In this op-ed on the74 from a charter management operator and private school choice program director in Florida, their argument for the supremacy of school choice hinges on this tautological formula:
“We don’t think one option is necessarily better than another. Every child is different. Therefore, we need a diverse set of learning options to meet the needs of every child.”
I had to stop and read that seemingly indefensible and pithy line.
“Every child is different.”
What does this really mean? Every child is different in what sense?
Of course, every child is not the same person, therefore each one is a distinct human being. Each has their own set of fingerprints, their own personality, and so on. But one would assume that what the authors really mean here is that every child LEARNS differently. Therefore, apparently, that means different types of schools can address different types of learners.
I’ve been a teacher of special education for 7 years, so I think I have some sense of a few of the differences and challenges that some kids can face in learning. But I would not go so far as to claim that every child learns differently. In fact, I would rather claim that most kids learn far more similarly than they do differently, in whatever way you construct the meaning of “different.”
The authors seem to agree with this in the end, as they close their piece with a call to unity:
“Let’s continue to have healthy debates about choice, accountability, and everything else in our space. But let’s also remember that our common goals far outweigh whatever differences we may have.”
The primary difference between children seems to lie in the levels of pre-existing and acculturated knowledge and skills that they bring to a classroom. But that doesn’t mean they learn differently. It just means they come to a school at different levels of academic performance, language, and ability.
Some schools do a better job at meeting kids where they are and educating them (some charters, some district, some private). Some schools do a great job at weeding out kids with lower skills and knowledge so they can maintain the appearance of high performance (Ahem, probably quite a few private schools).
So the issue may really be more about quality (regulations) and admissions policies than it is about choice.
I know I sound pretty nit-picky here, but I think it’s important to call out fallacious statements like this. I’m totally on board with increasing the diversity of QUALITY options for low-income parents. But I’m not on board with increasing school choice just because “choice.” Nor am I on board with the idea that different kids need different schools.
There’s a name for that. It’s called “segregation.”
There’s a whole lot of processed food in our grocery stores. Tons of options for how to increase our obesity rates and decrease our life spans. Every human being is different! Different cookies for every person!
Let me be clear: I’m totally on board with the “get out into nature more” bandwagon, and I’m thrilled to see increasing research showing how much being out in nature contributes to well-being and health.
I think we need some clarity around terms. If by “nature” we simply mean “green living things,” then sure, it makes us feel good. But if we mean “nature” as in the wilderness and the brutal forces therein, then happiness may be a quixotic cause.
Living in tune with nature means having humility and respect, which comes from an appreciation for the often volatile and seemingly senseless danger and risks that are inherent in living in nature. In other words, it’s not just about something we can “get” from nature, in a transactional way, but also about recognizing and assuming our proper place within the cosmos.
That’s a point, alas, I don’t expect many people will buy into, so I understand why we focus on the transactional benefits of nature.
So while we’re on the subject, let’s talk about our children. We want them to be healthy and happy, right?
As Williams points out so well in the interview, our kids are the ones suffering the most from our lack of attunement to nature (however one defines it):
“I think our institutions need to take [incorporating nature into urban infrastructure] on, especially schools. Where I live, only 10 percent of kids get the recommended recess time. Which is appalling, because we know that kids need this time to run around and have exploratory free play in order to just pay attention later in the day.
. . . If you have kids, the most important thing you can do is get your kids outside enough to develop their love for nature. You will be giving them a gift they will have their entire lives.”
And while we’re at it, let’s help them gain a requisite humility and respect for the forces beyond our ken.
There was an interesting recent the74 piece on a Philadelphia charter organization, Mastery, which takes low performing schools and works to “turn them around.”
Embedded within this article is the implication that a shift to a focus on the teaching of conceptual math, rather than “rote” procedural teaching, led to a swift downturn in math scores.
“So this year, the network began reintroducing teaching techniques that had been a staple at Mastery schools for years, while seeking a middle ground between no excuses and restorative practices. It’s a ‘journey of trying to find out what’s the right mix,’ Gordon said.
Specifically, the network is reintroducing procedural math instruction, which focuses on rote instruction like memorization and repetition.”
It seems worth digging into this supposition a bit more.
