Saturday, November 20, 2010

Open Source Education: A Solution to Making Education Effective in the Accountability Era

In the education world, we have a renewed focus on standardized testing.  The major driving force is the need to meet Annual Yearly Progress (AYP), which is the cornerstone of No Child Left Behind.  It has forced schools to focus exclusively on preparing for the test that measures their progress. 

This singular focus has created a culture of academic elitism.  Teachers are encouraged to use methods that focus on the test, not actual student needs.  High-achieving students are given preferential treatment.  Low-achieving students are marginalized.  It creates a toxic environment where actual learning is replaced with a mechanical approach to test preparation.  Why is standardized testing popular?  Why is data is driving our schools today?
  • The legislators like it because it gives them an immediate snapshot of progress.  
  • The community loves it because it gives their schools an immediate ranking among other schools.  Nothing boosts property values like a school district that does a great job of teaching students to take robot (standardized) tests.  
  • Administrators love it because they are managers and it gives them hard data. That which is measured can be managed.
Who doesn't love it?  Students.  By design, a focus on robot testing is a mechanical process.  You can't apply a mechanical process to an organic problem.  Kids fall through the cracks.  Teachers' objectives become less about mastery and more about test performance.  Individuality is lost.  Freedom dies.

So what is the solution?  How can schools create an environment where our students' individual needs are recognized and met; where high levels of organic learning take place; where family, community, and schools come together to create innovative solutions to complex problems? 

We can tackle the legislation to eliminate NCLB, but that takes time.  We can ignore the act, but poor performance on the robot tests results in punitive actions against the district.  This leaves only one option- do what we can to work around the limitations imposed by the robot testing.  The question- how?

Let's look at rogue businesses for answers.  I have spent considerable time reading business books lately.  The idea of applying business practices to education has always made me uneasy.  Treating kids like a product ignores my fundamental principles (which explains my disdain for NCLB).  The business books I've read were written by a new breed of entrepreneurs.  They don't follow the "suited warrior" ideals taught in business schools; they invent real solutions using innovative methods.  They think outside the box.  This is EXACTLY what education needs.  We need to forget what we learned in our teacher prep programs.  We need to forget research.  We need to recognize our own limited perspective.

Our problem with education- how do we score well on standardized tests to meet standards and still meet the diverse needs of our individual students?  Ideally the solution should involve parents and extended family, community, local businesses, teachers, administrators, school boards, and any other parties that could provide knowledge.

First, we need to figure out the first issue- how to improve standardized test scores without overtly teaching to the test.  The answer: look at homeschoolers.

In public education, homeschooling has a consistent, pervasive negative stereotype.  After all, homeschoolers threaten all of our jobs (which is really the first priority of school employees).  We see homeschooled kids as socially-stunted pale-skinned kids that win spelling bees and can rattle off every vice-president's dog throughout American history.  In reality, homeschooled kids smart, socially-savvy individuals that have learned to interact with people of all ages in natural social environments.  More importantly, they flat out beat the Hell out of public school students on standardized tests.  Check out these statistics (from here):

In 1997, a study of 5,402 homeschool students from 1,657 families was released. It was entitled, "Strengths of Their Own: Home Schoolers Across America." The study demonstrated that homeschoolers, on the average, out-performed their counterparts in the public schools by 30 to 37 percentile points in all subjects. A significant finding when analyzing the data for 8th graders was the evidence that homeschoolers who are homeschooled two or more years score substantially higher than students who have been homeschooled one year or less. The new homeschoolers were scoring on the average in the 59th percentile compared to students homeschooled the last two or more years who scored between 86th and 92nd percentile. i

This was confirmed in another study by Dr. Lawrence Rudner of 20,760 homeschooled students which found the homeschoolers who have homeschooled all their school aged years had the highest academic achievement. This was especially apparent in the higher grades. ii This is a good encouragement to families catch the long-range vision and homeschool through high school.

Another important finding of Strengths of Their Own was that the race of the student does not make any difference. There was no significant difference between minority and white homeschooled students. For example, in grades K-12, both white and minority students scored, on the average, in the 87th percentile. In math, whites scored in the 82nd percentile while minorities scored in the 77th percentile. In the public schools, however, there is a sharp contrast. White public school eighth grade students, nationally scored the 58th percentile in math and the 57th percentile in reading. Black eighth grade students, on the other hand, scored on the average at the 24th percentile in math and the 28th percentile in reading. Hispanics scored at the 29th percentile in math and the 28th percentile in reading.

