Inspirations from Iceland: Reflections on the USA

Imagine a land where pre-school education is guaranteed. Think of music teachers in most elementary schools and choirs in most secondary schools. Imagine a noticeable cleanliness of the hallways and classrooms. In many schools shoes aren’t worn inside because the staff doesn’t want the raw winter weather ruining the floors and making everything filthy. Imagine Iceland.

This Scandinavian country’s educators are thinking constructively about student engagement—through the arts and vocational education. Iceland, like the rest of Scandinavia, is not obsessed with standardized testing.

Rhythm warm up at the beginning of the forum

Rhythm warm up at the beginning of the forum

The Icelandic Teachers Union hosted me last month.  A special forum focused on the role of arts and arts education to strengthen teaching and learning in the 21st Century. Teachers and principals participated, along with officials from the Ministry of Arts, Culture and Education. They kicked off the forum with interactive activities involving musicians and drama teachers. The group of 200 split in half to get to know one another through theatre games and some rhythm activities. A fantastic way to start the day!

Music begins the day in preschool

Music begins the day in preschool

As the forum keynote speaker I emphasized the value of arts at the center of a school curriculum. I shared how the arts can change an entire school culture and encourage young people to achieve at high levels—artistically and academically.  As both a teacher and school leader, I demonstrated how the power of arts helps children and adults walk in the other’s shoes and begin to learn skills of persistence, collaboration and risk taking – skills in short supply in most of the world.

Elementary school block area

Woodworking

Math activity

Math activity

During this trip I visited four different schools: pre-school, elementary (k-8), secondary and a tertiary institute for visual arts.  The pre-school children, ages 2-5, engaged in various activities ranging from woodworking, block building, clay sculptures, reading, measuring, Lego play and singing. A sense of creative play emanated throughout the bright and airy spaces. At the elementary school, students worked on math assignments in the hallway, which had become a makeshift classroom. They were hard at work jumping back and forth on a number line to experiment with positive and negative numbers. All students also take cooking, sewing and knitting, music, and shop as part of the required curriculum.

Knitting class

Knitting class

A secondary school highlight was the vocational pathways for metal work and automotive. The studios and shops rivaled that of the best-equipped factory imaginable. These young people were aware of the high quality education that they were receiving and its value in their careers as farmers, automotive techs or machinists. One spoke about how now he could fix the machinery on his family’s small farm. In the digital media lab, a young man talked about how he originally thought he wanted to be an actor, but realized he may have more aptitude for film making or television. He gestured to the end of his classroom, which was a professional looking TV studio. “I’m getting a lot of practice here at school for what I want to do in my career,” he acknowledged.

The visual arts institute was non-credit bearing. Students prepared to present their art and design portfolios to some of the most prestigious colleges and universities in Europe as well as to compete for jobs in design firms.

Visual arts school

Visual arts school

Icelandic teachers and administrators do have serious concerns, however. In our discussions, they worried about the level of engagement of their students and their commitment to creativity and risk taking. They didn’t want me to be blinded by the lovely facilities (I was) or lulled into thinking all was well since music teachers are ubiquitous (I was). My job was to push everyone to think more about the role of performing arts (dance and theatre are not well integrated into the curriculum) and to encourage more experimentation. They also wanted me to challenge the notion that vocational education is second-class or second-rate. Not all children have to go to universities if the vocational training is truly high quality.
Back in the U.S.A. and reflections on Finland

On my return the United States, the topics of school autonomy and flexibility awaited. I am leading a study about how Boston Public Schools and other school districts understand and/or embrace those issues as part of school practices. A small group of schools came onto the educational landscape 18 years ago in the aftermath of charter legislation. These schools, which began in Boston, were called Pilot Schools. I often say I was the first in Massachusetts to hold a charter and the first to return it in favor of pilot status. This gave us the same flexibilities and autonomies that charters would enjoy. These areas include: hiring/staffing, budget, curriculum and assessment, schedule and calendar and professional development.

In a recent meeting where our study team shared some of our emerging research, my colleague Pasi Sahlberg from Finland, admonished us in the US for being obsessed with accountability and test scores. “In Finland we talk about children’s well-being. That is what we count first.” My experience in Finland backs up this notion as well as the deep autonomy that teachers have to design and execute their own curriculum and assessments.

Our journey with education reform in the U.S. leaves only a distant memory of school and learning that is not synonymous with testing. But the Finns have adopted a different philosophy. Standardized tests are not introduced until secondary school and teachers are given wide flexibility and autonomy with curriculum and assessment. When they do test in secondary school, it happens once. A clear set of standards are skill-based with a great deal of trust for teachers. Teachers have the autonomy to assess how their students meet those standards. Collaborative work among teachers and with principals is highly valued as are skills of curriculum development. In Iceland there are standardized tests twice in elementary schools: at the age of 9 and 15. There are no standardized tests in secondary schools. Little talk exists around standardized high stakes testing and a lot of talk exists about art and music. On top of that, the Icelandic educators worry that students may be slipping with standards because the approaches are not creative enough. More art and music may be necessary. If students do not reach standards, the antidote is more teaching, not more testing.