Is Mastery’s downturn in math scores due to the failure of conceptual math in general as a pedagogical approach? Or is it a failure of the network to attract and train teachers who can teach this type of math more effectively?
Or is it a failure in the assessments that were used as a reference? Or was it that conceptual math takes longer to “stick” and pay dividends? Or was it a failure of the curriculum they used to move in a more conceptual direction? . . .
It’s one thing for me to flush a toilet without knowing how it operates, and another for me to favor (or oppose) an immigration ban without knowing what I’m talking about. Sloman and Fernbach cite a survey conducted in 2014, not long after Russia annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea. Respondents were asked how they thought the U.S. should react, and also whether they could identify Ukraine on a map. The farther off base they were about the geography, the more likely they were to favor military intervention.
. . .“As a rule, strong feelings about issues do not emerge from deep understanding,” Sloman and Fernbach write.
But vouchers are viewed as problematic even by many of those within the “school choice” charter community. “I’ve worked in charter schools nationally for two decades, and the vast majority of people I know who work in and support charters are deeply troubled by vouchers.” Ascend Learning blog: http://www.ascendlearning.org/blog/diane-ravitch-reply/
A fair amount of academic literature calls for clinical, evidence-based models of intensive intervention for students with disabilities in K-12. Yet in the field, there is limited effective implementations of such interventions.
Models such as Response to Intervention (RTI), multi-tiered support systems (MTSS), and standard, evidence-based protocols and programs all make complete sense when you learn about them. But there’s also a problem with these interventions: they are based on clinical frames of implementation, as in a trained clinician in the given model or protocol delivers the intervention in a prescribed manner.
The daily reality of a K-12 school, however, is far from clinical. Opportunities to deliver prescribed interventions, whether in a small group or in the ideal of a 1:1 setting, are few and far between. Moreover, opportunities to be trained in such interventions are few and far between. One is certainly not trained in any given intervention in any traditional education program.
The very model of a self-contained classroom, a class in which students with more severe disabilities are separated from their peers, relies upon this clinical ideal. And again, in isolation, as an ideal, it makes perfect sense. Let’s separate out the kids with greatest of needs so we can provide them with individualized, supportive instruction.
Similarly, within an inclusive classroom, district leaders continually speak about and prescribe the need to move away from a one-teach, one assist model to a parallel, station, or team teaching model. Or they speak of the need to “differentiate” and “individualize” instruction.
Idealized models that make perfect sense and sound great, but that rarely play out that way on the ground.
A Division Between Inclusion and Specialized Intervention
There is some scholarly debate about this. Fuchs et al, in a 2010 paper, “The ‘Blurring’ of Special Education in a New Continuum of General Education Placements and Services,” provides a useful delineation into two camps they term IDEA and NCLB. The IDEA group advocates for a top-down (i.e., replicable), linear, and time-sensitive process with fewer tiers of instruction, which serves both prevention and a more valid method of disability identification. They believe in evidence-based programs at Tier 1, the strength of standard protocols in Tier 2 and Experimental Teaching for Tier 3 intervention. They believe in the importance of a distinct special education program.
On the other hand, the NCLB group focuses on a problem-solving approach based on standards. “Whereas special education remained a distinct entity in reform making in the 1980s and 1990s, many in the NCLB camp today are advocating for obscuring, smearing, dimming, and confusing special education by blurring it into general education. In their plans—however implicit—special education vanishes in all but name (and maybe in name as well).”
Research suggests that the standard-protocol approach is superior to problem solving in accelerating the progress of children with serious learning problems. However, the authors acknowledge that “because there are insufficient numbers of such protocols in many academic areas and in the higher grades, and because ‘the school bus arrives every morning,’ many practitioners may have little choice but to rely on some variant of problem solving.”
Here’s a couple of provocative quotes from this paper that struck me:
“. . . access cannot be assumed even when inclusive instruction reflects state of-the-art accommodations and support. Instead, only evidence of adequate student outcomes demonstrates that access to the curriculum has been accomplished. In fact, the present analysis indicates that such access is sometimes more satisfactorily achieved under a service delivery arrangement that occurs outside the physical space of the inclusive program and using instructional methods that differ from the inclusive program. All this argues for a definition of access to the general educational curriculum that is based on empirical evidence of adequate learning— regardless of the setting in which or the instructional methods by which that learning is achieved.”
