Chat

A Second Front in Education Reform

Guest: Ronald A. Wolk, the chairman of the board for Editorial Projects in Education, which publishes Education Week, and the chairman of the board for the Big Picture Company in Providence, R.I., discusses why he believes the nation's move to bet everything on standards-based reform is neither wise nor necessary.

Jan. 11, 2006


Lynn Olson, Education Week (Moderator):
    Good afternoon, and welcome to the first of four on-line chats related to the 10th edition of Quality Counts, Education Week's annual report card on public education in the 50 states and the District of Columbia. One of the new things we did for this year's report, "Quality Counts at 10: A Decade of Standards-Based Education," was to ask some prominent education observers to contribute their personal views about what standards-based education has accomplished and what needs to happen next. Today, Ronald A. Wolk, the chairman of the board for Editorial Projects in Education, which publishes Education Week, and the chairman of the board for the Big Picture Company in Providence, R.I., will discuss why he believes the nation's move to bet everything on standards-based reform is neither wise nor necessary. Thanks for joining us.


Question from Arnold F. Fege, Director, Public Engagement and Advocacy, Public Education Network:
    Ron,

I agree with your standards-based assessment. But two questions: how did standards based reform become so powerful and how do we get out of it? Two, has standards based reform become barrier to building the personaliozed and diverse schools you recommend? In what repects? Thanks Ron.

Ronald A. Wolk:
    Arnie, in the late 1980s a couple of things were converging--the quest for systemic reform and the idea of national goals. You remember the first President Bush and the governors meeting in Charlottesville and setting goals for the first time.

Mike Smith and Jennifer O'Day published their paper calling for standards and it struck a chord with policymakers and business leaders. President Clinton and the Congress got in the act. And the groundwork was laid for the standards movement. Lou Gerstner of IBM and his business colleagues teamed with governors to push standards, and by 1996 the education summit gave it the momentum that carries it to this day.

I don't think we do get out of it. With NCLB pushing it further toward standardization, the movement could collapse of its own weight at some point in the future. Or, if people were wise enough and courageous enough, they would seek a course correction to get rid of the negative aspects and reinforce the positive. Don't hold your breath.

Finally, standards based reform is a formidable barrier to innovation, personalized education, and the creation of more diverse learning opportunities. Schools like the New Visions Schools in NYC and most of the school designs supported by Gates are basically incompatible with a highly standardized, uniform system of standards and assessments. These small, innovative schools probably have to make serious compromises in their own educational practices in order to survive.

My argument is that policymakers and education leaders should create an open sector where new schools could be created and could operate with standards and assessments appropriate to ther educational philosophy and practice.

Think of it as an R&D sector.


Question from Susan, University of California, Los Angeles, Student:
    Dear Mr. Wolk, you addressed the urgent need to creat a "second front" in education reform. How can this "second front" be created? How will it complement the current education system or benefit the future generations? Thank you.

Ronald A. Wolk:
    We could create the second front (and the open sector where it would flourish) through policy decisions at the state and district level. (The feds would have to be involved to call off the dogs on NCLB.)

We've already got chartering laws in 40 states, so there is a legislative foundation that could be broadened to include policy that provides a hospitable environment for the creation of new, innovative schools. With help from some foundations, we could start developing standards that could be adapted by these new schools, and multiple assessments that go well beyond multiple choice tests.

In New York, Ann Cook is leading a coalition which has persuaded the legislature to give it time to develop such standards and assessments, and progress has been made.

Districts, especially large urban districts, could start replacing failing high schools with new innovative small schools that function under the aegis of the open sector, protected from the harshest requirements of standards based reform.

The new education opportunities that make up the second front offer real alternatives to the traditional schools in the present system. Somewhere between 40 and 80 percent of adolescents are not well served by the current system. Despite the enormous diversity among students, they are all funneled into a monolithic, one-size-fits-all education.

Ultimately, I would hope the traditional system would morph into the kinds of schools that would be hatched in the open sector. I agree with Bill Gates that the traditional high school (and probably middle school) is obsolete and doesn't work. And even if it did well what it was designed to do, it would still be an ineffective way to educate kids for the changing world of the 21st century.