Once again, I feel a collision course building in this country. As we adopt common core, which in some ways is our attempt to imitate Finland, we have not thought deeply about assuring that all of our young people have access to high quality arts education in all disciplines. This means visual, musical, dance, theatre, creative writing, etc., during all years. We have not thought deeply about the meaning of shop courses for students (something we taught routinely in the last century) and cooking and other vocational classes. We tossed those classes out in the ‘80s and substituted what? Test prep?

I certainly believe in the importance of high levels of literacy for all students. I fear that we have so constrained our curriculum to right brain foci that the very areas of exploration that could lead us to “wide awakeness,” as Maxine Greene posits, have been diminished to side conversations and sighs of “remember when…?”

I refuse to have well-being, creativity, and physical education relegated to the backrooms of our schools or to after school.

Instead of rolling out common core just in academic subjects, consider what Iceland and Finland have already done—make arts matter. They matter for well-being, for student engagement, for giving students an opportunity to walk in another’s shoes. They matter for understanding perspective, history, language, and collaboration. Arts matter in the development of abstract thinking and in helping students discern questions about judgment and perception. Arts give students strong communication skills.

Those 21st Century skills we so want to imbue in our student are readily accessible through a rigorous arts curriculum. The arts teach us perseverance and how to work in an ensemble. They arts teach us to continually refine and to work at a task for a long period of time. The arts teach us that our passions and interests in the world and in culture do matter. They teach us the value of hard work and lots of practice. There are no “quick fixes” in becoming a good musician.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Belen Pereyra  and Vernard J. Gilmore in Alvin Ailey’s Hidden Rites.  Photo by Paul Kolnik

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Belen Pereyra
and Vernard J. Gilmore in Alvin Ailey’s Hidden Rites.
Photo by Paul Kolnik

Belen Pereyra was recently profiled in the New Yorker by Joan Acocella (January 6, 2014) who wrote, “I could not believe Pereyra’s speed, her spontaneity, her astonishing, open-legged jumps. It was like watching a baby or an animal – movement that is completely natural, but which, in and adult, is the product only of art and long training.”

I couldn’t have been more proud. Belen was my student. Of course, one could argue that Belen was exceptional. She was and is. But the skills she learned – of perseverance, of listening, of learning from others, research, ensemble – are skills that all of our students learn. All students of a curriculum steeped in the arts learn these skills.

The same can be true of vocational schools. One may not see the ability to “engage an audience” in class of metal workers, but when I spoke to those young people in Iceland, I know they were proud of their skills. I want that to be true of all schools—vocational, academic, artistic. Kids should own their explorations and feel pride in their emerging skills. We need to broaden our curriculum, broaden our sense of schools and ensure that our young people are well. I am ready for the Finnish lessons to be applied in the US, and the Icelandic ones, too!

My book, “The Hardest Questions Aren’t on the Test: Lessons from an Innovative Urban School” in Icelandic.

My book, “The Hardest Questions Aren’t on the Test: Lessons from an Innovative Urban School” in Icelandic.

“Why not have Project Year and School week?” Thinking about Vito Perrone and Innovation today

As I look around the country, I get more and more concerned that our state and federal mandates have caused us to ignore the idea that education is about empowerment and the ability to make change in one’s own life and community. Vito Perrone, my mentor and a mentor to hundreds of educators around the country, wrote in his book A Letter to Teachers about how quality education is about the ability to connect learning from the community to school and the school to community. Perrone wrote that education is about “build[ing] bridges…” and not just about reproducing the materials and expectations of our current society. He asked, “What do we most want our students to come to understand as a result of their schooling?” Perrone urged us to think about “setting ourselves immeasurable goals, far beyond all hope of achievement.” By that he meant the opportunity to discover joy and play and the power of community. Perrone didn’t shirk away from recognizing the devastating impacts of poverty, poor nutrition, unemployment, or racism, but he pushed us as educators not to allow the trauma surrounding so many of our students’ lives to prevent them (and us) to think about aesthetics and authentic learning. Perrone used these terms before they sounded trite to our 21st century politicians. He exhorted us to think about larger possibilities for learning, and not to settle for quick fixes and test scores. He often paraphrased Dewey, especially in the ways that Dewey thought about the importance of habits of mind, heart, and hands. For Perrone, vocational education, project based learning, was for all students not just those who couldn’t “do school.”

Recently, I learned about the Workshop School in Philadelphia http://www.workshopschool.org/, which is a small school that focuses on solving real world problems. The four co-founders are Dr. Matthew Riggan, Executive Director and engineer, Simon Hauger, Principal, Dr. Michael Clapper, teacher, and Dr. C. Aiden Downey, the Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Division of Educational Studies at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.

The web site describes how the school is different from most schools because “students spend their days working on meaningful projects that solve real world problems.” Vito would have loved this school. Simon Hauger, one of the school’s founders and an engineer says, “We believe learning should be interesting, even fun. The Workshop is a place where your ideas matter.  Sure, we focus on all of the stuff you need to be successful in school, like reading, writing, and math. And we definitely work hard. But we also learn the things you need to be successful in life. Like how to ask the right questions, push through adversity, make positive change, and work well with other people.” Projects run the gamut from building a solar powered house to investigating topics such as immigration or climate change. Students say that the school feels like “family.”

