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Fixing High School

Page history last edited by Michael J 12 years, 12 months ago




A Thinking Space about

Fixing the High School Education Situtation at the Bottom of the Pyramid 


Defining the problem

There is a general consensus that the High School system is not working at the Bottom of the Pyramid. Different actors see it in different ways. I am in the camp that sees it as a set of interlocking social systems that were designed and grew in response to 20th century problems that have outlived their ability to create value and are suboptimal in the 21st century.


Formal education grew to meet the needs of acculturating an agragrian population to an industrial society. As that task was accomplished it morphed to effectively channel various parts of the population into various societal roles. At a time when blue collar jobs were relatively plentiful and secure, the need to "educate" everyone was not only not necessary, it was potentially disruptive.  In the United States, after Sputnik made education a item of national pride and security, the education systems were optimized to locate and nurture the "best and the brightest." For the last forty years it has done that job tolerably well.


After the fall of the Berlin Wall that signalled the end of global political competition and the rapid expansion of a new era of global interconnection and competition that was less bounded by the Nation State construct, significant stress was applied to the education systems. As both a cause and an effect, the world is moving from a condition of information scarcity to various levels of information abundance. It is only reasonable to expect that since education is often seen as transferring the ability to manipulate and create information that far reaching changes are in the works.


The future is here, just not evenly distributed

For the last 30 years the incidence of changed educational behavior has been increasing. It is becoming common wisdom that the purpose of education is to create a population of life long learners. There is much practice, especially at the lower grades, that is consistent with this purpose. Different approaches seem to be working with different populations. As to be expected some of the best solutions thus far are at the top of the pyramid. I think it is fair to say that many of those practices are now moving to Middle of the Pyramid communities served by public institutions.


It is plausible to believe that with the passage of time this generational change will reach bottom of the pyramid populations. With the continuing presence of political pressure from the Bottom of the Pyramid, coupled with the economic pressures for a diverse more creative workforce coupled with increasing budgetary pressures on public institutions in the United States, it seems inevitable that policy makers will move to better, faster, cheaper solutions that will leverage the emerging information environment.


The problem of Bottom of the Pyramid High Schools today is that they are caught between the waves of generational change.

The High Schools are filled with many legacy systems struggling to meet changed and changing requirements. In the meantime, the life chances of millions of adolescents are at risk. From the societal point of view, these adolescents, if left to fend for themselves, will do what adolescents have done every where - be a source of potential disruption and unnecessary expenses in social services and the criminal justice system.


So framed, the problem is to discover and implement solutions that can mitigate the risks of the inter generation population while moving the High Schools to a practice that will build on the advances of the upcoming generations.


Trivial, non trivial but well defined, and hard problems.

There are trivial problems that are amenable to magic bullet solutions. Most often these occur at the personal level or very, very small group level. Hungry? deliver food. Tired? Sleep.  Trivial problems may still require lots of effort, but they are well defined and the resources are readily at hand.


Then there are non-trivial but well defined problems. These also most often occur at the personal level. Learn to play the piano, Using Photoshop, or learning to read are "difficult.", but the steps for any one person can be well defined and with appropriate management doable. Building a factory to produce a specific item can also be a non trivial but well defined problem.  Before they staturated their markets and conditions changed, installing  a Wal-Mart or Starbucks were non trivial but well defined problems.


Most important public problems are hard problems. They tend to be embedded in social systems that produce unintended consequences . Learning to read may be well defined for one student. Given the appropriate resources it can be solved. But managing a population of 30 or 300 to increase the incidence of learning to read requires a consideration of the social systems delivery of the resources and the unintended consequences of many decisions made by individual actors. In this sense it is a hard problem.


Fixing the Bottom of the Pyramid High School experience is a hard problem.

Since hard problems are by this defintion embedded in social activity spaces, possible tipping point changes are most likely when system incentives and constraints change. This is complimentary but different from focusing directly on the actors within that system.


One example is the recent publication of  letter grades for each school in New York City. The mere introduction of that metric has created new and potentially creative stresses in the social systems that define High School. The challenge is to encourage the constructive stress while mitigating the potential destructive stress that has been introduced.


A creative stress is one that encourages appropriate changes in behavior in the service of better overall results. From the student and parent points of view better results means a set of interlocking activites that more predictably lead to the production of citizens who are life long learners.   As grading in a classroom does not automatically lead to better student results, so the grading of schools, with no further interventions, will take too long to help the High School students at risk today.


Hard problems present within on the ground realities.

Based on recent experiences , one way that stress presents on the ground can be demoralizing for some committed players. Individual teachers who are trying the best they know how can become demoralized if they are in school that has received an C, D or F. As might be expected the most likely response is denial and discrediting the test results.  "What does the Dept know about what is happening on the ground?"  or "There are people at our school who are working very hard and students who are doing well." or "A single letter grade cannot capture the reality of our special situation."


The very condition of under-developed and/or dysfunctional school communication ecologies in the lowest performing schools make it unlikely that the grades, by themselves,  will be used to inform a different strategic approach.  The administrate leadership which is most likely to understand what the grade means does not have access to the correct use of  the tools that could be used to spread the appropriate understanding throughout the school community.


I have not seen direct evidence that school grades have led to increased pressure from parents, nor has it it created a useful discussion among either students or staff. It is plausible that it will create the conditions that will make the replacement of administrators more likely. But given the present incentive structures of present admin this is a process that will take a couple of years to play out. Unfortunately, it will do little to improve the experience of the present at risk students in upper grades of the system.


Effective interventions can only be determined within the specifics of the realities on the ground, but there are some general principles that can be used to judge alternative approaches.


Professional Learning Communities Work

One general idea is that the establishment of Professional Learning Communities is a well researched approach to improving student learning. In addition to the growing amount of research and evidence, it has the great advantage of being consistent with common sense. If the people who have the power to control the classroom experience have the time and culture to think about what they are doing, they will probably do it better.


Time and space to think are missing for admins, faculty and students at many schools.

Another general observation is that there is probably a direct relationships between the amount of thinking time that can be observed in a school environment and the quality of the learning that is added by the institution. Given the legacy organization of many school systems, thinking time and space for adminstration, faculty and even students can often be  in very, very short supply.


Interventions are most effective when implemented in real time.

Another principle is that response time of many of the systems is inadequate to deal with the real life needs of students, faculty or students. Processes built in the time of paper have been often replaced by "digital" communication systems. The problem is that many are merely "paving over cowpaths". The promise of increased efficiency is never realized because the overiding imperative has been maintenance of control as opposed to transparency and RTR - real time response.


That problem is especially important as the time/space of the lives of our at risk High School students is very fluid and fast. Timely interventions , like early detection of serious disease, allows small interventions that have big effects instead of expensive interventions that are less successful.


The best way to guide a practice of intervention is if process data is emitted from day one.

Legacy education systems tend to be filled with both personnel and processes that are very comfortable with speech acts. While this can be a great advantage, it sometimes can lead to words being mistaken for behavior that changes outcomes. Speech acts in the form of conversations, meeting proceedings, evidence of "teaching" inputs add little guidance to adjust behavior to make it more effective. Given the proven ability of process data to lead to fast process improvement, the effort required to integrate communication ecologies that emit data can be well worth it.



What can this mean on the ground?


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