Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Less is More

When studying acting at the University of Michigan, this was the phrase our directors would use to encourage us to keep it simple, keep it real: Less is More.

I remembered this when considering Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's "data-driven" incentive to lengthen the academic day and year. This strategy is based on an analysis/comparison of U.S. education to international education, particuarly in a world where U.S. students will be "competing" for college admission and jobs with students from around the world,. However, I fully understand why this idea is met with opposition without deep and meaningful change in the way we do the business of education.

Merely lengthening the academic day won't solve the problem. That could just produce more of the same with shorter vacations. I would also question the merit of universally lengthening the school day in those districts or schools where students are achieving well above the expected "average"? Or why lengthen it in states that make Kindergarten optional?

If workers can earn vacation time for hours completed at work, why can't successful students earn time off for successfully completing academic expectations? Isn't that what many of us called Senior Year?

Dare we consider, as Richard DuFour said in his 1994 book, Professional Learning Communities at Work that
Teachers and principals will know a district is serious about transforming schools into professional learning communities only when they are given the time they need to handle the complexity of that task. (pg.111)
DuFour's perspective of school days includes embedded learning for teachers and administrators rather than paltry add-ons to fulfill external expectations.

If Secretary Duncan embraces President Obama's goal of having the highest proportion of college graduates by 2020, it would make sense that the targeted efforts would focus on early childhood and primary education programs, those first graders and early graduates of the year 2020. It brings to mind the words of Rogers and Hammerstein to "start at the very beginning".

However, to effectively impact their education, a stronger focus needs to be placed on the learning of those who teach them. Seth Godin, in his book, Tribes: We Need YOU to Lead Us would seem to proffer that we can start (continue?) movements to reform education by

  • Transforming the shared interest into a passionate goal and desire for change;
  • Providing tools to allow members to tighten their communications; and
  • Leveraging the tribe to allow it to grow and gain new members

The question then is, who will lead this tribe? Do we wait for the Secretary of Education to tell us what to do? Or do we support those impassioned educators with whom I've had the privilege of working, removing the gatekeepers of traditional unionism that enable rather than reform the feeble? What about voting in those Board of Director members who seek to reward innovation rather than worry about who's in charge?

I think NCLB has proven that changes from on high will not reform education. It has to be a grassroots, teacher and principal level of passion to do something wonderful in education, and it has to be now, because, as Godin says,

Life's way too short to make mediocre stuff. . .defending mediocrity is exhausting (pg 32).