11 Reasons I Am Still Thankful for Public Education in America in 2014

Bashing public education in 2014 continues as a national sport for U.S. media and politicians who compete 24/7 for public market share. But, the good news is that educators and parents are pushing back against mischaracterization of America’s public education with stronger voices than ever. I’ve updated this list annually and my observation is that the world is committed to changing education to offer more of an American model. It’s ironic that we’ve been moving to emulate what has been a mostly standardized, one size fits all approach to learning in other nations. Competing for high international test scores is not necessarily in our best national interests. To paraphrase Yong Zhao, Chinese-educated professor and fierce champion of America’s public schools, the invention and productivity quotient of nations is inversely proportional to high student test scores  – a decades old economic trend reported by ASCD.

While our public education system has room to advance, our educators continue to educate far more of our young people for more school years than either India or China. Our best students may not be as exam-driven as South Korea’s best or as international-test successful as the Finns, but overall our young people are far less self-abusive teenagers. Our young women today have far more educational and career opportunities than their peers in Japan, the Middle East or on the African continent. Children who enter the United States from third world countries are better served in our Statue of Liberty schools than in their own countries. We are dedicated to including, not excluding, special needs and immigrant children in our regular school communities and to keeping learning doors open rather than closed.

1.     In the People’s Republic of China, the decision was made in 2007 to fund nine years of compulsory public education for the 80% of young people who live in rural poverty and cannot afford the many fees attached to schooling in China. However, significant gaps still exist in meeting the target that all Chinese youth complete nine grades. Of course, if a student does get through and gets accepted into what would be our equivalent of high school, his/her parents are responsible for paying tuition to attend. If rural and poor, a mainland Chinese child is basically out of luck. Yet, chasing the American creativity dream drives the new Chinese national strategic plan – an American dream worth chasing.

2.    Talk about a poverty gap. In India, more than 40% of children drop out before eighth grade. An increased commitment of India to educating its young people has resulted in only 1.4 million school children not being enrolled in any school at all today – down from 9.6 million school children in 2010. When you realize that education is the fuel of a nation’s  future, you invest in it.

3.     In Mexico, only 68 % of children completing first grade will complete nine years of education. Thirty-five of these will go on to graduate from upper secondary school. Compulsory education now extends through 11 years of schooling, a relatively recent extension across the country. So close to us but so far away in education reality.

4.     In Afghanistan, only 1 in 2 children attend school and 45% of its 13,000 schools conduct classes in tents, lean tos, or under a tree. Nothing is more valued than education in places where access is a precious commodity.

5.     In Morocco, approximately 40% of females between the ages of 15-24 are illiterate and only 15% of first graders will graduate from high school.  Some things don’t change when education is reserved for a few.

6.     In Saudi Arabia women attend gender-segregated schools and are prohibited from studying architecture, engineering, and journalism. Girls in STEM, it’s one of many Saudi Arabia’s gender gaps.

7.     In Japan, gender gaps in society, workforce, and education continue into this century. Women make up only 46% of students enrolled in Japanese universities as compared to 57% of college students in the United States. In fact, Japan and Turkey are the only two nations where female college enrollment is not on the rise. And, Japan represents one of the largest gender gaps in the world, an issue of economic concern at top levels of the government.

8.     In South Korea, performance on exit exams is considered a “life and death” matter. Parental pressure and personal pressure lead to high suicide rates, inflated grades, and enrollment of significant numbers of students in private tutorial schools. Even the American military limits operations to provide maximum quiet on exam day. What does South Korea produce? Robots according to one South Korean professor.

9.     In Finland, 40% of teenagers in school reported being heavily intoxicated within the last thirty days, almost double the U.S. reported rate. We have seen the use of alcohol drop annually in the United States for decades  – a statistic that makes a health difference for our teens. Alcohol use among teens is an issue across Europe. Not all stats worth knowing get reported in standardized test data.

10.  In Germany, most special needs” students attend “special schools that only serve students who have learning or emotional difficulties. Learning community gets defined differently in different nations.

11.  America’s dreamers created the reality that all young people, regardless of class, gender, race, ethnicity or religion are afforded a free, public education.

This gift, I do not take for granted.

American Kids as Creators and Inventors …..




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Pay Learning Forward: Back to the #FutureReady

obamaAs superintendents shared their districts’ contemporary learning stories on a field trip to the ConnectEd Summit in DC, our professional speech described the natural, and ancient, learning pathways of humans from field experience to tool use.