Question from Dr. Stephen L Gessner, President, Summer Institute for the Gifted:
    I like innovation but who decides which ideas get funded? What are the evaluative tools used to measure success for these innovative schools? Should they be linked to standards and assessments that other schools have to follow or be excused from those, as many charter schools are? Given the mixed results for charter schools, where would the accountability be?

Ronald A. Wolk:
    Funding decisions: The chartering process has already laid the groundwork here. States have mechanisms in place to evaluate charter applications, choose among them, and monitor them. That is something that can be expanded and refined.

Measuring success: Tougher question. First we need to spend some time defining success. Is it simply academic achievement as measured by test scores? Is it high attendance, high graduation rates, high college going rates? Is it the work kids do in and out of class? Do we count habits of mind and behavior?

Stanards: I don't think chartered schools are excused from standards and assessments, and that is a problem because often the standards and assessments are at odds with the schools' education approach. Schools without standards and assessments are unacceptable. A system of standards and assessments which precludes innovation is equally unacceptable. I think the "open sector" should develop standards and assessments appropriate for these innovative schools. I would make them performance standards rather than content standards. I think it is both arrogant and unrealistic to try to define a body of knowledge that every child should know. Instead, we should concentrate on helping kids learn how to acquire knowledge, evaluate it, and use it. Accountability: Chartered schools are more accountable than traditional schools. The charter spells out the goals and has a term. If the charter doesn't meet its objectives in the time frame it can be closed. If traditional schools were that accountable, we would have closed thousands of them by now. I don't think it would be hard to set up an accountability system that works for these innovative schools without being overbearing. And while I understand the need for and rationale for accountability, I think we have let it get out of hand. It has high jacked public education.




Question from Patrick Sexton, Senior Partnership Manager, Alliance for Education (Seattle WA):
    Increasing accountability was a considerable motivator for the standards based reform movement. Regardless of what the architects intended, standards based "accountability" has taken on the character of a very big stick. How do you propose that accountability be dealt with on the new front and what factors might keep it from becoming too punitive or too weak to be effective.

Ronald A. Wolk:
    See my immediately previous response. I'm not an expert in accountability, but I think we can develop a system which identifies the goals we really want to reach. I have visited innovative schools that don't do well on the state standardized tests, but where attendance rates are 97 percent, only 5 percent of the freshmen fail to graduate, and most of the graduates go on to postsecondary education. We should hold schools and kids accountable for real accomplishment and important progress in their journey to responsible adulthood.

But keeping it from being punitive will be a never ending struggle.


Question from Jacquelyn Zimmermann, director, Editorial Policy, Publications and Printing, U.S. Department of Education and parent of school-age child:
    Such schools as you propose would depend for their success on leaders (principals) and teachers. How would these people be trained in the kind of approaches and thinking needed for success? How long do you think it would take to train an adequate mass of such people to accomplish your proposed goal? Thanks for having this discussion.

Ronald A. Wolk:
    You raise a real challenge, but one that has to be made in any education system. We are struggling to find and prepare pricipals and teachers for the current system, and not doing a terribly good job.

There are a number of small programs underway that prepare principals essentially by apprenticing aspiring principals to gifted principals. I know of some few conversations with universities in which innovators are trying to get schools of education to develop new and different programs to prepare teachers for these new and different schools.

If the establishment got behind this with incentives, resources, and marketing, we could make a real dent in the problem. These are small schools for the most part, and the movement is starting slowly. The challenge is not as daunting as trying to change the current system all at once.

Still, I think the task would be never ending, but if we went at it in a full court press, we could probably turn out enough principals and teachers to keep up with the creation of the new schools.


Question from David Montes de Oca, Design Team Coach, Oakland's New School Development Group:
    What autonomies do you feel new school leaders should consider non-negotiables? Can you also suggest ways these autonomies can best be leveraged to affect student outcomes and/or systemic reform?

Ronald A. Wolk:
    Haven't thought a lot about this, yet. But...They should insist on being able to hire and fire their staff. Absolute say over their educational philosophy and pedagogy.