“…it is not possible to ignore students’ foundational skill deficits if progress toward CCSS is to be realized. For example, to demonstrate meaningful improvement with informational text, specialized intervention must address very low performers’ decoding, word recognition, and vocabulary deficits, and this often requires out-of-level foundational skills instruction. Therefore, although reconceptualizing access as empirical demonstration of learning, schools must also recognize that the access mandate often requires schools to provide out-of-level instruction to meet students’ needs for accessing the grade-level curriculum.”
Yet I don’t agree with the authors that putting in place explicit instructional intervention programs will solve all the problems they’ve identified with inclusionary practices. You can place my own professional stance as firmly within the “NCLB” camp outlined above. Schools are not clinics, and unfortunately, special education teachers and other personnel in school buildings are rarely, if ever, trained in the delivery of specific interventions.
In fact, I think the issue of either strong inclusionary instruction or specialized intervention comes down to the same fundamental issue: there is a general lack of instructional capacity and expertise in most schools, in addition to a general lack of curricular coherence and vision.
Either way, we certainly need to rethink how we are putting in place supports for students who struggle the most and assessing whether those supports are actually effective.
My argument, however, is to place our primary and immediate focus on establishing coherent and rigorous curriculum and expectations for all students. I thus argue for inclusion and a problem-solving approach.
A recent article in Education Next,”Reforming Remediation” neatly encapsulates the rationale for this inclusionary argument. Students placed directly in college-level statistics did far better than their counterparts in remedial classes.
While that example is focused on a higher education setting, we can find parallels in K-12 by looking at access to Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) programs, or to difficult academic subjects such as Latin. Disadvantaged students rarely have the opportunity to experience such rigorous curriculum. Yet when they do, as Bronx Latin teacher Peter Dodington put it, “The combination of a difficult topic and a well-ordered, step-by-step curriculum allows even otherwise weak students to succeed, and gives them a new understanding of their own strengths and talents.”
If we raise our expectations and the rigor and coherency of our curriculum, then we will see more educational benefit for all students. The dire reality of poor teacher training and knowledge of the content they teach is a significant problem, but a stronger school-wide curricular program can help to assuage this.
I strongly believe in the need for specialized interventions for students who require the most support. But how can we put in place effective interventions when a strong and well-implemented core curriculum is not present?
Let’s address the foundations first before moving to the clouds.
“I asked Cher what had made her think that the Pigeon story could be a kids’ book. She paused, then said, of her work at the time, ‘There were two classrooms, the same size, the same kinds of kids in terms of age, background. Every day with their lunch, the children got a cookie that came in a cellophane wrapper. In one of the classrooms, the teacher would come around with scissors and snip the cellophane off each cookie wrapper. In the other classroom, the teacher said, ‘Absolutely do not touch those wrappers, do not help the children open them. These kids are motivated, they can open these cookies themselves.’ Sometimes there was a lot of struggle. The cookies might be pulverized by the time they were opened. But they were opened, each one of them. I knew kids could desire, fail, be angry, thrive. I knew that this was territory that made sense for them. Those Pigeon emotions made sense to them—that told me something.’ ”
—Rivka Galchen, “Fail Funnier” on children’s book author Mo Willems in The New Yorker
Have you ever heard of a “low floor (or threshold), high ceiling” task?
I’ve stumbled across it over the last few years in the math realm, such as in articles by Jo Boaler, or in tasks by Dan Meyer, and I found it intriguing as a general framework for lesson and unit planning. Finding ways to include both lower and higher performing students in rigorous academic instruction is something I think a lot about, and this seemed worth exploring. However, I work primarily in special education and ELA, not math, so I was having trouble generalizing.
So I did a little more digging. Here’s what I found:
The concept of low floor, high ceiling was first formulated in the 1970s by Seymour Papert, a professor at MIT heavily influenced by Piaget, as a design principle for a programming language called Logo. The idea was to make programming accessible to young children, while simultaneously being usable at a more complex level by adults.
A robot turtle was developed to provide concrete access to kids for using the programming language.