In today’s high stakes turnaround approach to learning, “family” is almost seen as a curse word. At the very least, it is seen as being “soft on standards.” We are not allowed to talk anymore about the trauma and pain that our kids come to school with. Double periods of English and math and scores on tests are all that is measured and all that is reported. But we know that when school is truly about engaging young people, learning really occurs. Schools like this might show us the way forward.

When I first began at Fenway High School, Vito Perrone suggested that we visit Ann Cook at Urban Academy in NYC. Vito wanted us to see how they did Project Week.  We borrowed many of Urban’s ideas and introduced Project Week to Fenway in the early 1990s.  One of our essential questions was: “What makes a good museum?” 250 students fanned out across the city to study this question in various forms. At the week’s end, we reported out our findings to museum directors, city councilors and other interested officials. It was an exhilarating learning expedition for students and teachers. To this day, Fenway continues Project Week and Boston Green Academy (another Boston Public School) also has introduced Project Week. It has morphed a great deal and is not necessarily one essential question that everyone studies, but it continues to be a high point of the year for everyone. I vividly remember one of our earliest discussions after Project Week with Vito. As he listened to our excitement about all we had learned he asked, “Why not have Project Year and School week?” That question has stayed with me.

I had always hoped that the Boston Arts Academy would find a way to bring “project week” into the school’s curriculum. Finally, under the leadership of Anne Clark, BAA’s headmaster, and Monika Aldarondo, Creative Director, “Intersession” was born at BAA. Students and teachers offered 33 different sessions. In the proposals the leader had to describe the goals of the learning experience as well as the activities and the community partners (if any) involved. “Think about all the actions you can take to understand and experience a topic more deeply. In addition describe all the ways your experience will allow people to learn to explore, create, investigate, make, do, engage, perform, play, question, connect, practice and deepen.” These words and their meaning are so compelling to me and to students.

Some of the projects included: Site Specific Dance (students studied exhibits at the Museum of Science and then responded in dance), Mini Musicals, Youth Activism, Documentary Film Making, Healing with Music (including learning about Alzheimer’s and performing at a senior citizens home), Cooking, CosPlay which allowed students to study anime characters and construct their costumes, Exploring Local and National Monuments, Study of the Caribbean, Sculpting Fashion, Basics of Owning a Car, Jewelry Making and the list goes on and on.

A dancer working on a site specific dance showed me his duet on balance. “I went to the exhibit about the human body and spent a lot of time learning about the ear. My dance is an exploration of how the ear helps us balance.” Another dancer showed me her quartet she had finished choreographing about planets and their inter-relationships. “We spent a full day at the exhibit learning, reading, playing, choreographing. We made our dance right there. No one wanted to be Uranus at first, but we had to figure out how that planet was interacting with Pluto and Neptune. It was fun to learn about planets in a different way.” The idea of interacting with a museum exhibit through dance was exhilarating and challenging for these young dancers. I’m certain they wouldn’t have spent so long at an exhibit if they hadn’t had the chance to use their passion and their way of experiencing the world—through movement—as their medium for understanding.  One of the students in the cooking group talked about how much he had learned about shopping on a budget and how you could still eat nutritious food but how planning was so crucial. A small group of girls (with a male teacher) studied pregnancy both from a scientific and emotional perspective, reading literature, studying reproduction and even carrying an 8lb weight around to learn about the physical dimensions to pregnancy.

I believe that because students to chose their projects (and even volunteered to lead projects) the level of enthusiasm and engagement was breathtaking.

But while I was thrilled to see Intersession at BAA, I also was sad. This kind of open-ended exploration with joy is not generally the norm in schools. We are continuing to feed our students a steady diet of discrete and disconnected facts and text book learning. We seem to avoid the obvious: when students are engaged they will learn. When students are included and asked about what they want to study, they will respond. This doesn’t mean that students should never be exposed to stuff that they don’t like or don’t want to learn, but at least half the day should be spent engaging in activities that directly relate to questions students are asking.  This is what Vito meant when he talked about the “larger purposes of school.”

Check out these pictures from intersession. I hope you can begin to ask, “How can ice skating be part of school?” Or “What does it mean for musicians to study abstract painting?” Or even better, “What does it mean when students are leading the sessions?” We must not settle for what currently passes as schools. We must keep pushing ourselves to ask how our classrooms can become more open to real community and interests of our students. Then, and only then, will school be a place where we all want to belong as a family.

Vito and me

Vito and me

Students learning to figure skate during intersession.

This student group learned to figure skate during intersession.

Students learned to make their own candy and constructed a "candy land."Students learned to make their own candy and constructed a “candy land.”

Learning to make jewelry

Learning to make jewelry

Asking the Hard Questions

Last month I spoke to Deborah Donahue Keegan and Steve Cohen’s Tufts University undergraduate education classes. About half the students had spent a morning a week all semester volunteering at Charlestown High School in Boston. Others had visited Boston Arts Academy. Many had read my book, The Hardest Questions Aren’t on the Test. Others had been reading current educational theory about what makes schools successful. All came to class curious and filled with questions.

Here are some of them:

1. How do you create a nurturing school culture?
2. What makes a good art educator?
3. Are all students inherently artists?
4. How do you build creativity especially in a developing country?
5. What are the biggest challenges of setting up a school?
6. What do you wish you’d known when you first started out?

