Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Global Schools Revolution

A recent article in The
Economist makes a strong case that we are undergoing an international schools revolution. This has been made possible through data from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). They track student achievement at the OECD, a rich-country club, and the 2009 results, reviewed my consultants like McKinsey, are being used my educational leadership throughout the world. Their conclusions? There are four important themes: decentralization, a focus on underachieving individuals, a choice of different sorts of schools, and high standards for teaching.

First, decentralization. Take the case of Ontario. In 2003, instead of centralized reform, they encouraged schools to set their own targets and then get them experienced teams to help them get there. Even if this meant extending the school day, and especially focusing on lower achieving pupils, schools were given autonomy. Ontario’s results have made them the international leaders in decentralized reform efforts.

Second, focus on under-achieving pupils. Take Saxony, Germany as an example. They kept the selective gymnasium for the academically minded, but cut the Hauptschulen track (for the lower third), and raised expectations. When they opened up to external regulators for results, this combination of autonomy and accountability was powerful. Berlin is following suit.

Third, choice in schools is proving its muster. Even England, following America’s charter schools, is launching several Free Schools under Michael Gove’s (the Conservative education secretary leadership). The article argues “Diversity of supply in schools concentrates minds on what kind of teaching is best, particularly in challenging places.”

Fourth, and most fundamentally, high standards for teaching are at the center of all reform movements. Countries like Finland and South Korea recruit only elite graduates, and pay them accordingly. Mr Gove is planning on giving “golden hellos” to teachers in the science and languages, typical areas of teacher shortage. Regardless of one’s particular strategy, the best teachers make the best schools.

As an administrator at a Christian school, I can’t help but see the need for the following. (1) Recruit only top graduates to teach, and pay them competitively. This has to be the foundation of any reform for education. If a Christian school can’t afford to do this, then change plans until it’s possible. Ramp up your resource development department, seek income from summer courses or businesses. But this must be done. And professional development programs must be the most central element to any school.

(2) Learn from what the rest of the world is doing! This is rather obvious, but too many Christian schools focus only on what other Christian schools are doing (if they look outside themselves at all), and don’t take best practices from a global field. This needs to change. Charter schools like Aspire and online academies like Kahn Academy can teach us much. Let’s listen and use it for the kingdom.

(3) Talk to your local school board or representative and unashamedly promote tax credits and vouchers. School choice changes entire educational systems, and private Christian schools add to that mix. Send them this article in the mail, talk to them in person and show them the date, and don’t apologize for being a “private school” (even though our message is a public as can be). We make global education better.

(4) Finally, help underachievers! Look to the KIPP program, or other charter programs that have lengthened the school day and school year and produced amazing results. Christian schools can’t just accept those without problems. If it’s anybody’s responsibility to help those who are struggling, is it not ours, the People of God who were themselves given grace?

(5) Accountability! Tests like the ACT and Stanford Achievement Tests are a good start. But what about accountability in professional practice and administration. Independence is good, but we all must seek professional communities from whom we can learn.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Great Books

When John Locke quotes an author at length, it’s worth reading twice. In Locke’s
book Some Thoughts Concerning Education (perhaps the most forgotten classic on education), he quotes an unnamed author on the critical importance of great books. I read this quote every so often at a group I meet with every other week. We discuss the classics at a local pub, and use this quote as our “reason” for gathering. Since the thoughts contained within this quote are so important for the practice of education, I will quote it at length:

The study, says he, of the original text can never be sufficiently recommended. ‘Tis the shortest, surest, and most agreeable way to all sorts of learning. Draw from the spring-head, and take not things at second hand. Let the writings of the great masters be never laid aside, dwell upon them, settle them in your mind, and cite them upon occasion; make it your business throughly to understand them in their full extent and all their circumstances: acquaint yourself fully with the principles of original authors; bring them to a consistency, and then do you yourself make your deductions.

