The Road to Education


The invitation only “Chicago Contributes” event at the Andrew Mellon Auditorium September 10, 2009, convened by the University of Chicago, attracted faculty, trustees, alums, Washington DC policy makers and funders. I was an invited guest, representing Project Exploration, primarily attending for the second session of the day, Urban Education.

So, what would you hear if you got four people working in the thick of education reform onto a stage with the U.S. Secretary of Education and a moderator? If the event is being hosted by the University of Chicago you’ll (mostly) hear about the role of higher education in the work of urban schooling. And if the folks on stage are Linda “Teach’” Darling Hammond, Codirector of the School Redesign Network at Stanford University, John “Data-man” Easton, the new Director of the Institute of Education Sciences at the Department of Education; Tim “In the Know” Knowles, Director of the Urban Education Institute at the University of Chicago, and Charles “No Pain No Gain” Payne – you’ll hear about how the work of schools and school improvement is hard.

In the midst of conversations about teacher merit pay and other corporate models being retrofitted for public education, panelists explained that when it comes to knowing how schools (and students and teachers) are doing, we have yet to figure out how to test this. We know that the tools being used right now don’t tell us much about what matters in the moment. Tim pointed out the practical uselessness of standardized tests for teachers. “They’re basically autopsy. By the time the results come in, it’s too late to do anything about them – the kids have already moved on.”

Moderator Ray Suarez, a UChicago alum, now a Senior News Correspondent for the NewsHour on PBS, only needed to scratch the surface of the issue of “resources” and the panel was off and running.(“Data-man” Easton had already taken off with the Secretary of Education by the time this conversation unfolded, but more about them later). “What is the reasonable level of resources for educating kids and how should they be distributed?”

Linda pointed out some countries have actually changed the way schools were funded in the interests of equity and fairness – with markedly positive results. “Countries that have worked on this – Finland, Singapore, Korea – fund schools centrally and equally and put more into schools that need it. Versus the United States, where top spending schools spend three times as much in the same states as the lowest level schools.”

“Should all kids be expected to learn the same things at the same time, regardless of what school they go to or where it is? Is this equal schooling?” wondered the moderator.

“Justice is not charity. It’s building systems that work for all children and all families,” explains Linda.

“What looks like the conceit of equality is actually the pretense of equality,” adds Charles.

“These are really good points. I’m going to make access to quality education for every student the anchor of my education policy platform. And I’m going to begin with equal funding for all schools” said Secretary Duncan.

Oh, wait. That last part didn’t happen. Secretary Duncan didn’t say those things. Actually he wasn’t there for the panel discussion.

During his opening remarks, Secretary Duncan outlined five areas of work taking needing attention at the national level: 1) raising the bar on standards 2) data systems that track students back to teachers and teachers back to schools of education 3) investing in great (teacher) talent and 4) working on the bottom 1% of high schools, (roughly 2000 schools), which produce 50% of the country’s dropouts. And 5) working with higher education to increase the number of college graduates.

I asked, “Secretary Duncan, I am concerned, especially for science education, that the investments being made won’t reach the students who need them most. Can you talk a little bit more about what it means to work with the 2000 lowest performing high schools you mentioned? How will we reach students who are currently not being served by schools?”

Secretary Duncan was glad to take my question. (My question was something like this – I was nervous. I can’t remember exactly what I said I really did ask a question though. Here is the evidence).

Embedded in Secretary Duncan’s answer, (which didn’t really address the question I’d asked), was the following statement: “What we have to do is create a critical mass of caring adults with high expectations. This is the change factor for kids in historically underperforming schools.”

I like this idea. I think this the only thing that matters for students who are not academically successful or have become hostile to school.

What’s most striking to me about the conversation about Chicago’s Contributions to Urban Education is that in the early days of the 21st Century the conversation being had was one that for the most part could have taken place in the early days of the 20th Century – about education in schools that were designed in the 19th Century.

Kids don’t start or stop learning when the school bell rings. What kids learn out of school may be just as powerful, if not more powerful, than what happens for them in school. Relationships give life to the power of what kids learn. Which is why Secretary Duncan’s point about caring adults with high expectations is so relevant.

Most of the current conversations about trying to making education more equitable are really about making education more about school, and in tandem making school more standardized, more measurable and more efficient. All things which are less likely to engage students who are currently left out, not participating and not finding measurable “success.”

Different standards could help schools organize instruction and teacher professional development. They could bring clarity for students, teachers and parents alike about what students ought to know and be able to do – but changing curriculum tends to have the most impact on students who are already engaged with schooling.  Here’s another example, increasing the availability of AP would be good; many schools that serve students of color, students who are poor and students who are immigrants don’t even offer them. But it’s important to remember these classes will be for students who are performing in the top 20%; they’re not investments likely to have a positive affect on non-AP track students or their teachers.