“Research and education has shown that field trips are remembered long into adulthood. Why? Because you’re experiencing something rather than simply reading it in a book…. To experience something has a far more profound effect on your ability to remember and influence you than if you simply read it in a book. So why not figure out a way to turn a lesson plan into a living expression of that content. A living expression, so that sparks can be ignited and flames can be fanned within the students. And at that point, it doesn’t matter what grade they get on the exam because they are stimulated to want to learn more…  And there it is.  You’ve cast a learner into the world. And that’s the most powerful thing you can do as a teacher.” Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson

Today’s high tech research to decode the workings of the human brain tells us that natural pathways to learning (Dr. Judy Willis, neurologist and teacher) embed what we learn in our neural structures. In essence, we humans are born to move, narrate, imitate, listen, design, create, build, engineer, play, sing, dance, and apprentice our way to the learning needed to thrive, not just survive, in our homes, communities, and work.

Simulation Center work

Simulation Center work

Why did the ConnectEd Summit superintendents come to these pathways in our stories about our students’ and teachers’ most innovative work?  It’s because our stories framed a context for what’s necessary to capture the potential of all children as learners, regardless of the era into which they are born.

Tools change, knowledge advances, and skills develop as generations march forward,  but what our young people need as learners today is as old as stone tools the most ancient of teachers once taught children to use. Our children still need us to support them to search, connect, communicate, and make in the caves, campfires, and watering holes of today’s communities – only now both face-to-face and virtually.


The Free Speech Wall Charlottesville Va

At the Summit, superintendents were clear in conversations with each other, the Secretary of Education, and his staff that learning must sustain a spirit of inquiry that fosters creativity, critical and ethical reasoning, communication, and collaboration. We communicated pride in our districts’ efforts to put the factory school model behind us as we design learning spaces for today’s children.

Here’s what I heard emerge as themes from our discussions about the inspiring and inventive teaching and learning occurring across the network of school communities linking our nation:

  • We described commitments to project- and problem-based learning through which young people follow their personal passions and interests to seek and create work meaningful to them through the arts, STEM/STEAM, or global action projects.
  • We shared opportunities for learners of all ages to venture out of desks and chairs and into multi-age communities, coming face-to-face with the real world of interdisciplinary applications, high-and low-tech tool uses, and authentic, experiential learning – a purposeful abandonment of Carnegie’s required seat time memorizing content in de-contextualized silos to take high stakes state tests.
  • We pinpointed the critical need to address economic gaps and opportunity gaps so we can ensure equity and access for all young people to excellent teachers, contemporary learning spaces, broadband connectivity, mobile devices, time, and other essential resources.
  • We described natural learning as transportable everywhere a child can go in a community, virtually connected – or not.

From Alaska to Florida, a tiny microcosm of America’s schools, 100+ superintendents along with a few teachers, students, and principals who also lead to educate young people (50 million of them in around 16,000 school districts spread across 3.80 million U.S. square miles/9.85 million km2) came to D.C. to hear the President.


Yet, the voices that resonate in my head are those of students – young reporters covering the Summit, a high school student seated with equal status at the table with suited superintendents from around the nation, millennials working the twittersphere. Their voices represented the agency of young people communicating a value for adults who help them figure out how to grow into their voices, find their stride as influencers, and pursue their dreams for not just the future, but also the here and now. Whether at the ConnectEd Summit or simply chatting in the #stuvoice twitter stream about what they care about, our young people affirm what engages and empowers them.

Learner-centered Principal Leadership

Learner-centered Principal Leadership

In the end, I think we all left knowing that realizing a bright future for young people really isn’t about superintendents gathering in DC for an event. It’s about unifying our communities to care for, respect, and value each child as a learner and to support those who teach. Our ancestors must have known this too as they engaged in their own version of #futureready learning work. They surely wanted similar things – children who thrive, grow up to become successful adult contributors in their own families and communities, and who are kept as safe and healthy as possible in an increasingly challenging world.


Isn’t that the best of who we are now and who we’ve always been –  generations of parents and teachers committed to our children as we pay learning forward?





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Voice in Learning: Agency as Action Word

In the past few weeks, I’ve watched children, adolescents, and teens demonstrate what agency means. It’s a function of both informal and formal settings being available to learners. It’s implementation and impact. It’s face to face and virtual.

It takes my breath away to watch learners’ agency catch fire and spread. Agency is an action word.

Using Power Tools Requires Problem-Solving, Creativity, and Teamwork

Agency doesn’t emanate from standardization of curricula or pedagogy. It’s not easily captured in assessment – rubrics or otherwise. But it’s easily seen, heard, and felt in young people who have it.

When we hear student voices at work and play in learning spaces, we know we’ve found educators who foster learning agency. They don’t seek to command it. They recognize agency comes from within learners who feel they have power to direct their own learning. Such educators value and exercise the inherent agency within themselves as they come to understand they can facilitate it in others. They give up teaching control to gain learning agency. Educators with agency support learners to generate their own questions and search for their own answers. They open doors for learners to move out of the classroom and explore a bigger world beyond the places we call school. They create a narrative in which learners’ ownership of learning resonates within the teacher-learner relationship.

