Tag Archives for " school reform "

No quick fix . . . but there is a fix

By Kym Reinstadler, SCN Feature Writer | Expert Insights , Your Marketing (How you connect)

[This value-packed gem was originally posted in 2012.]

Schools and businesses share the goal of developing human potential, but educators are often exasperated by “business thinking.”

The way to produce more high school graduates who are college-ready is to hold teachers’ feet to the fire and run schools more like a business, business leaders say. It’s not that easy, educators say.

No national speaker frames this debate better than Jamie Vollmer.

Vollmer is a super cool businessman. (No kidding. He ran the ice cream company once voted best in America by People Magazine.) Vollmer was a founding member and executive director of Iowa Business and Education Roundtable, which sought to improve schools by injecting business practices – until an English teacher pointed out why a manufacturing approach is the wrong model . . .

Vollmer still believes schools need to change, but not because of sub-par teaching. It’s our system of education that’s obsolete, he said. It was designed for an industrial America that no longer exists.

When I interviewed Vollmer in 2012, he chuckled as he recalled that many of the buddies he graduated from high school with in the 1960s never aspired to college, even though they would have been considered “college material” today.

“They didn’t need college,” Vollmer said. Seventy-seven percent of jobs required no post-secondary academic training.

“That economy’s gone,” Vollmer said. “Today, only 13 percent of jobs that pay a decent wage are unskilled labor. And, if you listen to what’s being told to us, soon it’ll be just 6 percent. Clearly, the nation cannot afford a dropout rate. This economy has almost no place for them.”

Sorry, there’s no quick fix for changing schools

“It’s impossible to impact student achievement without changing the culture of a community, and that’s why it’s so darn hard,” Vollmer said. “Focusing on things like instruction, assessment, and the school calendar, in and of themselves, won’t get at the root of the problem.”

He says he’s witnessed educators’ valiant efforts to improve everything in a school district’s domain. In the end, the only thing that ultimately changes is the nameplate on the superintendent’s office.

“As long as a community’s response to change is, ‘That’s not the way we do it here,’ making progress doesn’t have a prayer,” Vollmer said.

His book, Schools Cannot Do It Alone, is a primer for subtle but effective ways to build the community support for schools that will make real and lasting change possible.

Expectations multiply but school calendars can’t keep up

It’s time communities get a wake-up call, Vollmer says. Expectations of schools have multiplied, but the school day and school calendar haven’t expanded.

As the median age in America climbs, the percentage of households in a community with school-aged children shrinks. Vollmer counts himself among the Baby Boomers who, based on his own experiences, held an antiquated view of what school is like.

Reaching those people requires pulling together a cadre of school staff (teachers to bus drivers) to “map” places in the community where people congregate. Schools then need to strategically send volunteers to these places with well-crafted talking points.

“Do-it-for-the-kids” won’t move everyone.

“Self-interest doesn’t always beat altruism, but that’s the way to bet,” Vollmer said. “Do-it-for-the-kids won’t move everyone. They have to see the connection between their quality of life and the quality of their local schools.”

In a perfect world, community members would flock to school to get school information, but that’s not how it happens, Vollmer said.

Board meetings are sparsely attended. The only way to attract a crowd is to propose a tax increase, threaten to eliminate a popular program or service or feed people for free. And school leaders cannot rely on traditional media to get their message out because of the “if it bleeds, it leads” nature of the commercial press.

Instead, Vollmer says school communicators must begin by creating a team of allies who will help them identify positive things already happening in schools. They need to talk about those things in the community.

Touting the streak of days a district has safely transported students to school, the number of insulin injections the school nurse gives weekly, or the combined weight of vegetables served annually in cafeterias may not seem like headline news, but it builds community trust ­– a prerequisite for change.

Jamie Vollmer

He offers school advocates the following quick-start tips, 5 S’s to begin building public trust:

• Shift your attention to the positive.

•  Stop badmouthing schools and colleagues in public. (How often are we our own worst enemies?)

• Share something positive within your network of family, friends, neighbors, and coworkers.

• Start now.

• Sustain the effort.  (Where school communicators can really kick it in!)

“If everybody in the district did just those five things, the ripple effect would be felt across the community,” Vollmer said. “That’s the way you counteract negativity and begin to forge inroads that can result in real change.”


Cheating. Encourage it or punish it?

By Kym Reinstadler, SCN Feature Writer | Expert Insights

Was I “cheating” when I went to Steelcase’s website to read essays penned by great thinkers to coincide with the office furniture manufacturer’s 100th anniversary? After all,  drawing from these fertile minds prior to writing this article about the future of education would help me immensely, right?

