Jan 162017

Dear Senator Casey,

As you gear up for the confirmation hearing of Department of Education nominee Betsy DeVos, I ask you to consider the deep implications of what her vision for education entails.

I recently read a piece by Louisiana governor, Bobby Jindal, touting the ways in which DeVos has worked to improve education for all children in the states and cities where she has placed her money, influence and efforts. Unfortunately, Governor Jindal is oversimplifying the concept of “school choice” to vilify anyone against the idea of a great education for all students and to paint those who question the idea as trying to maintain a broken system.

In my over 10 years of teaching in Philadelphia, I have worked in schools inside the School District of Philadelphia and in the charter system. I have collaborated with educators across the country, including other parts of Pennsylvania, who work in public, charter and independent schools. I say this to say that I am not biased toward one kind of school. I think that having options is a good thing.

However, I also work at a public, district-run high school here in Philadelphia that draws kids in from all over the city. I have 16 year old students who travel almost 2 hours each way to get to school and home every day. During the winter, they leave their house in the dark and they get home in the dark. Part of what school choice has done in Detroit is create a system where parents are forced to travel for miles to take their children to school. I can’t imagine a parent traveling almost 2 hours every morning to get their 1st grader to school and then making it to work. This is what happens when school choice causes the neighborhood school, the school down the street, to close.

Here in Philadelphia, we are the poster child for “school reform.” We have turnaround schools, consolidated schools, charter school networks, cyber charter schools, independent schools, special admit public schools, and, of course, neighborhood public schools. We have had school choice for a very long time. I have watched as families have had more and more options where to enroll their child through the charter system, and I have witnessed the District innovating and creating new schools to meet the needs of families, as well as individual District schools innovating to provide unique programs to their families. All of this with fewer and fewer resources available. I have also watched as families moved their children from District-run schools into charters, some that do not perform much better, and I have watched corruption scandal after corruption scandal as people try to make a profit off the price tag attached to each kid’s head as they are enrolled in a charter school. Money in Philadelphia’s charter system already follows the student and it has left the District schools in a position where they are tasked with educating an increasingly challenging population with fewer resources.

In a voucher system, who is regulating how these funds are spent? How do we prevent the opportunistic company who comes in and tries to get into the education game with all of the free flowing money now pouring into the system? Who will educate the students with special needs or the students who do not meet admission criteria for these schools? Independent schools are not required to take everyone, whether they have an IEP or not, and, in my experience, a charter school can also tell a parent that they do not have the capacity to meet the IEP goals of a child, and thereby refuse them entry (I’m not sure if it’s legal or not, but I have seen it happen). In addition, who will regulate the cyber charter schools, who receive the same funding per student as brick and mortar schools, but have half the overhead? How will we know that students are being well educated if many of these schools are not required to track data on student progress and achievement? How do we know if they are meeting the needs of ALL students if that data is not required to be tracked? While I am not a proponent of high-stakes testing, data is important to know whether we are reaching all of our kids in the classroom, and schools can collect and report this kind of data in a number of ways. As you know, our state legislature has no interest in regulating charter schools, and it has been to Philadelphia’s detriment. How will the state, then regulate the performance and creation of new schools under a voucher system?

These concerns are just one piece of the concerns I have about DeVos’ nomination. It is hard for me to imagine putting someone in charge of the Department of Education who has never sent her children to public school, attended public school and whose philanthropic efforts to reform and overhaul public education in Michigan have created a “wild west” education system for families in Detroit.

As a parent of a 2 1/2 year old, these conversations are not just about my views as an educator here in Pennsylvania, but also as a parent of a future student here in the city. This is a subject that directly affects me and my family. As a homeowner and tax payer in the city, I am also wary of how my tax dollars are being spent (and am open to different ways of funding schools-hint, hint) and I do not want private corporations vying for my money as they try to get in on the education game.

Please consider these things as you prepare to vote tomorrow. A vote for Betsy DeVos is a vote for a system that sounds good on the surface, but is not a magic bullet. There are many places where the education system is broken and the Department of Education is not perfect, but putting a person with a blinders-on view of public education and political connections to push through a frightening agenda for state public education systems is not the answer.

Thank you for your time,

Mary Beth Hertz
School District of Philadelphia
Mother of a 2 1/2 year future student in Philadelphia

Jul 022015
Social JusticeDefinition from Oxford Dictionaries

This past week I have been spending a lot of time with some really smart educators from all over the country. While the premise of this convening was the enormous edtech conference, ISTE, I spent less time talking about tech tools and awesome apps and more time talking about equity, school funding, current events and the trajectory of education in the US.