They encourage learners to challenge ideas, question the authority and credibility of sources, build diverse but thoughtful perspectives, and design, make and improve as they connect with the world to communicate, share, and influence within the global network.


Educators who cultivate agency among young people want self-determined, active learners who don’t lose their voices in a school environment with passive, compliance-driven achievement in mind. They want young people who seek to discover what makes the world tick and who are driven by curiosity to know, understand and do whether age 5 or 18.




They want learners to grow up and take a sense of agency with them into their careers, communities and families. They want learners who see themselves as capable of influencing their own lives and the lives of others for the good of self and others. What more important learning outcome could we desire?

Leadership Academytechkid





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#exponentialchange, #disruptiveinnovation, and …#CE14

Papyrus. Printing press. Microprocessor.

Change can occur in quick bursts that may advance or even retro-grapencilsde civilization, but in the moments of our daily lives we often think of change as a slow drift. The pencil I used as a child, as did my mother, and my mother’s mother and perhaps even hers before her was invented in 1564 and has mostly been constructed in the same way ever since. The pencil once was an essential tool in my elementary pencil box, the college bio lab, my own teacher’s desk, and in my admin office. Then the need for a pencil changed for me – and the rest of the world, too.

 The 1:1 pencil device of my schooling was replaced suddenly by my smart phone “pencil”, circa 2007. Now I reach for my phone to record lists, make notes, compose messages, capture images.

My pencil is a relic from a time just past Gutenberg’s era. His printing press fueled 1450’s connectivity, a revolution that emerged when writers’ final drafts turned into books, broadsheets, pamphlets, newspapers, and magazines. Writing tools changed. Quill pens, pencils, rubber erasers, fountain pens, ballpoint pens, typewriters, whiteout tape and liquid emerged, all evolving technologies that advanced the capability of writers to record at a faster and faster pace. The printed page opened knowledge to people who otherwise would never have learned to read. It was …

Disruptive Innovation at its best

Just a little over 500 years after Gutenberg, the microprocessor was invented, an innovation as disruptive as the printing press. As a result we now live in a time of exponential post-Gutenberg change, a historical turning point equal to the Renaissance. Humans today search, connect, communicate, and make, linking the world through rapid-fire use of contemporary technologies.

Change does not drift along incrementally in our time.

Not in today’s careers, businesses, hospitals, homes.

And Not in Schools Either


Skyping In Kindergarten

Our kids no longer pull encyclopedias or non-fiction texts off the shelf to do research. They search the globe for accessible expertise, experts, and others with similar learning interests. The thought that paper books have appendices for citations versus hyperlinks in a digital document doesn’t even make sense to them.

They don’t limit their connectivity to peers in their class, grade level, school, or even their local community. Their tools move with them, allowing them to connect anywhere they can catch a wireless signal. They feel isolated in homes, cafes, cars, and streets when those signals are absent. They understand the language of connectivity – mobile, cellular, fiber, satellite up and downlinks, broadband, bandwidth, gigs, virtual, GPS/GIS, portals  – words that didn’t have any context or meaning for me until after my 5th decade had almost passed.

Teens no longer define communication as writing on paper, creating a snail- or e-mail, making a phone call or watching a television show, movie, or listening to a CD. Communication is about instant connectivity with peers, teachers, family everywhere – for them community exists all over the world and print in another language isn’t a barrier thanks to Google’s translator. They aren’t limited by devices that allow them to simply write. They dictate tweets, listen to text messages, “OTT” chat, share images profusely, and download music, books, and other media of interest.

They produce in any format in which they desire to communicate and upload at astonishing rates. They are are part of a human exploration and file sharing network that is changing the world. They are the most connected communicators in the world’s history.

cardboardFinally, our kids don’t define learning as limited to what’s on the board, in a lecture, or between the pages of a textbook. As humans have since the beginning of time, they yearn to “make” as a pathway to learning. Kids don’t want to power down their creativity.

They are intrigued with what they can make with older technologies from lathes and sewing machines to contemporary programming languages and music beat production tools. Give a first grader some cardboard and you’ll end up with a robot or a house. Give a middle schooler a 3-D printer and you’ll end up with a prosthetic hand to donate to a handicapped child or a “Dr. Who sonic screwdriver flashlight.” Give a high schooler the time to create and you’ll end up with a choreographed dance or a phone app.  Today’s kids are …

A New Generation of Inventors

bikeguysEducators long have known from experience and research that learner engagement begins with hands-on, exploratory and experiential learning. Now some educators, parents, business executives, and politicians realize the “more of sameness” built through two decades of mass standardization has resulted in a generation of young people who have had to find their own pathways to active learning outside of school. They may be bored in school but they aren’t bored outside of it. Many of our younger generations spend time in post-Gutenberg “search, connect, communicate, and make” opportunities. While taking tests, listening to lectures, or doing worksheets they think about what they are going to do next. They aren’t waiting until after state tests are completed to go on their own version of field trips, pursue interesting projects, or engage in fierce debates about global issues.