The chartering movement again offers a starting point. The school spells out what it plans to do and why. At the Met, where I'm involved, in Providence, every kid has a personalized curriculum that is built by the student, advisor, parent, and mentor. The personalized "curriculum" is bult around an internship that a student works in off campus a couple days a week. There are no courses as such, but if a kid needs a course, say, in science, we send him to a college or university nearby. There is much more that I can't go into here. That is the essence of the Met and it has to be non-negotiable. Our kids meet the state standards and take the state tests, and we'd love to negotiate our way out of them.

These autonomies are critical to both the school and the students. The kids at the Met really own their school and their education. They would be appalled if we compromised on any of the basic principles and we'd probably lose them. I've visited lots of these innovative schools. The morale of students and teachers is usually over the top. Everybody goes beyond the call because they are immersed in what they are doing and it's theirs. Like the people who run the mom and pop businesses work 16 hours a day because it's theirs.


Question from Barbara Morey, Education Specialist, Youth Advocates:
    What should be the role of profit-making corporations and agencies in the re-forming of public education and the re-structuring of public school programs?

Ronald A. Wolk:
    I think there are many roles that business could play in reforming public education. Technology is one major area. Traditional schools can never realize the promise of the digital revolution because of the way they are structured and operated. Software developers are driven by the entertainment market so there is not nearly enough really good educational software. If government, foundations, and business collaborated WISELY, we could revolutionalize education.

I don't have great philosophical problems to profit seeking corporations running schools, but I would rather not see that trend develop. I worry about profit becoming the priority. I'd rather see the resources go to the kids.


Question from Junlei Li, Researcher, Carnegie Mellon Univ:
    Mr. Wolk, you were pessimistic in last year's AERA speech about whether educatioanl research can help improve education. What, if not traditional educational researcher, should inform the creation of the second front and innovative new schools?

Ronald A. Wolk:
    I was skeptical about whether educational research WOULD help improve education. I said it can, but probably wouldn't. Good longitudinal research that followed kids through high school and beyond would be very helpful. Finding different ways to teach math and science in schools without courses would be helpful. Research that is intended to be practical not just academic scalp-hunting could be helpful. Teachers are in an excellent position to do research on learning.


Question from Daryl Diamond, Project Manager: Technology and Instruction, Broward County Public Schools, Florida:
    My doctoral dissertation involves the virtual high school as a contemporary comprehensive school reform initiative. What are your thoughts about the virtual high school as an alternative to the traditional high school in regards to the principles of autonomy, personalization, and diverse enrollment? What do you predict for the future of virtual high schools, and what do you think is their prognosis for scaling up within the context of what Tyack and Cuban consider the traditional "culture of schooling"? In addition, what are your thoughts on the movement to bring virtual education into the lower K-8 grades?

Ronald A. Wolk:
    On my list of things to do is to spend some time in a virtual high school. If it, like Phoenix University, simply means delivering courses over the internet, then it's old wine in new bottles. The power of technology can take us way beyond that.

If we can get the right software and hardware and be creative and imaginative in crafting its use, virtual high schools should become increasingly popular. Given the promise of technology, it makes little sense to be building great physical plants where kids go for 6 or 7 hours a day.

The traditional culture of schooling, as I said earlier, is not hospitable to technology use.

One of the hardest things for us all to deal with is that the school as we know it doesn't make a lot of sense anymore. The popular culture now provides, for good or ill, what we once looked to the common school for.

I think extracurricular activities may be the most valuable part of the high school experience. I hope we can find creative ways to keep them alive and healthy in a society of virtual schools and small innovative schools.

I think virtual education is applicable from Kindergarten on, but in different degrees and in different ways. I'm not wise enough to know how that should be done.


Question from Walt Gardner taught for 28 years in the Los Angeles Unified School District and was a lecturer in the UCLA Graduate School of Education.:
    Will even the best schools that you create using your model by themselves be able to significantly narrow the academic achievement gap, or will you also work to create social and economic policies that cause the problem in the first place?

Ronald A. Wolk:
    That sounds a little like when did you stop beating your wife.

