Better Edsels?

Part One My typical morning. Watch ESPN while kid drinks whole milk, I drink Peet's. Kid watches Sesame, I do email. Arrive to school, read my favorite 6 edu-blogs before Veronica tries to turn off my internet connection and coerce me to do actual work.

The blogs are: Eduwonk, Joanne Jacobs, GothamSchools, Function of Time, Flypaper, and Robert Pondiscio.

Robert's a former Business Week writer and former NYC Teaching Fellow. He now works for Core Knowledge Foundation. Also he's a baseball nut who is sad because John Lackey, aka the worst pitcher in baseball, is killing his rotisserie team. Big deal. How do you think actual Red Sox fans feel?

(Hope springs eternal. I once blogged that David Ortiz had become the worst hitter in baseball. And that he would never get better. Oops. That wasn't exactly prescient. He's good again. Maybe Lackey, too, can turn it around).

Robert wrote a great blog post a few days ago that all No Excuses charter folks should read. It's called Better Edsels.

It is here.

Click. Read. Then meet me back here.

Part Two Robert (and his friend who sent the email, a different blogger) makes two arguments:

1. Even high-performing No Excuses charters have a long way to go to achieve their mission of college success.

I agree.

I've blogged about this several times, like here.

2. The key weakness of many No Excuses charters is curriculum. There are 3 aspects to the curriculum critique.

2a. Direct Instruction or Not

“Teachers aren’t allowed to use direct instruction for longer than a few minutes; then the students must repair to their pods and discover knowledge. After they discover knowledge, which means solving ONE problem, they return to the rug and explain their “strategies” to each other.

I'm being a little imprecise, because it combines pedagogy (how it's taught) with curriculum (what is taught), but whatever.

Robert's friend happens to be describing a school which I think is somewhat of an outlier among the No Excuses charters. (I know which school it is, but per Robert's blog, he doesn't want to reveal it).

MATCH is starting a new elementary school in September. It's called MATCH Community Day. (Some cute pictures from lottery day; new ones soon.

So Kate and I spend time talking with various leaders and teachers from some really impressive charters. She is down at North Star in Newark right now (amazing). Also connecting with: Excellence in Brooklyn, AF's Elm City Prep in New Haven, KIPP Shine in Houston, Edward Brooke in Boston, along with our partner Community Day in Lawrence, MA.

Generally, these No Excuses charter schools do use a fair amount of direct instruction, more than discovery learning.

2b. Knowledge vs "Literacy Skill"

Where I'd agree with Robert, however, is we as a school type may -- I emphasize may, I really don't know yet -- lean a bit too much towards "literacy as a skill" (decoding, finding main idea, etc) instead of "actual learning of stuff" (knowledge). The Core Knowledge/E.D. Hirsch/Dan Willingham/Robert Pondiscio argument is that knowledge is:

a) Obviously critical in its own right

b) The key driver in generating reading comprehension

This 10-minute video makes this argument.

2c. Who does the work?

Finally, let's put aside the best way of "how" (direct instruction or discovery), and put aside the right mix of "what" (literacy skills versus overall knowledge), and look at the "who." Who does the work of creating curriculum?

My own view of "who makes curriculum" comes from two places.

First, observing and talking to many rookie teachers in no excuses charter schools. They seem tired.

I don't see how they plausibly have enough time to "shoot the moon": build relationships with each kid and parent; get better each day at executing lessons; and write up, largely from curriculum guidelines, lessons for each day. Yet that is often what is asked of them. Including at our own school.

I tend be a (sometimes counterproductively) zero-sum guy. So take with grain of salt. But I'd rather rookie teachers worked on #1 and #2, and were given #3 to chisel from instead of to create from scratch. I think #1 and #2 alone can easily absorb 70 hours a week.

Second, shortly after college graduation I moved to NYC. I worked for these guys. Here's the thing about Bway and off-Bway: the actors have a hard job. Nobody expects them to also write the friggin' play! Yet in our world, the k-12 world, teachers sometimes are expected to write a one-act play every day!

At least for rookies -- and charters have lots of rookies -- I believe in Curric in a Box

Willingham more eloquently here.

Part Three

The MATCH Schools "business czar," Richard Dragon, actually drives an Edsel. Over meatball subs one day, he explained that the Edsel is a very misunderstood car. There are competing ideas on why it failed.

From a Failure Magazine article in 2001 about the history of the Edsel:

“Those who ignore the past are doomed to repeat it,” warned philosopher George Santayana. In the high stakes financial world of the auto industry repeating the mistakes of others is prohibitively expensive. So it’s no surprise that when Saturn Corporation launched “a different kind of car company” in 1990, it used failure—specifically the lessons of the Edsel—as its road map to success. A dozen years and more than 2.2 million vehicles later Saturn is still going strong.

Irony: the article was from 2001. Saturn as a car manufacturer was supposed to learn "the lessons" of the Edsel. But Saturn itself failed, halting production in 2009.

The issue is often that people aren't ignoring the past (or present). Instead, lessons from the past are pretty hard to figure out.

For example, there's the view that No Excuses charters mostly succeed because of autonomy of staff and schedules. I think that is false causality. It's an essential condition, sure. But that doesn't explain why most charter schools and in-district charters are either okay or bad.

I agree with Robert that KIPP has done a wonderful service in proactively posting the 33% college grad rate from its early cohort. I am very confident that number will rise over time; that organization an improvement machine. One key component is, I predict, is indeed going to be improving/refining curriculum.

1. There's the Core Knowledge critique above (more direct instruction, more knowledge)

2. There's the Kay Merseth critique which I've blogged about before (less direct instruction at the middle and high school level; kids need to be assigned challenging, more self-directed problem-solving opportunities, like they do in honors classes in the suburbs)

3. There's Kay's friend Spencer Blasdale's critique (fewer than 10% of teachers are able to get unwilling kids to persist/be gritty enough to do the really challenging academic work, so assigning it alone won't help like it does in the 'burbs; instead, you need to somehow massively increase capacity of No Excuses charter teachers to generate that sort of gritty effort, even though these teachers already seemed maxed out).

4. There's the MG view: I agree with both of the above; I'm not sure of the tradeoffs; and in my mind, this is at least as much about solving the "who" (reducing the expectation of young/new charter teachers to create curriculum from scratch, which both frees them up to do other things to generate student effort, while likely improving the curriculum since it wasn't made by a novice last night while watching Law & Order) versus the "what."