They make learning happen in spite of us. They can because they are connected.

techkid solderingAs October’s Connected Educator Month inches toward November, how might we accelerate the exponential change in learning opportunities that Connected Learners need?

How might we push not just beyond our own learning horizons but challenge colleagues who fear relinquishing the power and control inherent in Gutenberg-driven teaching?

How might we do something tomorrow to power up learners in our care? If we do, I believe we will unleash a passion for learning in young people unlike anything we’ve seen in the test prep classrooms of the last two decades.

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Walking on Air: Remembering Seamus Heaney

And yet the platform here feels more like a space station than a stepping stone, so that is why, for once in my life, I am permitting myself the luxury of walking on air …. I credit poetry for making this space-walk possible.”

Seamus Heaney’s lecture to the Nobel Foundation recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, 1995

I woke up at 3 a.m. and in the early morn I could almost hear Seamus Heaney reading “Death of a Naturalist” on a YouTube video, perhaps preserved for all time. I’d driven down one of the old roads of Virginia the day before, a road that reminded me of another Heaney line from “The Wood Road.” In the dark, I turned to my phone and tweeted out the line with an image I’d captured from the side of a gravelled lane.

woodroadHow many times in the lives of humans do we connect moments together in the night only to figure out why in the light of day?  What compels the subconscious to make sense of that which is important to us when the conscious forgets?  When I opened an RSS news feed from Ireland mid-morning I knew why Heaney had slipped his voice into my night dreams. Today. August 30, 2014. The first anniversary of his death.

I’m reminded on this anniversary that it is a poet’s words that make the content and context of humanity accessible to us all. Poets make meaning for us – the artistry of converting image to word.

It is December in Wicklow:
Alders dripping, birches
Inheriting the last light,
The ash tree cold to look at.

(from “Exposure”, 1975)

Poets solve conundrums and, like mathematicians, they subtract the extraneous and leave the essential, the perfectly constructed theorem on the blackboard. They notice the world; quantum word mechanics who machine together patterns of space and time.

He called her good and girl. Then she was dead,
The searching for a pulsebeat was abandoned
And we all knew one thing by being there.
The space we stood around had been emptied
Into us to keep, it penetrated
Clearances that suddenly stood open.
High cries were felled and a pure change happened.

(from “Clearances”, 1986)

Poets create lines of code, a complexity of action no less sophisticated than the work of a great programmer.

And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightening of flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully-grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park or capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open


And, poets seek to understand as philosophers, seeking unknown answers to questions asked.

….  Where had we come from, what was this kingdom
We knew we’d been restored to? (from “Leaving Going, 1993)

Why cherish the words of poets in a time when we educators are told it’s far more important to focus today’s children on informational texts than poetry?

I am no poet. I studied science. I taught science. My love of science has shaped my interests and my perspectives on education. At the same time, I know we humans have always reflected the importance of  the cultural spaces we inhabit. Cave paintings under flickering firelight, images created on walls before poetic word.  The ancient language of Beowulf,  spoken aloud by Seamus Heaney as poetry was intended to be shared. NPR’s anthology of rap  and fifth grader ‘Savannah‘ who wrote “Waiting in the Dark” so many years ago in the school where I was principal.

Why poetry in 2014? Poets explore the richness of what makes us human, placing words perfectly into the air for us to hear.

Poets link the disciplines of learning. Poets evoke the faces around us. Poets remind us we humans are more than the training manuals and research texts that some would say define us in this century.

Heaney’s poetry did all of that for us.




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Why Are We Here? #LeadershipDay14

At our Back to School Leadership gathering I asked the team in the district where I am superintendent one question, “why are we here?”  A simple question, right? Some might say so. But I believe it’s a grand challenge to define ourselves as the leaders we need to be in 2014. Why do we come to work every day? To collect a paycheck?  Make sure our schools like clockwork? Ensure kids pass state tests? Implement the Common Core?

I don’t think so.

20140601-093459-34499043.jpgInstead, I believe our work is about educating our children for life, not for school. And the nature of life in 2020, 2030, 2040, and 2050 and so on can’t even be projected with accuracy based on what we know today.

We do know our children will grow up to live in a world with all the grand challenges that Planet Earth can throw at them – war, disease, famine, water shortages, global climate change – and all the cultural changes that technology acceleration and physical migration brings to our lives.

We also know our children will live in families, workplaces, communities, and nations as humans always have – albeit Gen Y and Z  will likely experience more than a few of each across a lifetime. Does the context and content of typical schooling today prepare children entering kindergarten in 2014 at age 5 for their world forty years later?