On Monday, I sat on an engrossing panel with some of my colleagues talking about project-based learning (PBL) and my friend, Tom Whitby spoke about how many teachers who are successfully implementing PBL are 6 months ahead of the current conversations in education. For some reason, that comment stuck with me and I began to reflect and think about the attendees at conferences I attend, the people who attend my sessions, the people who organize events I go to and the people who design and sell the flashy tech tools that schools adopt and use.

On both of the panels I was on the conversation moved at some point to specific apps or tools. While we made sure to focus on the whys and the hows that must come before adopting a tool, it seems that, often, people are looking for a tool or a device to be a “silver bullet” (to paraphrase Josh Stumpenhorst’s closing keynote on Wednesday.)

I began to wonder–why is it that some educators are thinking about these bigger ideas and some are not? Amanda Dykes refers to these big thinking educators as “rebels” in her most recent post. Like her, I often find myself in the crowd that asks persistent questions, that offers another side to the argument, that asks the fundamental question of “why” on a regular basis.

I have a couple of thoughts.

Teachers often become teachers because they were good students. Good students sit and listen and follow the rules. Good students trust the adults and the information they are being presented with. Good students ask the right questions, not always the hard questions. Essentially, good students play the game. These good students then enter a system (the teaching profession) that also rewards those who follow the rules and play the game.

From this I conclude that teachers are not often asked to push the envelope, to ask hard questions, to reflect and question their own practices on a regular basis and they may not take that initiative on their own. Specifically, at a conference like ISTE, these teachers often see the potential for tech to enhance, improve, simplify what they are already doing in their classrooms. There are few sessions at ISTE (and I’d argue many other education conferences) that delve into that fundamental question: WHY?

What I have noticed over the last few months as the school year came to a close was a lot of conversation around topics like police brutality, racism and inequality. This has been a Spring full of events that are hard to ignore. They have forced teachers to decide, “Will I address these events with my students? If I choose to, how can I address them without risking backlash from administrators and parents?” Many teachers may not be accustomed to or comfortable with approaching hard topics with their students.

At our Edutopia bloggers summit this past Saturday, we brainstormed future blog post topics and one of the largest groups formed around social justice. Three excellent Ignite presentations on Sunday centered around topics of social justice, including a call to action for all students to be given the opportunity to succeed, for us to listen to our students and for educators to embrace and encourage the diverse students in their classrooms. When asked what the biggest challenges to integrating technology into PBL were I answered, “access.” The sad part is that much of this conversation isn’t new. Back in 1991 Jonathan Kozol’s book Savage Inequalities compared the schools in Camden, NJ with those only a few miles away to show the inequities that existed in public education. Sadly, those inequities still exist more than two decades later.

So what am I getting at here?

Basically, education inequalities have not changed. Teachers tend to keep their head down and stick to the game plan. Current events involving police brutality, racism, terrorism, marriage equality, the Confederate flag, and a continuing lack of diversity in the huge tech companies that permeate our lives are hard to ignore. It’s easy to just plow through our day, business as usual. It’s harder to take a step back and reflect, to find our place in the world, to face our own prejudices and privilege, to decide where we stand on these issues and events. Once we’ve done that hard work, we must decide how we will ask our students to so. If you know where you stand and you have acknowledged your own shortcomings, misunderstandings and worked through them, then you are ready to lead your students through that same process. You are ready to ask that fundamental question: “Why?”

So why do we need to do this hard work?

When we put technology into the hands of our students we say that we are preparing them for life outside of school, that the world they live in is filled with technology and they need to know how to leverage it. The world they live in now and the world they will live in is also filled with hate, injustice, greed, and violence. How are we preparing our students for that world? More importantly, how can technology be leveraged to make the world a better place?

I have always grappled with activism and the teaching profession. While I believe that it is a teacher’s job to open the world to his or her students and to help students better understand the world, I don’t believe it is my job to judge a student’s beliefs and tell them to change. It is my job, however, to ask hard questions and to guide my students down a reflective path to make their own decisions and form their own opinions based on research and dialogue, not assumptions and hearsay.

A teacher as activist helps students grapple with their own experiences and emotions, to take a stand, to stand up for what they believe in, and to act. As Dr Robert Dillon says in his Ignite presentation, “We have to break the cycle of being shocked, having sympathy and then returning to the privilege that we all experience in our lives.” Schools are often stuck in this cycle. Once the shock has worn off, there are tests to take, units to plan, papers to grade…..