The persistence of the achievement gap can be linked to the lack of access to positive, stimulating, meaningful experiences that take place out of school. We may find that the road to 21st Century education for our least successful students ought to begin outside the classroom door.

Project Exploration Recipient of Presidential Award for Excellence


Just received word that earlier today the White House announced recipients of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science Mentoring… Project Exploration was on the list.

At a time when the field of science does not yet represent the diversity that is America this award offers validation for our work to change the status quo – and is just plain AWESOME!!!!


NCLB meets New Haven firefighters? Curious…


Earlier this week the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of White New Haven firefighters, overturning a previous ruling by Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. At the time I heard about it I mostly listened to the coverage and thought about the event in terms of the nomination process for Judge Sotomayor.

However, listening to a discussion earlier today on the Tavis Smiley Show amongst Tavis, UCLA Law Professor Kimberle Williams Crenshaw and Supreme Court columnist for the New York Times, Adam Liptak, made me rethink the issues surrounding the test from another perspective – testing and K-16 students’ promotions – or lack thereof.

Crenshaw summarized during the conversation: New Haven “decided there were other ways to fairly assess who should be a firefighter. ” What implications might this kind of thinking have when it comes to discussing the role of to determine who gets promoted in school? Or who gets promoted to go to college? Or what kinds of schools (and teachers and students) have access to what kinds of programs and funding?

There is longstanding recognition of an “achievement gap” between Whites and Latinos, African Americans among others, as documented by standardized tests, tests which inevitably help set the course for students’ lives and workforce options long before they become adults. (See “A Broader, Bolder Approach to Education.”)

So, when I think about these issues and then read the following, (quoted from the June 29th New York Times article) in terms of education, I get a little anxious:

“In a concurrence, Justice Scalia predicted that the court would soon have to reach the larger constitutional question. “The war between disparate impact and equal protection will be waged sooner or later,” he wrote, “and it behooves us to begin thinking about how — and on what terms — to make peace between them.”

The rabbit-hole of NCLB is being re-dug these days by the Department of ED. And I’m wondering if Sec. Duncan and the Justice Roberts court might end up on the same curious playing field… the tilted one.

Promo for “Lost in Time ‘literally'”

Jehad, on left, prospecting in the Pierrer Shale.

Jehad, on left, prospecting in the Pierrer Shale.

Promo for a Project Exploration student post from the field…

Science in action? Here tis! Hot off the presses from Jehad.

Whazzup with “problem” kids?

I just got through reading a compelling guest column by David Stovall in the June issue of Catalyst. Stovall, now a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, spent most of his childhood labeled as “the one in class who “didn’t know when to keep his mouth shut.”

As I write this I’m in the heart of the Montana badlands rained out of fieldwork. Around me indoors and out are Project Exploration students – the inaugural team of the “Best Science Program Evah.” These Chicago Public School high schoolers are reading, writing, talking, drawing, cleaning fossils, taking photographs (to scale, with a scale bar) and even blogging. They’re having an adventure, not only in science, but in life. (The group is being led by Elena Schroeter, a graduate of CPS’ Curie High School, a Project Exploration alumna who studied geology at the University of Chicago, worked as Project Exploration’s youth programs coordinator, and is now pursuing a PhD at Drexel University in Paleontology. She came back this summer just to help Project Exploration launch this program.)

Stovall’s piece makes me wonder as I see our students in action, whether the “problem” kids, especially African American boys, who are getting expelled out of school are perhaps EXACTLY the kids we need to get into science.

I think of the kids I regularly meet who are the ones who “just can’t stay in their seat.” When I see these kids I think of them as explorers and wanderers. The challenge for me is to find a way to meet them where THEY are at (which, most often, isn’t in their seat). Then there are the kids that can’t seem to pay attention – if anything is out of the ordinary they draw attention to it immediately and everyone in the classroom ends up being along for the ride. These are the kids who “just can’t stay on target.” I see these kids as “noticers,” “wonder-ers”… curious ones.

What if these are the scientists we need?

Except they’re invisible; we can’t find them because we can’t see them. Sometimes we can’t see them because they’re corralled into the principal’s office, or out of school, or into a cell… not a living cell, a concrete one.

The enduring, relentless picture of suspensions provided by the data Catalyst brings to bear requires us to ask not “what’s up?” with problem kids but why we’re so limited in how we see kids and education.

Perhaps a decent piece of advice we could give to policy makers and funders calling for the creation of a new generation of scientists and engineers is that the students they are looking for are already here – they just forgot to check the principal’s office.

Blogging from one of the least populated counties…

Entrance to the Lost in Time Ranch

Entrance to the Lost in Time Ranch the continental United States, Wibaux, Montana, about Project Exploration fieldwork in the Hell Creek Formation.

Stay tuned for field stories, student stories and science in action.