Maybe it's time we stop worrying about the homeschoolers threatening our jobs and started looking at their methods.  As it turns out, the homeschoolers don't do anything special.  In fact, the absence of formal teaching methods itself seems to be a major element of their success.  It goes along with my theory that less is more.  They do more organic learning and a lot less synthetic learning.

So how do we accomplish this goal of creating an organic learning experience for our students when the entire edu-industrial complex is designed for synthetic learning?  How do we produce people when we work in a factory that is designed to produce robots?

Here's my second out-of-the-box solution: Use the open source model.  In his book Rules of Thumb, Alan Webber discusses three rules of success from Megan Smith of Google.  Her third rule- Open systems beat closed systems.  Webber goes on to discuss this idea:
If you want to be on the right side of history, you'll embrace open systems.  They save money, increase speed, invite participation, require flexibility, and thrive on democracy.  They break down the barriers, promote pragmatism, spotlight talent, and reward real performance.  Open systems beat closed systems.

The idea has worked in the computer world.  It has worked with Wikipedia (note- to those of you that still think Wikipedia shouldn't be used as a resource- it's the single largest collection of experts in every field in the world working to build collective knowledge... it should be THE starting point for research).  Collaboration is a good thing.

How can this idea be implemented to take advantage of the homeschool model in a public school   The answer is simple: make lesson planning an open system.  
The concept is easy to implement and would work like this.  A teacher would post a rough outline for a lesson online based on our perception of best educational practices using a collaborative platform (maybe something like Google Docs or something else here).  The applicable standards would also be posted as this is the basic building block for the material that will eventually covered on the robot test.  At that point, the public (students, parents, administrators, school board members, community members, business owners, etc) would have the opportunity to add, remove, suggest, and ultimately shape the actual lesson.

I'm guessing this idea causes one of two reactions: excitement or fear.  

If you feel excitement, you're heading in the right direction.  The world is moving toward global collaboration and a decentralizing of authority and knowledge, and you get that.  More importantly, you want your students to get that.  Good for you.

If you feel fear or you immediately began thinking of reasons this idea will not work, your head is in the sand.  You're oblivious to the world around you and have likely spent too much time building walls between your educational institution and the rest of the world.  Your students will suffer as a result.  Shame on you.

Will it work?  Why not?  There's just too much potential upside to prevent it from working.  Consider this:
  • Teachers and administrators fear parents.  A parent that complains loud enough can jeopardize a career (remember... job protection is the first priority).  What is the best way to eliminate that fear?  Give parents the ability to be part of the problem-solving process.  It's human behavior 101 (thanks psychology department at Northern Michigan University!)  The current system is based on a degree of secrecy... it is easier to keep parents in the dark than risk having them complain.  This needs to change.
  • Teachers do not have all the answers.  We see the world from one perspective- our own.  Our own experiences and collective knowledge and wisdom is limited.  As such, our ability to create and execute lessons is inherently limited.  Allowing others to participate in the creation process will, by definition, produce a product that is better suited for every student.
  • Students have a voice.  We spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to teach them, but we never ask for their input.  Each student knows themselves 1,000,000 times better than anyone else.  If we want to consult an expert to learn how to teach each individual, let's ask the expert- the student themselves.  Also, allowing student input teaches a valuable lesson in the democratic process... we can and do have a voice.  We need to teach our students to use that voice.  Nothing teaches like authentic experiences.
  • The community is an invaluable resource.  In an era where school funding is drying up and resources are scarce, it makes sense to tap the local community for ideas.  A few years ago, I had a problem getting my classes into the limited computer labs in my school.  My solution- ask local businesses for their old computer hardware and build my own lab in my classroom.  The response was overwhelming.  I received over 200 computers along with printers, monitors, networking hardware, software, and anything else imaginable.  It turns out businesses have to pay to get rid of their old computer hardware (usually about two years old) when they replace it with new stuff.  By donating it to schools, they get a nice tax write-off.  The best part- I got a TON of offers from IT guys in my community to come into the school to set everything up.  I even got unsolicited offers for them to teach my students how to set up and maintain my network, repair broken computers, and generally administer our own lab outside normal school hours.  It would have been an organic learning opportunity for my students and established connections between the community and my classroom while learning real-world skills in technology.  The best part- it was absolutely free.  Unfortunately my school allowed "policy" to stand in the way of innovation and the project died.  The irony- my school passed a bond to spend a tremendous amount of money on technology.  The goal- get a computer in front of every kid.  The people that made the policy that prevented my free solution to the problem years ago are the same people making plans to solve the same problem with wads of cash.  So goes the edu-industrial complex.  In an open system, organic learning would trump policy.  In an open system, the community of experts would provide resources schools cannot.
Of course, there are many other great reasons to move to this model.  The marriage of family, community, and schools is at the heart of what education should be... a collaborative effort to make schools a better experience for our kids.  It has the potential to reduce costs and improve results while maintaining the very elements of learning that kids lack under the current system.

