Meet Adell Cothorne

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Michelle Rhee is, of course, the central character in our Frontline film, “The Education of Michelle Rhee,” but I want to tell you more about Adell Cothorne, the former DC principal who appears at the end of our film. She was one of a small handful of DC educators willing to speak on the record about the widespread erasures that occurred during Michelle Rhee’s tenure in Washington–and I think what she has to say is important.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that producer Mike Joseloff, researcher Catherine Rentz and I made hundreds of phone calls to teachers and principals at schools with high erasures rates (with answers almost always changed from ‘wrong’ to ‘right’) on the District’s standardized test, the DC-CAS, and to those in Michelle Rhee’s central office. Many of those we called either hung up the phone, said ‘no comment,’ or ask to go ‘off-the-record.’ I think some changed their phone numbers, and a few managed to disappear from sight.

Why the code of silence? One person explained that she wouldn’t be able to find work in education if she spoke out—and then hung up. Others told much the same story.

So let me tell you more about Adell Cothorne, in her own words.

“I grew up in poverty. I’m a minority, of course, (laughs). (And the daughter of a) teenage mother. So I absolutely understand the value of a strong public school education. It will take you places you’ve never been before.”

Education enabled Adell Cothorne to rise from those unpromising circumstances, and she ended up as an Assistant Principal in Montgomery County, Maryland. For those unfamiliar with the Washington, DC, area, Montgomery County is a wealthy suburb of the Capital with excellent ‘Blue Ribbon’ public schools. It’s one of the top-ranked school districts in the nation.

Adell Cothorne, former principal of Noyes Education Campus

Her idealism burned brightly, and so she applied for a job in Washington, largely, she told Frontline, because of her admiration for Michelle Rhee.

“I still have the Time Magazine with Michelle Rhee on the cover,” Cothorne told Frontline. “I had been following her for a while, and I admired what I saw on the media and the news. And so to have the opportunity to dialogue and sit across from her and then have her say to me, you know, ‘It’s not a matter of when you’re coming to D.C., but where I’m going to put you,’ that was absolute confirmation for me. And I was over the top.”

Rhee installed Cothorne as principal of Noyes Education Campus, a ‘Blue Ribbon’ school that had achieved remarkable gains on the DC-CAS in previous years. In October Cothorne met again with the Chancellor, one-on-one, to discuss her plans for the year. (Rhee’s practice was to meet with every principal to get their written guarantees.)

She told Frontline that meeting, which took place early in school year 2010-2011. “You are to ‘goal set.’ You are to tell her, you know, ‘I will raise math scores by 5%. I will raise reading scores by 6%.’ And so, yes, she and I had that conversation. And I said to her in early October, ‘I’m very comfortable with a 6% gain in math and a 7% gain in reading.’”

JOHN MERROW: But … if you make the commitment for 6%, 7%, is it understood that if you don’t make it you are not going to be around?
ADELL COTHORNE: Yes.
JOHN MERROW: Produce or else?
ADELL COTHORNE: She– yes, she said that to me. Yes.
JOHN MERROW: She said–
ADELL COTHORNE: In a joking fashion, absolutely joking fashion, but she did say, ‘You know, Cothorne, if you don’t make this, don’t be upset if you get a pink slip.’ Those were her words to me. In a joking manner.
JOHN MERROW: Did you take it as a joke?
ADELL COTHORNE: No. (LAUGH) That’s my livelihood. No I did not.

Even as she was making that commitment, Cothorne knew she had a problem. What she had already seen in her new school did not jibe with the test scores that had been recorded. Here’s what she told Frontline:

“As any good administrator should, I visited classrooms and just made my presence known, (and) noticed a disconnect for myself and what was going on in the classroom. The level of instruction, because I’ve worked at Blue Ribbon Schools before, so the level of instruction that I know is needed for a Blue Ribbon School, I was not seeing on a daily ongoing basis. … There’s these huge disconnects. They’re struggling academically. Yet the data that I have been given is showing great gains. But what I see with my own eyes on a daily basis is not a true picture of great gains.”

I asked her to tell me more.

ADELL COTHORNE: Well, for instruction, I saw students who were struggling to read, which is absolutely what does not happen in a Blue Ribbon School. And did not coincide or line up with the data that I had been given as the new principal. I just really saw a lack of instruction across the board. There were only very few instances where I could go into a classroom and feel comfortable that instruction was going on and kids were learning. Wholesale, that was not happening at my school.
JOHN MERROW: It must’ve been upsetting.
ADELL COTHORNE: It was upsetting and it was a little nerve-wracking because I knew (LAUGH) it was my responsibility to raise the achievement of that school.