I bet not.


Skyping with Friends 

I shared with the leadership team when we gathered together that technology changes the world in every century. The tall ship and the printing press. The telegraph and the train. The plane and the phone. Twitter and YouTube. Communication and transporting technologies that move people and information around the globe impact civilization. As the technology changes, what humans know and can do changes. Learning changes. The world changes.




Why are we here?

I believe we’re  here to help children and the teachers who serve them to flourish not just function or as @fredbartels said in twitter to me recently about the role of school leaders:

fred bartelsWe all flourish when we work to create spaces for learning so that the people we serve will thrive and prosper or as Merriam Webster online puts it to “grow luxuriantly.”

in 2014, this means we must mindfully and with passion:

  • provide universal access to the world as a source of learning,
  • open pathways with interactive technologies and connectivity that didn’t even exist ten years ago,
  • make passion-based learning a way of learning for all, not just a few,
  • model an open mindset for lifelong learning.

That’s why we are all here; to lead so our children flourish.

Nothing more. Nothing Less.

Now and forever more.

Leadership Academy

Young Leaders At Work



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Reflections: A Summer of Learning

This summer, zones of innovation popped up everywhere across the 26 schools in the district where I work. They represented spaces of creativity where educators experimented with learning design grounded in inquiry, maker ed, integrated curricula, and multi-age groupings.

Here’s some of what I’ve thought about this summer.

School is wherever you make it. Our young people and even some of their parents participated in a summer of making in a well-hidden barrio almost under the shadow of Jefferson’s Monticello. They worked with visiting professors from MIT, STEM educators from the community, and guest teachers and librarians who dropped by to support children’s inventive minds as they built with Arduinos, Maker-bots, cardboard, donated fabrics, PVC pipe and 2-liter bottles. One MIT professor worked with a boy with limited English who could not be stopped from creating a working aquatic robot. Professor Moriarty commented, “this one could be at MIT one day.” I thought, “And, we’ll keep that path open for him.” I know it because Juan will return to a school staff committed to dual language literacy, STEAM, making as a way of learning, and finding talents within each child rather than looking for what s/he can’t do. And what he learned in his summer of making opened up possibilities he never may have considered otherwise – just as he did for the teachers who worked with him.

School connects children with community.  Across America, as political reformers standardized schools and super-sized the importance of other people’s tests, we subtracted something from learning that educators know is important. Kids need to see and experience their community. Field trips are important. Working with community members is important. Seeing a world beyond their own homes and schools is important. Giving back to their community is important. In another elementary school summer program, I observed youthful educators build a curricula that enriched learning through creative design and build processes and developed literacy through experiential learning that took children outside the school walls into the natural and built environments of their community. Their work to create was supported by a local business person with an affinity for the arts. The kids supported his work by creating and donating their own art to an arts park for the entire community. Everyone benefited.

Empowered learners are engaged learners.  Whether working in a summer fine arts academy, a leadership academy, a coder dojo, project-based summer school, or summer maker spaces, young people become active and committed learners when they:

pursue their own interests and passions,

challenge themselves to think critically and create with purpose,

experience opportunities to collaborate with peers and,

communicate their learning with power to authentic audiences.

When young people chose to participate in learning because they wanted to be there, it changed the context for them as learners whether acting in fine arts camp or wiring cardboard houses in maker camp. We created spaces “to educate children for life, not for school” and they showed us learning that went well beyond our own expectations of what we expected to accomplish.

Kids and Educators need “What If rather than Yeah But” learning options. Sure there are outlier situations … However, principals and teachers share over and over again that attendance increases and discipline issues decrease when young people feel investment and ownership in their own learning even when it’s a struggle for them.

In summer reflections with an experienced educator friend, I asked recently, “If we can gain a new market share of engaged learners through use of empowering learning strategies such as we used in the summer, why would we continue to invest in compliance pedagogy during the school year that results in kids who run the gamut from tuning out passively to dropping out actively?” Her response? “Perhaps, Pam, it’s because we educators live in a compliance-driven work world and we just do to kids what’s done to us.” I’m a firm believer in the principle that educators are some of the most innovative people on the planet. They just need freedom to be innovators and opportunities to innovate. As Fred Bartels (@fredbartels) said in a tweet to me about what new teachers need from administrators “tell them that you are here to help them flourish, not just function in their jobs.”