I am still exploring these hard questions for myself. I look at my son, a middle class white male and know that he will be awarded opportunities based on those three qualifiers alone. How will I address privilege with my son? Having taught in Philadelphia public schools for over 10 years I am not blind to the inequities that exist across this city, where zip codes define socio-economic status. How will I avoid accepting the status quo and how will I impart that on my students?

Jose Vilson asked during the bloggers summit about how he can incorporate Social Justice into his Math classes. We should all be asking that question about our own classes. It is becoming more apparent that teachers are seeking resources and avenues to address the issues our students face and see on TV every day. At an edtech conference of over 10,000 people these quests may have flown under the radar. But maybe it’s because we failed to ask the right question: “Why?”

Some social justice resources

Edudemic Social Justice Lessons

Teaching Tolerance website

Open data and Social justice (information justice)

Pernille Ripp— student voice – processing recent events in the classroom

Dr. Robert Dillon — what’s really important? How do we use shiny tools to make big waves?

Rafranz Davis  — where is the diversity in EdTech?



Facebook Diversity Report


Aug 162013
Overflow crowd from the August 15, 2013 SRC meeting.

Overflow crowd from the August 15, 2013 SRC meeting.

As I reflected on the events of today, I began to think of my journey as a teacher here in Philadelphia. I began to think of all of the red flags that have gone up over the last ten years before getting to this point. Here is a run-down:


The State takes over the School District of Philadelphia and puts in an appointed board to run the District called the School Reform Commission (SRC), which is made up of appointees chosen mostly by the Governor and some by the Mayor of Philadelphia.

August 2002

I move to Philadelphia immediately after graduating from college. I really want to be a teacher, but am not certified.


I apply to be a “Literacy Intern” with the Philadelphia School District. I am called in November and am placed at an elementary school in Southwest Philadelphia. My role is to support classroom teachers whose classrooms have gone over the legal limit. Basically, rather than hire certified teachers and make class sizes smaller, the District hired teachers with Emergency Certifications to “reduce class size” by pushing in a few hours every day.  I worked in a Kindergarten room with 34 students. The teacher only had my help for about 2 hours a day. My official teaching career in Philadelphia begins.


I complete my student teaching in an unruly 1st grade classroom with a first-year teacher because my principal placed me there and learn quickly the steel and flexibility it takes to be a teacher Philadelphia. I learn that many teachers who were “vocal” in the school had been “written out of the budget” in previous years. That year, at least 4 of my colleague transfer out or quit because of the school administration.


I go to the District office to pick my first official “solo” teaching job and am told that there are no more positions available in the District.  I am offered my choice of school from a list of a schools with a “high teacher turnover rate.” I look quickly at a map and pick a school.

When I arrive at my new school in West Philadelphia, I find out that the school lost 50% of their teachers from the previous year because the school was slated to enter the new (and short-lived) Corrective Action Region. With 3 positions still unfilled 3 days before school starts, I sign up to be the Science Teacher. We start the year with first-year teachers making up about 30% of the staff. During my second year, a first year teacher walks out and never comes back and never officially resigns. Myself and the other specialist teachers take turns covering the class for months.


Our school community inhabits a crumbling building with mold that causes asthma in some staff and a malfunctioning heating system that causes 2nd degree burns on a student who leans back on a hot radiator pipe. We survive a poor school climate with fights breaking out regularly and many unruly classrooms. We are designated an Empowerment School by the District, which means we are held under tighter scrutiny and must implement specific programs.

February 2009

Our school community goes into turmoil when we are told that our building is being demolished and that we are being relocated and have 3 1/2 months to pack up a 100 year old building. Teachers are expected to teach and pack their rooms at the same time.

September 2009 – June 2009

My students are uprooted from their neighborhood and their school to be bused from the area of 58th and Media Streets to 59th Street and Baltimore Ave. They survive being forced into many hours a week of scripted Corrective Reading and Connected Math instruction whether the program works for them or not. Teachers are told that if the students aren’t learning what they are supposed to, it’s because the teacher did not stick to the script.

Students make do as Kindergarteners are forced to use bathrooms built for middle schoolers, as 4 busses running two routes bring 600 students to school and home every day, and as elementary age kids eat lunch in a cafeteria that can seat over 500 students. Students share the building with a “no excuses” charter school and find that their former classmates are not even allowed to say hi to them if they see each other in the hallway.

As the school year progresses, student behavior deteriorates and teachers have little to no support in a huge building with which they are not familiar.

January 23, 2010

The District teachers survive the shady approval of the new PFT contract, which sells the teachers out for Race to the Top money and brings in the era of Renaissance Schools.

