School Choice & Charters Opinion

Stop Charter School War; Build a New Learning System

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — June 05, 2017 4 min read
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Some years ago, I started looking at new forms of learning. The harder I looked, the more I realized that the way out of permanent crisis in Los Angeles was a new version of education: make investments in it and build political support around those ideas and investments.

The good news is that we have it within our reach to break down the batch processing system that the Progressive Reformers brought to us from industrial manufacturing a century ago. Public education is now in an unusual situation in which relatively small investments in learning infrastructure can have substantial impact in terms of capacity building and systems changing.

What I call Learning 2.0 is partly about technology, but mostly about how humans do their work. It recognizes that students are the real workers in this system. It’s about personalization, adaptation, and continuous improvement. It’s about rapid prototyping of new ideas rather than waiting for a textbook publisher to run the gauntlet of state approvals. It’s about empowering teachers as intellectuals.

It’s about building a learning infrastructure that is available to every student, public or private, charter or district, extending the schoolhouse into the community and into the home.

Bringing new production ideas to Los Angeles is not as difficult or abstract as it may seem.

Move Beyond Batch Processing

Our predecessors in the Progressive Era, circa 1903, created the first full version of public education. If education were software, it would be Learning 1.0, a batch processing system creating age-graded schools, a scope-and-sequence curriculum, and the enduring Carnegie Unit system of counting credits toward high school graduation. Most everything else followed: standards, tests, school rankings.

But the batch processing system has severe design limitations. If your learning style doesn’t fit within the batch, tough luck. The same problems arise if you learn slower or faster than most students, or if the standard curriculum doesn’t excite you.

Radical personalization on the other hand brings the “choice” argument down to the student level. Instead of packing off to another school to get the tailored education he or she needs, a student should have an array of challenging, well designed choices at their fingertips.

‘All Together Now’ Politics

I’m excited about the frontiers of teaching and learning, but I’m just as excited about the implications that building a new learning system would have for the horribly unproductive politics that has dominated Los Angeles for nearly two decades.

If half the effort that has gone into the Charter School War had been directed toward building the system’s learning capacity, we would have created real winners, both adults and students.

Partly because of Internet technology, we have the capacity to create learning 2.0, the next full-scale version of public education, and it is possible to do so without the political costs of frontal attack on existing interests.

Help English Learners

LAUSD might prototype such a student motivating system with its English learners. Suppose that Los Angeles’ philanthropists came to understand that adding another 100 charter schools wouldn’t help very much, but that building a learning infrastructure for English learners would.

I am not a second language educator and won’t dive into the details of a learning system for English learners, but just from a design perspective it would have three elements:

First, it would get information directly to students and their parents. I’ve spent time in classrooms where a student’s teacher is aware of what progress a student is making, but where the student is unaware of what they needed to do to move up the achievement ladder to be reclassified as English fluent.

Gaining the coveted “reclassification” status is extremely important for students. The data clearly show that students who begin school as English learners and are not reclassified by the 5th grade face grim prospects in school. But reclassification means more than learning English; it means mastering the EL teaching and testing system, which has multiple hurdles. Just as professional middle class families understand that getting a child into a selective college means more than studying hard in high school, EL students and their parents need to know the procedural steps and hurdles involved.

A sophisticated version of this system would have it connecting with a school and district student information system, but it would not have to start out with such a connection.

Second, a learning system for EL students would provide direct and supplemental instruction. Mobile devices, such as phones and tablets, are extremely efficient delivery mechanisms for supplementary instruction, vocabulary building, training the ear to the nuances of language, and even speech instruction.

Third, the EL system should work to allow students to test their own achievement and get formative feedback.

A parallel system should be built at the teacher level, and, as with the student systems, should be made modular and customizable. Teaching resources, networking, and professional development should be available on demand for teachers.

None of this need start from ground zero. There are both open source and proprietary products that can be skillfully combined without falling prey to the problems of the Apple/Pearson/LAUSD iPad contract.

(This is the fourth post in this series. For additional background see: A Shameful Big District Election, A Peace Plan for the Charter War, and A New School District Design for L.A.)

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