In this state were the first commentators, and do not rest till you bring yourself to the same. Content not yourself with borrowed lights, nor guide yourself by their view but where your own fails you and leaves you in the dark. Their explications are not your’s, and will give you the slip. On the contrary, your own observations are the product of your own mind, where they will abide and be ready at hand upon all occasions in converse, consultation, and dispute.

Lose not the pleasure it is to see that you are not stopp’d in your reading duty by difficulties that are invincible; where the commentators and scholiasts themselves are at a stand and have nothing to say. Those copious expositors of other places, who with a vain and pompous overflow of learning poured out on passages plain and easy in themselves, are very free of their words and pains, where there is no need. Convince yourself fully by this ordering your studies, that ‘tis nothing but men’s laziness which hath encouraged pedantry to cram rather than enrich libraries, and to bury good authors under heaps of notes and commentaries, and you will perceive that sloth herein hath acted against itself and its own interest by multiplying reading and enquiries, and encreasing the pains it endeavoured to avoid.”

Thursday, September 1, 2011

A Unique School

There is a unique school started several decades ago in New York that deserves attention. Let me tell you about The Doulos Academy.

It was launched nearly a decade ago as a classical Christian school. Built upon the historic Christian faith as outlined in the Apostles and Nicene Creed, it was a model for education based on the classical tradition developed and perfected by the Western tradition for nearly two thousand years. Depending on the Christian liberal arts tradition, students begin to command language at an early age. Their curriculum is based on the Trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and the expanded Quadrivium (Math, Science (Astronomy), History, and Fine Arts (Music)). And, of course, the Queen of the Sciences, Theology, is at its heart. The pursuit of goodness, truth and beauty were weaved into every classroom and every lesson.

The first headmaster of this school realized, however, that knowledge was not an end in itself. Education always needs an end that looks beyond itself. After a personal spiritual retreat, and much consultation with mentors, a new ethic was born that was hard-wired into the curriculum: service. Jesus said, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and give his life as a ransom for many.” If the highest ideal of human life is that of the Servant King, then the young must too be shaped into servants. And so the phrase “classical Christian learning for the common good” became its motto.

As they collectively took a look at the streets of New York, they realized that much needed to be done. Buildings were in disrepair, plants were dying, and crime was in the streets. Poor families were the norm, pollution was commonplace, and corruption lived in governments and businesses. Yet faculty and students alike saw not only the need, but the inherent beauty of the city. Image-bearers walking the streets, art in unlikely places, and joy amidst hardship. This city was worth saving.

Problem-based learning was integrated into the curriculum. Students began to make the connection between the liberal arts and their contribution as servants to their community. Physics projects resulted in new bridges, Spanish classes resulted in tutoring recent immigrants, math resulted new formulas for bringing technology to the developing world. And how these students spoke. They were articulate, persuasive, and always kind – their community saw this private school as a new family member, not a separatist enclave.

Over time, the thoroughly rigorous curriculum and the community service began to turn heads in the community. Many low-income families wanted to send their children to this school but could not afford to. And so the headmaster determined to seek creative funding solutions. In addition to tuition and fundraising (which was quite successful in winning support even from secular organizations when they saw the good they were doing in the community), the board sought two “third sources of revenue.”

The first was through business income. When they launched the school, they moved into a historic Victorian building on the corner of Augusta Ave and Martin Luther King Blvd. It was a three floor building with red-brick and arches – a perfect fit for a school that seeks beauty. The second and third floors were made into classrooms and a library. The first floor was for business. Nearly 80% of the first floor was rented to “strategic tenants,” tenants with both a social conscious and a Christian commitment. Businesses included a small pharmaceutical research lab, a karate studio, a dance studio, a fair-trade shop, and two restaurants. The income from these tenants went directly to a student scholarship fund. The other 20% of business were run directly by parent volunteers from the school. A coffee shop, an athletic performance training studio, and a tech start-up (run by both parents and students) brought in another source of revenue, thus off-setting the cost of tuition.

