Tag Archives: School reform

An Interview with Dennis Shirley: The 100th Anniversary Issue of the Lead the Change Series

This week’s post features an interview with Dennis Shirley, is Professor of Education at the Lynch School of Education and Human Development, author most recently of The New Imperatives of Educational Change:  Achievement with Integrity. This 100th Anniversary issue is one of a set of interviews this year in which previous interviewees in the Lead the Change (LtC) Series review their previous responses and consider how they might modify/ adjust/add to what they wrote based on their experiences and insights since publication. The fully formatted interview can be found on the LtC website of the Educational Change Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association.

LtC: How, and in what ways, has your work evolved since the first publication of this piece? What ideas/points still hold true? Which might you revise?

Dennis Shirley: Since I published my original contribution in Lead the Change in 2012, I have studied school networks and innovations in the US, Canada, Germany, Norway, and South Korea.  This research shows just how transformative joint work by educators across schools and systems can be. In the original 2012 contribution, I was most enthusiastic about community organizing for educational change; since then, however, I have seen how community organizations can be co-opted by powerful corporations and their philanthropic agencies. In one particularly egregious case, a community organizing effort in a struggling inner-city high school that had shown signs of improvement led to half of the school being turned over to a charter management organization. The irony here was that the traditional public school continued improving and the charter school part did not in spite of generous philanthropic support. So, there is good and bad community organizing, and I’m more discriminating about promoting that model now.

The one statement that stands out the most for me from my previous piece is “Educators can help to allay nationalist anxieties that have been exploited in times of economic insecurity.” I wish I had stated that point more emphatically in my 2012 Lead the Change submission, given all that has happened since then with the rise of authoritarian populism and contemporary political polarization. I also wish I had been more outspoken about the challenge of climate change and situated that more centrally in contemporary curriculum reform. Finally, at the time of the submission, I was optimistic about the capacity of policy makers to attend to important research findings and to integrate them into their strategies, but now it is apparent that the educational profession will have to find other ways to influence governments than evidence alone, so that political advocacy and coalition-building must become more central components of our professional identities.

LtC: What do these shifts suggest to you about the field of educational change more broadly?

DS: On the one hand, the field of educational change is a small enterprise in what Amitai Etzioni once called the “semi-professional” of teaching, so we have little impact on our large and often unwieldy school systems.  On the other hand, I think we’ve done a good job punching above our weight and nudging systems in good directions, given the magnitude of the challenges that confront us. Even though the larger political environment is marked by

increased insularity in many countries, including my own, I’m encouraged by the overall tenor of our profession and by educators’ determination to question dangerous political ideologies and their ramifications for our students. Because younger generations are less nostalgic for an idealized past, more curious and open to interactions with others from different cultures, and more concerned about climate change than older generations, we have reason for optimism about the future. New technologies are helpful here, by providing for ease of communication and by enabling students to learn how to check facts and to distinguish conspiracy theories from evidence.  I would like to see these tools used more intentionally and skillfully in our schools—which does not mean that we should be blind to the dangerous aspects of the Internet and social media.

“The righteous indignation of youth at the condition of the world they are inheriting deserves honest acknowledgment and continual encouragement.”

What most excites you about the direction of the field of educational change is going? What are the future research directions that should be addressed in the field of educational change?

Several years ago, I was alarmed by the rise of nationalism and decided that it was time to create an on-line masters’ degree program called “Global Perspectives: Teaching, Curricula, and Learning Environments” at the Lynch School of Education and Human Development at Boston College. I credit this program with providing some of the richest and most rewarding cross-cultural encounters and exchanges I’ve ever experienced. It’s one thing to read about teaching strategies in different places; it’s quite another to have an on-line class with students from Kenya, Nigeria, Germany, Korea, and the US in their classrooms all around the world engaging in spirited debates with one another. Contrary to my worries, students quickly bonded with one another and shared lesson plans and assessment tools in a spirit of collegial generosity. I hope these kinds of experiences both on and off-line will help to promote a new movement of fundamental human solidarity in our schools and societies that will overcome the regrettable tendency to stigmatize outsiders and to impute negative motives to them when none exist. “Love of your country is a beautiful thing,” the cellist Pablo Casals once said, “but why should the love stop at the border?”

