that will give all students the content knowledge they need for long-term academic success.

Why Knowledge Matters lays part of the blame for these trends on educators themselves who have become enamored with the idea that, in our age of instant information access, specific content learning is no longer necessary. Instead, students should learn critical thinking and problem-solving skills and can "look up" anything else they need to know. In some of the most compelling passages of the book Hirsch dismantles the idea that content knowledge can ever be separated from skills in this way. All skills are domain specific, including the ability to read (and thus, there is actually no discrete "main idea finding" skill; if students know what a passage is talking about, they automatically know the main idea):

Two texts that are rated at the same difficulty level are rarely of the same difficulty for an individual student... A student can be an excellent reader about dinosaurs and a terrible reader about mushrooms... No matter how widely-skilled people may be, as soon as they confront unfamiliar content their skill degenerates.

Hirsch is generally supportive of the Common Core Standards as an improvement over what preceded them in most states, but believes they reinforce this over-emphasis on skills to the exclusion of knowledge and must be supplemented accordingly (including with specific literary texts that all students should study). And he rejects as a false dichotomy the tension between informational and literary texts that characterizes some of the debate over Common Core: "Good works of fiction can be informative. And good informational texts can be literature."

Why Knowledge Matters acknowledges that rebuilding curriculum will not be easy given the enormous focus on testing and accountability that makes educators so risk averse. And Hirsch concedes the political difficulty of getting school stakeholders to agree on a common curricular canon that all students should master. But he believes such a transformation can happen at the local level, and he cites the efforts of many hundreds of schools that have adopted his Core Knowledge curriculum as examples, though emphasizing that Core Knowledge is but one approach to a well-crafted body of content knowledge that can guide instruction. Furthermore, Hirsch argues that reducing time on reading skills and bolstering time on domain specific knowledge will increase student achievement scores, so schools have everything to gain and little to lose by doing so.

In future posts I'll react to some of Hirsch's arguments in greater depth (including what should be included in such a curriculum), but his core thesis seems exactly right to me. I've long been a proponent of more personalized learning approaches. Learning tasks should meet students closer to their actual readiness levels and give them more opportunities to work through standards at their own pace. But I'm increasingly wary of the tendency to take this a step farther and individualize the content that students learn. There are certain things that students do actually need to know, and Why Knowledge Matters shows why you can't simply look things up when you don't know them: we need existing mental maps of knowledge for new information to make sense, or to even know what information is relevant to the questions we are posing.

I am discovering from my own experience as a parent that I can personally supplement a lot of what my children learn at school through learning experiences at home and in the community. But what about those children whose parents lack the knowledge, time, or resources to do this for them? As I've argued before, closing achievement gaps will require a much more comprehensive approach, involving more drastic changes in what students learn, and how, and where, than we are currently offering.

 The learning Hirsch describes in Why Knowledge Matters, with its emphasis on more whole-class instruction, will strike some educators as very traditional. But, using many examples from Core Knowledge schools, Hirsch stresses that a rigorous curriculum does not have to mean boring learning experiences. I am hopeful about this, and have been greatly encouraged by schools that are attempting to blend a rich and detailed curriculum with various student-centered approaches to pedagogy. Libertas School of Memphis is one example. This charter school, now in its second year, serves extremely at-risk students and offers a Core Knowledge curriculum delivered through Montessori methods. I correspond regularly with the director at Libertas and hope to visit there soon and write about their experiences.

But I am eager for Why Knowledge Matters to be widely read and thoughtfully discussed in the education community for this same reason. I have enormous respect for pioneer educators who are successfully implementing project-based learning and other innovative strategies. I want them to read this book with an open mind and weigh in from the standpoint of logistics: how far can we go in delivering a rigorous and specific curriculum and still respect students' innate need to have a greater role in the learning process? I have been regularly arguing that good curriculum and good pedagogy are not mutually exclusive, but there may be a dynamic tension here - or we may need to have deeper discussion about what really constitutes "good pedagogy" in light of what we want students to really know and be able to do as a result of their schooling.

At any rate, Why Knowledge Matters, if read with the care it deserves, should have parents, educators, and policymakers engaged in a whole new level of discussion about the direction of our schools.

Usual disclaimer: Opinions expressed on this blog are mine alone and do not reflect the views of Western Kentucky University (my employer) or the Kentucky Board of Education (where I serve as a member).

