Sunday, February 22, 2009

No Man's Land, or The Trench?

These are frightening times in many independent schools, and many of us are in a period of uncertainty that will only end when re-enrollment and admissions yield numbers are posted in April. In some parts of the country the mood is particularly grim, and schools are preparing to make cuts in staff and programs as they scale back in the face of drooping demand. In every school, administrators are going to be looking long and hard at matters of curriculum and instruction and associated issues of faculty size, pay, and professional support programs.

I worry that fear is going to drive many schools to make poor choices about sustaining their teachers. Some staff cuts and small or nonexistent raises seem inevitable here and there, but the mentality that grows around the need to do such things can also be one of retrenchment in other areas: Things are bad, so let's not rock the boat by making any changes. We're known for a particular kind of program, so we'll hunker down and do just that.

Without rolling out any of the cliches about repeating what hasn't worked, let me say that I think that hunkering down is a dangerous idea.

Even if the school can easily point to a vortex of external forces that are causing problems for enrollment and fundraising--"It's not our fault, it's the economy, stupid!"--the duck-and-cover plan is missed opportunity. The school may even have to cut some positions in the short term, but for the long term every independent school had better be considering not retrenchment but innovation as the best strategy for survival and growth.

Even schools that have a long and proud traditional heritage and that may be "the only show in town" in their particular markets will need in the next four to five years to develop thoughtful, mission-based innovations in their programs and policies that will clearly differentiate them, both from other private schools and from public ones.

It's time for schools to look at their mission statements and dig into the language that is most idealistic and then figure out how to realize those ideals in ways that will be exciting and compelling to students and families in years to come. Instead of continuing to trade on even the most well-earned reputation for staid, predictable classroom instruction, schools will have to begin finding ways of crossing what seems like a No Man's Land toward their future.

But it's not a No Man's Land at all. Plenty of schools have undertaken initiatives into the unknown with considerable success, and these schools can be resources for others that decide that going green, going global, expanding service-learning programs, committing to 1:1 laptop learning, or even dropping Advanced Placement courses can play to their strengths and capitalize on opportunities yet to materialize.

Consider what may look like the most daring of these ideas, bidding farewell to AP-designated courses. Assuming for a moment that your teachers are trained in their subject matter and well-versed in curriculum and assessment design, then why shouldn't they be able to create outstanding, challenging high-level courses that will serve your students particularly well? As far as other issues go--admission, college placement--a number of other schools have already done the heavy lifting there; check out the new Independent Curriculum Group website to see how they have done it and how it has worked out.

Those "only show in town" schools, it seems to me, are especially well positioned to innovate; by building their programs and the case for them well among existing constituencies, they can leverage their strong reputations to build tremendous support for new programs in the community--their market--as a whole, turning innovation into a whole new set of strengths that will attract students and donor dollars for years to come. Instead of holding onto the mantra, "2 - 4 - 6 - 8, We don't want to innovate!," those schools should be looking for ways to stay on top of the market by finding new paths to educational excellence.

Innovation will require time and money, and the crisis is urgent. But schools need to take a deep breath, look hard at their missions and priorities, and then figure out how best to pursue their own ideals toward new and better ways of doing their work. Hunkering down won't suffice--it's going to mean going over the top, toward a more secure future.

The best part is that innovation will pay off directly and quickly for students. The excitement and challenge of new ways of thinking and learning based on 21st-century understandings will improve their educational experience and at the same time prepare them even more effectively for their own next adventures.

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Thursday, February 5, 2009

Time is of the essence

I've been a slacker in blogland for a while, but I will plead the usual busy-ness: kickoff to our juniors' college search-apply-choose process, a few days at another school talking about schedule, and a slew of writing for the National Association of Independent Schools on issues managerial and financial. I've got a breather before the next onslaught, which includes arthroscopic knee surgery (so that my two will match) and a presentation on reinvigorating veteran teachers at the end of the month.

My schedule-related travels made me realize again how important is the allocation of time in our schools. Time is the coin of the realm, the most scarce commodity and the most valuable, and those who control time in schools--administrators, the calendar committee, the athletic director--have considerable power over the lives of students and teachers. The curriculum rises and falls by whether the school has a schedule that allows it to be executed, and the collective sanity of the school community is directly related to the amount of balance in the school day, week, term, and year between work and reflection, action and reaction.