January 28, 2010

We are alerted through a District letter in our school mailboxes that our school is on the list of possible Renaissance Schools and could be shut down and reorganized.

March 2010

Our school community barely holds it together when our school’s name appears on the final list of Renaissance Schools. We aren’t even really sure what it means yet. There are a number of models presented to us. We eventually find out that we will be converted to a charter and will all be force transferred and have to re-apply for our positions if we decide to apply to the charter operator.

March-May 2010

Our school’s parents barely survive the convoluted process of forming a School Advisory Committee and the marketing pitches by a variety of charter operators. We do not know who will be running the school, who will be teaching our students or whether the new building would be done in time. We will never get to teach in the new building as it will be turned over to the charter operator for the following school year.

June 2010

My colleagues and I survive a number of meetings with various District staff who have no answers about the future of our jobs or our school community. We begin to pack up the building once again with no idea what the future holds.

Despite interviewing within the District, I make the hard decision to leave the District so I can keep doing what I love– teaching kids with computers. I take a 5 year Charter School Leave of Absence.

September 2010 – June 2013

While I have 3 great years of teaching, I also survive teaching with no contract as an “at-will” employee in a school staffed with a huge percentage of teachers under the age of 30 with very little teaching experience. I watch as my SDP colleagues continue to struggle with the new programs and requirements imposed upon schools and teachers by Superintendent Ackerman. I watch irate parents speak out about school closings. I watch students walk out of their classrooms in protest. I watch as the Renaissance School movement, a child of Washington, D.C.-style reform, turns more and more District schools over to “no excuses” charters. I watch as communities are torn apart by school closings and as some neighborhoods are left without a neighborhood school for their child to attend.  I empathize with their fears and frustrations and I am glued to The Notebook everyday. I watch as Arlene Ackerman is removed by the SRC and walks away with a huge severance package, leaving a huge leadership hole. I watch with hope as William Hite is announced as the new Superintendent. I watch as Ackerman’s plans continue as planned and meetings about school closings are held at schools all over the City.

June 2013

I ecstatically accept a position at the Science Leadership Academy’s new Beeber campus and am actually thrilled to come back to the District.

August 15, 2013

I attend the last minute meeting of the SRC, announced only 24 hours ahead of time, during which the SRC suspends entire sections of the Pennsylvania School Code and gives themselves all the power they need to break the union. I listen to community members and teachers tell the SRC that we can’t give our children the bare minimum, that this is a manufactured crisis and anyone who was paying attention knew we would end up here. They say that it’s unconscionable for students and their families and teachers to bare the brunt of the mistakes of others. I watch the SRC sit, stone-faced, until everyone had spoken and then proceed, without fanfare, to pass all but one of the resolutions to suspend parts of the school code. I knew, as I did in the 2010 contract approval, that the decision had already been made and nothing we said or did would stop it.

So why the trip down memory lane?

The point is, teachers, students, their families and entire communities here in Philadelphia have been on a rollercoaster of education reform for over a decade ever since the State took over in 2001 and put in the School Reform Commission. Teachers and community members have spoken out when they’ve seen problems.  We discuss them in the teacher’s lounge or in our classrooms with colleagues or with our families at home. The problems with funding and managing the District have been in plain sight as long as I have worked in it. We are not at this point solely because of students, teachers, parents or community members. We are here because the people entrusted with the financial and educational well-being of Philadelphia’s children dropped the ball in a big way. Now, teachers have been made out to be the villains for sticking up for not what is in their contracts, but language that is written in the sections of the PA School Code that were just suspended. At the same time, students have been promised the bare minimum for their education and, in turn, their futures.

My question is, can the systems in place here in Philadelphia survive another 10 years of this?

I don’t have a lot of answers. I had to write this all down just to get my head straight after all of these years. One thing is for sure, this governing body that State put in place has not done its job. The people of Philadelphia feel helpless when it comes to the education of their children. We have thousands of young professionals who have made the choice to live in the City, to have children and buy homes here. Without a safe and strong public school to send their child to, we will watch these new neighbors flee in droves. Our city depends on strong public neighborhood schools. Let us elect our own school board and take back our City schools.

I recommend you check out the post, The Crisis in Philadelphia Schools…or Not by Chris Angelini for some great ideas and thoughts on this, too.

Aug 292012

The more I read about school reform here in Philadelphia, the more it feels like an episode of the Food Network show, Restaurant Impossible. For those who have never seen it, picture a professional restauranteur swooping in to turnaround a failing restaurant with his years of experience and no-nonsense attitude.