Related posts:

Yes, kids need to know about the American Revolution

I was at a (very fine) workshop for educators recently with a highly-regarded speaker who confidently declared that, "Kids don't really need to know about the American Revolution!" 

His point was that we no longer need to teach kids what to think, because there's a virtual compendium of all human knowledge in our smart phones.  Rather, our job is to now teach kids how to think.

The problem with this approach is that you can't teach kids how to think (especially how to think critically, globally, and wisely) without giving them something to think about.  And the content of what they think about really does matter.

I've been thinking about this issue of "what" (content) versus "how" (pedagogy), and have paid a lot more attention to the pedagogy side, for some time now.  As I wrote last summer:

...The digital natives who occupy America's classrooms now have the entire body of human knowledge at their fingertips.  What they need are thinking skills that help them process this wide world of information and use it to solve problems.   This emphasis on "21st century skills" has been accompanied by a concern for the widely varying developmental needs of children who are often ill-served in schools that have arbitrarily decided that all children sharing the same birth year should be grouped together and taught the same, fragmented curriculum at the same pace.

In response to these concerns, my interests have turned toward Montessori, Sudbury, homeschooling, personalized learning, and other methods that place a much heavier emphasis on the agency of the individual child in the learning process.

I still believe schools must move beyond their 19th-century, industrial, one-size-fits-all model of education.  Teaching must become far more personalized and sensitive to the vast differences in children's readiness levels and preferred pace of learning.  But at the same time, I've become convinced that curriculum does matter immensely if we want students to not only to be critical thinkers and successful competitors in the global economy, but also good citizens and virtuous people.  The world's factual knowledge may be in our smartphones, but that doesn't mean the collective wisdom of Western civilization can be accessed, understood, and lived out via a Google search.

John Hattie, author of the highly influential Visible Learning agrees.  At last year's annual Visible Learning conference, I wrote of Hattie's opening talk:

He [Hattie] discussed how we need to be striving for a much greater balance between acquisition of surface-level knowledge and deeper processing skills.  Schools should be criticized for over-emphasizing surface-level learning (though this is a product of what standardized tests really measure).  But likewise, today's educational innovators should be careful not to also over-emphasize "21st century thinking skills" in the absence of meaningful content knowledge. 

"If students are going to think deeply, they must have something to think deeply about," Hattie said.  He presented a framework that categorized various instructional and intervention strategies along a continuum of learning that starts with the introduction of new knowledge (surface) then proceeds to deep acquisition and consolidation of knowledge - all geared toward helping students transfer that new learning to new contexts and situations (a skill that is virtually unaddressed in most schools).

He offered examples like memorization - a skill that is highly-frowned upon today - but noted that memorization is an excellent technique for embedding new information into memory; but if the student does not move immediately into deep processing of that new information, the value is minimal.  Likewise, higher-ordered activities like problem-based learning are often ineffective when students are lacking sufficient content knowledge, but for the purpose of deep consolidation of information and transfer - it is a powerful tool.

So content matters.  And, I believe, not just any content.  I've become convinced that a classical education - one that focuses on the training of a child's mind by using the great ideas of history and literature - is essential to developing critical thinking and the kind of character and virtue necessary for navigating the politically and economically volatile 21st century.

Perhaps it won't matter if students don't know the significance of General Washington's decision to take his army across the Delaware River (though they will be ignorant about an iconic piece of American art).  But they most certainly need to understand the clash of ideas that drove the American Revolution, how those ideas fit within the broader scope of world history, and how those ideas inform the same kinds of questions that shape our political and economic landscape today.

The same speaker who said kids don't need to know about the American Revolution lamented the emergence of Donald Trump as a leading presidential candidate.  But the American Revolution led to a system of government deliberately designed to restrain the tendency of republics to lurch toward demagoguery in the face of crisis.  Trump's candidacy challenges Americans to not only think about the role of the state and its executive powers, but to make value-laden decisions about such matters. 

Certainly, our traditional approach to teaching history, with its emphasis on a factual narrative with little overarching conceptual structure, must change.  But if we want our students to think and act effectively - and virtuously - about history (which is to think and act effectively and virtuously about the world we currently occupy), what we teach them about history matters a lot.  And the same applies to what we teach them about mathematics, science, literature, art, and more.

Related posts:

#AnnualVL2015: Reflections on Day One

I'm delighted to be attending the Annual Visible Learning Conference in San Antonio, Texas, sponsored by Corwin Press, with a contingent of Kentucky educators from the Green River Regional Educational Cooperative (GRREC). (Update: See reflections on Day Two here.)