Redefining Science Education – Remix


In an essay entitledRedefining Science Education,” the Editor in Chief of Science Magazine, Bruce Alberts, essentially bit the hand that feeds him. According to Mr. Alberts, scientists – the ones who consume and produce the content of Science magazine – may have created the biggest problem in science education.

So what’s the problem that Alberts raises? Rather than teach students how to think scientifically what is generally happening is, “students are being told about science and being asked to remember facts.”

Mr. Alberts is disturbed. (He says it himself; I’m not saying it about him!)

In body of his essay Mr. Albert promotes an approach to “science education” that those of us working to inspire students to become engaged and inspired by science would likely find familiar and embrace. He advocates for helping students “generate and evaluate scientific evidence and explanations, understand the nature and development of scientific knowledge, and to participate productively in scientific practices and discourses.”  In sum, Alberts calls for equipping students to develop science as a way of knowing.

Unfortunately, Alberts points out, this is not how science is taught. (Remember, Alberts is criticizing the way scientists teach science in this article, though the standards he refers to are designed for K-8 teachers to employ and he ultimately roots the dilemma in science education in problems in elementary and high school teaching). The outcome of this flawed approach to science education is large numbers of adults who don’t use evidence to solve problems or embrace non-scientific explanations of how the natural world works.

Here’s the squelcher for me: Albert’s suggested solution to the problem. He recommends what we need is new assessments; tests that would better measure the strands of science education that are getting short shrift in the face of the facts.

I disagree with this “assessment.” While certainly having thoughtful, more inclusive assessments could be helpful in understanding how students are doing, such an approach may distract us from the heart of the matter.

We have standards and goals. We even now have standards for informal science education. The big problem in science education isn’t that we’re not testing appropriately, or that we’re not teaching appropriately, though these are, in fact, well documented issues that need attention and resources (and appropriately so). The real issue in science education that science, by design, is not for all, it’s not really even for most. Science is just for some. Until this aspect of science education is embraced as a real one we likely will not see much change  – regardless of how, or who, we test.

It’s critical we remember the primary sites where “real” “fun,” “engaging,” “authentic”and educational science experiences – (the ones Mr. Alberts implies we should aspire to) –  happen are ones in which participants are students who are performing academically at the top. These are the places – both in and out of school – where students get to dissect pigs, launch rockets and see their own DNA. (To name just a few of the more “fun” things students, if they’re lucky, get to do).

We need act on the idea that science  is valuable for everyone – not just for students who will become scientists and not just for students who are academically successful.

In this realm scientists do have a role to play – both in and out of college. If students are not interested in science by 8th grade it is unlikely that they will choose to pursue science in high school or beyond. They may take AP classes in science as part of a college-track program but if they don’t actually LIKE science they certainly won’t pursue it in college as a possible profession.

Some things could change bit by bit: Scientists could come out of the ivory tower and off the printed page to share their work in person. Museums could take their researchers from behind the glass and put them on the museum floor. Not to run “demonstrations” but to have conversations about the questions they’re asking, the way in which they are trying to answer those questions and the progress and challenges they work through along the way. Bring some show and tell, tools of the trade.

One of the arenas in which the kind of science that Mr. Alberts calls for  can most increasingly happen is in out of school time settings, in learning environments like the ones created by Project Exploration, where we work to level the playing field – while also offering more time, flexibility, and personalized experiences. Students are invited regardless of what their grade point average is. Programs are free. They work on real science with scientists.

Last week I was talking with one of our students, DeAndre, at our Senior Celebration. DeAndre is about to go into 11th grade. “What keeps you coming back to Project Exploration?” I asked “This is a vacation day, and yet you’ve come to hang out with us. Why?” Here’s his answer: “What I love about science is that it can be different every day. It’s like a little surprise. It’s exciting. You can always learn something new.”

Scientists that work with Project Exploration – and we are lucky to have many – embrace a progressive approach to teaching. But they include a lot of facts. Facts take on meaning because the work the students are doing is meaningful to them. They are empowered by knowing information that they can use – and information that they can share with others.
There is a real problem in science education. Cf course teachers absolutely should have resources to become better science teachers.  Students – all students – should have a chance to do science that enables them to work through problems in a hands-on way regardless of their socioeconomic or academic standing or their reading ability. Such efforts require not only cool science “stuff” but also time in the day.  Until we believe that science really is for everyone and actually has value beyond a role in ensuring economic viability (aka “pushing forward the frontiers of knowledge”) at a national level, not much will really change.

Mr. Alberts, your assessment of the problem, and your assessment of the solution,  may need testing. I hope that we can work together to ensure all students have the opportunity to become inspired to be curious, to observe closely, to describe their observations in detail and effectively, and to share their passion and ideas with others.

(Did I say “students?” – maybe I meant “scientists.” I might need to get my facts straight.)