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much notice, Somerville is becoming one of the more innovative schools
systems in the U.S. That is the subject of this series. Recent
gatherings involving some of the nation's leading thinkers on the
future of education provided evidence of the depth and value of
Somerville Schools' innovation.
Alan November was the keynote
speaker at a national conference on visual literacy. "Visual literacy"
means recognizing how a message is shaped by the medium that is
delivering it. Alan describes a phenomenon that will transform K-12
education as we know it. With the proliferation of digital technology
and media as educational tools, schools will become the equivalent of
one-room schoolhouses, where everyone learns from everyone else, and
the teacher is more coach and choreographer than attendance taker and
A diverse group of Somerville High kids were the only
actual K-12 students at the conference. They deeply impressed
conference goers by presenting videos that they had created. They
discussed the videos' style and substance with greater sophistication
than could be managed by a number of the graduate-school students in
the room. In so doing, they proved November's thesis.
last column, we discussed how Somerville Schools have reduced by 50% in
one year the rate at which they hold back students in grades
1-through-8. So I (Joe) was fascinated to hear Jay Smink, director of
the National Dropout Prevention Institute, when some Somerville School
staff and I attended a workshop on the subject in Worcester.
emphasized the critical role of identifying students who are
struggling, and the areas in which they are having a hard time. He says
that such assessment can begin as early as the third grade. He
advocates a range of interventions-projects, after-school programs,
summer school, mentorships - to change a dropout pattern into higher
achievement. Any of them is more effective than "retention in grade,"
that is, holding a kid back for more of the same thing that didn't work
in the first place. In other words, he advocates the innovations that
Somerville is already successfully implementing.
and Somerville's practice are consistent with some compelling insights
that emerge from exhaustive research conducted by John Hattie. Hattie
was the Chairman of Educational Research Methodology at the University
of North Carolina and is now based in New Zealand. He examined
thousands of studies and compared the results of fifty years of
evaluations and experiments in K-12 schools.
He identified 138
practices used by teachers, schools, and parents, and compared their
effects. Some of the practices were conscious methods, like teaching
kids to assess their own work. Others were simply behaviors that had an
affect on kids' ability to learn, like families moving so often that
they didn't establish social networks. You can take a look at this
almost all points, his conclusions coincide with Smink's-retaining kids
in grade is an educational disaster, with no educational justification
Last week, I spent two days at meetings in Boston
with a team from the US Department of Education (DOE) that is planning
the development of Race-to-the-Top assessment methodologies.
Race-to-the-Top is the new program that offers competitive grants to
innovative schools and educators. It's funded by $4.3 billion in
stimulus-package money, $350 million of which is for new assessment
Part of the conversation involved the use of
"portfolios." These are collections of papers or projects that a
teacher and student believe are noteworthy. They accumulate in a file,
or more recently on a CD Rom, over the student's middle- and
high-school years. The Massachusetts' 1993 Education Reform Act that
created MCAS also authorized the use of portfolios as an alternative or
supplement to MCAS. There is even a budget line item for it.
America and our children are to be successful in the world in which we
now live, we must teach kids how to think, rather than what to know.
What is important to know is constantly changing, so they need the
capacity to think effectively about any situation in which they find
themselves. The factory jobs that could pay a living wage have been
vanishing for decades. Increasingly, the only economic sectors in which
the U.S. can be competitive and that provide jobs with a future are
those that require critical thinking, defining objectives, problem
solving, and the skills needed to work well with others.
like the MCAS don't measure these capacities. Instead, they measure
knowledge and some fairly trivial skills. Organizations like FairTest
and elected officials like Carl Sciortino have been working to get
policy makers to recognize this for years.
would lead to more interesting teaching and smarter kids. That was the
point made by the consultants who were at the Race-to-the-Top event. In
response, the DOE officials seemed cool to the idea of portfolios. And
Massachusetts has done little to develop the practice, despite its
recognition in legislation.
But-you guessed it-Somerville High
School has been compiling portfolios for some time. That's the good
news. The bad news is that the portfolios have never been used. The
other good news, though, is that there is now a committee in the high
school reviewing how portfolios might be made more useful.