When discussing technologies to support learning and education, my mentor Seymour Papert (who, sadly, passed away last month) often emphasized the importance of “low floors” and “high ceilings.” For a technology to be effective, he said, it should provide easy ways for novices to get started (low floor) but also ways for them to work on increasingly sophisticated projects over time (high ceiling). With his Logo programming language, for example, kids could start by drawing simple squares and triangles, but gradually create more complex geometric patterns over time.
But the most important lesson that I learned from Seymour isn’t captured in the low-floor/high-ceiling metaphor. For a more complete picture, we need to add an extra dimension: wide walls. It’s not enough to provide a single path from low floor to high ceiling; we need to provide wide walls so that kids can explore multiple pathways from floor to ceiling.
Why are wide walls important? We know that kids will become most engaged, and learn the most, when they are working on projects that are personally meaningful to them. But no single project will be meaningful to all kids. So if we want to engage all kids—from many different backgrounds, with many different interests—we need to support a wide diversity of pathways and projects.
. . . Our ultimate goal is to help all kids develop their thinking, develop their voices, and develop their identities. None of that will happen unless we continually ask: Who are we including? Who are we excluding? And how can we provide everyone—everyone—with opportunities for exploring, experimenting, and expressing themselves?
Make it as Simple as Possible – and Maybe Even Simpler
Give People What They Want – Not What They Ask For
“Often, designs with well-chosen parameters are more successful than designs with fully adjustable parameters” ← I like this quote. This connects to the idea of constraints.
Invent Things That You Would Want to Use Yourself
In ELA, this translates into assigning tasks that you would want to do yourself. For writing tasks, this most likely would result in something you’d actually enjoy reading.
Iterate, Iterate – then Iterate Again
This is all well and good if you’re designing a gadget or a programming language, and it kinda makes sense in math in the sense of a well-designed problem, but what does “low floor, high ceiling” mean in terms of designing lessons or units in ELA? This is where it gets murkier. Does a concept that applies to design have a translation to academic literacy instruction?
Here’s my thoughts on that question:
Usually in ELA we are engaged with texts. A rich text has multiple layers of meaning and ideas well-worth exploring, but the level of abstraction and demands of the language can be a barrier for many students. We can therefore think of the text itself as the “high ceiling” for many lessons (I think, in any case, I could certainly be off base on this).
In many cases, therefore, the “high ceiling” aspect has already somewhat been defined in an ELA lesson (assuming you are studying rich texts together as a class).
So then, how you do you provide a “low floor” for all of your students to a complex text? And more abstractly, how do you support a wide diversity of pathways or perspectives?
Designing Scaffolded Tasks and Activities
What comes first to mind are the tasks and activities that a teacher designs to prepare their students for understanding the text, for interacting with the text, and for responding to the text. For an exemplar of this type of scaffolding, I highly recommend taking a look at Lesson 2 from Stanford’s Understanding Language unit on persuasion, specifically at how they scaffold student understanding of the Gettysburg address through multiple readings that are even fun. Close reading instruction will readily fail when a teacher simply asks students to re-read a complex text multiple times with no varied and scaffolded forms of engagement.
Designing Provocative Questions
I think the most critical consideration for “wide walls” and spanning from low floor to high ceiling is what sort of questions you plan. For example, for an 8th grade unit I co-designed on the topic of segregation, we generated a series of questions, ascending from elemental (“What is segregation? What is integration?”) to provocative and open-ended: (“NYC schools are largely segregated by race and class. Is it possible to provide all children an excellent education in a segregated school system? If so, how? If not, why not and what steps must we take to fix this?”). That final question represents the cumulative question for the unit. There’s certainly room for different ways of expressing knowledge based on a student’s own perspective on the topic. This could be via an essay, an action plan, a presentation, or a socratic discussion, as a few possible examples.
A critical element to both “low floor” and “high ceiling” is designing units and lessons around a provocative question. For example, watch this video of master teacher Sarah Wessling Brown modeling a high school ELA lesson on monsters (Easter egg: see if you can spot me in the background). She asks the provocative question, “What do monsters teach us about human nature?” and then designs engaging activities to engage students in the texts and knowledge they need to explore it.
