English-Language Learners Opinion

How to Bring L.A.'s Schooling Into the 21st Century

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — October 14, 2016 6 min read
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In a recent post, I sketched out some design ideas for a truly 21st Century school system in Los Angeles. I said that neither the charter school expansion advocates nor those pushing back against them have publicly acknowledged the need to create a fundamentally different school system than the one put in place a century ago. But pivoting away from debating more or fewer charters and toward designing a truly modern school system provides a window for a political breakthrough if someone had the moxie and political clout to take advantage of it.

The most fundamental aspect of a new system design lies in building a new learning infrastructure, not in changing how schools are governed. Let me explain. Our schools are stuck between an old institutional form of learning, Learning 1.0, and a new institution, Learning 2.0, which is struggling to come into being. (See earlier ‘On California’ posts and a policy brief published by Policy Analysis for California .)

Our predecessors in the Progressive Era, circa 1910, created the first full version of public education. If education were software, it would be Learning 1.0. Learning 1.0 worked spectacularly, but over time society made demands on the system that it wasn’t designed to produce...virtually all students educated to a high standard, for example. Reformers tried and still try to tweak the system: Learning 1.1, 1.3, or 1.3.793. Virtually all current battles are being fought on this small spectrum of improvement. Should we have standardized tests, for example, and, if we do, how should we use the results?

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 was a new version of education, Learning 2.0: make investments in it and build political support around those ideas and investments.

Move Beyond Batch Processing

Learning 1.0 built 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.

The good news is that we have it within our reach to break down the batch processing system that the Progressive Era reformers borrowed from industrial manufacturing a century ago. Radical personalization is now possible. 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. 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.

It’s About People; Not Tech

Learning 2.0 is partly about technology, but mostly about how humans do their work. Learning 2.0 recognizes that students are the real workers in this system. And recognizing that students are the real workers, it provides them the tools they need to learn, when and where they need them. Providing learning tools to students stokes their motivation. For example, just providing students clear information about standards and learning objectives is likely to help them self-direct. A student at Jefferson High School in Los Angeles told me, “I’m a sophomore; I should be a junior, but I messed up last year, didn’t get my work done. Now I know how to take responsibility for what I do.” There is a lot of freedom to learn in different ways within Learning 2.0, but it’s not permissive.

The contemporary politics of education cannot produce Learning 2.0. The problem is not—as many who call themselves “reformers” allege—with education interest groups. The problem is that the system is focused on the wrong things. For most of the last four decades, the interest groups in public education have battled over mandates and regulations. Those same interests need to focus on changing the design of the system and increasing its capacity.

An ‘All Together Now’ Politics

If the existing politics of corporate reformers v. traditionalists can’t create a new public schooling capable of educating all the nation’s students, what can? For starters we need a new political coalition.

To build a new political coalition, we need an idea that will allow the existing interest groups, which include the people who think of themselves as reformers, to abandon trench warfare.

Let me be clear: I am not suggesting a “Kumbaya moment” where everyone holds hands and sings in four-part harmony. What I’m suggesting is that we move from big fights over little things to drawing a political line in the sand in such a way that the winner defines a new learning system. There will be losers, but the important thing is that there will be big winners, including teachers and students.

A new learning system won’t start all at once. All the familiar forms of teaching and organizing schools are likely to be with us for some time. But we could aim reorganizing human effort and technology around a couple of the more difficult and expensive, labor intensive parts of elementary and secondary education.

For the last two decades, most of the added costs for schooling have come in areas that are outside the center of normal curve of achievement and often outside traditional classrooms. Both law and social ethics require that we teach Special Education students well, that English Learners become fluent, and that students who lag get adequate remediation.

Building A Learning Infrastructure

So, 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.

Help EL Students

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.

So, why don’t we do this? We don’t because the drivers of politics in Los Angeles favor war over peace, and ruinous competition over systems building. That’s bad.

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