Her predecessor, Wayne Ryan had led Noyes with great success. In fact, Rhee had promoted him to her central office largely because of his school’s success on the DC-CAS. In 2007, for example, only 44.14% of Noyes’ students had scored at a proficient level in reading, but under Ryan’s leadership that number nearly doubled, to 84.21%, in just two years. Math scores had also nearly doubled, from 34.24% to 62.79.

What Cothorne did not know was that an awful lot of answers had been changed from ‘wrong’ to right,’ on DC-CAS answer sheets from Noyes–and in nearly half of Rhee’s other schools. At Noyes 75% of the classrooms were flagged for high erasure rates. (This problem began in Rhee’s first year, and she learned of it early in her second year. She had been urged to investigate the 2007-2008 erasures but did not, as the film details.)

Cothorne told Frontline that she inadvertently discovered a possible explanation for the discrepancy between the high test scores and the students’ daily performance: Adults were changing answers on the tests. She had stayed late one night and heard noises coming from one classroom.

“So I walked into the room and I saw three staff members. There were test books everywhere, over 200 test books spread out on desks, spread out on tables. One staff member was sitting at a desk and had an eraser. And then there were two other staff members at a round table and they had test books out in front of them.
And one staff member said to me, in a light-hearted sort of way, ‘Oh, Principal, I can’t believe this kid drew a spider on the test and I have to erase it.’ … That was a little strange to me. I mean, the whole situation of all of these test books, over 200 test books being spread out in this room after school hours with three staff members. It’s not the way a testing situation is supposed to happen.”

This was not an isolated incident, Cothorne told Frontline.

JOHN MERROW: Were there any other indications?
ADELL COTHORNE: Yes.
JOHN MERROW: Of– that– teachers or staff members were behaving inappropriately on testing situations?
ADELL COTHORNE: Oh, in testing situations. Yes. … I personally walked into two different classrooms and saw two separate teachers giving instruction, trying to frontload students with information while test books are open and out. So I saw that with my own eyes.

That created a crisis for Cothorne. She felt compelled to report the incident, but her immediate supervisor was Wayne Ryan, her predecessor at Noyes. How could she call him up and accuse his former colleagues of erasing answers, without implying that he may have been part of the scheme? In the end, she told Frontline, she called someone else, who, she says, told her ‘not to worry’ but that was the last she heard from him.

She also told Frontline that one administrator summoned her to his office. She would not reveal his identity but told Frontlne about the conversation.

ADELL COTHORNE: When I was meeting with this higher up– the statement was made to me, ‘You don’t respect the legacy that has been built at Noyes.’ Once again, I processed, and looked at the person and said, ‘Could you repeat that?’ The person again moved closer and said, ‘You don’t respect the legacy that has been built at Noyes.’ And I answered with, ‘You know, I thought I was doing a very good job of looking at instruction and giving support.’ And the person just kind of smirked and set back.
JOHN MERROW: And how did you interpret that?
ADELL COTHORNE: “Be quiet.” That was my interpretation.

(Cothorne would not tell Frontline the name of that administrator, but in court documents that were unsealed the day before our broadcast she names Wayne Ryan as the individual. He was, of course, her predecessor at Noyes and the person she reported to directly at DCPS. Back in May 2011, Cothorne filed a ‘whistleblower’ action with the US Department of Education alleging widespread cheating and, therefore, fraudulent awards of federal funding. However, on the afternoon before our broadcast the Department of Education’s Inspector General reported that she had not found cheating by adults and therefore the Department of Justice would not pursue Cothorne’s case. Her full complaint can be found here (.pdf).  In it she names the DCPS officials she says she spoke to. We have not be able to contact those men, and DCPS claims it has no records of phone calls from Cothorne. Cothorne’s attorney says that one call was made on Cothorne’s cell phone and that she has supporting documentation.)