I think questions like these embody what LFHCWW design is all about. They provide both engagement, and therefore access, but have ample room for sophistication and complex thinking.
One mistake some teachers make is to assume that a “higher order” question is beyond the purview of their struggling students, and they try to dumb down their questions. My advice is to worry less about the “cognitive level” of a question, and more about the language that you use and the manner in which you phrase it. Language and phrasing can either present a barrier to understanding, or a scaffold. A precisely constructed question provides the initial direction and language that students will need.
We haven’t even really gotten started
But this post is getting overlong. How do you think the concept of a task with low floor, high ceiling, and wide walls can apply in ELA classrooms? Share, and let’s build a common understanding of what this might mean in our lesson and unit design.
If you care about education, it’s worth paying close attention to what’s going down in Silicon Valley. The hyperdrive capitalism of venture investment, with its raw focus on the rapid scale of the highest performing and rapid failure of all the rest, parallels and in some ways informs edtech and charter models.
There’s certainly a healthy and necessary space in education for a private marketplace of rapid iteration, scale, and fail. But there’s also a necessity for the less efficient but robust, slow-growth, long-term models of public schools.
In The New Yorker there is an interesting piece on Y-Combinator’s Sam Altman relevant to this. It’s interesting purely as a biopic, but scattered throughout are insights into the driving mindsets and ethics of Silicon Valley. Let’s take a closer look at some quotes from the article with the frame of education in mind.
Altman, as he nursed a negroni after dinner, had his own warning for the timid: “Democracy only works in a growing economy. Without a return to economic growth, the democratic experiment will fail. And I have to think that YC is hugely important to that growth.”
Democracy needs a heck of a lot more than just a viable economy. It needs strong civic institutions and an active citizenry that has a shared understanding of how to engage with those institutions and of their purpose. Public education should serve the public in cultivating shared civic knowledge and values.
. . . In his book “Hackers & Painters,” Graham calculated that smart hackers at a startup could get 36x more work done than the average office drone—and that they would, therefore, eventually blow up employment as we know it. He made this sound patriotic and fun; how could an oligarchic technocracy go wrong?
Indeed? How could a focus solely on only the most productive and efficient members of society go wrong? In education, imagine if we only invested in the most gifted and talented. The rest would be herded into service professions or unskilled labor. A meritocracy! Wait. Isn’t that more or less how things used to be before the advent of a public education . . .
. . . And he told me, “It’s bad for the companies and bad for Silicon Valley if companies can stay alive just because they’re [associated with Y-Combinator]. It’s better for everyone if bad companies die quickly.”
This is a driving philosophy of venture capital and rapid scale that Silicon Valley pursues. Scale the few most successful ventures rapidly, and fail the remainder. With schools, we could only invest in and scale the ones that demonstrated strong academic performance — all the rest we would close. Sounds good, right? Kids should only be in schools that have demonstrated their worth.
But there’s a problem with rapid scale in terms of sustainability:
. . .The truth is that rapid growth over a long period is rare, that the repeated innovation required to sustain it is nearly impossible, and that certain kinds of uncontrollable growth turn out to be cancers. . . Every great startup—Facebook, Airbnb—has no idea why it’s growing at first, and has to figure that out before the growth stalls. Growth masks all problems.”
A school could be high performing, but not such a great place to be.
This isn’t to say that there isn’t a place for markets in the education system. A market doesn’t have to mean Silicon Valley style scale and fail.
…it’s possible to create a huge tech company without taking venture capital, and without spending far beyond your means. It’s possible, in other words, to start a tech company that runs more like a normal business than a debt-fueled rocket ship careening out of control. Believe it or not, start-ups don’t even have to be headquartered in San Francisco or Silicon Valley.
. . . You can simply start a business, run it to serve your customers, and forget about outside investors and growth at any cost.
Schools that do this work are the ones that get better: they put their focus on service to their students and families and adapt accordingly.
But there’s other ways that those who abide by the scale and fail model are investing in, recognizing the limitations of a brick and mortar approach. Venture capitalist Marc Andreessen (you may have heard of AltSchools?) lays out the long-game for software and tech in the education industry in this Vox interview:
Primary education in the US is a monopoly. It’s a public sector monopoly with very little competition. Even the charter schools end up under sustained attack for violating the monopoly. You see this most recently in New York with De Blasio trying to shut them down. A government-sponsored monopoly is not easy to move.