The changes that the host, Robert Irvine, makes usually include a changing of the guard, renovations of the current dining room, menu curation, tightening up of management, and more often than not, tears. Having experienced a school turnover from the inside, the metaphor really hits the mark. The first thing we found out when our school was declared a “Renaissance School” was that we were all going to be force transferred. In addition, just as Irvine renovates the dining room, the turnaround charters invest a lot of money in capital improvements as can be seen in this video of the Grover Cleveland Elementary turnaround school from the local news. The school I taught in had holes in the wall, broken heat, broken bathrooms and overall deplorable conditions. In fact, so deplorable, it was, in my eyes, a civil rights issue. Through outside funding, charter networks can make improvements that the school district never could.

In addition to capital improvements, these schools also experience a change in curriculum as well as discipline programs (their ‘menu’). The larger networks also bring in new management, most of which are highly-groomed and prepared administrators from within the network. These administrators employ their charter network’s motto, which usually includes some iteration of “No Excuses” and includes some kind of reference to “Success.”

All great changes for a school that has been continuously failing to meet its students’ needs year after year.

The metaphor falls short, however, in a few places. For one, Irvine gives each of the existing staff a chance to prove their worth as a leader or with their cooking skills. This is never the case with a Renaissance School. It is assumed that the school is failing because of the awful teachers that work there, so they all must go (and, I might add, be replaced with young, inexperienced staff). The biggest place that the metaphor falls short is in the fact that Irvine works with the current owners to fully understand their vision for their restaurant and to help them improve their own business practices to save their restaurant. Were Irvine to follow the Renaissance School model, he would strut in, fire everyone and sell the business to Bobby Flay.

Still, I’m pretty sure that Bluford Elementary is a safer, higher performing school than it was when I left it. So what’s my beef, really?

After experiencing Mastery Charter classroom management training I can say that their model is not brain surgery. They have packaged a variety of well-respected methods (imagine a formulaic blend of Responsive Classroom without the morning meetings and Harry Wong) and have provided extensive training for their teachers that includes reviewing video taped lessons with teachers. What Mastery has (and I’m sure many of the other turnaround school charter companies have as well) is the funding to do what the Philadelphia School District can’t: repair buildings, offer extensive coaching and support as well as provide highly-trained and indoctrinated administrative teams.

An unsettling aspect of this large-scale turnaround movement is the fact that, as I wrote about earlier this year, all of these schools essentially look the same. KIPP, Mastery and even Uncommon Schools use the same vocabulary (like ‘grit’), have the same college-ready focus and even use the same management techniques (acronyms like “SLANT” and “STAR” to describe what ‘academic posture’ looks like). The other thing they all have in common? They are all located in urban areas and pride themselves on offering real opportunities to urban kids.

I’m not arguing that they don’t.

But what they don’t offer is true school choice. What happens to our urban school system when every school is a KIPP or a Mastery school? What real choices will our students have? I’ve seen videos of Mastery and Uncommon School classrooms. Rows, silence, little to no group work, teacher-directed, teacher-centered instruction. These are highly-structured and tightly controlled classrooms. Which work for many kids, but not for all. I know that many of  my inner city, North Philadelphia and West Philadelphia students would blossom in a Quaker/Friends style school or a school modeled after Quest2Learn. To make matters worse, Mastery Charter just received a huge grant to take their practices to other schools around the city. The more we allow our neighborhood public schools to be turned over to these large charter networks, the less choice our students really have.

As many changes that Robert Irvine makes when he comes in to rescue restaurants in trouble, he also helps them maintain their own identity as a restaurant and empowers the owners with the tools they need to succeed. Where is that kind of support for our struggling neighborhood schools? How can we ensure that we empower our neighborhood schools to succeed and provide a variety of educational offerings that meet the desires of the community in which they are housed?

Jul 072012

Photo courtesy of 401K 2012

This week’s City Paper cover story, Money Talks by Daniel Denvir, has gathered a lot of attention. The article explores the financial reach of the William Penn Foundation in the current reform plans being discussed for the school district. While a lot of the facts in the article were nothing new to me, a few things really troubled me. I have always been leery of private foundations dipping their hands into education reform. It’s one thing to support schools, it’s another thing when large, private foundations begin to fund larger scale school reform. What is truly unnerving about the current plan being proposed by the Boston Consulting Group, whose work here in Philly has been partially funded by the William Penn Foundation) is that, according to Denvir’s article, they are calling it the “Blueprint.” I just recently started reading Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System and the first part reads like a history of the Philadelphia school district over the last 10 years. When I joined the District in 2003, I was trained in Balanced Literacy and Everyday Math, which were both part of the “Blueprint” implemented in San Diego by Alan Bersin and Anthony Alvarado from 1998-2003. This Blueprint was, as the current BCG’s plan is, poorly received by many parents, teachers and the San Diego teachers’ union due to it’s top-down, take no prisoners approach. Interestingly enough, according to Ravitch’s book, the Broad Foundation supported a campaign to defeat an anti-Blueprint school board nominee. William Hite, the Philadelphia School District’s newly selected superintendent, is a graduate of the Broad Foundation’s Superintendent’s Academy.