Our conversation touched on many themes. I began by discussing that what makes a good art educator is the same as what makes a good educator—the ability to listen to young people, to connect to young people’s passions, to create lessons that are challenging but have support. I reminded the students that teachers, and leaders, have to be able to go home at the end of the day and, even if it was an awful day, they have to have the capacity to come back tomorrow with new perspective and generosity. Holding grudges will get you nowhere. And I talked about some of my own early (and recent) faux pas as a teacher and a leader. I discussed the importance of knowing the community that is the school and the community from which students enter. I recalled trying to teach mathematical concepts early in my teaching career that I thought were “cool” but had no bearing on anything students had seen or done previously. I was grateful for a principal who re-directed me and told me to teach what was in the curriculum and save my ‘creative’ ideas about the importance of Egyptian numerology until I had a semblance of control over my unruly middle schoolers.

I especially loved the question about how to build creativity in young people and I was reminded, sadly, that with an over-exposure to high stakes testing and to curriculum that is all about teaching to the test, creativity will be diminished. And for our nation and our world that would be a travesty. We must invest in story telling, in drawing, painting, acting, moving, playing music—all sorts of creative play—otherwise we risk creating a citizenry that lacks the ability to ponder questions about judgment or perspective or seeing the world from someone else’s cultural or linguistic lens.

One student wanted to probe the connection between a strong and positive school community and individual excellence or success. Is there a balance? Does too much community create a lack of individual ownership? I found these to be intriguing questions but in my own experience a strong community and culture is the basis for strong individual success. Unfortunately too many of our institutions, schools and others privilege individual access and success way above the ability to collaborate or create a strong sense of community. I wonder if some of these Tufts students will have the chance to get this right.

One young man said to me, “I’m a freshman and I love math and hope to major in math. When I visited BAA I was so excited by the math teaching there and the way teachers and students talked about math. Maybe that’s what I want to do. “ Another student thanked me for coming and said, “I never realized that all children are inherently artists.” Many students talked about how they would reflect differently on their own schooling and consider whether their school had been good for them or for all of the students. Another student shared that even though she wasn’t going to go into formal education in the future, “everyone has a chance to educate…and the themes you’ve raised are important for all of us.”

I appreciated the graciousness and gratitude that these young people greeted me with. I left feeling buoyed by their insights and emerging connections to public education.

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Making the road by walking: A roadmap from an after-school initiative to a better school system

Who would have known that an informal theatre program for young children in the early 1980s could yield such fertile ground.  I had been teaching an after school theatre program that had achieved some notoriety.  A visionary principal began to believe that he could turn around his K-5 school by providing arts for all students.

The first task was starting a middle school so that the school would grow to be K-8, and very few K-8s existed in that era. The school was located in one of the worst housing projects in Boston. The community was ravaged by violence, drugs and high rates of teen pregnancy. Busing was in full effect but few students from outside the neighborhood wanted to come to this school. Yet eventually, we worked across all grades to ensure that every young person in that large elementary school had daily arts experiences.

The principal knew that the arts would be a strong draw. He gave us another challenge: Make the middle school a bilingual middle school for the arts. Ensure that graduates were competent and conversant in both Spanish and English and also had skills in theatre, stagecraft, dance and music.  At that point, our visual arts program was almost non-existent.

A group of committed teachers worked for months to plan an interdisciplinary curriculum that would create multiple opportunities for students to experience science and arts, math and arts, English/history and arts. We had autonomy to create our own academic curricula and also to think about ways that arts and academics might enhance learning.  And we did it in Spanish and English, which may have been most important. To get a speaking part in a play, students had to speak both languages. Although students professed to hate the academic study of English or Spanish, those courses became some of our favorite since so many students wanted to be in a play.

Others who wanted no part of being in front of an audience became expert carpenters, lighting or costume designers, or stage managers. Family members helped with sewing, make-up, posters and general chaos control.  Folks had no precedent for bilingual musicals by 11-13 year olds, including Man of La Mancha and West Side Story. Yet we packed the auditorium every night. Since most families had had no experience with live theatre, we had to do considerable audience education.  People learned, for example, that they shouldn’t throw things onto the stage or call out in the middle of a song or an actor’s lines.

That school was meant to be the feeder for an audition-based high school for the arts. Two other strong magnet arts programs emerged during this era, but none could create the impetus for a true arts high school. Many other cities were opening such schools, often called magnet schools, as a way of stemming white flight and keeping the middle class invested in public schools.  Various attempts in Boston to organize the arts community brought tremendous resistance to opening an audition-based high school. The desegregation court order still controlled much of Boston school politics and there was no appetite for taking on what might be seen as an end-run to that order.

Without thoughtful dialogue the doubts became barriers to any action. Various proposals eventually died. The middle school arts programs languished with leaders who felt only their fingers in the dike of public school chaotic policies. The teachers in the individual schools knew programs like their own existed across the city but felt isolated and without a sense of agency to create a strong network. We kept hearing that we were the groundwork for the new high school, but we could barely do our own jobs let alone create a political force for real change.