LtC: What advice might you have for those interested in affecting change and improvement?

DS: The major piece of advice I would give to anyone entering educational change today would be to avoid the temptation of groupthink. Too often in education, we fall into a kind of mindless parroting of whatever the research du jour is.  Think of the “self-esteem movement,” “emotional intelligence,” “multiple intelligences,” and “growth mindsets,” for example. Each of these ideas spawned a cottage industry of professional development workshops that became all the rage in our schools for years. Eventually, however, it was shown that while each development effort had some basis in fact, each easily became open to misinterpretation and often was implemented in ways damaging for positive youth development. Right now, we are in the midst of a fascination with social and emotional learning in the US (generally referred to well-being elsewhere). I encourage all of us to distinguish between what is positive in this new trend and will help our young people to flourish, and that which is silly happy-talk.  The young know when they are being patronized and appreciate honesty and direct feedback more than we give them credit for. There are serious social and ecological crises that await a rising generation, and the righteous indignation of youth at the condition of the world they are inheriting deserves honest acknowledgment and continual encouragement.

“I would like to see the field of educational change take up this climate challenge in our schools seriously and sustainably.”

LtC: What are the future research directions that should be addressed in the field of educational change?

Political philosopher Hannah Arendt once wrote that “Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it.”  Do we love the world, in this specific sense?  I’m not so sure. Confronting the magnitude of the climate change crisis upon us, I can’t help wondering if we’ve been overlooking some fundamental realities about our human condition:  That we are embodied, that we are interdependent with nature, that we exist in a historical chronology in which we are reliant upon one another for sustenance and shelter. It seems we have been evading these ontological truths, have become caught up in other transient pursuits, and now are having to confront our essential contingency in a planet of breathtaking beauty that we have taken for granted and exploited shamelessly. It’s time for a major pivot for all of us. I would like to see the field of educational change take up this climate challenge in our schools seriously and sustainably.

ABOUT THE LTC SERIES: The Lead the Change series, featuring renowned educational change experts from around the globe, serves to highlight promising research and practice, to offer expert insight on small- and large-scale educational change, and to spark collaboration within the Educational Change SIG; Kristin Kew, Chair; Mireille Hubers; Program Chair; Na Mi Bang, Secretary/Treasurer; Jennie Weiner, LtC Series Editor; Alexandra Lamb, Production Editor

Bringing Effective Instructional Innovation to Scale through Social Movement in Mexico and Colombia

As part of a symposium focused on educational innovation around the world  at the annual conference of the American Educational Assocation in Chicago next week, we are sharing commentary papers from the participants.  Today’s contribution is from Santiago Rincón-Gallardo, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. 

 

The Learning Community Project (LCP) in Mexico and Escuela Nueva in Colombia are examples of effective instructional innovation at scale. When I talk about instructional innovation I refer to pedagogical principles and practices that deliberately disrupt the traditional instructional culture and power relations of schooling. More specifically, an instructional innovation is one that radically redefines the instructional core by deliberately shifting the relationships between teachers and students in the presence of content.

Learning Community Project (LCP)

In the LCP, for example, students select their topics of study from the available collection of topics mastered by a tutor in the group, they develop individual lines of inquiry at their own pace, and are expected to demonstrate their learning in writing and in public presentations to the group and often to the larger community. Once they master a topic, they are expected to become tutors to other students – and even to adults in the group. The boundary between teachers and students becomes blurry, with teachers becoming students and students becoming teachers depending on who masters a particular topic and who is interested in learning it. Tutorial relationships are the key technology to encourage deep learning in these learning communities: the tutor and tutee engage in one-on-one dialogue to make evident what the tutee already knows about a topic, identify areas of struggle, and to crafts questions or point to additional materials so that the the tutee t can come up with her own answers.