For a great many years now I have been a big fan of Grant Wiggins's essay, "The Futility of Trying to Teach Everything of Importance." The title itself says everything that needs to be said about the issue of scheduling in schools, and yet schools too often seem bent on teaching everything--it's the additive curriculum, with more and more squeezed into at and seldom anything taken out. Competitive independent schools have ramped up graduation requirements, beefed up their AP programs with the extra time required to--let's face it--teach to the test, and sent the message loud and clear that passionate (and time-consuming) commitment to a couple of activities is the route to colleges whose names shine brightest in rear-window decals.

I won't belabor the point, as it has been made time and again, and probably at your school by some of those older teachers who sit at the back of the room during faculty meetings and occasionally screw up the courage to ask if something will be "taken away" now that your school has added this or that to the program. Generally speaking, of course, nothing will be subtracted, rolled back or otherwise removed from the program. This or that period will be shortened, or lengthened, or seized and repurposed, to make the new good thing happen. It will all be fine.

Along with Wiggins, the Coalition of Essential Schools pushes ideas I fancy, including, "Less is more." While it may sound like New Age sophistry, a bogus koan, sometimes we need to remember that it makes sense, even in traditional schools. The problem is that executing this concept involves rethinking the way we do things right at the core level: courses, content, assessments. It involves reimagining how time can be used in schools to accomplish the things we need to do, carving and paring around the sometimes decorative edges--like piling homework on kids as window dressing designed to prove that the school is "rigorous"--and focusing on what matters most of all in the context of the school's essential mission.

It wasn't a bad world back when St. Basalt's required two years of Latin, two years of mathematics (on to trigonometry for the most able), a couple of years of science, and full immersion in European history and English literature, all marinated in the sweat of students whose afternoons were spent in team sports. The content and depth of the courses aside, the foundational transactions in such schools in the old days were very much the same as those of our own era: students developed strong relationships with bright adults who challenged kids to think, write, work, and run as hard as they could and who passed stern but affectionate and usually encouraging judgment upon their efforts. This program, laughably spare as it may seem to us today, produced good and capable people--some of them ourselves, others our parents and grandparents. St. Basalt's teams were competitive, its theatrical productions of Bell, Book, and Candle enjoyable to watch, and its graduates went on to college.

What did the boys and girls of St. Basalt's sixty years ago do with their spare time? Beats me. It's not likely any more of them read for pleasure than our students do today, and with those long afternoons on the field or in the rink they weren't hanging out at the malt shop. They weren't Facebooking, but they were probably socializing and canoodling in ways that wouldn't look unfamiliar in the 21st century.

Somehow, kids both kept themselves busy and managed to eke out an education--in 20th-century skills, I'll grant you--without 60+ period rotating schedule cycles and "co-curricular" courses in everything. Interesting, isn't it, that 21st-century skills, with all the yeasty synergies of collaboration and technology, seem to take so much more time to teach when we just add these elements to what we are already doing?

Because that's just it: we fail to take advantage of the yeasty synergies of technology and our better understanding of how learning happens, and we bury ourselves and our students. Think of all the years since the Advanced Placement Biology examination was instituted and all the new knowledge in that field that had to be taught. A few new findings supplanted older ones, but for the most part the new content amounted to ever-increasing granularity--more and more detail. Word is that the College Board is at last trying to revamp the curriculum to bring the content back to the level of humanly-learnable-in-30-some-weeks.

I'm beginning to sound like one of those "what are we taking away" curmudgeons in the back of the faculty meeting, and I don't mean to. I like a busy day, and I love the idea that in our time we are stretching and challenging our students in new ways and with many new points of view.

But time is of the essence, and I think schools need to consider whether their students and teachers have become victims of the additive curriculum. Whether a school's schedule is a funky block, a complex rotator, or a tried-and-true straight day, it has to meet the needs of the students and of a curriculum that is intentional and humane. If your scheduler has become a contortionist and your community members sprinters, step back and return to first principles: mission, values, goals.

Let time serve the people, rather than the people feel as though they are serving time.

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