Walt, you and I are probably starting from such different places that I'm rather sure we'll have a communications problem.

I don't share the traditional system's preoccupation with academic achievement. If it ever made sense, the content driven, disciplinary curriculum makes no sense today. Because it drives everything about schools, a large proportion of our kids find the experience alien, a waste of time.

The Met in Providence matches the city demographically, mostly minority, immigrant, and poor kids who are likely to be the first in their families to graduate from high school. Their previous school experience has largely been negative. So we try to get them to find "their passion," something they are really interested in, and build on that. So a kid decides she wants to be a secretary in her first year of school and is interned in a physician's office; decides medicine is more interesting than clerical and goes on to internships in physical therapy, then a hospital, etc. Takes science courses at a nearby college and gets As. Graduates, goes to college, and now is heading for medical school.

We didn't set out to close an achievement gap, which is only a device the privileged use to separate kids.

As for us creating the policies that created the problems in the first place, we're trying to do just the opposite.


Question from Hal Portner, Consultant:
    Mr. Wolk. Along with your advocacy for retooled schools and schooling, do you also see the need to retool teachers and teacher training? If so, in what ways?

Ronald A. Wolk:
    Yes. See earlier answer. We're training teachers for a system that is essentially obsolete and doesn't work.

If we had schools that personalized education and focused more on youth development than rote memorization, we would need radicallly different kinds of people.

I'd like to see teachers prepared much more in clinical settings working with students earlier and longer.


Question from Barry McGhan, President, Center for Public School Renewal:
    Standards-based reform, assessment, and accountability are an important part of the reform picture, but, indeed, not enough. What do you think about a change in governance of schools -- a decentralization, if you like -- where individual schools get, say, 95% of their per-pupil money, rather than the school district? Schools, those closest to the problems, would then have the power to make many important decisions themselves. They could become the innovators you want them to be. And with a good accountability program in place, if they can't improve -- with whatever expert help they choose to employ -- the public would want them to be replaced by a school with better ideas.

Ronald A. Wolk:
    I've long favored making decisions closest to the kids.

But I've become so radicalized by the traditional system and NCLB-like efforts, that I view that kind of reform as marginal. It might help, but it is not enough to make a big difference.

I think our society has to start with a clean slate: what is it we want from our schools and how can we be sure they produce it? If we were starting over, I doubt we'd build anything like the system we have now.


Question from Erin Mosely, education reporter, Montgomery Advertiser:
    Where will the funds for the nontraditional schools come from? How does the creation of these schools impact the current education funding infrastructure?

Ronald A. Wolk:
    We should make sure the per pupil allocation follows the student. The chartering programs tend to provide some startup help, but after that the schools are funded just like regular public schools.

One of the major problems we face is that the current system is probably not affordable. In other words, we can never get enough money into the system to make it produce the outcomes we want.

The school finance wars have raged for 40 years and they prove the point. One day, we may realize we just can't or won't keep putting money into a system that won't produce.

Traditional schools are labor intensive because the content-driven curriculum dictates expensive organization and staffing. We need the 50 million kids to take responsibility for their own education. They are our greatest untapped asset. Making optimum use of technology and using advisors to help kids manage their own education would probably give us the results we need at far less cost.

These new schools could cause financial problems for traditional schools by attracting students away from them, just as suburban schools did to urban schools over the past 50 years. The answer is not to outlaw suburban schools, but to make the urban schools competitive.


Question from David Montes de Oca, Design Team Coach, Oakland's New School Development Group:
    If you were to advise new school leaders on what their priorities should be in choosing what to focus their energies on in the first years of a new school, what would they be, and perhaps, in what order?

Ronald A. Wolk:
    I'm sorry but that is too big for this space. Go to the Met website for at least a partial answer. I will say I would start with defining purpose: What is it we really want to accomplish with the kids and how do we define success, i.e., how will we know when we get it?


Question from Ann Kenyon, school administrator, Bristol ,CT:
    Many efforts have been made to integrate character education into the public school process. In your view, where does this "movement" fit within the reality of standards-based reform?