At Noyes, however, she was in charge of the building itself. I asked her to talk about the coming DC-CAS. Here’s our conversation:

JOHN MERROW: You, as principal of the school, had something to say about the DC-CAS and security. And did you do anything to make sure that DC-CAS would be a secure test?
ADELL COTHORNE: Yes. So I did speak with downtown, and– on a regular basis, after I witnessed what I saw earlier in the year, I had ongoing conversations with downtown. “Don’t forget, when DC-CAS comes around, I need extra, you know, monitors. I need some other people besides my staff in the building to ensure that everything is okay.”
And at that point, downtown was more willing to help because the USA Today article had come out, and so Noyes had gotten lots of publicity about an erasure scandal. So when CAS came around in 2011, I did have two extra people from downtown to help monitor to– the test, and then I had another two extra people who helped with, you know, having the test checked in to make sure all the tests came in. We had locks changed on doors so that myself and my assistant principal were the only two people that had the key to the room to get in to testing. No one– the test coordinator did not have it. No one else had the keys.
JOHN MERROW: So are you convinced that that DC-CAS in the spring of your year there, that that was a secure test?
ADELL COTHORNE: I would honestly say that was a secure test.
JOHN MERROW: So you– you’re certain there were no erasures on that test?
ADELL COTHORNE: Now, I cannot be certain because I did not stay at the school 24 hours (LAUGH) a day. But while I was there, and what I saw, I do think it was a secure test.

With heightened security, Noyes’ DC-CAS scores dropped 52 points in reading (from 84.21% in 2009 to 32.40%) and 34 points in math (from 62.79% to 28.17%). In fact, in 2010-2011 Noyes performed below its 2007, pre-Rhee, level.

JOHN MERROW: How do you explain the drop?
ADELL COTHORNE: Those were the true test scores.
JOHN MERROW: I’m sorry?
ADELL COTHORNE: Those were the true test scores, in my opinion. Those were what the students in that school actually were able to produce.

Take note, readers. The decline at Noyes was not an exception among ‘high erasure’ schools. At the 14 schools with erasure rates of 50% or higher, scores declined at 12, often precipitously, after security was tightened. For example, reading scores at Aiton fell from 58.43% in 2007-2008 to 20.80%; in math from 57.87% to 16%. Reading scores at Raymond went from 70% to 42.44%, while its math score dropped from 68% to 45.71%.

By the time the 2010-2011 DC-CAS was administered, everyone knew of the widespread erasures, thanks to USA Today’s brilliant and thorough investigation. Rhee was gone by then, but, under public pressure, Rhee’s successor asked DC’s Inspector General to investigate. He began at Noyes, where he had little success. Cothorne told Frontline, “At first, they tried to interview staff members after school, but then staff members would find a reason not to be interviewed.”

JOHN MERROW: Why would teachers play cat and mouse?
ADELL COTHORNE: That would be speculation, but I guess they had something that they didn’t want to be forthcoming.

Of course, Cothorne expected to be questioned. After all, she had filed a complaint, and Noyes was the epicenter of the story.

JOHN MERROW: Were you interviewed?
ADELL COTHORNE: No, I was not.
JOHN MERROW: Why weren’t you interviewed?
ADELL COTHORNE: Again, my speculation, they didn’t want to hear what I had to say.

The Inspector General spent 17 months but investigated only one school, Noyes. Oddly, he did not examine data from 2007-2008, the year with the largest number of erasures but looked only at Rhee’s second and third years. At Noyes, the IG finally managed to interview 32 school personnel–but not Cothorne–and 23 parents. He reported finding a number of problems with test security but on the issue of Noyes personnel erasing answer sheets, “investigators found no evidence to corroborate these allegations.”

The Inspector General would not agree to an interview with Frontline.

Linda Mathews, the lawyer/journalist who supervised the USA Today investigation, told Frontline that , if one of her reporters had submitted a report like the one compiled by DC’s Inspector General, “I’d fire him on the spot.”

I asked Cothorne if she understood why an administrator or teacher might be tempted to cheat?

ADELL COTHORNE: Absolutely.
JOHN MERROW: Explain.
ADELL COTHORNE: Pressure. There’s pressure from central office to raise test scores. And that pressure is given to principals. And it is very clearly explained to you, not only in D.C., but many other school systems, your job is tied to test scores. Increase test scores. Period.

JOHN MERROW: Did you think there were people who, you know, outside of school, above the school, who knew something was wrong and maybe didn’t want to know?
ADELL COTHORNE: Not that they didn’t want to know, they wanted to keep their jobs. So I think that they knew, and, you know, because of the economic times that we’re in, decided to go along.
JOHN MERROW: Do you think that was widespread?
ADELL COTHORNE: In my opinion, yes.