We were all very committed teachers who made huge inroads with community organizations and families, but we had no authority or even protection to keep growing our school. Slowly we watched as our well-laid plans began to evaporate and our administration became interested in other programs. Our school began to look like a Christmas tree with one program or ornament being added each month. Our arts focus was just one of many things we were trying to do. Raising student achievement by any and all means became the new mantra. Funding and energies dissipated. Many of us began to look for new opportunities to effect change in schools. Then our own principal left and another arrived who didn’t share our zeal for a bilingual middle school for the arts.

Fast forward to the early 1990s

During this era Massachusetts experienced far-reaching education reform legislation that brought state testing (MCAS) and charter schools. The ProArts Consortium (a group of private and public colleges of the arts in Boston) was ready with a proposal to found a charter school for the arts. The State rejected that proposal as too expensive. Simultaneous to the legislation that brought charter schools, Boston Public Schools, the Boston Teachers Union and the Mayor’s office agreed on an innovative contract provision that allowed the formation of  “in-district charter schools” called Pilot Schools.

ProArts immediately applied for pilot school status and in 1995 Boston Arts Academy (BAA) became one of the first pilot schools in Boston, although we would not open for three more years until a facility could be found. I was then the co-director of Fenway High School which was the founding member of the group along with Greater Egleston, Health Careers, Young Achievers, Lyndon Elementary and Boston Evening Academy.   That group of six schools paved the way for what would later become Horace Mann Charter Schools and Innovation Schools in Boston and across the state.

Later, as the founding headmaster of BAA I met with all of the ProArts presidents to hear about their visions for this long-awaited and long-fought-for school. Ted Landsmark was the president of Boston Architectural College, one of the members of ProArts. Landsmark was the city employee captured in an iconic prize-winning photo that depicts him outside City Hall being stabbed in the chest with the pole of an American flag by someone opposed to court-ordered busing. Our meeting had special meaning for both of us. Landsmark never referred to the photo.  Instead, he talked about his vision for a school in Boston. Because of the rigors of an arts education, it would allow students, perhaps for the first time in our city’s history, to cross racial, socio-economic and language barriers and create meaningful work together.

Boston Arts Academy today

The arts created an environment where explorations of polarizing issues could be the norm. Young people grow up in an atmosphere that both validates their own backgrounds and experiences while simultaneously teaches about “other.”  BAA has done this for the past 16 years. Young people confront their own issues, and they learn to accept and even embrace the issues of their classmates and their history. This happens in the arts studios and also in math, science, language and history classes.

The culture of experimentation in new media, of risk-taking, striving for excellence and of collaboration permeates all classrooms. Students talk about how BAA is a “writing school.” They mean that everywhere, no matter what class, students learn to express themselves with written words. Students proudly discuss the values of the school, which include “passion with balance,” “vision with integrity,” “community with social responsibility,” and “diversity with respect.” These concepts, which can be difficult for most adults to live by, are infused in all aspects of the BAA community.

Students and parents are also quick to point out that a stellar faculty make this remarkable school possible. In fact, the deep ownership and pride of teachers for BAA has fueled a successful leadership transition to a wonderful new Headmaster selected by teachers, parents, students and Board members, who was also a founding faculty member.  Teaching at BAA requires lots of debate and meetings that allow teachers considerable control over what is closest to them: curriculum, assessment, schedule and working conditions.

Today, BAA is part of a growing number of autonomous schools in Boston. Pilot schools were the first to guarantee autonomy in six key areas: governance, budget, hiring, curriculum, scheduling and school calendar. Some autonomous schools are developed through a contractual agreement with the teachers’ union and the district. Others are legislated through new state education laws, and still others are part of federal “turnaround” policies.  While some slight differences exist within these autonomous schools, the principle of teacher ownership has remained the same.

From founding principal to a broader world

In my new role in the district, I work to better clarify what these variations in autonomies mean to different constituents. Some schools haven’t yet figured out how to ensure that teachers feel a strong sense of ownership. Other schools operate almost as if they don’t belong to any district. Collecting the evidence of the variations and the areas of tension has been fascinating.

Most exciting for me has been the opportunity to connect with young teachers and administrators who, as with myself over 30 years ago, embrace the challenges of public education and use autonomy as a way to ensure the creation of the best school possible.

Rochelle is an alum from BAA whom I visited recently. She works for another Boston public school, spearheading that school’s new destiny as a proposed Innovation School. I sat with Rochelle and her team of teachers, her principal, and students. They described their vision of a school with a focus on entrepreneurship, job development and the arts and new media. We talked about how to create a curriculum that was “hands-on” and project-based. What about a woodshop class where students made things that could be sold? What places of intersection exist between arts and entrepreneurship? Could students imagine starting and marketing their own business? As one student said, “Though I am senior and won’t be part of the new school when it starts, I give my full support to the idea… I believe that [this school] is what Boston is lacking right now. I have a little brother going into high school and [I’m glad] there will be a school like [this] for him.”

Whether or not faculty will vote to transition from a traditional school to an Innovation school is still uncertain. Still, the ideas shared around the room held great promise for young people who have not experienced success in school. Rochelle spoke about her vision for this school. “I learned so much as a student at BAA. I know the importance of creativity and collaboration. I was trusted to do a senior project as a high school student—and the topic was something I was passionate about—not an assignment a teacher gave me. I want to bring that same sense of excitement and ownership of learning to these young people.”  Rochelle described the transient population at her school, and how many students arrived with limited English skills. She was certain that by engaging them in the arts and entrepreneurship school might finally compete with the streets.  I look forward returning and seeing what Rochelle, her colleagues and her students have created. I have no doubt it will be magnificent.