Summer provides an innovation zone for school districts. I saw kids this summer struggling to learn challenging riffs in Jazz camp or writing intensively all day for a week and then getting up to share their poetry with an outdoor audience on the downtown mall.  I observed kids in project-based learning produce a video in multiple languages to welcome a range of limited or non-English speaking peers to their school. I chatted with girls who barely stopped working on a coding challenge to create a website during our three-week Coder Dojo. I visited two maker school spaces where kids were “hacking their notebooks” one day as part of a national writing project challenge to use paper circuitry to bring content alive. Not only was a multi-age group of kids working intensively together on their notebook projects but they were simultaneously multi-tasking via Google hangout with an inventor of paper circuity applications, a writing project leader, and a local school librarian – all gathered in California to facilitate National Hack Your Notebook Day. The work of educators and learners in these environments informs our thinking about shifts we can and should make during the regular year. The challenge is to make the school year reflect what we learned in the summer.

What’s the end in mind and how do we get there? We are invested in seven pathways that transform learning and lead children to develop Lifelong Learning Competencies. We continue to unfold what these pathways mean for our students and for us. We see the pathways as a design for learning that activates deep learning and this summer allowed us to test and refine that design.

I end with a reflection on our work toward a different end in mind than simply passing tests and acquiring credits to graduate from high school.

There’s nothing really new about how humans learn and excellent teachers teach.  The technology may change. The century may change. But people have always learned more easily when they feel personally confident and physically comfortable, especially when challenged cognitively to push to a new level of skill or knowledge. Children have always learned best when they interact and connect with others as aspirational models, peers, and apprentices. Learners challenged by the conundrums of problems have always found curiosity in the work they do and that curiosity leads learners to a passion for gaining knowledge and finding solutions. The best teachers always have sought to understand how each child is unique and in doing so to vary the paths needed to access learning based on a child’s needs. Teachers who grow and develop as learners in their own right consider new information, ask questions, seek understanding, observe and notice with patience, and change what they do in response to what learners need.

As we amplified an ethos of innovation this summer, we multiplied the talents of learners rather than diminished them. Now we need to sustain that momentum for another ten months. I know we can.


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Rocket Kids

Near the end of this school year, I had the chance to watch sixth graders gathered on a slope observing rockets of all colors and sizes launch off a makeshift pad. Some participated in the countdown – 5, 4, 3, 2, 1….  a reminder of my own childhood experiences sitting on the cafeteria floor, an entire elementary school listening to the numbers moving backwards in now ancient countdowns for the Mercury launches. Back then, we squinted to see the tiny black and white television planted on a slightly raised stage. Here, each cheer from the watching crowd prompted classmates, part of a recovery crew, to chase across the well-worn soccer field, jumping high to retrieve falling rockets.

I thought as I watched them that they were all Rocket Kids under a June sky – enjoying a beautiful day outdoors, exhilarated with each rocket’s successful launch into the brilliant blue above. Some might think this a waste of time, kids outdoors chatting with each other and their teachers rather than inside filling out worksheets or listening to explanations of “rigorous” math problems. However, I like to think that just as I recalled the feeling of cool tile under my legs while watching Mr. Blake, my principal, tune in those Mercury launches decades ago, these kids will look back and remember watching their own rocket launches and hopefully a little science, too. At the least, some will remember a wonderful spring day at school with friends.

Across the nation and in classrooms in my district,  I also knew on that beautiful June day other students were laboring over pages of required state tests as they attempted to demonstrate what they’ve learned to people who will never see the faces of these children taking tests. May and June, perhaps more so than other months, represent billions of dollars of state contracts for standardized test administration. For many children, the dollars spent on testing represent basic resources they could use in their classrooms, field trips to art museums and historical sites long cut from school budgets, or even opportunities such as the rocketry activity that make textbook science real to these middle schoolers. This isn’t a financial tradeoff that’s keeping a love of learning alive in our children I fear.

Primary students build bridges
Primary students build bridges

Every year as the scores roll in, we educators talk about children who know far more than shows in their test results. Watching the Rocket Kids, I wondered who among them is labeled test-proficient … or not.

Listening to their shouts and laughter, I wanted each of the children in the sunshine to be seen for their strengths, not as deficits in their school community. They deserve to be viewed as more than a number, counted as more than a pass or fail by computers sorting them into spread sheets, numerical characters lost in big data. It’s not that I’m against assessment. But, I am against the mass standardization of learning that’s sapping creativity and divergent thinking out of our nation’s future.


These kids wouldn’t have found much joy in making rockets that all looked the same nor would they have been as interested in tracking flight paths if they all flew about the same distance into the air. I’m sure they won’t pursue future careers in science because of the tests they’ve taken this spring. And, I wouldn’t want them to anyway. We need children to grow up and become inventors, designers, artists, builders, healers and even historians because it takes a world of diversity and interests to make communities, states, and our nation better for us all.

Maker Corps and Maker Kids

Maker Corps and Maker Kids

As the children labored to get rockets into the air, chased after blown up parts and parachutes gliding to earth, chanted the launch count backwards, I am certain I see an engineer out there alongside a poet, a programmer, a teacher, a carpenter.