Visible Learning is associated with the work of John Hattie, who describes this approach to education as "when teachers see learning through the eyes of their students and help students become their own teachers."  The strategies that make up visible learning emerge from Hattie's decades-long research analyzing the effect sizes of a wide variety of educational interventions.  The conference features Hattie as a keynote presenter, along with a host of other Corwin authors also associated with his work.  This post will capture my thoughts at the end of the first day of the conference.

We were privileged to have Hattie and his colleagues in Bowling Green at a GRREC-sponsored event last February (you can read my reflections on that event here).  I was pleased that in Hattie's opening keynote today he picked up with some of the key concerns I shared with readers after his February talk in Kentucky.

Hattie noted in February that the vast majority of learning in schools is surface level - because that's how we teach and assess our students.  At the same time, he seemed to speak disparagingly about "deeper" learning strategies like problem-based learning and giving students choice in the learning process.  I observed that, to maximize the power of Hattie's work, teachers and should leaders should carefully study the original research as it applies to particular contexts and the impact of how a strategy is used.

In his keynote this morning, Hattie expounded upon this issue in a way that finally made sense to me.  He discussed how we need to be striving for a much greater balance between acquisition of surface-level knowledge and deeper processing skills.  Schools should be criticized for over-emphasizing surface-level learning (though this is a product of what standardized tests really measure).  But likewise, today's educational innovators should be careful not to also over-emphasize "21st century thinking skills" in the absence of meaningful content knowledge. 

"If students are going to think deeply, they must have something to think deeply about," Hattie said.  He presented a framework that categorized various instructional and intervention strategies along a continuum of learning that starts with the introduction of new knowledge (surface) then proceeds to deep acquisition and consolidation of knowledge - all geared toward helping students transfer that new learning to new contexts and situations (a skill that is virtually unaddressed in most schools).

He offered examples like memorization - a skill that is highly-frowned upon today - but noted that memorization is an excellent technique for embedding new information into memory; but if the student does not move immediately into deep processing of that new information, the value is minimal.  Likewise, higher-ordered activities like problem-based learning are often ineffective when students are lacking sufficient content knowledge, but for the purpose of deep consolidation of information and transfer - it is a powerful tool.

This perspective addresses a problem I have been struggling with recently - how to find a balance between curriculum (what we learn) and pedagogy (how we learn it).  My dismay with the one-size-fits all, factory model of American education calls for a new pedagogy (how), but still requires effective methods for imparting meaningful content (what).   (See my recent post on the perceived tension between classical education curriculum and the Montessori Method). 

Hattie's framework actually gives educators stronger leverage to personalize learning - by directing our attention on students wherever they are; at any given time, some of them need surface learning, some need deep processing, and almost all of them need to learn the skill of transfer.

Later in the morning, I heard Ainsley Rose present Viviane Robinson's research on the impact of education leadership on student outcomes (Robinson, Lloyd, & Rowe, 2008).  Robinson and her colleagues identified five leadership behaviors that impact student learning:

  • Establishing goals and expectations (Effect Size: .42) - articulating a vision of improvement and both short- and long-term goals for how to achieve the vision
  • Strategic resourcing (Effect Size .31) - marshaling human, physical, and financial resources to support the vision.
  • Planning, coordinating, and evaluating teaching and the curriculum (Effect Size .42)
  • Promoting and participating in teacher learning and development (Effect Size .84)
  • Ensuring an orderly and supportive environment (.27) - student discipline and creating a positive climate and culture

Note that principals being actively engaging with teachers in learning and evaluating new instructional strategies is twice as powerful as the next strongest two behaviors.  Also note that the "managerial" behaviors associated with resource allocation and student discipline are the lowest.  But Rose emphasized that, despite these effect sizes, from a practical standpoint principals should approach these practices in the order listed above.  Vision comes first, followed by marshaling resources around that vision, followed by working actively with teachers in planning and evaluating curriculum and teaching, followed by engaging in new learning.  And then a supportive and orderly environment will just about take care of itself.

 In the afternoon I had to come late to another session facilitated by Ainsely Rose, Peter DeWitt, and Kara Vandas.  These presenters highlighted the linkages between Visible Learning and instructional coaching - a topic I've written about previously as a powerful strategy for principals to actually carry out the third and fourth practices outlined by Robinson et al. above.

