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 …..




Why Connect? Reflections on Our Filters, Virtual or Otherwise #CE13


Why Connect?

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve participated in multiple activities of Connected Educators Month.  It’s evident. Walls tumble down that separate educators from each other as they connect around the world. New ideas proliferate as a participation culture emerges. In my own district, connected educators create new pathways for learning – for themselves, colleagues locally and around the world, and their children.  The key word among connected educators during #CE13 seems to be share – whether in a Pinterest “PD Scavenger Hunt” or through a school-wide tweetup on what choice and comfort looks like for children.

Kindergartners Skyping on 3rd Day of School

Kindergartners Skyping on 3rd Day of School in @abigailkayser’s class

We benefit from professional connectivity because it helps us make eye contact with other educators across global watering holes. That’s a step in removing filters that prevent us from learning with and from each other.  Yesterday I caught a bit of chat at #globalclassroom and had a chance to witness how we filter across diverse cultures, experiences, and time zones. In virtual environments, exchanges at watering holes open us to new ways of thinking – multiple points of view from around the globe – and as we interact we find our perspective isn’t the only one out there.

Such connectivity helps us take down our professional filters and see what’s outside our walls, our boundaries, and our barriers. When we connect, our natural human curiosity and urge to explore causes us to seek what’s beyond our known learning horizons. When we discover others with different ideas at virtual watering holes, that leads to questions about our own filters. I believe that’s a good thing.

globalclassroomReflecting on Filters

A mentor once said to me that we all have to watch out for our filters. He was a mentor before the topic of “the filters”, you know the ones I mean, became a different kind of headache for contemporary educators.  But, I think his reference applies to any kind of filters in our lives, even virtual ones.

student writing on desktop
Using desk surfaces as a writing space challenged my filtering system – until I saw the  walls and windows at NPR covered with notes, diagrams, and outlines. 

Over-filtering represents one of the greatest sources of failures in our individual thinking and that of our systems. It’s why I keep a mental list of the four failures of government – imagination, policy, management, and capability – that the 9/11 Commission identified in their final report as root causes of 9/11. It’s why I am conscious of Ellen Langer’s mindful leadership as a frame for thinking about why individual leaders working alone are poor predictors of the future. It’s why I believe in finding new pathways to advance our work and the concept of “terroir” and scaling across not up (from Walk Out, Walk On), rather than thinking all schools should or can implement identical solutions, even when they’re trying to address the same challenges. Why?

There are no “one size fits all” answers. There are no magic formulas. In this day and age, there are no standard problems, and no standard solutions. Pentagon staffers articulate that in their work, and so should we. No two school communities, no two grade-level teams, and no two parents, children or teachers are exactly alike.  As @yongzhaoUO says, we need to consider the uniqueness of the local work we do rather than focusing on mass standardization.

Filters tend to push us towards seeing different situations similarly, rather than recognizing that no two are the same. Filters tend to cause us to go to the same people for feedback – often people who reinforce our own perspectives and ideas. Filters are why we lack the capability over time to see watermarks on our own professional wallpaper. Filters are why in our work as educators we don’t always get or attend to the full breadth and depth of information we need. Filters can be our worst enemy when it comes to decision-making.

We all filter.

Our brains must filter to accomplish anything in a given day. Other people also filter for us. Sometimes because they see it as necessary to getting work done in priority order. Sometimes, it’s to advance someone’s perspective. We need to be aware of that and constantly monitor how our filters, and those of others, impact our work, and ultimately impact how our work impacts young people we serve.

1950 classroom Source:genderroles1950.blogspot.com                                                                                       Factory school traditions centered students and teachers in isolated silos

When we work in isolation, and we all do need that time sometimes, we don’t consider a full range of ideas and possibilities to help find solutions to challenges in front of us. While I’m not an impulsive person (well, maybe just slightly impulsive), I’ve found that time to think and reflect with others who represent diversity of background and expertise isn’t just a luxury, it’s a necessity. Over years in leadership roles, I’m still learning to slow down, seek advice, and take time to consider decisions – and to work on lowering, not raising my filters.  Pretty often, I don’t hear what I’d like to hear when I go outside my own personal filters, but usually it’s what I need to hear.

Checking Filters

I’ve also learned it’s important to periodically change my work environment because my personal filters can cause me to stop seeing what’s around me – the proverbial stains on the wallpaper no longer exist in my line of sight. It’s why I’ll occasionally ride a school bus to chat with a driver, help a custodian stack chairs after a program, serve food in a cafeteria, or teach or co-teach a lesson.I need to work outside the hierarchy to understand the impact of decisions on those most affected by them. Twitter helps me get outside the hierarchy, too.

However, even in using Twitter, we can either set up situations where we lower filters or even maintain a different version of face-to-face filters in the virtual world.