Ronald A. Wolk:
    I prefer to say something like helping kids develop the habits of mind and behavior that will make them productive and decent adults. I don't think a course in character education does this. I don't have much use for the self esteem movement.

You develop character and build self esteem through productive work and social interaction, through accomplishment, through succeeding and failing.

This is one of the values of schooling that standards based reform has squeezed out for the most part, As Diane Ravitch and Jim Comer note in their commentaries.


Question from Lynn Castiglione, Gifted EdTeacher 3rd-6th Grade, Bellair Elementary:
    I am struggling to prepare my students for success in the "real" world they will face in just a few years. How can teachers spread the word about and help support this much needed "second front" concept?

Ronald A. Wolk:
    Good question. Most social change is brought about by about 10 percent of the people; the rest of us follow.

Inform yourself, talk to other teachers, organize, talk to parents and school board members, write op ed pieces, persuade your fellow teachers to start a charter school that is owned and operated by teachers (See EdVisions schools).


Question from Steve DeFlitch, Parent, Pittsburgh Public School District:
    What can be done to reach out to parents who aren't involved or are apathetic about their children's education?

Ronald A. Wolk:
    Surveys show that parents rely on teachers for most of what they know about school.

See my previous answer. I would find a few interested influential parents and start holding meetings in homes and neighborhoods to talk about the schools, about what we should expect, about what goes on inside those buildings and whether it makes sense, about what our own experience produced in us.


Question from John Mullaney, executive director The Nord Family Foundation Amherst Ohio:
    This foundation has supported many schools that provide successful alternative models for educating middle and high school students. More often than not, they are private alternative or charter schools primarily because the school union leaderhip work very hard to thwart reform. How can the union leadership be brought on-board to this discussion and realize that in far too many schools across the country the leadership is the problem that creative teachers and school boards do not want to or do not know how to address constructively?

Ronald A. Wolk:
    Teacher unions are under increasing pressure, and it will get hotter with each passing year. There are some very forward looking union leaders, but they are in a minority.

I don't have an answer for you, but it looks more and more like we'll have a shootout before we have a sitdown.


Question from Matt Matera, Program Coordinator, TRiO Educational Talent Search:
    Because for every 100 American students only 18 graduate with an associate or baccalaureate degree within six years,how will the new-schools strategy make a stronger connection between the K-12 education and postsecondary education?

Ronald A. Wolk:
    Good question. We've been working with college groups trying to get them to reconsider their admission requirements.

Colleges and universities have a very big problem but they haven't had to face it as painfully as the schools have. Even so, a number of institutions are struggling with the question of whether common curricula make sense any more or distribution requirements.

There are good examples in states of higher education and K-12 working together. Progress is being made in creating K-16 boards. Policymakers, foundation officials, and business leaders need to do more here.

See the eight-year study for interesting reading.


Question from Derek Boucher-teacher:
    Mr. Wolk Hasn't Ted Sizer's Coalition of Essential Schools put into action the ideas you are espousing? Why isn't the mainstream paying more attention to what he has done?

Ronald A. Wolk:
    Ted was there long before I was. Mostly, the CES comprises traditional schools that tried to transform themselves. Sometimes this works, but not terribly often or well. Ted's first school was Hope High in Providence, which now some 20 years later is still trying to transform itself.

The mainstream doesn't have to pay attention because it is the mainstream. When Tony Alvarado in Dist. 2 in NYC was making spectacular gains, visitors came from around the country to see what was happening. But neighboring districts in NYC ignored him.


Question from Milli Pierce, Executive Director, The Fund for Educational Excellence, Baltimore, Maryland:
    Is there any evidence to suggest that using an outside partner to manage an Innovation School leads to high achievement for students or better management and leadership in the school?

Ronald A. Wolk:
    Not that I know of, but it would seem to make sense.


Question from David Beedy, Advisor, Skyview Big Picture High School Denver, CO:
    What national and common state policy and legal changes are the keys to initiating and maintaining ongoing and innovative school reform across the country?