Escuela Nueva

Escuela Nueva in Colombia transforms the conventional culture and structure of schooling into a learner-centered participatory model with a flexible promotion mechanism that allows students to move from one grade to another and complete academic units at their own pace. In these multi-grade schools, children work individually and in small groups using learning guides that are by design interactive and dialogue-based as well as learning materials available whenever needed in a “Learning Corner.” Students help each other when they struggle, and ask the teacher for suggestions or comments when necessary. Individual mastery and cooperation are seamlessly integrated into every classroom activity. Teachers constantly move from group to group, tailoring their one-on-one and group interventions to the emerging needs in the classroom. Community participation and a student school government are integrated in the everyday activities of the school, offering multiple opportunities to practice and master democratic behaviors and values.

Innovation, effectiveness, and spread

These are examples of instructional innovation in action. They have radically redefined the instructional core. But innovation per se is meaningless if it doesn’t deepen and improve student learning. Both the LCP and Escuela Nueva have demonstrated significant improvements in student performance on national standardized tests, even though standardized tests have not been their area of focus. Learning Community schools increased in 3 years the percentage of students achieving good and excellent levels in language and math at a faster pace than the national average (DGDGIE, 2012), whereas in the 1990s Escuela Nueva students – mostly from rural schools – consistently outperformed their better-off counterparts in urban schools (Psacharopoulos, Rojas & Velez 1992).

And maybe more importantly, these two models, have spread from a handful to thousands of schools at some point in time. In 2012, LCP model was operating in 9000 public schools across Mexico. In the 1980s, Escuela Nueva had been adopted as national policy and reached 20,000 rural schools in Colombia. These initiatives are similar in their genesis and development to social movements. Upon witnessing powerful learning themselves and observing clear improvements in the learning and engagement of their students, teachers and local educational authorities have mobilized in coordination with project leaders to activate social networks, spread interest and gain support. Leaders of both projects have been able to gain access to institutional power and political influence to disseminate the new pedagogies on a large scale. Dalila López and Gabriel Cámara, historical leaders of the LCP were invited in 2009 to the Department of Innovation at the Mexican Ministry of Education and once there brought in several project leaders to her team. Vicky Colbert, co-founder of Escuela Nueva, was Deputy Minister of Education in Colombia when Escuela Nueva was adopted as a national policy, she also brought to her team teacher leaders with strong experience on instructional innovation. Once in power, these two guiding coalitions developed a progressive partnership between policy and practice, rather than the conventional top-down separation that has characterized education policy in Latin America and abroad . Across the system, project participants, regardless of their formal role in the institution, were expected to practice and model the new pedagogies on a regular basis. 

Conditions and challenges for innovation and spread

Here are, in a nutshell 5 key conditions that were created to enable the large-scale dissemination of the new pedagogies advanced through the LCP and Escuela Nueva.

1) developing a new pedagogy that allows teachers to experience powerful learning themselves and to witness observable improvements in the knowledge, skills and attitudes of their students as a result of changing their practice

2) creating access to multiple opportunities to observe, practice, and refine the new pedagogy (e.g., classroom-based coaching, communities of practice, and school visits/exchanges);

3) gaining the support or permission from local educational authorities to depart from conventional schooling practices

4) starting at the margins of the educational system, where the needs are greatest and the presence of institutional controls over the everyday activities of schools is weaker. This offers tremendous opportunities to radically depart from conventional practice

5) creating a guiding coalition of pedagogical change leaders with access to institutional power and political support to protect and expand the influence of the innovation

A key limitation to the large-scale instructional innovation approach just presented is that it is subject to marginalization or disappearance from the policy arena when there are drastic shifts in the political agenda. This has been the case in both the LCP and Escuela Nueva. At the pinnacle of their success, changes in administration and in system priorities resulted in the departure of the national leadership of these projects from their respective Ministries of Education.