The other disconcerting part of the article is an infographic showing the reach that the William Penn Foundation has here in Philadelphia. Along with helping fund the BCG’s Blueprint, they also provide financial backing for the political watch dog group the Committee of Seventy, which recently called for more transparency in the new superintendent’s contract, as well as the non-profit newspaper The Public School Notebook, which has closely followed and reported on everything from Arlene Ackerman’s exit to the controversy over Hope Moffet’s reassignment to ‘teacher jail.’ Something has to give when one entity has influence in so many different arenas. While Denvir’s article hints that the Foundation may be ending its funding of some of the more politically active, anti-privatization groups, this is even more worrisome.

All said, I certainly hope that these partnerships between the Philadelphia School District and private foundations like the William Penn Foundation and The Gates Foundation turns out better than the San Diego Blueprint fiasco and that any plans to move forward with the BCG plan involve community, parent and teacher voice and input. It sounds like Hite is willing to listen and continue the work that has been started, but he is only one piece in the puzzle.

Mar 212012

After a day and half of great conversation hosted by Discovery Education with a group of educators for whom I have the utmost respect, I’m not sure if I am able to walk away with any solutions or magic bullets.

What I am able to walk away with is a better idea of what I envision and what I don’t want to see.

When we broke out into small discussion groups it occurred to me that all of the features we were discussing already existed. It seemed that all of the tools, like bookmarking, a ‘share’ feature, access to databases, were existing technologies, and it seemed silly to overlay them on a new device or ‘textbook.’

What if, we pondered, a ‘textbook’ was really a portal to a repository of varied media resources? One that teachers could search and curate according to their needs? What if students could also log into this portal and see the resources pooled by the teacher, add their own resources and connect with classmates? Teachers could differentiate content on a student-by-student basis through the portal.

Here are some of our thoughts from the half hour discussion. We separated our thoughts into three categories, Delivery, Content, and Interactivity (hat tip to Wes Fryer for the categories).


The conundrum that I find hard to wrap my head around is how any company can embrace openness and sharing of information and still make a profit. When resources are behind a paywall, how do we make authentic learning, content and collaboration work in the most effective ways for kids?

I suggested that Discovery create a community for students similar to their DEN Network, but even then, it will be behind a paywall.

Another worry that I have is that, since many teachers will still feel lost without a book, guide or physical text, that the culture of worksheets and printing out ‘activities’ will be sustained rather than sussed. This shift will require strong and fearless leadership in order to move the culture of a school or district forward.

What is vital for the next steps of any discussion around what a learning text (or ‘resource collection,’ as I may begin calling it) looks like is to hold a student forum similar to the adult forum. Even an 8 year old can tell you what he or she does and doesn’t like about the books they use in their classroom. For some insight into what a high school student sees in a textbook, I love this video by a student at the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia.

Overall, the day was very inspiring, and through discussion, I was able to form, re-form and question my own perceptions, beliefs and visions for the future of the textbook. I hope the conversation continues and that whatever comes of it is modular, learner-centered and pushes the envelope for not just pushing out content but for guiding the learning process.

Mar 132012

photo by Mary Beth Hertz

I am humbled to be part of a team of educators, many of whom are esteemed peers, converging in a little under a week at Discovery Education headquarters  to discuss the future of the textbook, specifically the digital textbook. As an elementary teacher, I know that my opinions and experiences with textbooks differ from those who teach high school and higher ed. However, my experience using textbooks in high school and college helps mold some of my views on the topic.

The first textbook I ever remember using was my French textbook in 6th grade. Before that, I don’t have any clear memories of textbooks. After that, my memories are that of doing the odd problems at the end of the chapter in my math textbook, reviewing my notes and trying desperately to figure out the magic in the explanation in the book that would make me able to figure out how to do a problem. I remember my textbook for AP US History, for Global Studies, and a couple of textbooks that were anthology-like. Most of these were heavy and used mostly for homework and for memorizing things that were on a test.