Ronald A. Wolk:
    Better chartering laws. There are organizations that have worked out good provisions and good language. Policy to permit innovative schools to march to a different drummer regarding standards and assessments. The state of RI has amended its grad requirements to incorporate some practices of The Met--multiple assessments, portfolios, etc. Funding provisions that provide equal funding to chartered schools along with facilities.

If you are seriously working on this, get in touch with me later.


Question from Leslie Santee Siskin, Research Professor, NYU Steinhardt:
    In our recent study on high schools and high stakes testing (The New Accountability, Carnoy, Elmore & Siskin) we documented strong pressures on innovative "orthogonal" schools that were trying to do something different. . ."innovative, nontraditional schools built around principles like autonomy, personalization, and diverse enrollment" such as African American heritage and community, or Newly immigrated ELL students. Common standards and high stakes tests pushed these schools away from their distinctive--often quite successful--missions toward standardized, routinized, academic programs. Precisely the opposite trajectory you seem to be calling for. How can schools, or districts, hold on to high standards without numbingly standardizing practice in an era of NCLB pressure to cover and to conform? Or without breaking away into the more uncharted territory of charter schools (like High Tech High)?

Ronald A. Wolk:
    Already answered.


Question from Valerie Kime, Recently Certified Elementary Teacher, not-employed:
    Can you comment on the fact that so many teachers and administrators seem resigned to standards-based teaching, partially due to their own unimaginative educations. Also, on the subject of constantly rearranging the furniture: critical thinking and innovative teaching techniques require motivation, curiosity, time, and creativity. I would hate to see more "mandates" even if they involve these values some of us cherish. Thanks.

Ronald A. Wolk:
    Teaching has to be one of the most challenging jobs in the world, but the people who do it don't get nearly the kind of preparation they need. Moreover, working conditions and the way schools operate tend to treat teachers like cogs in the wheel. Finally, by organizing teachers and kids into little groups behind closed doors, we isolate them. We should have interdisciplinary team teaching, project-based education, etc.

I can tell that you envision the teaching techniques as add ons: "More mandates." This will only work if it is the main show, not the side show. If you do it the way I propose, you don't continue doing it the way you always have.


Question from Rose H. Snyder, Duval County Public School:
    In light of the recent Fordham Report on The State of State Science Standards, why would you argue for new schools when these standards and perhaps others are still in need of modification or clarification?

Ronald A. Wolk:
    I think the standards movement went off course. In my commentary, at the end, I spell out conditions that were ignored that might have made a difference.

I see no evidence that the system will revisit standards or modify the system.

The schools I envision would not have standards that say every 7th grader should be able to recite the principal products of Peru. They would be performance standards, which are met when one can actually do the work. Who takes a standardized test to determine if they can play the piano?


Question from Lisa Ross, Federal Policy Director, Pre-K Now:
    Do you think an expansion of high-quality pre-kindergarten programs should be included in these innovative new schools that you visualize for the future?

Ronald A. Wolk:
    I've focused on high schools and to some degree middle schools. But I do believe high quality kindergarten is essential.


Question from Harry Haws, Teacher, Philadelphia:
    I'm so tired of hearing about standards based reform strategies. The only reform that will significantly transform education is reduced class size. Until that happens, your just blowing smoke. Despite an abundance of research, school districts and the powers that be, have, and will always choose money over student achievement. Why aren't we putting more effort into the real issue concerning reform?

Ronald A. Wolk:
    I'm not advocating a standards-based reform strategy. Quite the contrary, I'm proposing an entirely different educational philosophy from traditional schools.

Small classes are very important but not sufficient in themselves. A bad teacher doing mediocre teaching in a small class ain't much good.

Go beyond small classes, to personalized curricula, real world internships, mentoring, project-based learning, etc.


Question from Eric Willard, Director of Technology, Belvidere CUSD #100, Illinois:
    We are beginning construction of a new high school (the second high school in our district). It is an excellent time to do something differently. However, our district human resources (and naturally our funding) are stretched thin.

Are there sources and resources who can help us manage and run a process of such reform without us paying for it?

Ronald A. Wolk:
    No free lunch, Eric.

Somebody should be asking whether it makes sense to build a big new high school. Why is a building so important?