Finally, I'm listening to Yong Zhao deliver the afternoon keynote on the five myths about technology and education.  He's been highlighting the poor track record of American schools in leveraging technology for improving student achievement, and how technology must be used to help personalize student learning and pursue new knowledge.

In summary, I'm so pleased that today's workshops have connected the dots for several of the topics I've been studying and wrestling with in my own work.  It seems that Visible Learning could provide a meaningful framework for linking the many seemingly disconnected initiatives taking place in many of our area schools.

UPDATE: Regarding the five leadership practices Ainsley Rose shared via Viviane Robinson: it occurs to me that we need to map these in our administration program at the university.  I'm quite confident we address all five practices, but it might be possible to do so with much greater intention and thoughtfulness and embed them in every course.



Classical education, Montessori, and the tension between the "what" and "how" of learning

In recent years my philosophical thinking about education has focused far more on the how of learning than the what.  That is, I've become much less concerned about curriculum and far more concerned about pedagogy as I've been convinced that the industrial, one-size-fits-all model of American education needs to be replaced with something that is much more student-centered.

After all, my reasoning has gone, the digital natives who occupy America's classrooms now have the entire body of human knowledge at their fingertips.  What they need are thinking skills that help them process this wide world of information and use it to solve problems.   This emphasis on "21st century skills" has been accompanied by a concern for the widely varying developmental needs of children who are often ill-served in schools that have arbitrarily decided that all children sharing the same birth year should be grouped together and taught the same, fragmented curriculum at the same pace.

In response to these concerns, my interests have turned toward Montessori, Sudbury, homeschooling, personalized learning, and other methods that place a much heavier emphasis on the agency of the individual child in the learning process.

But saying a child should have a lot more control of what, when, and how she learns does not necessarily mean there is no place for curriculum.  Adults still have a critical role to play in these decisions.  As a Catholic Christian, and especially now as a parent, I believe that education serves a greater purpose than to simply prepare children for adult life.  Indeed, the well-guided journey of the human soul is the ultimate purpose of education.  And not just any learning facilitates such an essential and important process.

This is why I've become interested in the use of student-centered pedagogies in Christian education, where the possibilities of blending such methods with a rigorous, soul-supporting curriculum are quite rich.  As I wrote on this blog a few months ago, rediscovering Montessori (as one example) might be a key strategy in the revitalization of Catholic education, which has suffered setbacks in recent decades in terms of enrollments, vibrancy, and religious identity.

That blog post was spotted by a friend who connected me with Corpus Christi Classical Academy, a tiny but thriving independent Catholic school in Simpsonville, Kentucky (Shelby County).  My friend, whose wife is a teacher there, wanted me to know about Corpus Christi's aspirations to integrate classical education and Montessori in the same school.  So on a hot spring day during the busiest time of the school year for both me and my hosts, I carved out some time and drove to Simpsonville to meet with Corpus Christi principal Leslie Genuis and visit her school.

Corpus Christi has had a long-standing presence in the Shelby County community, but nearly closed last year due to declining enrollments and the retirement of its long-time principal.  Genuis took over with a mostly new school board and a vision for revitalizing the school.  During my visit, it was a pleasure to see middle school students reading and thoughtfully discussing Homer, with other classics like Wuthering Heights and As You Like It tucked in their desks. 

Genuis, whose has experience both in homeschooling and Catholic education, showed me school's curriculum, which draws heavily from materials developed by Memoria Press, an offshoot of Louisville's Highlands Latin School.  But the staff at Corpus Christi has thoughtfully modified and adjusted the selection of materials to best meet the needs of their students. 

"Classical education" is now a very hot topic in the world of non-public education.  Memoria Press defines classical education as "the cultivation of wisdom and virtue through meditation on the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. This is accomplished in two ways: first, through training in the liberal arts; and secondly, through a familiarity with the great books and the great thinkers of the Western tradition."  Classical education, done well, is a traditional liberal arts education with a strong emphasis on the development of Christian virtues.  In this sense, it is a curriculum that is rigorous, thoughtful, and structured in such a way that a natural coherence of all subjects is maintained and emphasized.

But Genuis and the parents and staff at Corpus Christi recognize that a rigorous curriculum does not preclude alternative pedagogies.  This is why they are launching a Montessori pre-school program for the 2015-2016 school year.  Genuis is participating in online Montessori training and has already started incorporating Montessori elements at the school.  I visited the classroom and saw the familiar pink tower, tracing letters, and other distinctive hallmarks of a Montessori pre-K environment.  And while the school only plans to institute Montessori in the preschool for now, visiting the lower primary class it was evident that the Montessori philosophy is making inroads there as well.