Once I got to college, the only textbooks I bought were for classes I took to satisfy requirements. Psychology, Astronomy, Anthropology (huge, impersonal lecture hall classes)…..  As a French major, I had the delightful experience of shopping for novels and poetry each semester, all hand-picked by the professor for a particular reason (a class on French Vietnamese literature, a class on Medieval French literature). Some of my classes in other subject areas (or seminars as I guess they would be called) involved a mixture of novels picked by the professor and mini books of articles and selected chapters pulled together by the professor. I still have many of those mini books because they were like little gold mines of information and a great resource to refer to later when I was thinking of a particular class discussion.

My textbooks? I sold them back to the store or left them in the attic of my parents’ house to rot.

Moving back in time to elementary school, I am disheartened by the heavy reliance that teachers have on Pearson and Houghton-Mifflin textbooks. I am even more disheartened to hear instructional directors call these “curriculum.”

I was overjoyed to hear about a principal who collected all of the math textbooks from the teachers and told them to teach math the way they wanted to. This was in response to teachers expressing frustration with teaching math and with kids learning math. The result? After stages of anger and helplessness, the teachers figured things out. They taught math better and the kids learned math better. Very few, if any teachers, according to the story, came back for their textbooks.

So what does this have to do with the future of the textbook and digital texts?

Two things.

First, we need to be careful that we don’t waste this new technology by doing the same things in a different way (similar to the way the glorious Interactive Whiteboard still remains a teacher-centric digital chalkboard in many classrooms). Second, we need to use the digital technologies available to allow for professors and K-12 teachers to build the kinds of resources that fit the needs of their classroom. No longer should educators be forced to asked their students to purchase a $100 textbook so they can use the 3 chapters that are relevant to their course.

I also see educators pooling their knowledge to crowd source courses and texts that are inexpensive, flexible, across many digital platforms, are specific to their students, their specific course and that are easily amendable should new information arise that is relevant to the course. This is already happening, and will only become easier as the technology gets better and easier to use.

Another aspect of the new digital textbook is the opportunity to display information through multimedia and interactive activities. Again, I will point back to my first statement above. These tools and mediums are amazing and match much of what brain research shows us about how people learn in different ways and through different modalities. However, let’s be smart and avoid using this new technology to embed lectures or videos that could be found with a simple Internet search or to create fancy “end of chapter” activities that are a waste of time.

I’m not trying to pretend that I have an answer for how we can leverage digital texts to truly do something different, but I won’t accept a Pearson-produced textbook with a built-in dictionary and highlighter with a few videos embedded here or there to be the limit of innovation.

What do you think?

Please share any links, resources or opinions you have in the comment area!

Jan 172012

Until recently I counted myself among those change-minded folks who believed that true change could be enacted (and must be at some level) enacted from within ‘the system.’ Amid the discussions of many homeschoolers and unschoolers, who believe that it is time to throw the whole system out, I have always argued that there has to be some people who stay within the system to push for change.

After making it halfway through Disrupting Class, I’m beginning to form a new point of view. What if it wasn’t about throwing out the baby with the bath water? What if it was about meeting the needs of those ‘non-consumers,’–the homeschoolers, the unschoolers, and any other learners for whom the current system as it stands does not work–and making this new way of learning so good and so effective that the ‘mainstream’ had no choice but to embrace it?

It’s already happening in the form of online schools and classes and in the huge number of people who have chosen to homeschool their children and have created networks of other homeschoolers. What about the fact that these families can now provide access to knowledge and information to their children that they previously could not due to the amazing learning opportunities (free MIT courses!) one can find on the Internet.

I have always been against throwing out the whole system, mostly because I’ve seen what happens when people completely disrupt students, teachers, families and communities through school closings and upheaval through throwing out what was done and imposing a new way of doing things.

However, if a new way of doing things becomes so irresistible and begins to play a part in the existing system, then there is a chance that this new way of doing things can become the way we do things without upheaval of families, students, teachers and communities.

Christensen and Horn use the metaphor of the Apple PC and the huge DEC Corporation to explain how this works. If DEC is the school system as it stands, then the online schools, unschooling, homeschooling trends are the Steve Jobs of education. Apple met the need of people who never consumed DEC products in the first place and then slowly took over the market.

What I do know is that I want the next step I take to be toward a disruptive model that will help fine-tune the new way we educate students in this country in the future.

What do you think? Change from within or change from without?

Dec 132011

image via MforMarcus on Flickr

Unless you were under a rock last week, you probably saw the Washington Post article “When an Adult Took Standardized Tests Forced on Kids.”  This article has spawned the Twitter hashtag #takethetest, and it has also inspired some of my favorite education bloggers to share their own thoughts.