The second source of income was borrowed from the Cristo Rey Network. Students in grades 9-12 take one day per week and work at internships and jobs throughout the city. From law firms and large corporations to Broadway and Good Morning America – they employed these students one day a week. Over 50 corporate partners were recruited to employ students. This experience gave students a real-world context to put into practice their liberal arts training, and their salary paid a hefty portion of their tuition, thus making this school available to nearly all who wanted to attend. For those who did not need the tuition assistance, they worked at foundations, homeless shelters, and non-profits.

With high school students being gone one day per week, adjustments had to be made. School weeks were 4 days per week, but the days themselves lasted from 8am to 4:30pm, and 9am-12pm Saturdays, thus satisfying all accreditation requirements. And after the administration and faculty finished a week-long conference on how American students are falling behind their international peers, they moved to a year-round schedule with only 6 weeks off for the summer (of which the facility was still being used for their Summer Institute for Learning). In addition, faculty, not having teaching responsibilities one day per week, were given 3 day weekends every weekend, with the agreement that Mondays (the day student’s worked) would be used for intellectual pursuits – primarily reading and writing. This made the high school faculty known throughout the city for intellectual distinction.

And thus this classical, Christian liberal arts school—urban, accessible, and service-oriented—was born. And, of course, originally, it was born as a K-8 school. But from the inception, administrators knew that parents would want a high school. If would not suffice to send your children to a non-classical school after having been immersed in the classical Christian tradition. The capstone of the curriculum – rhetorical studies – needed a high school. But after much reflection, administrators realized the colossal challenge of launching a high school. With the need for athletic facilities, a performing arts center, science labs and art studios—and the acute need for well-paid faculty, many of whom would be males needing to support their family—they realized that the whole project would not work. A multi-million dollar capital campaign could build the buildings, but it could not pay competitive salaries over the long haul. In a country where most Christian schools pay their teachers 60-80% of what public schools pay their teachers, they knew they needed more than 40-80 students graduating per year. They needed one thing more than any other: scale.

And thus a movement was born.

Doulos Academy planted a K-8 school. But they did not stop there. In year three of Doulos Academy they began talking to churches and parents within a 15 mile radius about their model of education. Excitement was in the air. Within the next 4 years, 3 other K-8 classical Christian schools were planted: The Arete Academy, The Alcuin School, and the Bronx Classical Academy. Working in dynamic partnership – sharing ideas, faculty, students – not one but four schools were launched…all feeding into a single 9-12 school. With this many other schools as feeders, the problem of scale was all but solved. There were enough students to allow teachers 2-3 preps (not the oppressive 4-5 so common in other small schools), and a competitive salary. The New York Classical Academy (9-12) was born.

Three years ago, the lead administrator at the Doulos Academy was speaking at conference in Buenos Aires about what they had done. This model caught the attention of a recent graduate from UCLA’s graduate school of education – a native Argentinean with a burden for both truth and justice. He created an open source software program that allowed teachers and administrators to share ideas, curriculum, and instructional strategies globally. This information flow gave him the confidence to start in Buenos Aires what had previously only been done in New York. He launched his own K-8 school – La escuela veritas –later that year. Last month he reported that 2 other schools were in their start-up phase.

After hearing about these plans in Buenos Aires, students and faculty members back at the New York Classical Academy, began brainstorming ways to spend their summers. Students said to themselves, “Why don’t we spend summers teaching English courses and launching new schools and businesses in other cities?” They now have plans to work with a school in Guatemala City and one in Bangkok over the summer. Faculty, this time around, followed students. They began to brainstorm ways to bring teacher training and administrative support to schools in need across the globe.

The leader of the Doulos Academy is now nearing retirement, and passing off the reigns to a younger leader. But for this blog post I was able to do a brief phone interview. At the end of our conversation, he told me with a quiet conviction: “I never thought my career would turn out like this. I was simply a kid who had been changed by the gospel, and loved both the world of learning and the world of service. Look at what God is now doing through us. Beautiful. Just beautiful.”