And “The Rise of the Small” was the essay that hooked me. It’s by Don Norman, a former VP at Apple, trustee of IIT Institute of Design (the world’s largest graduate design program), and earned a hip-deep list of other credentials.

Don Norman

Don Norman

“I dream of the power of individuals, whether alone or in small groups,” Don began, “to unleash their creative spirits, their imaginations, and their talents to develop a wide range of innovation.”

I always like it when someone begins with the word “dream.” And Don’s got a big one.

Don says the rise of portable, efficient and relatively inexpensive tools like tablet computers and smartphones have the power to revolutionize industries like teaching, writing, entertaining, and creating art and music. Sharing information and ideas is becoming so cheap and easy that practically anybody anywhere can benefit.

A surprising perspective

I reached Don by phone at his office in Palo Alto, a city nestled in California’s “Silicon Valley,” where he’s busy updating one of his most popular books, “The Design of Everyday Things.” The Design of Everyday Things

I expected to hear him describe the Silicon Valley as an education innovation hot spot, like it is for high-tech companies like Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Intuit, Google, Facebook, and others.

Not so, Don said with a deep sigh.

“We’re stuck in a really bad problem here, like everywhere else,” Don said. “Our education system is flawed. It starts at the college level and works down through K-12. It’s all so intertwined that it’s really difficult to fix one thing without messing up something else.”

The core mission of education, Don says, is to motivate people to discover, develop and demonstrate their talents.

The core problem is that the system of education we have is erected on the belief that things people most need to know can be listed, codified and tested.

“The truth,” Don said, “is that tests really only tell us how good students are at taking tests.”

In a nutshell, the structure of schooling can inhibit the highest forms of learning.

What’s needed, Don said, is an education overhaul that breaks instruction out of the test preparation box and encourages students to cooperate and collaborate to achieve new insights.

Cooperation’s in, competition’s out (Don’s dream system)

Students collaborating. A system grounded in cooperation recasts teachers from “sage of the stage” to guides. It pitches the Bell Curve out the window and evaluates  students against absolute standards.

“If every student gets an A, hurrah!” Don wrote in his essay “In Defense of Cheating.” “It means every student has learned.”

He says K-12 would be wise to marshal resources and top teaching talent nationwide to develop engaging instruction modules based on, ahem, video games. That’s because students frequently learn best in the context of a quest or game. Don’t laugh, Don cautions. The U.S. military is probably the nation’s largest training organization and it’s been teaching via video games for years!

Why change is so darn hard

Revamping instruction and assessment sounds simple enough, but it would mean taking on a huge fight.

A school system in progressive Santa Cruz once dropped letter grades in favor of teacher-written narratives of how well a student had learned, Don recalled. College admissions departments went into a tizzy. Teacher insights were more revealing, but cumbersome because they couldn’t be codified.

“Colleges aren’t set up to deal with narratives and, probably, neither are employers,” Don said. “Considering that students usually go to college or go to work, that’s a formidable obstacle. Both higher education and business have deeply rooted practices.”

Don says he witnessed the pushback himself many years ago in Palo Alto, when a new hands-on K-12 math curriculum was proposed. There were colleagues who opposed adopting the curriculum while also acknowledging it was a better way to teach math.

The reason: They wanted their kids to be accepted into prestigious Stanford University. The traditional curriculum was trained on producing higher scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), a major component in college admissions decisions.


Photo illustration by Chalebala/Shutterstock

All for “Cheating” raise your hand!

An easier place to start badly needed school reforms, Don suggests, might be to rethink schools’ outdated prejudice against “cheating.”

(I gulped when he said this. Cheating in school feels so wrong, like swearing in church.)

“Cheating that involves deceit is, of course, wrong,” Don said. “But, in my view, the emphasis on working in isolation is over-emphasized.”

In the real world, what’s valued is knowing how to tap information that leads to the best solution, giving credit for it, and synthesizing it well, Don said.

The sin of plagiarizing isn’t “copying,” Don said, it’s not giving credit to the person who had the idea.

If schools change their stance on copying, there would, ironically, be less cheating, Don contends. The way it is now, students can’t give credit (even to another student) for a great idea because they’re told “do your own work.”

Grading students on how thoroughly they researched something and then presented the findings – rather than finding a specific answer – could open the window for a style of education that truly motivates, Don said.

I never expected a great thinker would get me to reexamine cheating. Thank-you, Steelcase, for giving me the idea to give Don Norman a call!

Don Norman’s interview with Want Magazine.

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