Is there a natural tension between a structured curriculum and a student-centered learning approach?  Probably, but Genuis and her staff seem eager to explore this tension and discover what is possible.  The Montessori Method includes its own, well-developed curriculum, after all.  And there appears to be nothing in classical education that precludes the possibility of students exploring that curriculum with a high degree of choice and self-pacing.

Corpus Christi Classical Academy is not alone in its faith that Montessori and classical education go together.  This fall I look forward to visiting Bob Nardo and the Libertas School of Memphis, a new charter school that will blend Montessori and Core Knowledge, a secular curriculum that nevertheless shares many of the same features as classical education.

It will be in schools like Corpus Christi and Libertas that educators will pioneer new modes of learning that embrace the student-centered, personalized focus emerging in conventional schooling but with the wisdom and accumulated human knowledge of classical approaches to education.  I am most eager to learn from their journey.


Become a teacher? It's complicated...

The Twitterverse and blogosphere are abuzz this week over comments from teacher Nancie Atwell, who just after receiving the $1 million Global Teacher Prize, repeatedly told media outlets that young people really shouldn't consider teaching as a career option.

Atwell, a 42-year veteran who teaches at a demonstration school in Maine, expressed reservations about Common Core Standards and the "hyper-testing, hyper-accountability" culture of schools in explaining why she was unenthusiastic to encourage young teachers unless they could work in a private school.

I'll not try to catalog the range of reactions that greeted Atwell's comments.  Rather, I had to pause and consider the question for myself.  After 20 years in the education business, would I encourage a young person to become a teacher?

It's not merely an intellectual exercise for me, as a beloved nephew of mine, soon to graduate from high school, is strongly interested in elementary education.  He would be following me, his mother (my sister), and his grandmother - all of us career educators - if he becomes a teacher.  And I have to say that my advice to him is..."It's complicated."  But not really for the reasons Nancie Atwell cites.

The overemphasis on testing in our schools is a problem, for sure, as is our obsession with curriculum standards.  But these things don't have to dominate teachers' work lives.  School leaders simply choose to make these things their focus, because doing so is easier than articulating a compelling vision of instructional improvement that would meaningfully alter what happens in classrooms.

And besides, things teachers sometimes associate with testing culture - like the emphasis on common formative classroom assessment, or data analysis for the purpose of meeting students at their current level of learning - are the product of real growth in our profession. 

There was a time when teachers had full autonomy to teach as they saw fit.  It was call the 1970's (and all the decades before that).  These were not exactly halcyon days for student learning, as student achievement gaps were huge back then too and there was no general sense of concern or urgency about that fact.

Moreover, policy makers are obsessed with rigid, top-down accountability efforts because, as Mike McShane argues, we have a system in which the government operates a monopoly on educational delivery.  When most families have no other options for education than their local school district, draconian measures are often needed to ensure quality.

There are better alternatives (which McShane describes), ones that would give teachers far greater flexibility and autonomy, but these involve confronting powerful institutional forces that fight like hell to keep school structures exactly as they currently are.

And schools as they are is what prevents me from enthusiastically endorsing the teaching profession in general right now.  We've discovered so much about how children learn best, and it is almost certainly not in the rigid, teacher-directed, one-size-fits-all industrial mode that characterizes the vast majority of American schools, both public and non-public

Great teachers who want to transform learning into an experience that is far more student-directed and personalized face enormous obstacles from the very structure of schooling itself and all of the cultural traditions associated with it.

In this sense, Nancie Atwell is right: some of the most exciting things happening in education right now - and there are many reasons to be excited about education - are taking place in charter schools (see Libertas School of Memphis as one example) and private schools (like Sudbury Valley or the Cristo Rey network of Catholic schools) outside of the traditional public structures of education.  These are schools where parents and educators that have the freedom to customize the learning experiences for the needs of individual children.

Further exciting developments in personalized learning are taking place outside of the formal structure of schools altogether, including record numbers of families successfully choosing to homeschool, and various entrepreneurial start-ups in digital learning and even a la carte options that blend all three.  All of these represent terrific career opportunities for aspiring educators.