I bet that my elementary principal saw great promise in the children under his care, too. He might even have thought of us as Rocket Kids.

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Makers By Design

When a principal wanders into my office during the middle of state testing and just a week or so away from the end of the year, I am realistic in not expecting the same charged enthusiasm I heard earlier in the year. After all, I’ve been there. The end of a school year can sap a principal’s energy as s/he engages in a faster than typical urgency to make decisions and take action. Principals spend the end of the year in both start up and wind down mode – hiring new teachers, taking part in celebrations, often dealing with increased discipline issues and last minute parental concerns while pitching in with anything that needs to get done to bring a school year to closure. In May, the pace can suck the life out of a principal.

This week I ended my Friday chatting with a principal who brought a fresh energy into my office, delighting me with his affirmation that working in an at-risk school is his life’s work. I’ve always known that about him but his perspective was different yesterday. Why? The school staff has imagined and embraced a change that he believes has energized children, brought families closer to the school, and catalyzed  a renewed joy of teaching among staff. I’d love to be able to bottle his perspective and share it with America’s educators. But, I don’t need to. This school’s secret is encapsulated in one word.

MAKE.   Make not as an add on to the “real” work. Make as integral work. In this school where kids experience a design, build, and create ethos across the entire school, the staff realize that kids who make things are engaged – and empowered. They are curious. They want to learn. They are having fun. Discipline issues are basically nonexistent this year. State test scores are up. The principal’s imagination is on fire. The teachers are already thinking about how to make an even more powerful maker school experience next year.

Kindergarten maker work

Kindergarten maker work

Why has making ignited educators, parents and students in this school?

Making embeds informal learning into formal learning experiences. Kids develop more complex vocabulary, apply critical math skills, and explore a range of knowledge as they make. As the principal shared a digital image portfolio with me, his stories jumped out of joyful learning narrative. The story of a young child who decided he didn’t want to make the Statue of Liberty (his choice) but to be the Statue of Liberty complete with cereal box sandals, cardboard body and scepter, and a post it note tablet. The idea that making can be captured in movies and art work and iPad interviews. A project in which two fifth graders created a design for a maker patio outside classrooms, presented it to a landscaper, and now will get to see their project actually built with PTO support.

As we’ve embedded a #make2learn #learn2make mindset as a learning transformation pathway across 26 schools in my district, we are learning there are no linear instructional recipes or boxed programs for this work. Instead, maker education represents learning opportunity embedded in a conceptual frame of choice, interest, curricula bending, risk-taking, collaboration, curiosity, inquiry, tool cribs, and time flexibility.

Interest. Engagement. Passion. Empowerment. Agency.

Because of our work to bend curricula, instruction and assessment away from the standardization movement and toward the maker movement, I am particularly interested in the impact of making as a pathway to learning – a pathway along which children and teens pursue interests, engage their hands and minds, find passions, empower themselves and others, and discover a sense of personal learning agency. The stories this principal shared with me parallel stories that are emerging all over the district.

The STEAM Faire

The STEAM Faire

When I listen to teens describe how they work together to create contemporary music in a music industry studio (created in an old library storage room, no less) – writing lyrics, constructing music and beats, learning to use recording devices, practicing, producing and marketing – I am reminded that making to learn comes in a variety of forms and that when we step away from the standardization we practice in schools, making allows young people to access curricula that otherwise might not be available or of interest to them.

Imagination. Creativity. Ingenuity. Problem-solving. Solution-finding.

Why are we pursuing making? We humans naturally are curious creatures who seek to solve dilemmas, discover shortcuts through invention of new tools, and to express their understanding of the world through art forms. As soon as we can bang pots together, stack blocks, or smear paint we become makers. Children spin their imaginations into creating as they use the materials around them in ingenious ways to solve problems and find solutions to grand challenges. They persist. They ask questions. They seek knowledge. They share ideas. They try new ways of doing things. They dream.

When I watch young people challenged by thorny problems begin to work together to find solutions, it strikes me that boredom is not in their vocabulary. I’ve seen learners, elementary to high school, use 3-D printers to re-engineer artifacts such as the Vail telegraph and Civil War mini-balls. They’ve designed and printed unique smart phone cases, screws for library furniture, and science lab pulleys.  These learners don’t recognize the limits set on their learning by content standards created by people far from the classrooms they attempt to standardize. Instead, these learners seek rigor in their own learning as they take on challenges that build all the competencies that an adult might use in the home, at work, and for a lifetime of wanting to know and do more.


phone case designed and 3-D printed for the principal

Exploration. Discovery. Design. Experimentation. Invention.