Question from Sarah Carleton, Education Specialist, MA Department of Education:
    Successful innovative schools as a strategy has two problems: 1)little evidence that they have exercised influence by example; and 2)lack of capacity to create nearly the number of successful innovative schools required for all children in middle and high schools. Please comment - thanks.

Ronald A. Wolk:
    With regard to the first problem, they haven't had much opportunity to have influence. The established system doesn't tolerate differences.

The "boutique" argument has some validity. But we should not give up on the idea because we can only solve part of the problem.There are now at least 5,000 nontraditional schools. Every kid who succeeds is a victory.

If there were a better solution, I might agree. But keep in mind that the alternative is the present system which is failing kids in huge numbers.


Question from Jose Afonso, SABIS Educational Systems:
    Thomas Friedman, in the "World is Flat" wans us that American schools are inadequately preparing our students to compete in the new economy of the globalized world against their peers in such places as India and China. How will standards-based reform change this train wreck happening right before our eyes?

Ronald A. Wolk:
    I don't think standards based reform will avoid the train wreck.

If we want our kids to compete, we have to help them become life-long learners, who know how to think and solve problems. They must be able to adapt to changing circumstances, new knowledge, and new technology.

Memorizing isolated information from standards based, content driven schools won't get us there.


Question from E Trhlik, eLearning Developer:
    Do you see more or less emphasis on ACT, SAT and other testing criteria for college acceptance in the next 5-10 years? Will measurement standards change for incoming college students if a more non-traditional approach to teaching high schoolers is incorporated in more schools?

Ronald A. Wolk:
    Our test obsessed society suggests that ACT, SAT, etc. will thrive. Answer to your second question is: God, we hope so.

We ought to redo the 8 year study. If you don't know it, look it up.


Question from Gregory Ciardi, Consultant:
    Parents want their kids to succeed, and like it or not, that usually means succeed in some competition. In a traditional school, parents know the rules of the game and they know how to keep score. How can we help parents trust new schools to do right by their kids?

Ronald A. Wolk:
    A Public Agenda survey a few years ago said what parents want most from schools is for their kids to be well rounded.

The 15 or 20 percent of kids who go to selective colleges have parents who keep score and want competition. Don't think most of the rest do.

Involve parents in the new school. The Met in Providence has the greatest participation of parents of any school in RI. Parents are truly partners in their kids' education, and they are fiercely committed to The Met.


Question from Ann Kenyon, school administrator, Bristol, CT:
    This is a fascinating discussion raising thoughtful points. Ron, do you see change of this magnitude happening more readily at the state or district level?

Ronald A. Wolk:
    So far, districts have been out in front. Chicago, NYC, Denver, DC, etc.

But states are in the best position to pull it off.


Question from Dr. Jared Scherz, Director of ITC:
    Mr. Wolk, I suspect that the move toward standardized curriculum has helped to disempower teachers. I wonder if you see a correlation with the alarming rate of teacher turnover?

Ronald A. Wolk:
    I'm not aware that teacher turnover is much different than it has been; 30 percent to 50 percent drop out in the first five years of their career, but mostly for personal reasons.

I do think that teacher-proof curricula have disempowered teachers.

The teachers I meet in the small innovative schools are working harder then they ever have, but they are getting a professional satisfaction that makes it all worth it.


Question from Sharon Elin, 7th grade teacher, Hanover Co., Va.:
    What role do you see for technology in the future of education reform? For example, consider the creation and use of commputer games as vehicles for delivering individualized and engaging instruction/application. Some writers have suggested that currently we are overlooking our students' digital abilities and interests by continuing to deliver instruction in the same way as previous generations.

Ronald A. Wolk:
    I've answered this in a couple of previous answers. I think there is great promise, but not in traditional schools.


Question from Linda Terry, Teacher, NYC DOE, NY:
    Mr. Wolk, As I am sure you know oftentimes too much of a good thing no longer beneficial, but rather harmful. I would appreciate hearing your opinion on this as it pertains to school reform. It seems to me that there is so much turnover in school management, followed by curriculum/infrastructure reform in schools, that we never get an opportunity to build a strong foundation for success to build upon. I have had three new local Superintendents in the past 5 years, four new principals, and we are on our third new adopted literacy series. I am mandated to follow these new reform initiatives, yet there is no consistency. Your thoughts?