A few weeks ago, I attended the 10th reunion of the BAA class of 2003. The founding ProArts presidents and founding faculty would have been thrilled to see this group, some whom had traveled great distances to get there. Students spoke to one another, or used American Sign Language, since this class had a number of deaf and hard-of-hearing students, about their challenges and their successes. A surprising number were in law enforcement or the military. Others were teaching. Some worked as professional artists as church accompanists and choir directors or writers or after-school teachers or in nonprofits. Still others were in marketing. Some were still finding their way taking classes part time, working and raising a family.

Little judgment existed among these young people about what “making it” really looked like. I felt only a sense of camaraderie and support and evidence of the lessons we had taught in high school. Students reminisced about whether RICO—refine, invent, connect and own, still held true 10 years later. “I use it every day with my staff,” said a young woman program director. “RICO’s not just an academic skill. It’s a way of looking at life, learning and how you do just about everything.” Even with some concerns about how some alums were faring, I had the strong sense that they would stay connected and continue to create an even better Boston or Raleigh or San Jose or wherever they were living.

The shared values we struggled to inculcate in our community seemed alive and well within each one of them. Many of them would end up, like Rochelle, likely creating their own schools, or business, or organizations. They would feel strongly about the importance of collaboration. They would value knowing others different from themselves.  They would emphasize the balance between the importance of autonomy and the power of being part of a greater whole.

Moving On

I have just made a huge decision to leave the school house and join the district office. I don’t think I ever imagined I’d work “in town” but we have an interim superintendent, John McDonough, for whom I have enormous respect. He has been working with Boston Pilot Schools since day one to help provide budget autonomy, and we have succeeded in that area. But there have been too many other stumbling blocks. Too many places when we haven’t gotten it right. I’m excited by the chance to try and help more schools gain the autonomy that I have enjoyed as a principal. I’ve included a link to my personal letter to my school community.

When I was on my book tour, an insightful school committee representative from a city in North Carolina said to me, “I really see what a good school yours is. And I know lots of good schools. But can you have a good school system? Or just a system of good schools? Do you see my question?” I’m not sure I really did.

But as I take on a new challenge with the Boston Public Schools to look at the possibilities of autonomy for all schools, I am asking lots of those questions. As autonomous schools in the Boston Public Schools have increased (we are now almost 25% of the schools), the district administration has not shrunk much. In fact, little has changed in the way the district and schools see one another, even though we have incredibly talented individuals working in our district. I hear this critique across the country: “The district office is too big; the district can’t get out of the way; there is too much bureaucracy; too many rules…”

What is the right relationship between a district office and individual schools? What is the right balance between autonomy and accountability? How do we come to these decisions? These are questions I will investigate during this coming year, through continued conversations with teachers and administrators across the Boston Public School system. We envision this year as one of collecting data and then making some proposals that can be the basis for policies moving forward.

The pilot schools (and Mass. charter schools) were founded on the principle that with autonomy comes accountability. There were five areas of autonomy: budget, hiring, schedule and calendar, curriculum and assessment, and governance. Each of these is complex; together they are indeed representative of what can make a great school. But we have seen that having these five autonomies doesn’t make schools automatically better. Of course, part of the challenge is defining “better.” Does that just mean better test scores? What are the more intrinsic ways of thinking about “better” and about what it means for a school to succeed? These autonomies we have been given may be necessary but they are not sufficient ingredients for success.

Then there is the question of Turnaround Schools. Is this a sustainable strategy? These schools, like pilot schools or in-district charters or Innovation Schools (in Massachusetts), get an infusion of money and the promise of autonomy. Within two or three years they are supposed to be transformed, and by transformation we mean higher test scores. But is there any evidence that these changes can be sustained, especially after the money goes away?

What about the teachers’ union? That is a question I’ve been exploring a lot these days as I take on the exciting task of editing a book about school reform and the role of unions. What have we learned about the ways in which teachers unions both support and detract from school reform efforts? Again, is there a balance that we might pursue that could lead to more harmonious and mutually beneficial relationships between the schools and the districts?

I will try and document my experiences this year, including what I learn, where I see the tensions, and what forms of balance we can achieve. I hope you will give me ideas of questions to ask and that you will keep your own questions coming. I am passionate about public education and there is so much at stake right now. I invite you on this journey.

Reflections and Looking Ahead

My first year leading BAA’s Center for Arts in Education sent me to schools and teachers across the country and around the world.   These visits repeatedly reminded me of Parker Palmer’s words: “Good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher.” From Denver to New Bedford and Hawaii to India I witnessed good teaching, as Palmer describes, that comes at the “dangerous intersection of personal and public life.”

Good teachers make themselves vulnerable to students—to their judgment, to their excitement, and even to their indifference. We see this in arts classrooms when we ask our students to create and invent work and make connections with ideas and concepts we have taught and studied.