I ask you to pay special attention to the next section of this piece.

Playing Devil’s Advocate, I suggested that changing a few answers was a victimless crime. She nearly jumped from her chair.

ADELL COTHORNE: No, it’s not a victimless crime. There are many victims. There are thousands of victims. It’s the students that are the victims.
JOHN MERROW: How?
ADELL COTHORNE: Someone is putting forth a picture that you are able to do something that you have no capability of doing. And so you keep moving to these different levels and the next person’s saying, “Oh, Janie can read on a fifth grade level and she can do fifth grade math.”
And Janie gets into your sixth grade middle school class, Janie can’t read, ‘See the dog run down the street.’ Janie can’t do the math. And so Janie becomes frustrated, because you are putting these sixth grade expectations on her and she has first grade ability. So then what happens to Janie? She waits her time, and when she’s 16 she’s out.

Although Cothorne became disillusioned with Michelle Rhee, she suggested that the problem went beyond the Chancellor. To Cothorne, Rhee was swept up in the national obsession with test scores everywhere, created by the 2001 federal No Child Left Behind law.

She described it in these words: “(I)nstruction shuts down in February because you have to do test prep from February until the test. So instruction in many districts was already shaky in the beginning, and now you’re basically shutting down all instruction in February to do all of this test prep. Because for many administrators and many school districts, it’s as important to make sure that kid knows how to take the test than it is, ‘Did they truly learn the content?’ “

Because Cothorne is also the mother of a young child, she also sees education from a parent’s perspective. She talked about that in our interview.

ADELL COTHORNE: My frustration as a parent is that education as a whole has lost the ability of students to be natural learners. No Child Left Behind has put in the caveat that every kid must get it by Tuesday at 2:00, and if you have an IEP, we’ll give you until 2:15. But at 2:15 we’re moving on.
And you’ve got to get it. So children who need a little more processing time, children who may be able to give you the idea, but they have to write a song about it, or they have to create a picture about, (but) … when the rubber meets the road, it’s not about differentiation at the end of the day. That teacher is judged on, ‘What scores did those children get on that test?’

And that test doesn’t look at, ‘Could you sing the information?’ or ‘Could you create a poem?’ It looks at, ‘Could you write a short essay and could you bubble in the right answer?’ So that has been the focus. How do they pass that test? Not ‘Did they learn anything?’ but ‘Are they able to pass numerous tests?’ Because we test all year long.

Adell Cothorne, a dedicated educator who was completing work on her doctorate, resigned her principalship and gave up a reported annual salary of roughly $130,000. She has opened up a bakery, “Cooks ‘n Cakes,” in Ellicott City, Maryland, surely a gamble in these difficult economic times.

I hope it’s a rousing success. When you stop by (to buy), please congratulate her on her courage.


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But Who Will Design The Robots?

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In one of his always interesting “Disruptions” column in the New York Times, Nick Bilton held forth on how robots are replacing workers at Amazon and elsewhere. These robots, a researcher at Johns Hopkins told Bilton, “will help augment people’s abilities, allowing us to use robots for things humans cannot do.” And, the Hopkins guy adds, we will always “have to have someone who builds the robots.”

Columnist Bilton is upset for the workers who will lose their jobs, but his column is also a wake-up call. I read it as an implicit critique of a narrow curriculum that puts aside just about anything that encourages the imagination in favor of ‘the basics,’ meaning basic reading and basic math.

Stressing the basics is no way to make sure that we will produce people to design, build and operate robots, or create the future in other ways. We need schools that encourage the imagination, that allow and support deep learning, and that fan the sparks of creativity — not stomp out the fires.

EdTech
In the East Bay, new approaches to education are taking shape.

However, a narrow and unimaginative curriculum is not a new phenomenon. Just as armies are supposedly spending their time getting ready to fight the last war, many schools and colleges seem to focus on preparing young people for the day before yesterday — and have been doing so for a long time.

I have some direct experience in this. In the late 1960s, I taught for two years at a historically Black public college, Virginia State, in Petersburg, Virginia. For a privileged young white man from New England, it was a life-changing experience.