So by all means, yes: become a teacher.  It's one of those rare jobs that is true ministry, where despite all the limitations you can see your daily efforts transform the lives of others.  But understand what you are getting into.  And answer the call to teach for the students, not the institutions of schooling that don't always actually serve students well.  Consider how you might contribute to a revolution in schooling that gives students far more agency in the learning process. 

And understand that university schools of education, while doing an adequate job preparing aspiring teachers for working in schools as they are now, aren't always good at preparing you for schools as they should be, or as they will be in the future.

For this reason, consider first doing a degree in liberal arts, sciences, technology, or some other field that will allow you to learn about yourself and the world, and then pursue teacher training, either through an excellent program like the Montessori training offered by AMI or AMS and other organizations, or in a traditional teacher education program. 

But if you are going the traditional route, be willing to do the independent work to build your understanding of the history of industrial schooling and its alternatives.  The way schools are is not an accident and it's not fate either.  We can do things differently.

And for the record: I haven't given up on public schools either.  To the contrary, I endorse the "three sector" approach articulated by the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO).  America needs a healthy blend of great private schools, charter schools, and traditional public schools. 

In lone classrooms and in many whole schools, brave public educators are trying to make a shift toward more meaningful personalized learning.  You see evidence in the move toward standards-based grading and assessment, project-based learning, and competency-based instruction.  These are small but significant steps in the transformation American education requires, and many more innovative teachers are needed to help carry out this work.

All of which also depends on courageous, innovative, effective school leaders.  So don't just consider becoming a teacher.  If you are a teacher, or an aspiring one, also recognize the vital role you might play as a principal or in some other administrative role.  Because to make the teaching profession appealing, we also need great school leaders who can articulate this vision of student-centered learning, rise above the pettiness of testing and accountability, and lead teachers, parents, and students toward a whole new way of thinking about education.

And if that's your calling, here's how you can get started.


Saving Catholic Education: Policy and Pedagogy

There's an interesting discussion this week on the excellent website Ethika Politika about the rising cost of Catholic education.  In an essay "The Tuition Is Too Damn High," Mattias Caro covers a lot of ground, noting the decline of Catholic school enrollments, the skyrocketing rate of tuition in many Catholic schools, and the failure of Church leaders to both promote Catholic education for those who can afford it and to respond to the impossibility for families of modest means to choose Catholic education themselves.

Caro notes how Pope Francis' call for justice for the poor contrasts with this situation, and wonders if it's not time for the church to consider new pedagogical philosophies as a means of reviving Catholic education, but what he has in mind are some tried-and-true methods such as "classical" education and Montessori.

As is typical for Ethika Politika, reader comments to the essay have extended the discussion in thoughtful ways.  Several readers pointed out that the cost 0f Catholic education is directly tied to the massive decline in vocations to religious life.  It was easier to provide low-cost Catholic schools when they were mostly staffed by members of religious orders who took vows of poverty.  Now that the sisters and brothers are gone, personnel costs for maintaining a teaching staff of lay people with families are substantially higher.

Other readers pointed out that homeschooling is a viable and perhaps preferred mechanism of Catholic education, and Caro heartily concurs, noting that he and his wife are actively involved in the homeschooling movement.

For my part as a Catholic Christian, a former Catholic school educator, and a soon-t0-be Catholic school parent, I think potential strategies for addressing the problem Mattias Caro so ably lays out include "all of the above."

The Catholic Church has been an early and vocal advocate for the expansion of various public policies of school choice, including vouchers and tuition tax credits.  This position acknowledges that while schooling is a public good, there is no Gospel suggesting that government-run schools are the best or only way to effectively provide for that common good.  As Ashley Rogers Berner described in First Things a couple of years ago, many other countries have workable models of "educational pluralism" that both recognize the value of non-public education to a vibrant democracy and empower low-income families to exercise that option.

Unfortunately I think much of the Church's emphasis on school choice has remained at the level of the bishop's conferences and has not been intentionally pursued at the parish level, so many Catholic parents remain relatively uninformed about school choice and how such policies could benefit their own families and other families who long for a Catholic education but cannot afford it.

I'm hoping that will change dramatically in Kentucky next year as the Catholic Conference of Kentucky tries once again to promote a tuition assistance tax credit policy that would encourage the growth of tuition assistance programs for low-income families.  This strategy bypasses some of the more difficult political and legal hurdles of a voucher policy while expanding access to non-public schools.  But the success of such a bill will depend on educating and mobilizing parents (both Catholic and non-Catholic) at the local level.