I’ve experienced the joy of children and teens in school this year who find themselves with opportunities to sustain their natural curiosity along learning pathways as they search, connect, communicate and make in and out of school. I am reminded in other classrooms that learning doesn’t happen so well when children and teens are seated in rows for hours on end and expected to vicariously acquire knowledge from the dominant teaching wall. Children and teens like to explore the world in which they live. They seek challenges and take risks as they discover pathways to learning that take them beyond the known horizons of their lives. They tune in through play, stories, movement, games, apprenticeships, and interaction. They design, experiment, and invent to take on new challenges.

They experience ….

Joy. Why would anyone question that joy fuels learning? When young people accomplish hard work they experience joy. When they pursue an interest, they find passion and that passion fuels them to keep on working even when they might quit. When they become makers, they delight in the products they create.

This year, I’ve watched children build wooden boxes, design and construct electric guitars, exhibit their handmade pottery and oil paintings, cook soup, sew bow ties, sing original lyrics, direct, produce, and screen video documentaries. I’ve observed them writing code for websites, games, and apps for smart phones. I’ve read their published prose and poetry in paper and virtual formats. I’ve been delighted by their choreography for musicals and their performance of original drama productions.

For humans such as this teen choreographer are ultimately #maker learners by design … 

I am convinced from my observations that when children are afforded opportunities to explore a rich ecosystem of learning inside and outside of school, they experience an authentic growth in knowledge and competencies that has seldom been available to learners since the printed book began to dominate the ecosystem. When maker experiences become prevalent, all learners thrive, even those who experience great difficulty in traditional school.

Why would I want to offer learners anything less?


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A Letter To All Those Who Choose To Teach

Dear Teachers,

I take every chance I can to share the work of our schools’ excellent educators with the public. You and I both know that no more important profession exists than that of teaching.  I am proud to be a member of this professional community that continuously has advanced civilization since the first teacher stood on the banks of a river drawing “counting” marks in the sand or using cave pictographs and campfire stories to pass on tribal history. As valued community members, teachers have had influence across tens of generations and today’s generation of teachers is no different.

You matter.

I talk to parents every day who relay stories of how a teacher has made a difference for their child. This occurs in school hallways, parking lots, and store aisles.  I hear the stories at PTO gatherings, or on the phone and through handwritten notes, emails, and social media. Just the other day, a parent stopped me at a school activity to comment that her child loves her teacher and still wakes up each morning excited to go to school. A high school parent shared that he suspects his soon-to-graduate senior will miss a teacher who has impacted her life as much she will miss leaving her close friends behind. During the recent We Notice celebration sponsored by the County Student Council, teachers shared letters with me from parents and students including a teacher with a We Notice note from her own child. The letters said “thank you” in different ways. Thank you …  for helping me, looking out for me, teaching me to be a better person, going an extra mile for me.

The stories are different but one message is clear. No matter what else changes, teachers matter.

You matter because you prepare young people for adult life. You created passion in a student who never cared much for science and she pursued a career in medicine. You discovered an interest in music within a child who struggled with reading and he became an extraordinary singer. You modeled that you too  can make a mistake, apologized, and helped a child understand that we are all human. You took your car for a wash on a Saturday at a school club fundraiser and made a day better for teens you teach. You greeted students at the classroom door to help them with a project even when you needed a bathroom break yourself.

The list is endless of what you do for young people. In exchange, you may work two jobs to make ends meet for your young family. After a long day teaching, you take work home every night to be ready for the next day or next week. You pay for school supplies that a student needs but can’t afford. You add granola bars to your own grocery cart to be sure everyone in your class has a snack at break.

You do whatever it takes to help young people be successful in your class.

Your spouses, partners, and friends who don’t work in education notice how hard you work in the evenings from designing lesson plans to grading student work. Your colleagues in education, even those no longer in the classroom, understand exactly what it takes to be an excellent teacher. They know every day you enter school with personal qualities that help you meet the needs of each unique learner – patience, attention, commitment, enthusiasm and care. You study not just the content you must teach well but also how to teach children well. You are a learner yourself.

Many of you remember playing teacher as a child. Some of you were drawn to the profession because you loved school. Others of you chose the profession because school was a struggle and you believed you could help children who most need excellent teachers to find success as learners.

I believe all of you came to the profession and stayed because you believed you could make a difference in the lives of those we serve as learners.

And, many of you, as I do, remember a teacher who inspired us to teach. For me, it was Mrs. Hiers who was my high school biology, chemistry and physics teacher – when she wasn’t serving as the guidance counselor in my very small, rural high school. One day, she handed a biology lab report back to me and shared in her soft voice that I had a real affinity for biology. That sparked possibilities I had never considered before. That comment led eventually to a major in biology and to the beginning of a career I have loved ever since.

Teachers have made a difference in my life from my childhood to this day. And, our world is a better place because each of you chose to believe in the power of teachers to influence young people who grow up to advance civilization.  You pay forward what excellent teachers did for you.

Thank you for choosing to teach.

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