A teacher choreographing with his students is on a deeply personal journey of the expert beginning to shape the novices. The teacher/choreographer has a concept and a “story” (quotes intentional) to express. Yet the student dancers give form, energy and substance to the piece that ultimately creates the aesthetic experience for an audience. The interplay between choreographer and student/dancers must be based on trust and a belief that the dancers will “get it right.” Choreography is a mere abstract idea until it is performed. When given shape, movement and sound it can be transcendent.  Experiencing transcendence from her/his students is breathtaking for a teacher. I have seen this same energy in academic classrooms, too, when a teacher enters a “zone” describing a chemical property, an engineering principle, the meaning of a legend, or a time in history. Students are captivated by a journey of discovery.

Students sense this integrity from their teachers and they largely respect it. They feel how their own teachers embody RICO at BAA, or Refine, Invent, Connect and Own.  They see how their teachers express RICO and find themselves swept up in the lesson or the project. They are willing to take risks, expand their imaginations, and work harder than they thought possible. I hearken back to Palmer and his imagery of “teachers with a heart.” So many of us became teachers because of reasons of the heart, and our passion for helping young people learn.

Nevertheless, my sense is that our policy makers have ignored Palmer. They seem to operate under the misguided belief that testing will cure what ails our schools. Allow me to share a recent scene in a “turnaround” school. This new nomenclature promises miracles—usually premised on firing all of the teachers, bringing in a new administration, and focusing relentlessly on test scores. Some schools in this “turnaround” model have raised test scores.  With double periods of math and English students clearly will test better on those subjects. No research shows that these test scores are sustained over time, however, or that deeper understanding or an excitement about learning more has taken place.

This turnaround school was using the arts as a way to engage students. When I visited the school, I was so pleased to see mural paper covering all of the walls of the classrooms—and even the offices. I was thrilled to see the school engaging in an all-school mural activity. I couldn’t wait to get a paintbrush or marker and begin drawing. However, my enthusiasm was misplaced. The walls were covered because it was high-stakes testing season and the rules during testing require that all print material be hidden. I was appalled. Of course I can understand covering print material that would compromise  test results, but posters and teachers’ diplomas?

Consider the very skills that arts teach: persistence, collaboration, judgment, practice, refining, conscientiousness, critique, determination and, most important of all, an appreciation for developing one’s own sense of beauty or aesthetics. These will never develop if we don’t embrace teaching the arts for their own value and not for improving test scores. Yes,  the skill of persistence can be modeled by learning how to sit and take a difficult test, but that is not why we teach the arts.  While employers cry for students to graduate with 21st Century skills of communication, collaboration, and facility with technology, self-styled education reformers are pressuring our schools to grossly narrow the curriculum to satisfy scores on bubble sheets. And those are almost always tests of memory and recall.

Good teaching is not the same as good test coaching. I am proud to work for a school that allows teachers to be vulnerable, to lead with their hearts and their passions, and that puts testing in perspective where it belongs.

BAA supports teachers as they innovate and imagine and engage with their students. This June 26-28 we will celebrate at our 9th Annual Summer Institute professional development where educators from around the world will join us and do the same thing. (Click here to register!)

What’s Been Lost in the Bubbles: Comments from Occupy DOE, April 5, 2013

These are my comments from Occupy DOE in Washington, D.C. last week. You can also see video of my talk here! I’d love to hear other people’s experiences with testing in their classrooms and schools.

I’m not against testing. I am against high stakes testing in which, as a result of a single (or often now a series) of short answer bubble tests, decisions are made about a student’s future. Decisions that, at least in Massachusetts, are tied to money for attending state colleges.   

I am here today to remind us to be wary of quick fixes—promises that a new regimen of tests will cure all or that by embracing common core curriculum we will have equity and excellence in schools. Equity comes from equal opportunities for all students, and from equal funding that truly levels the disparate playing fields between schools. I believe true equity also comes from trusting and empowering teachers to do their best work with the young people in front of them.

I want to paint two pictures for you. Recently I visited a turnaround middle school in Colorado. (Even that terminology gives me pause.) All the walls in the hallways and offices and classrooms were covered with brown paper– the kind you see in art classrooms for making large mural like painting.  I was so excited. I knew the school was arts focused and I eagerly asked about the mural projects! Of course I couldn’t have been more wrong about purpose. Everything was covered so that during testing there would be NO print materials visible for students to ostensibly use to cheat– no posters, no teachers’ diplomas, no word walls, no formulas, nothing. I was aghast and so disappointed. Don’t you want to know more about the tests we are giving our students if a teacher’s college diploma could lead to cheating? I was even more dismayed by the deadened eyes I saw on these middle schoolers who had just finished 9 sessions of testing. The next day was their big arts show but the testing regime had cut into a large chunk of rehearsal time. The tensions and tempers now flared. The students in this school are all poor and primarily immigrant and ELL students. They come to school hoping for increased opportunities and to experience worlds that because of race and class have been denied them. How do these weeks of testing (and all the weeks and months of test prep) provide an avenue for advancement for them? I met with their art teachers all of whom bemoaned the days of missed classes because of testing—they had counted—46 days of testing or test prep. That is not uncommon anymore. And as we know most school years are only 180 days.