Besides policy prescriptions, though, I agree with Caro that the Church needs to broaden its thinking about Catholic education, especially in terms of pedagogical method.  He writes:

In the longer term, the Church should ask not only how to fund her schools but whether the need for such an education might be provided by other forms...If the intellect and moral imagination is being formed by the virtuous past of human tradition, there is no tension between faith and education. Can we consider pedagogies and approaches that are not strictly “Catholic” as still being formed by the Catholic heart, mind, and imagination? The recent recovery of Montessori education as a Catholic education seems to point to the answer being yes.

I would heartily echo that "yes," as my experience of sending my own children to a Montessori pre-school has had a profound impact on my thinking about teaching and learning.

In my experience, many Catholic schools still offer an extremely traditional approach to education.  Classes are teacher-driven, involve tons of rote memorization and regurgitation of facts, and duplicate some of the worst aspects of the "industrial model" of education we see in public schools, including grading practices that don't convey much meaningful information about what students have learned and foster an unnecessary and sometimes destructive emphasis on comparison and competition among children.

There are better ways, and the Montessori Method represents one of them.  Maria Montessori was a Catholic after all, and understood her approach in light of Catholic teaching.  Her student Sofia Cavalletti went on to develop a beautiful method of religious education based on the Montessori method called The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.

My point is that there is nothing inherently Catholic about the Prussian style of industrial education that has dominated American (and many European) schools for the last century, and Catholic schools should investigate and embrace new pedagogical approaches that reflect what we've discovered in that time about how children learn.  This is actually happening - to a very modest and halting extent - in traditional public schools.  Catholic children deserve the same kind of learning opportunities.

Additionally, I've come to see homeschooling as a completely viable educational option for many families, one that in some cases is preferable to traditional schools, both public and Catholic.  Read my recent, two-part review of Suzie Andres' The Little Way of Homeschooling here and here.  Every family's educational needs are unique, and Catholics (and educators in general) should embrace and support a wide range of meaningful educational options.

Of course, as Mattias Caro implies, Church leaders must themselves come to courageously confront the current crisis in Catholic education.  This means bringing policy battles for school choice in front of parish congregations.  It means confronting the rigid, teacher-driven learning models of Catholic schools by introducing parents and educators to new pedagogical approaches.  And it means supporting and encouraging homeschooling Catholic families.

But above all it means placing a greater emphasis on the natural and necessary link between faith and learning and what it means to raise Catholic children in an increasingly hostile culture. 

So there's lots of work to do, from the bishop's office to the principal's office to the family kitchen table.  Let's get busy.

Related posts:


Trusting Our Children, Part I

Two of my professional (and personal) interests, Catholic education and unschooling, recently came together through an unexpected path of reading.  First I read Stratford Caldecott's Beauty in the Word: Rethinking the Foundations of Education, which attempts to articulate a new philosophy of Catholic education based on the ancient Trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric.  But to my surprise, Beauty in the Word ends with a lovely acknowledgement of homeschooling as a viable - even desirable - method for implementing Caldecott's vision, and he suggests Suzie Andres' book, The Little Way of Homeschooling: Thirteen Families Discover Catholic Unschooling as an exemplary m0del of what's possible.  I'll discuss this book and my reactions to it in two parts.

As a practicing Catholic Christian who spent some of my formative years as a teacher and administrator in Catholic schools, I believe that Catholic schools are one of many viable avenues through which a much-needed revitalization of American education could take place, especially given the excellent record of Catholic schools addressing the needs of low-income minority students (see the Cristo Rey network of schools for an exciting contemporary example). 

Little wayThis is what brought me to Cadelcott's Beauty in the Word.  But what really struck me was a small chapter at the end of the book in which he reflects on linkages between his theory of Catholic education and the work of John Holt (1923-1985), a former school teacher who created a homeschooling revolution through his radically student-centered philosophy explicated in his books How Children Fail and How Children Learn.  As an example of where his own philosophy merges with Holt's, Caldecott pointed to Suze Andres' profile of 13 Catholic families in The Little Way of Homeschooling.

Andres, whose first book was Homeschooling with Gentleness: A Catholic Discovers Unschooling, takes her inspiration from the "Little Way" spirituality of St. Therese of Lisieux.  Her particular style of homeschooling - unschooling - is closely linked to John Holt's and emphasizes giving children an extraordinarily wide latitude in allowing them to choose what they learn, how, and at what pace.