The world is changing.  It is evident everywhere.  The way we do things now is not working.  Simply tweaking the system has not and will not work.  It hasn't worked for the last 160 years; it will not work 160 years in the future.  I think Einstein had something to say about doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results...

Some schools have done well with radical change.  Personally, I like what Larry Rosenstock has done with High Tech High.  While it is tempting to simply replicate everything they do, it is important to understand that their solution is a solution to their problems.  We need to develop our own solutions for our problems.  Open source education can provide those solutions.
Open source education... these are the ideas I dream about when we sit through cutting-edge professional development sessions where we learn to fold papers.  As it turns out, origami didn't fix our problems.  Let's try something that might.

Is it a different way of doing things?  Yes.  Are there potential problems?  Yes.  Can we afford to let our fears stop us from trying the idea?  Absolutely not.  Let's give this whole "democracy" thing a try.  


  1. Whether what you wrote is the specific "answer" or not, I really believe this is the type of way that people should be thinking about it, and I really like reading some of the ideas. As I read it I kept saying to myself, "yes, something like this -- think in new ways about it -- completely new ways!"

    As a daughter of two teachers -- and also writing on a teachers blog -- I hate to say it, but I'm not sure I wholly believe in the teaching profession.

    I guess we'll always need it because not all parents will not want to assume the obligation and responsibilities of a child's program of study. But it seems to me, with all this online learning and computer software that teaches and skype and stuff that separating as a family in order for the kids to be educated is not always necessary. My son learned math from computer programs, not from his teachers, and he really excelled.

    A combination approach custom-designed for each child putting all heads together seems appealing to me. Maybe teachers could become more like "personal trainers" at the gym, where the specific goals and needs of each member are addressed, but the member works the program with the equipment that is provided there.

  2. I like what you post, but your citing the national scores to compare against homeschool student scores is more than a little biased itself. Home-schooled students have engaged parents who are willing to spend their time and effort to educate their children. Is everyone capable of home schooling their children to the 12th grade level? No. There are many that must rely upon professionals if their children are going to achieve 'more' than their limited education could provide.

  3. Francis- hopefully the goal of this blog becomes a starting point on dialogue about solving problems. My solutions are merely my own thoughts from my perspective. I will continue posting about the problems in public education in the hopes that more people will begin offering potential solutions... people smarter than me. :-)

    Rob/Eva- agreed. Any test scores will be an apples-to-oranges comparison at best. Having said that, the fact that homeschooled kids generally do significantly better cannot be ignored. I think you're right, engaged parents are a HUGE part of the solution... probably THE major component of any solution. The idea of the open source lesson planning is to involve parents (and others) in a way that is absent today.

    Would all parents have to be experts in the subject matter? Absolutely not. In fact, I think the fact that most parents don't have the specialized knowledge of every subject can be an invaluable resource itself. The non-expert opinion is often overlooked.

    Here's an example- I have A LOT of knowledge about the field of psychology... probably more than 98% of the population. Still, I only know a tiny drop of everything there is to know about the field of psychology. By tapping the expertise of others, whether it be directly related to the subject matter or otherwise, we can greatly expand the knowledge base kids have access to. Not only can we get more information on psychology, but we can acquire better ideas of how to teach it or practical examples of how this information and skills will be relevant to students' lives. Teachers shouldn't be the only "professionals" that teach kids, especially if it is in the confines of a classroom. It's a "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts" philosophy.

    For what it's worth, both my wife and I are high school teachers with about 20 years of experience between us. We do not have the knowledge base to teach our kids all the material up to the 12th grade level.