Speaking at Occupy DOE

Now let me describe what is going on at BAA. According to the state department of education in Massachusetts, we are now a level 3 school (on a five point scale). Level 3 is almost a failing school. One more point lower—i.e. level 4 and we might be eligible for state take over. That is not a good thing.  BAA sends 93% of our graduates to college or conservatories. Our graduates include two members of Alvin Ailey Dance Company and countless other alums who have taken their place in the world of art, education, culture and service. In a recent study 63% of our grads had either finished or were still in college. There are 100s of students on the waiting list. These are good statistics. How are we almost failing?

We are a level 3 school because the department of education ONLY uses the data from MCAS (which is Massachusetts’ much praised high stakes bubble test. MCAS  stands for Mass. Comprehensive Assessment System—I have argued for years that MCAS is not a comprehensive assessment system at all but scores on a series of high stakes tests).

The State requires schools to set targets for scores on the test. Last year, we exceeded all our targets, including targets for high needs students. In fact, we have been praised for our results with our highest need students particularly, our special needs students. In addition, we have had graduation rates in the mid-80th percentile. But, our school’s cumulative “PPI” or Progress and Performance Index places us in the lowest 20% relative to other schools at the same grade level. In our district there are five schools that are level 1 schools. Three of these five are exam schools. Two of them take students through an interview process. While BAA is an audition only school we do not look at academic record or previous grades at all in our admissions decisions. When our headmaster appealed to the State about this new categorization she was told that we were on the higher end of the lowest 20% (“almost not in the lowest 20%” they said). She was also told that was our cumulative PPI NOT in the lowest 20% we would be a level 1 school because, as I said a moment ago, we met or exceeded all of our targets last year.

Even though we have made progress and met all our benchmarks on all our goals with all our sub-groups (another term I find despicable which means ‘high need’ students) we are still in the bottom 20% of cumulative PPI. MCAS is NOT supposed to be a normed test. Even though we are well above statewide averages on the test with regards to the percentage of students scoring at proficient or advanced in both ELA and math, someone has to be near the bottom. And because this new way of calculating levels is normed, someone will always be at the bottom.

If your head hurts trying to understand all this, join the club. I’ve tried to show you visuals so you can perhaps see how this all works.

But really: How is the average parent supposed to understand all this?

The major takeaway is this:

How can a school such as BAA that invests deeply in its students meeting artistic and academic benchmarks, scaffolding student learning and engagement to meet the demands of college research, reading and writing, be considered an almost failing school? If BAA is so categorized, what about the hundreds of other schools caught in a failing system of labeling, comparison, and judgment of school and student success through one narrow measure—a  bubble test. And how can we change this?

Karen Lewis, President of the Chicago Teachers Union, speaking at Occupy DOE

I recently visited Urban Academy—a 28 year old school in NYC that serves “second chance” students—i.e. students whom have been unsuccessful in another school. School founder, Ann Cook, reminded me that preparing kids to do well on a high stakes tests (like the Regents or MCAS or any other of the myriad tests floating around these United States) is QUITE different than teaching kids an inquiry process of reading. Let me explain. Our goal as educators is to help our students achieve ever more complicated and complex levels of understanding of text. This is a good and important goal. The current popular argument goes something like this, “If kids are doing well on your type of curriculum- Urban Academy- than they’ll do fine on our tests.” However, Ann and many other seasoned educators like her patently disagree. As Ann explains, “This may be true for kids who come into schools with an already strong foundation in reading, but if you really want kids to do well on a certain test, you have to teach to it. Trinity, which is a private exclusive school in the Upper West Side found that its 8th graders did NOT do well on the Regents tests because it wasn’t part of their curriculum.”  Ann pushes further and argues that if you want kids to be truly proficient readers and writers by the time they graduate high school then you have to focus on that—every day and over time. Ann argues that when schools chip away at a rich curriculum of reading and writing and substitute it with test prep materials you get a little of nothing. I sat in on a class of Urban students who had just read Call it Sleep by Henry Roth. They were discussing how the author used dialect to explore questions of social class and characters. I wanted to participate in their debates and I was overjoyed to hear young people discussing a book so foreign and faraway from their time and place; yet, they were making such authentic connections. Again those on the testing frenzy side would say that this is proof that these young people will do well on high stakes tests, but in fact, they do not. And yet they read, write and discuss literature in ways that I wish all young people could and would. If anything these kids are the kids with the sharpened critical and analytical skills.

When Ann interviews graduates about what they appreciate about their education at Urban she hears the following, 1) I appreciate that we have a choice in the kind of courses we take and even in the kind of literature we chose to study. 2) I appreciate that we get to develop our own ideas about texts and history and even math and that our voices and opinions matter. I know I can lead a good discussion and participate in one too. 3) I know what I’m interested and why. 4) I appreciate that I can change my mind. And finally, 5) I like doing things that are hard for me especially when I got a lot of support.

As I continue to fight against high stakes testing being the way we measure progress for schools and students, I want to remember the words of these Urban graduates. I am hopeful that they will lead the way for a new understanding of what matters in public education.

I am also mindful of what Ted Sizer, founder of Coalition of Essential Schools (CES) taught us in the 80s—that what really matters is deeply engaged teachers who have the time to focus on their students’ needs and building last relationships that will help our young people enter an increasingly more complicated world.


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