One sociological lesson stuck with me. The college stressed vocational training for its students, most of whom were the first in their families to attend college. While some studied to become chefs and barbers, a very popular major involved computers, which at the time were still pretty new. These students were being trained to be key-punch operators! (Ask your parents!!) It didn’t take a wizard to know that, in a very short time, absolutely no one would be able to make a living as a key-punch operator, but that didn’t slow down the training program. Disrupting that assembly line would have required more than foresight; it would have meant sticking one’s neck out and challenging the comfortable status quo –remember, this was Southside Virginia, not a safe place for African-Americans to challenge the system. Easier and safer to prepare students for yesterday than to make waves and risk one’s own career.

I’ve often wondered what happened to those young men and women. I hope they found other work, and other opportunities to learn new skills.

What about today? Not only are we not challenging the status quo of ‘basic education,’ we seem to be cutting to the bone and getting rid of ‘frills’ like the arts. While I am hearing and reading stories about larger classes and fewer ‘non-essential’ programs in lots of places, Texas seems to be leading the way in cutting education (big surprise).

But, wake up, folks. The arts are basic, as this report from Florida demonstrates. Some of you may have seen our piece for the NewsHour on this topic:

So what do we do about a narrow, boring curriculum and the failing schools that generally seem to accompany that approach? It takes courage to challenge the runaway train of the current approach. As the metaphor suggests, standing in front of a train is not a recipe for a long life. The money and the power are with the status quo.

Some corporations are getting involved, although maybe not as a direct challenge. If you watched the Masters Golf tournament, you saw ExxonMobil commercials about improving America’s competitive position in math and science. That company’s foundation has spent millions on math and science education. (I also liked that many of the ads said ‘Support our Teachers,’ a too-rare message these days.)

Better news comes from San Francisco. Some high tech entrepreneurs there are resisting school-as-usual and getting their hands dirty trying to change things. Right now they seem to be involved because they have children of their own, but let’s hope they are intent on helping other people’s children as well. Let’s hope these interesting approaches to schooling become models, not just boutique luxury items for the privileged.

Cursing the darkness never did anybody any good. Let’s celebrate — and copy — those who are lighting candles to show us the way.

The Super Bowl, A Sea of Media and Control

Several seemingly unrelated subjects have been floating around in my head lately.  The first involves New Orleans, a city that’s gone crazy about its football team’s first appearance in the Super Bowl on Sunday, February 7th.

Saints

Some school districts and private and parochial schools around New Orleans have canceled school for the Monday after the game, reasoning that most students would be partying hard all weekend and wouldn’t show up anyway.

Call me an old fogey, but I find closing schools to be irresponsible behavior on the part of the adults. Are the 2nd, 3rd and 4th graders going to be worn out from partying? What are working parents supposed to do, or are they also exempt from going to work?

Worse, however, the educators are bypassing a remarkable teachable moment, a chance to connect learning with the city’s obsession with the Saints. Continue reading

Race to the Top: A New “Diet” for Schools?

To understand the Race to the Top, think of Education Secretary Arne Duncan as a diet doctor and public education systems as obese, out of shape individuals in need of a better nutrition program.  But here’s the catch: state-controlled school systems are not Secretary Duncan’s children. They are independent adults, and ‘Dr. Duncan’ can’t just order them to eat better and work out regularly. He has to cajole and entice them into behavior that he is certain is in their best interest.  And so he’s offering rewards ($4.35 billion) to those who come up with the best ‘diet’ of education reforms.Arne Duncan

Make no mistake about the educational shape our schools are in—it’s bad!  More than one million students drop out of school every year, costing the economy billions of dollars. International comparisons are downright embarrassing.  Only 1.3 percent of our 15-year-olds scored at the highest level of mathematical proficiency, putting us 24th out of 30 nations participating in PISA, the Program for International Student Assessment.  By contrast, 9.1 percent of Korean and 6 percent of Czech 15-year-olds scored at the highest level.

Duncan believes he knows how states can shape up.  For openers, they have to step on a reliable scale.  In education, that means a transparent data system that tracks students’ progress throughout their school years, and it means common standards, so that everyone is using the same weight measures.  (Today each state chooses its tests and decides what constitutes passing.)

His plan for better nutrition, educationally speaking, includes a diet of charter schools, publicly funded but independently run institutions.

Losing weight requires more than better food.  Serious dieters also work out sensibly, focusing on the parts of the body that need attention.  In the gym, one might use the Stairmaster to tone up the legs and thighs and free weights to develop upper body strength; in education, that means putting the best teachers in the lowest performing schools.  It means paying the best teachers more money.

