I’ve seen a lot of school reform in the past 25 years. I started my career in education policy. It had a lot of sex appeal for a young idealist because in the early 90s when we were just beginning to talk about public education as the new frontier for civil rights—the idea that fixing our schools could be the catalyst for social change. Public education was our best chance to end poverty and propel our democracy. My first job was in Chicago and I learned a lot about the politics of urban school reform. Not much about the schools themselves, but an awful lot about power and money.
After Chicago I spent four years working for the New Mexico Legislature. It was perfect for me—a job in my home state where I could bring my analytical skills to benefit my own community. I loved it because when you’re a policy analyst for the legislature, you learn about the bottom line and what 27 year-old doesn’t love knowing the bottom line? How much does it cost and what’s the evidence that it worked? It’s the view of a skeptic who isn’t swayed by anecdotes or personal stories.
Here’s a snapshot of educational performance in our state since the time I did policy work:
1. The last 20 years of 4th grade reading scores in New Mexico are represented by the blue line and the reading scores across the nation are in red. My state is hovering at about 20% proficiency.
2. Graduation rates (63 – 65%) haven’t budged either since we started keeping track 5 years ago.
As I said before, I come from the policy word and I’m comfortable with judging whether policies work or not. Now it’s time to admit that we’ve made a fundamental mistake, especially regarding the schools where nearly half of the students drop out before graduating. We have accepted that the inputs were sound—the five period day, 180 day school year, text book driven curriculum, passive learning, and compartmentalized instruction in an uncaring bureaucracy. We just needed to raise our expectations for performance. However, we forgot one very important thing, students have ultimate veto power over any education policy, and they’ve vetoed what we’ve been offering for the past 20 years.
The Eagle Rock Professional Development Center has been our partner over the past five years as we have tried to rethink the inputs into education. They have given us the capacity to serve the needs of young people who have had a terrible time in the traditional education system. Albert Einstein once said, “We cannot solve a problem within the same consciousness that created it. We must learn to see the world anew.” Together with our partners from Eagle Rock, we are rethinking accountability. We owe a great education to our students, families, and communities. They have helped us start from scratch to build a new frame of reference for school so that it is far more personalized to the needs of young people. We have created support structures that assume that they are assets to be nurtured rather than problems to be solved. We have enabled teachers and social workers to be the creators of school culture. Most importantly, Eagle Rock has helped us build a professional development system that empowers our teachers to create learning experiences that reflect the real world.
At ACE Leadership High School where I am the principal, we focus is architecture, construction and engineering and it functions much more like a job site than a school. The projects are co-constructed with industry and kids never ask “when will I ever use this.” Finally, Eagle Rock has helped us understand that learning should not be bound by time and place. The five period-day is a relic of the industrial age that needs to be jettisoned in favor of authentic learning that is rooted in tangible outcomes that can be judged by outside experts.
The teachers, board members and students are courageous to leave behind almost everything they know and start from scratch and there is simply no way that it can be done without partners. As one of my board members said, “If anyone comes in here and pulls something off the shelf, they will be run out of town. There is no off the shelf redesign strategy. Instead, our partners from Eagle Rock have listened hard and tailored their support to our context. Sometimes I think that our challenges are insurmountable. Reform work can be lonely when you choose to re- engineer school rather than tinker around the edges. Thanks to Eagle Rock, we have found a partner that is capable of helping us frame the questions and facilitate us to answers that get to the root needs of young people.
What benefit do you see in Eagle Rock’s framework for collaborative, asset based school improvement rather than the “off the shelf strategy” many professional developers use?