Ronald A. Wolk:
    What you've experienced is CHURN not reform. When we don't know what to do or haven't thought it through or start with the wrong questions, we wind up with CHURN.

School reform over the past 23 years has not accomplished much because we didn't ask the right questions and followed the practice of ready, fire, aim.


Question from Diane Patrick, Ph.D., GAR, Inc.; formerly with the Univ. of Md.'s university and K-12 technology outreach:
    What are some of the best examples of innovative schools that you have seen?



Ronald A. Wolk:
    The Met in Providence, Urban Academy and the New Visions Schools in NYC, New Country School in Minn., and the Ed Visions schools, El Puente in Milwaukee and a bunch of others in that district, High Tech High and the other Gates-sponsored designs.


Question from Gregg Sinner, Program Planning Specialist, Education Alliance, Brown University:
    You seem to be calling for a radical new story of schooling and learning. Do you think small learning communities and small school initiatives at the secondary level are fertile ground for radical redesign of schools?

Ronald A. Wolk:
    I am. I do.

The barraiers are real, but the pressure is building. One of these days...


Question from Dr. Paul M. Marino, Professor of Education, Delaware Valley College:
    You speak of "Innovative new Schools", how do you propose them to become innovative if we spend so much time testing students and teachers?

Ronald A. Wolk:
    If I had my way, we'd limit standardized testing to 4th, 8th, and 12th grade. Period.


Question from Gregg Sinner, Program Planning Specialist, Education Alliance, Brown University:
    What do you think about Jim Collins' "Good to Great in the Social Sectors" as a guide for creating great public schools?

Ronald A. Wolk:
    I'm not familiar enough with his ideas. I heard him speak once.


Question from Ellen Foley, Principal Associate, Annenberg Institute:
    Charter schools have not been particularly innovative places, particularly around instruction, despite having more autonomy, diversity and a commitment to personalization. How can we ensure that the new schools you advocate actually do innovate, and that the lessons from such schools are learned and applied to whole systems of schools?



Ronald A. Wolk:
    Ellen, you're right. States and charter authorizers have to view charters as a n opoportunity to innovate and experiment. If they look like traditional schools why bother.

Chartering is the first time thes tates have delegated to nongovt. people and agencies ther ight to start publicly funded schools. But states have to be more aggressive in awarding charters to innovation.

Unions have weakened charter laws, and many states just go through the motions.


Question from Kristy Casper Teacher, Esko High School Esko, MN:
    A questioner asked if the innovative schools would help narrow the achievement gap. My question is, if teachers are teaching all students and working to bring all students to their potential, then won't there always be an achievement gap? And how does that relate to standards being a minimum benchmark of achievement for a student, instead of a challenge for students to reach their highest potential?

Ronald A. Wolk:
    Depends on what you mean by achievement and gap.

One kid teaches himself to play guitar. Another is a painter. A third enters the science fair. How do you measure achievement and gap in this instance?

If students, parents, and teachers agree on goals for a year and the kids meet their goals, what is achievement and what is a gap?


Lynn Olson, Education Week (Moderator):


    Unfortunately, we've run out of time. But this has been a terrific discussion. Thanks Ron. You can find Ron's original commentary by clicking on the Quality Counts button on this Web site and going to the table of contents. Next Wednesday at 3 P.M. Diane Ravitch, a research professor of education at New York University, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and the author of many books about American education, will be joining us for a discussion about whether we need national standards in education. Thanks for joining us.



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Please be sure to include your name when posting your question.

Edweek.org's Live Chat is an open forum where readers can participate in a give- and-take discussion with a variety of guests. Edweek.org reserves the right to condense or edit questions for clarity, but editing is kept to a minimum. Transcripts may also be reproduced in some form in our print edition. We do not correct errors in spelling, punctuation, etc. In addition, we remove statements that have the potential to be libelous or to slander someone. Please read our privacy policy and user agreement if you have questions.

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