I realize that many of my colleagues and friends who work in K12 education (especially if they are not regular readers of this blog) may find these concepts completely bizarre.  I don't have time or space here to make a case for this kind of radical rethinking of education, but I do refer you to the related posts listed below for more background on how my own understanding of these concepts continues to evolve.  Here I just want to note some general reactions to Andres' book, most of which is taken up with the first-person essays written by the Catholic homeschooling moms in her personal network.

First, I'm most struck by the overwhelming theme of trust in these families' approaches to educating their children.  Unschooling is predicated on the idea that children are natural learners, that they desire to learn and do not require coercion or external rewards to encourage them to do so - as long as you let them direct the process.  This is confirmed by my own experience parenting small children and by my eye-opening encounters with Montessori education. 

But this kind of trust runs directly counter to the typical structures of traditional American schooling, which assume that there is a body of knowledge that all children must learn, and that they must learn it at fairly precise ages and rates under the careful direction of a professional teacher.  Most of this is not intentionally predicated on a distrust of children (though I recently had a teacher insist to me that her second graders never do anything without an extrinsic reward), but rather on an industrial model of education that we have inherited and simply take for granted - and that operates on an unstated assumption that kids won't learn without lots of structure.

The experience of unschooling families (and schools based on the philosophy like the Sudbury Valley Schools) suggests that this distrust of children is damaging and thoroughly unwarranted given the impressive outcomes of kids educated in a more trusting way.

Which is not to say this kind of trust is easy for adults indoctrinated in the traditional way of schooling.  I'll say more on this, my reflections on the Little Way of Homeschooling, and its implications, in my next post.

Related posts:

Is differentiation really possible?

I am frequently critical of the prevailing model of American schooling in part because it fails to adequately differentiate for individual student learning needs and interests.  Practicing educators know this.  The challenge of differentation is huge: how do you take a diverse group of 20-30 kids who share little but the same chronical age and design a learning experience that meets them at the level of their readiness and also responds to their unique learning style, personality, and personal interests?

The truth is, we can do a lot better at this, even within the confines of traditional schooling structures.  It's not easy, but the work of Carol Ann Tomlinson makes it clear that better differentiation is within the reach of most teachers and schools.

But even the best teachers will struggle to provide meaningful differentation in classrooms that are structured as they are in the vast majority of schools.  That's why I think, if we want to get beyond the rigid, uninspiring, one-size-fits-all structure of schools, we have to imagine a totally different kind of learning environment, with a different kind of teacher-student and student-student relationship, and a different kind of approach to curriculum and assessment.  I think this could happen in three different ways:

 1.  A marketplace of schooling options.  One way to offer scalable differentiation is by fostering a real marketplace of educational choices for families.  In any community of moderate size there should be schools that specialize in traditional, "classic books" curricula, other schools that are technology rich and STEM focused, others still that are geared toward specific career interests, and still others that offer student-centered philosophies like Montessori (more on this below).  The idea here is that you don't have to differentiate for every single child if you can offer a learning experience that appeals to groups of students and families who share common interests and needs.  Of course, perhaps the best method to begin creating this marketplace is through some mechanism of school choice (vouchers, for example, or charter schools) that make these options affordable to all families regardless of income).
2.  Alternative learning models that, by their very essence, offer differentiation.  Examples here would include Montessori, which is much more highly-structured than is readily evident, but also is based heavily on students working at their own pace through a curriculum that is largely hidden under high-interest, hands-on activities.  While students have the opportunity to collaborate in their learning, there are no grades, no tests, none of the other structures of traditional schooling that typically lead to competition, ill feelings toward school, or gross standardization.  A more radical model would be the Sudbury approach, which is a form of "unschooling" that places the student entirely in control of his or her own curriculum.  Before you dismiss this idea, learn about the Sudbury experience and how it works so well for many students.
3.  Homeschooling (or blended homeschooling) offers perhaps the ultimate form of differentiation.  This is becoming an increasingly viable option for many families because of technology and the rich network of homeschooling families that are growing in many communities.  I'm also really excited about blended models ("a la carte" education) wherein a student might have a brick-and-mortal school that is her "hub," perhaps where she takes some classes or goes for career counseling or other resources, but spends the rest of her learning time in a mix of online activities, community-based service, apprenticeships, etc.  See also my thoughts on online learning and the future of schooling here and here.

Ultimately, rethinking the whole notion of "school" is fundamental to offering meaningful differentation.