Bureaucratization, ritualization or mechanization of the original model is also a risk when the innovation is brought to scale too quickly, a phenomenon that has been observed in the two cases in question. In both cases, the work to sustain the movements of pedagogical change spurred by these projects and to ensure quality of their core pedagogical practices has continued through NGOs formed by the former leaders of LCP and Escuela Nueva. As is often the case with social movements, their visibility may be reduced for now, but they continue to cultivate a movement that is radically redefining teaching and learning in public schools. In this new phase, the model of dissemination at scale will have to rely more on the power of effective networks to consolidate and spread the new pedagogies reliably and at scale than on formal access to institutional power.

Lockout and reform: A turbulent year for schools in Denmark

Jakob Wandall

Jakob Wandall

As the school year begins again in Denmark, we asked education researcher and consultant Jakob Wandall to take a look back at the lockout that closed the schools last March, review the key disagreements that led to the standoff, and consider the implications for the upcoming school year and beyond.

In Denmark, the month of March is usually the most intense period of time in the school year as teachers and students prepare for final examinations; however, this past year was an exception as schools were closed. The Municipalities Association (KL), backed by the center-left government, closed the schools in an effort to dismantle long-standing teacher privileges that the teachers’ union refused to concede in negotiations. The 99 municipalities in Denmark are responsible for running the public schools.

In the first days of April, the four-week “lockout” of teachers came to an end, but as a result, schools are now valued even more highly by the more than 600,000 pupils and about 60,000 teachers who were affected.

The standoff between the Municipalities Association (KL) and the Danish Teachers’ Union (DLF) raised questions about the viability of the so-called “Danish model” on the public sector labor market, which is largely governed by collective agreements between employers and trade unions, relative equals in negotiations. These two parties are accustomed to reaching agreements without the need for the national government to step in through legislation.

Danish teachers protest during teacher lockout.

Danish teachers protest during teacher lockout.

This dispute arose because the main teachers’ union did not want to give up the principles upon which working hours were regulated. A full-time teacher taught approximately 25 class periods per week (45 minutes per lesson), unless it was decided that the teacher should perform other tasks (e.g. administrative work, guidance of pupils, further education). This equals approximately 19 teaching hours, and a total of 41 working hours per workweek. This pre-lockout arrangement resulted in schedules that consisted of less than 40% of working hours spent teaching, and no obligation for teachers to be present at school during the remaining working hours. Historically, this schedule represented the belief that teachers had a right to work independently on planning and organization.

According to the Danish model if the parties cannot come to an agreement and further negotiations seems useless, there are four possibilities: the prior agreement could be prolonged, the union could strike, the employers could institute a lockout, or the government/parliament could intervene through legislation as a last resort. The idea behind the strike/lockout is that this should hurt both sides: employers lose production and the workers lose wages. In the public sector, where there is loss of production, there is a greater risk for local politicians as the population could turn against them. In this case, there were several unsuccessful attempts by KL to dismantle the existing working time agreement with the teachers prior to the ultimate lockout of March of 2013.

While Danish students usually go to school from about 8 AM to 1 PM and often attend a publicly financed after-school club, the government and a large part of the opposition to the existing agreement wanted to extend the school day.  The additional time would be devoted to academic work and give less time for “free” play, which is something the Danes have always prioritized. Generally, the teachers were against this approach as well as the proposed changes to their workweek, which was viewed as a preliminary step to making the school day longer in the future. They wanted to solidify their right to a specific length of preparation time in a national agreement rather than leave it to local heads of school who may be pressured by budget considerations.

In the media, the government’s reform was presented as very popular; the general school debate over the last decade has been strongly influenced by mediocre PISA results. KL pointed to teachers’ working hours as the main cause of the PISA scores.