Canadian educator and blogger Joe Bower was even able to converse briefly with Alberta’s Minister of Education about the possibility of the Minister taking the test. My friend, Deven Black argues that, “After all, if the tests are adequate to judge teacher ability they must certainly be able to judge the ability of the people who hire the teachers, set curriculum and allocate assets to schools.” Deven’s post has some interesting comments and I think they are important to consider. Some adults don’t think they need to know what a 10th grader knows because it’s no longer applicable to their lives. Others worry that politicians, should they take the tests, will begin to try to influence their content.

I am intrigued by the idea, not just of school board members taking The Test, but also by the idea that these leaders will stand by what they enforce on teachers, administrators and schools. As someone who has proctored hundreds of PSSAs, I have seen a fair dose of poorly worded questions, reading selections that assume a certain amount of prior knowledge and questions that teachers have thrown their hands up at because an open-ended question was on an obscure topic that the curriculum they were following didn’t stress. Every time I proctor, I make sure to take the test at the same time, walking around the room with a blank test in my hand. I’ll freely admit that despite my fancy liberal arts degree, numerous academic achievements, a Master’s degree and three certifications, I have come across at least one question on every test that I could not answer correctly.

I think it would be at least fair for Arne Duncan or Michelle Rhee to take one of the state tests and then own up to their score and reflect on it.

**update: I have to give credit to my friend, Lisa Nielsen for the work she does to push the envelope in education and challenge the status quo. Along with Joe Bower, she has been advocating for families and students to opt-out of standardized tests. (a subject on which we do not always agree) I was made aware of Joe’s post through her.

Sep 292011

Despite leaving the Philadelphia School District for a charter school in 2010 (a direct result of the Renaissance School Initiative), I have been watching the developments and news in the District very closely. I have read harsh, aggressive comments about charter schools, neighborhood schools, parents and teachers along with name-calling and exaggerations in comment areas that stretch on for pages on both Philly.com and on The Notebook’s website.

If you’ve been paying attention at all you’re probably enraged, confused and feeling a little hopeless about the state of Philadelphia’s schools. Between budget woes, investigations and massive layoffs, it’s been a rough 6 months. Just within the past month or so we’ve seen a controversial and tremendous payout to Arlene Ackerman, former Superintendent.  Earlier in the summer we saw a surprising last minute decision to keep Foundations as the manager for Martin Luther King High School. Later, we learned about back door dealings between Robert Archie, the Chairman of the School Reform Commission and Representative Dwight Evans along with Arlene Ackerman that led to the decision. When I read the stories surrounding the investigation it reminds me of a schoolyard argument, with each party pointing their fingers at the other.

For those of you not familiar with the history of the Philadelphia School District, a quick lesson. In 2001 the State took over the Philadelphia schools and created the School Reform Commission, a governing board of members appointed by the Mayor of Philadelphia and the Governor of Pennsylvania, who appoints 3 of the 5 members. With the recent controversies, this group has dwindled to two members, one of whom commutes from California for meetings. Today, Mayor Nutter appointed Wendell Pritchett to the Commission to ensure that the SRC had quorum for its meetings.

In addition, with the recent departure of Superintendent Ackerman, the District has decided to do another national search for a new Superintendent.

Enough is enough already.

It is obvious to me (and many others) that the SRC experiment has failed.

You know what’s missing from these headlines?

Families and children, citizens and community members.

It’s time for their voices, along with those of Philadelphians all over the City to be heard. I haven’t spoken to anyone here in Philadelphia who sees the SRC as a well-functioning entity. In fact, I am always amazed at the amount of jaw-dropping I’ve seen when I casually mention that Philadelphia doesn’t have an elected School Board.

It’s time for Philadelphia to take back control of its schools. Sure, Philly is not short on cronyism and corruption, but at least, with an elected entity, we have only ourselves to blame. Why, I wonder, after stints by both Paul Vallas and Arlene Ackerman who have left the District broke and with more of a bureaucratic mess than when they came in, would the District continue to look for these hot shot, swoop-in-and-save-the-day celebrities?

The time of State-appointed, non-local officials running our schools needs to come to an end. I know that this extreme of a change cannot come all at once, but it needs to be a goal. What if the structure of the School Board were reinstated, with 3 of the members elected by the Philadelphia citizens and one appointee each for the Mayor and the Governor? Eventually, with term limits, those appointed positions could be replaced by elected officials. What if the Superintendent came from our city? What if s/he already knew the game and the players?

The City’s schools belong to the people, they are our responsibility.

Philadelphians need to speak up. Give us back our voices.