Another key to getting in shape is getting rid of bad habits, whether it’s smoking, snacking or eating a big dessert just before bedtime.  The bad habit that education’s diet doctor wants eliminated is the failing school.  Duncan wants states to close down their persistently bad schools, perhaps as many as 5,000 of them across the country, and reopen them only when there’s a serious plan for improvement.

Most states have just submitted their ‘diets’ to Washington, which will review them and decide which deserve a big reward. This spring some states could receive as much as $700 million.

But winners won’t get the money all at once.  Duncan plans to monitor their ‘diets’ over the next several years and will dole out the money only to states that stick to their promised education reforms.

Will Arne Duncan’s nutrition plan, his ‘Race to the Top,’ be successful?  Will school systems across the country lose weight and get in better (educational) shape?  If it does, it will be the exception to the rule, because, as nearly all of us know from personal experience, most diets fail.

Teaching for America or Learning on the Job?

To what extent is classroom teaching a skill?  How long does it take to learn those skills, and is there a best way to learn them?

Teaching for AmericaThese are important questions at any time, but I submit they are of particular importance today, with Teach for America (and other alternative routes into the classroom) growing in popularity.

No doubt about Teach for America’s ascendancy.  During the presidential campaign both candidates spoke favorably about the program, and President Obama often speaks highly of it.  Continue reading

5 Ways to Change the Status Quo: Interview with Phillip Kovacs

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that I’ve been interviewing a lot of folks who are well known in education, Debbie Meier, Margaret Spellings, Diane Ravitch, Pat Callan and others. Many readers have posted comments, which I read with interest. Sometimes I wonder about the writers, and sometimes I reach out.

This post came from my interest in one reader’s comments to my recent post on innovation in schools.  His name is Philip Kovacs, and he’s a former high school English teacher who now teaches would-be teachers at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. I also know that he has a PhD in Educational Policy Studies, a 6 month-old son, and some strong convictions about public education. (The latter is the focus of the interview, although the proud new Dad manages to work his son into the conversation a couple of times).

The Interview

So tell me what you believe, and why.

In my dissertation I argue for keeping public schools public, but after four years working with local public schools, I’m open to alternatives. I am now working on starting a project-based lab school.

How did you find Learning Matters?

The More things ChangeIt was research into the Gates Foundation that brought me to your website in the first place. The Foundation funds an unbelievable number of projects, some of which argue against one another, though the larger of the funded organizations agree on key points, none of which, in my humble opinion, are very innovative. I do not, for the record, think Bill Gates is controlling your content!

I am now editing a book about the Gates Foundation’s involvement in educational reform. I am 100% sure that the edited volume is going to anger the educational “right” and “left.”

You sound as if you want to anger both ends of the spectrum.

I guess I do, now that you mention it. Three years ago I helped about 30 scholars, teachers, and other concerned individuals create and post a petition calling for an end to No Child Left Behind. Continue reading

The Road Not Traveled: Tracking Charter Schools Movement

On the back page of Education Week this week is my essay about charter schools, including a trip down memory lane back to the meeting in Minnesota in 1988 where the dream took shape. I hope all of you will go over to Ed Week’s website to read it (subscription required), but, before you do, bear with me because the ground keeps shifting under this movement, even as many things remain the same.

I’d like to raise two issues: 1) quality control and 2) persistent opposition.

Charter Schools & The Roads Diverging

For one thing, the Obama Administration is embracing charter schools (or ‘chartered schools’) with great enthusiasm. Now, it’s true that Education Secretary Arne Duncan adds a qualification, saying that they support ‘good charter schools,’ but that strikes me as, for the moment anyway, an empty distinction, largely because of an absence of ways of measuring quality.

It’s true that egregiously bad charters get shut down, but mediocre ones keep plugging along, doing just as much damage to kids as mediocre public schools. But what the charter school proponents don’t seem to realize is that these mediocre institutions are also damaging ‘the movement.’ I’ve heard them (and you know who you are!) say that mediocre public schools aren’t punished, as if that justifies not closing mediocre charter schools! It doesn’t, precisely because the charter school advocates are claiming to be different.