If I chose to follow people who express the same opinions and ideas that I’m drawn to, then I’d end up with the same echo chamber that can exist in my professional work environment if I’m not constantly attending to that. I’ve pushed myself to look for and follow people with different points of view, people who work in very different fields than education, people who ask hard questions, challenge authority, and who don’t accept the way it is as the way it has to be. I’ve found people with great educational expertise around the world who do things very differently from the practices used in my own work spaces.  Twitter has become a watering hole that encourages me to lower filters and consider other possibilities, options, and potential new pathways for improving our work to serve learners well. Without access I wouldn’t know:

@catherinecronin @marloft @lasic @largerama @poh @colonelb @joemazza @liamdunphy @tomwhitby @flourishingkids @doremi @mrami2  @gravesle @jguarr @mcleod @blogbrevity @jonbecker @grandmaondeck @blogbrevity @cybraryman and literally thousands of valued voices sharing ideas, resources, and questions routinely on twitter as well as in  #cpchat, #edchat, #musedchat #edchatie #ccglobal #engchat #ntchat #ptchat #nwp #ideachat #satchat #rschat  and the many other chat waterng holes that run every day,

hundreds of superintendents on @daniellfrazier’s supts list who offer perspectives on challenges I face daily in a similar role,

@monk51295 @maryannreilly @paulallison and the book Walk Out Walk On  and why we should consider a different option than simply “scaling up” educational programs,

@karenjan and #spedchat regulars who champion Universal Design for Learning and a range of accessibility solutions that allow children’s capabilities to emerge,

@saorog @pamelaaobrien @scratchteam because sending some teachers to #scratchmit2012  and interacting with our Irish PLN led us to implement #coderdojos and use of Scratch across our school district,

the work of @kcousinsmles @mlsmeg @bkayser11 @mthornton78 @paulawhite @mtechman @ethorsenahs @beckyfisher73 @tborash  @mpcraddock @khhoward34 @andrewwymer10s @sresmusic  @jatcatlett @wingfriends @jengrahamwright @chalkrelic @gweddettecrummie @mrglovermhs @peacefulsmiles @ebredder @hoosjon @irasocol @csratliff @hobbes4564 and many other tweeting educators who work in schools across our #acps district,

the work of connected educators such as @dcambrid who is a champion of Connected Educators Month and strategic focus upon ways to support educators to make critical shift as digital learners themselves.

A Few Questions

So, when we reflect upon what we don’t consider, don’t ask, and don’t learn when we have our filters up, I’d suggest we consider these questions in regards to digital, connected learning:

Why do we think that filtering social media and virtual learning tools – Youtube, Skype, Wikipedia, Twitter and others, even Google for heaven’s sake – makes sense for either us or our learners?

Why not teach children what we’re learning at the virtual watering holes; how to navigate and learn the shifting protocols, rules, etiquette and boundaries associated with digital citizenship and literacy so we can take full advantage of opportunities to lower filters and learn?

Why deny ourselves and our young people a world of opportunities that allow them to learn from experts and access the tools they need to search, connect, communicate and make?

Why block educators and the young people they serve from being able to consider that the way they think could be informed by points of view from people all over the world with different knowledge and informed understandings of science, maths, history, economics, the arts, and literacy?

Filtering, virtual or not, limits all of us from exploring beyond horizons of what we define as possible to learn. It was true for those who tried to limit the work of Galileo.

image of galileo with telescope
Source: Galileo With Telescope Image

And, it’s true for young people and us today.

Unblocking our filters allows learners and educators to find a different learning world beyond the horizon – one of panoramas, 360s, microscopic, bird’s eye to fish eye, and telescopic points of view.  And, wouldn’t we all be better critical thinkers, creators, problem-solvers, designers, builders, producers, and engineers as a result?

kids drawing map on table
@mthornton78’s class at work

The “K Playbook”: Professional Learning for a Lifetime

World Peace Gamers

A mentor once said to me that he had never seen a kindergartener arrive at school with the idea that he or she was not a learner. During my professional years spent as an elementary principal, I cherished the opportunity to “kid-watch” kindergarteners on a daily basis.  The block area served as a favorite space of the kindergarteners and me. Here the fantastical imaginations and risky behaviors of five-year olds led them to design and construct post-modern expressionist structures reminiscent of Frank Gehry’s most interesting work.

I learned kindergarteners aren’t afraid to explore the intersection of disparate materials that leads them to create whimsical, sometimes even absurd architectural spaces – towers, homes, castles, even whole cities – combining Legos, wooden blocks, aluminum foil, cardboard – whatever they could find in the kindergarten co-laboratory.  Turned loose, kindergartners epitomize the dispositions of lifelong learning. They are adaptable, flexible thinkers who will play in the sandbox for hours, despite their short attention span in circle time. They love math and science and writing and painting and music and mythical stories and non-fiction information and chasing each other and dancing – all in the name of learning.