. . . New technologies tend to vaporize on impact with those institutions. The last thing a unionized public school wants to do is to fundamentally change how they operate. Of course they don’t want to adopt new technology. It’s antithetical to the philosophy.
So the solution? Software!
Look, there’s great potential for technology in the education sphere, and I think experiments like AltSchools and Udacity are well worth making. But Andreessen’s premise here is false. Having worked in NYC public schools for even the short length of time that I have, I’ve seen so many tech fads get readily embraced by educators and districts that it’s become ridiculous. Rather than “vaporizing on impact,” new tech fads rather seem to become desperately embraced and then just as hurriedly discarded. Harried educators and administrators would love it if a SMART Board or data system or robot would magically and rapidly improve the outcomes for their kids!
But I do think Andreessen makes a more balanced analysis and point here:
We can’t revamp the entire system. Nobody can. But I think more and more, there are gaps in what the current system can accommodate compared to what people actually want. There are opportunities to build on the edges, around the sides, parallel systems. And at the very least introduce choice. In the best-case scenario, it becomes a real challenger to the status quo.
I fully agree that there are massive gaps and many opportunities to better serve our nation’s students, and I for one welcome the evolution of edtech and tools and software, as well as the vibrant niches of effective charter models and networks. But we’re on a quixotic mission if we’re shooting for supplanting public education systems, rather than supplementing them.
The argument for why this is so can be viewed in statements that Barack Obama and Vox’s Ezra Klein have made about the function of public institutions vs. private ones (I’ve posted this before):
The final thing I’ll say is that government will never run the way Silicon Valley runs because, by definition, democracy is messy. This is a big, diverse country with a lot of interests and a lot of disparate points of view. And part of government’s job, by the way, is dealing with problems that nobody else wants to deal with.
. . . sometimes we get, I think, in the scientific community, the tech community, the entrepreneurial community, the sense of we just have to blow up the system, or create this parallel society and culture because government is inherently wrecked. No, it’s not inherently wrecked; it’s just government has to care for, for example, veterans who come home. That’s not on your balance sheet, that’s on our collective balance sheet, because we have a sacred duty to take care of those veterans. And that’s hard and it’s messy, and we’re building up legacy systems that we can’t just blow up.
I will say one thing about both government and private-sector production, which is something that I do think is important is there is an advantage to being willing to do kludgy, difficult, somewhat unpleasant things.
. . . As you say, there’s an attraction — recognizing the government is inefficient — to just saying, “Well, let’s just do cash transfer for everything. Let’s go UBI for everything.” But there is a lot that government does, often not that well, that somebody needs to be doing, because a lot of the people you want to help are actually really difficult to help. This is something . . . this is one of the things I believe strongly in policy that we underrate.
A lot of what we’re trying to do in government is not help people who want “free stuff,” but is help people who are actually very, very difficult to help. This is particularly true in health care.
And particularly true in education. The work of education is a slow, complicated, incremental process that will benefit from new technologies, software, and schools, but that will not rapidly scale, and provides a public service that makes rapid failure of massive amounts of schools or students a nonviable option.
The experience of being a part of a diverse and inclusive community is equipping me and my kids to go forward and connect and speak up in a world of difference, however messily. We proceed respectfully, and with eyes and ears wide open. We disagree, and we discuss. Our days have more texture, more color, more depth. There is tension, yes, and sometimes confusion; there are hurt and bad feelings, and there are misunderstandings. But there has also been so much joy. Despite the instinctive resistance to leaving “the comfort zone,” which all of us have, when we persevere through that feeling, we profit. It is the right thing to do. But it also feels really, really good.
. . . integrating our nation’s schools is not the whole solution — but I believe it’s a powerful step that will have a powerful ripple effect. I believe that integrated schools can have a powerfully stabilizing and sustaining effect in a time of chaos. I’ve already seen how my own community has anchored me, and many others, during this tumultuous past week. It is a place where we know we have a common investment in our future. It is a place where we talk and think about justice. It is something real and tangible in an increasingly virtual world. It is spiritual infrastructure.