I think that charter schools risk becoming like schools of education if they aren’t careful. How many of the 1400 or so schools and colleges of education are excellent? Continue reading

What’s Innovation? Clear Goals, Training & Accountability Are a Good Start

I’ve just returned from Doha, Qatar for the first-ever WISE, the World Innovation Summit for Education. For three days we talked about innovation. Is technology an essential component of innovation? I found myself wondering what produces innovation in education—in teaching actually. And it occurs to me that, unless one happens to be sadistic or off the charts antisocial, all of us are, on certain occasions, innovative teachers. At those moments, we are wonderful role models of what our education system ought to be striving to emulate. And our motivation is a combination of self-interest and basic human decency.

Driving DirectionsYou’re not a teacher, you say? OK, neither am I by profession, but sometimes we are put in that role. Imagine you’re walking in your neighborhood when a stranger stops her car, rolls down the window, and asks for directions to a local restaurant. You know the place she’s asking about, so you immediately begin figuring out how to explain it to her.

You are, for the moment, her teacher, she your pupil. Continue reading

Better Late than Never: WISE Awards Report Back

**We ran into some snafus with live posting, so some of my report backs didn’t make it up.  I think you’ll enjoy them anyway, so here’s one from the WISE Awards ceremony held on the second day of the conference.**

Here in Doha at WISE, the World Innovation Summit for Education, six groups were recognized for innovation, sustainability or pluralism. I managed to snag interviews with five winners.  Martin Burt’s project in Paraguay, ‘the Self Sufficient School,’ seeks to enable the poor to make a living while living on the land. As he told me, “Experts talk about ‘eliminating poverty,’ but that’s too abstract. I’m talking about putting money in the hands of the poor, money they have earned.”

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I had a lively conversation with Joyce Dongotey-Padi of Ghana, whose project, known as WANE (Widows Alliance Network), aims to emancipate Ghanaian widows from the social, cultural and economic deprivation brought about by the prejudices they face because of their status. Ms. Dongotey-Padi is not a widow herself but was moved to act when a neighbor and friend became widowed and found herself virtually helpless and penniless.

I also talked with the Executive Director of Curriki, Dr. Barbara (Bobbi) Kurshan, and soon will put up an interview with her colleague Peter Levy.  Curriki’s name comes from ‘Curriculum’ and Wikipedia’ and is meant to suggest free, user generated curriculum for teachers.  Pretty neat stuff that is deservedly catching on and now has about 100,000 participants, almost all of them teachers.

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The project to educate girls and women in India, Nanhi Kali, caught my attention.  It began in 1996 but didn’t really take off until recently.  It now reaches 52,000 girls across 8 states in India, up from just 1700 girls in 2002.  Its stated goal is to reach 100,000 girls by the end of this year, but its real goal is to change the social attitudes that devalue girls and women.  Ms. Sheetal Mehta was at WISE representing the project, and her energy and optimism jump off the screen.

Unfortunately I did not get to talk with representatives of the two other projects but both are worth your attention.  Escuela Nueva in rural Colombia uses collaborative learning to transform the traditional classroom and promote entrepreneurial skills. It was initiated in 1975 in rural Colombia in response to endemic educational problems like high dropout rates, weak school-community relationships, ineffective teacher training and the lack of children’s learning materials.

The second one I missed is a successful distance learning project in the Amazon forest, where many small towns and villages are accessible only by boat.  It was launched in 2007 by the Secretariat of Education and Learning Quality of Amazonas State and today transmits live classes via a two-way videoconference link to 25,000 students in 300 secondary schools and 700 classrooms, throughout the 62 county districts. A teacher is also located in each classroom to support local activities.

The awards were formally presented at the gala Tuesday night by Her Royal Highness Sheika Mozah Bint Nasser Al-Missned.  Each project received $20,000.   The first WISE Awards attracted 500 entries, and I was told that the judges could have honored many more projects than they did, so expect an even bigger splash next year.

In Qatar: Interview with WISE Chairman, Dr. Abdulla bin Ali Al-Thani

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Dr. Abdulla bin Ali Al-Thani is the Chairman of WISE and Vice President for Education of the Qatar Foundation.  Dr. Abdulla knows the United States well, having gone to graduate school at Colorado State University. I spent a few minutes with this soft-spoken, focused and optimistic leader on the first day of WISE.  He was very clear about his high hopes for the event.

Not on the tape but revealing: When Dr. Abdulla learned that I live in California, his face lit up.  He told me with great excitement about the time he and a cousin rented motorcycles, took a 1-hour driving lesson, and then drove down our Route One from Big Sur down to Santa Barbara.  He told his parents, he confessed, only after the trip had concluded successfully.