Educators’ Tower Building

Taking a page from the MIT kindergarten playbook and the design focus of  Parsons School Institute of Play, I wrestle with how we can grow the passion for learning inherent in kindergarteners in our own work as educators. What it means to educate and be educated takes on new meaning in today’s technology-driven world. The task of educating young people who will graduate from our high schools with the capability to add value to our communities and workforce presents a challenge unique to these times. Our country’s democratic survival depends upon our educational community doing its best work ever in the history of public education.

We educators have watched Shift Happens (Mcleod and Fisch) on YouTube, read  Yong Zhao’s World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students and listened to Tony Wagner push us to not just focus upon the national achievement gap but also the global one. Yet, the momentum necessary to make necessary changes never quite gets us off the ground.  In fact, as Larry Cuban noted in 1992 in the article, “Computers Meet Classroom. Classroom Wins”, reforms do not change schools, but rather schools change reforms and, in such a way that little change ever occurs in schools.

A lifelong quest as an educator has been to figure out why we educators are less likely to change, indeed to incorporate new learning into our work, than almost any other field. I have come to believe that the potential for“deep change” in which knowledge, practices and processes shift is a function of the availability of substantial time for our own adult learning – something that is in little supply in America’s Pk-12 schools.

We educators have little time to play in the sandbox; to explore the intersections of disparate ideas, disciplines, and cultures that would lead us to create, design, and invent the curricula, assessments and instruction necessary to provide learning sustenance to contemporary learners. Instead, teachers work long hours during a 200 day school year, using what daily planning time is available to accomplish clerical and administrative tasks related to operational details of the job. Little to no time exists for a typical Pk-12 educator to read, think, reflect, collaborate, write, study, listen, converse, create, problem-solve; indeed, simply learn. This situation is inconsistent with other professions in this country and with the professional life of educators who work in high performing educational communities around the world.

I have come to the distinctly simplistic perspective that our educators need more unencumbered professional time dedicated to learning and that if they had access to such time, education would be transformative for learners and learning. However, expecting educators to acquire and use skills and then assimilate rapidly shifting technologies into their work with students, means coming to terms with the fact that integration of new technologies, new pedagogies, and new content demands far more time than our teaching educators are obligated to work in traditional contracts and on traditional calendars which do not serve us well in the twenty-first century.

Time to work together

On the other hand, some aspects of educating young people well in today’s world aren’t a lot different from 10,000 years ago. I suspect the best tribal teachers knew the value of team learning, hands-on approaches, practice, coaching and high levels of Bloom’s. For early Homo sapiens, teaching well surely meant the difference between the life and death of a tribe’s young people. Our earliest teachers knew that neither they nor their pupils could afford to rest as learners, but rather that they all had to constantly adapt and flex as they acquired new knowledge and skills essential to survival. Tony Wagner describes the skills that teenagers need in this century’s colleges, workforce, and communities as survival skills, too. These skills include Critical Thinking and Problem Solving, Collaboration Across Networks and Leading by Influence, Agility and Adaptability, Initiative and Entrepreneurship, Effective Oral and Written Communication, Accessing and Analyzing Information, and Curiosity and Imagination.

High school kids build bridges

Primary students build bridges

Opportunities to develop and use Wagner’s skills don’t typically emerge as a result of traditional curricula, instruction or assessments used in most of America’s public schools. If Tyack and Cuban are correct, not much will change as a result of any of our ghosts of reform – past, present or future. So what will it take to drive home the deep change needed so that our digital learners get the learning spaces they need today? And, if educators have little opportunity to engage in and assimilate new professional learning, why would they not remain closed and resistant to change?

Lifelong learning is essential to practitioners in the field of education. We must provide time for our teachers to continue learning if we expect them to embrace meaningful and necessary changes to transform schools of our past into schools for the future. This means providing significant time to try out new strategies and tools, to build relationships with each other as learners, and find the value inherent in participating in both virtual and face-to-face learning communities, including social learning media such as Twitter chats.

Teachers connecting F2F and virtually via SM

Time should not be either a luxury or an excuse for educators to do the hard work and play essential to their own learning. Just as in kindergarten, creative and inventive ideas in the block area or sandbox come with the time to think, to collaborate, to try out different construction materials and strategies, to analyze, and decide what to do next. Expert kindergarten teachers purposefully schedule the time needed for young children to do the messy work of learning. School calendars and contracts that reflect the time needed for educators to engage in their own learning work are a must. The biggest challenge is finding the funding, and, even more important and scarce, the will to make the necessary changes in structures leftover from the agrarian and industrial ages of public education.

Perhaps, if our communities and educators believed our survival depended upon it, change would happen tomorrow.