The teachers' union DLF, led by Anders Bondo Christensen (left), in grueling negotiations with Michael Ziegler (right) and KL (Photo: Scanpix)

The teachers’ union DLF, led by Anders Bondo Christensen (left), negotiated with Michael Ziegler (right) and KL (Photo: Scanpix)

At the start of the lockout, parents were faced with the prospect of no school and not knowing when it would start again. It was particularly awkward and difficult for the children. But the parents recruited grandparents, took vacation early or brought the kids along to their workplace as many companies established educational facilities or made space available for the kids. The vast majority in the population felt that this was a legitimate fight between municipalities and the teachers union, and that it should be fought without intervention.

On April 2nd, The Danish parliament passed a law that decided the terms and conditions of Danish teachers without consulting them. The DFL argued that the lockout was premature, heavy-handed, and unfairly one-sided in favor of the local authorities. The teachers union had lost the battle.

But what about the teachers? Many of them spent a month trying to mobilize support led by their trade union and used Facebook and email to show the Danes that they were against the action taken by KL. Most appeared to be delighted to get back to work, despite the general opposition to the agreement forced through by the government. After the conflict everyone worked together and the majority felt that there were no negative effects on cooperation inside the school. Many local governments and school leaders silently disapproved of the lockout. Despite the loss of one month, the mandatory tests and examinations were carried out according to plan. Whether the students have learned less will probably never be explored.

On June 8th 2013, the government and a majority of the opposition in the parliament agreed upon the details for a new plan for school reform. Beginning in August of 2014, the students in Denmark will be spending more time in school. At the same time the applications to teacher training colleges in Denmark has dropped dramatically and 1 out of 2 teachers in Denmark is considering leaving the profession.

The debate over whether this additional teaching time will lead to a better school and more proficient students is ongoing. Meanwhile, at this year’s annual Soroe Meeting (a traditional meeting that brings together those most familiar with pressing educational concerns, including members of parliament, educational journalists, civil servants, researchers, and others) invitees met to discuss leadership and preparation for change. This annual meeting has a strong impact on Danish educational policy, which makes this year’s theme (“Klar til fremtidens skole,” meaning  “Ready for the School of the Future”) of great interest to those concerned about what will happen with Denmark’s schools in the near future. While reporters in attendance do not write about what is discussed at this informal meeting, many attendees shared their experiences on Twitter.

For more information:

Denmark: School Reform

Photo: Klaus Holsting

Anders Bondo Christensen
Photo: Klaus Holsting

The latest school reform proposal in Denmark calls for a 25-hour workweek for teachers, inclusion education, measurable goals, and a collaborative discussion about teacher training. Despite the fact that the reform has controversial implications for wages, work hours, and professional development, Anders Bondo Christensen (chairman of the Danish Union of Teachers) has garnered the support of the majority of teachers. Christensen is now hoping that Education Minister Christine Antorini will see that the plan is close to the government’s objectives.

Education Minister Christine Antorini

Education Minister Christine Antorini

However, in a controversial move, Minister Antorini has just  introduced a large-scale study in which more than 3,500 students in a total of 200 schools will be taught in their native languages, including Arabic and Turkish. In a press release, Antorini said, “We want to know more about what helps develop the language skills and knowledge of bilingual students. The trials will use and strengthen the tools that some schools and councils already have available today.”

Danish People's Party Education Spokesperson, Alex Ahrendsten

Danish People’s Party Education Spokesperson, Alex Ahrendsten

Alex Ahrendtsen, Danish People’s Party education spokesman, expressed the his disapproval.  “I’m shocked,” he said. “In the midst of school talks, she allows such a bomb blast.It destroys a really suitable climate for negotiations.” Instead, Ahrendtsen would prefer to see greater efforts to include bilingual students in Danish culture.

Other Nordic countries are debating similar issues and are watching closely.

For more information:

Please consult links embedded in the scan above, as well as those listed below.

Primary School Gets Back Hours in Mother Tongue (link in Danish)

Broad Support for Bondo’s Teacher Initiative (link in Danish)

Liberal Alliance: High school test should not determine access to secondary education (in Danish)