Outrageous Learning: An Education Manifesto

homeschooling my story Oct 07, 2012
I devoured Scott Oki’s book, Outrageous Learning when I originally read it in July of 2009. I found it easy to read and well organized. It was written in straight-forward prose that everyone can follow and is packed with ideas for incremental change on 11 main planks, as he calls them. It made so much sense to me that I was surprised that some of the recommendations were even there (which highlights my ignorance on how public schools work). For example, do we really not give principals the ability to hire whatever teachers they think are most qualified? Or, do we really not pay our teachers based on how well they perform? The book makes me want to buy copies of the book for some of my smartest friends and gather them together to start a conversation about Bainbridge public schools. So if you get an invitation, you’ll know that I think you are very smart. But if I’m really honest, it also makes me want to seek out the best alternatives to public schools for my kids. I really just want to run the other direction. In the preface of his book, Scott states that he “believes the lack of sufficient emotional energy to make a positive difference in public education is due to the fact that we, as individuals, feel powerless to fix a problem that is a multi-headed hydra of gargantuan size.” That is how I feel.

Scott’s premise is that there is not a unified view of what the problem with our schools actually is. He thinks the real problem “is rooted in just a few essential things. First, there is an almost total lack of freedom for school leaders – principals and superintendents – to innovate, make policy corrections and change any number of things when warranted. Second, there are an insufficient number of capable, insanely great teachers in the classroom, and there are many weak teachers who should receive heavier and more frequent doses of professional development, or who should seek another line of work. And third, in many places, there is a lack of involvement of parents and neighborhood communities in improving local schools.”

Makes me think about a story I heard on This American Life last year about underperforming NYC school teachers that were sent to a holding room for weeks in lieu of firing them. Facinating. And scarry! But alas, I digress…

The 11 suggestions for improving public schools in Washington offered in the book are:

  1. Let local leaders lead. Need to start with “inspired leaders who are empowered to make key decisions and who accept responsibility for delivering results.” “Teachers should be able to make the decisions that impact the learning for each and every one of their students without the burdensome constraints of bureaucracy.” “As the school’s CEO, the principal should be ultimately responsible for the quality of the teachers, the effectiveness of the instruction and the health of the school’s learning community.” He suggests each principal has a Board of Directors helping him to succeed.

  2. Insanely great teachers. “We should create a meritocracy in which good teachers are recognized and paid for superior teaching performance…We should allow schools to hire qualified teachers from the broadest talent pool possible…In addition to attracting top talent, constant and continual improvement should be a part of the teaching culture.”

  3. The freedom to choose. “Yet when it comes to one of the most important decisions affecting the future of our children, their education, parental choice is often nonexistent in public schools. Parents are largely told where to send their child and what teacher the child will have…In contrast, no one would dream of accepting a system in which a government official assigned each citizen to use only the public gas station within two miles of his house especially if the gas were underperforming and overpriced.” “Without consumer choice, managers, whether public officials or company executives, have no incentive to innovate, improve quality, provide inspired leadership or create a culture of excellence.”

  4. More time spent educating. Some reasons kids don’t keep up in school include: “student-to-teacher ratio, quality of instruction, quantity of instruction, pace of instruction, and duration of instruction.” Consider “lengthening the school day, increasing the number of teaching days in the school year, and/or adopting a year-round school calendar…”

  5. Early learning rigor, optional high school. Only half of the children entering kindergarten are ready to learn. “…a person’s foundation for how they feel about themselves, self-esteem, is established in childhood and that lifelong intellectual curiosity is shaped in the earliest years.” The Hart-Risley study found that “the level of income, ethnicity, and level of parents’ education had no explanatory power in determining the level of cognitive capacity that the children achieved. It is all explained by the amount of language dancing, or extra talk, over and above business talk, that the parents engage in. It accounted literally for all the variance in outcomes [of success].” “…if parents and caregivers would simply engage children in adult conversation with more frequency, children would be more intelligent than if not spoken to in this matter.” “We have to stop warehousing teenagers where the educational self life is quite limited, based on where we would like them to go (college), and get them into learning environments that are appropriate for their long-term goals. I believe many students will flourish if we engage them in classes they find meaningful, excite their interests and are relevant to their futures.”

  6. Muster an army of volunteers. Parents, mentors, tutors, Teach Corps. “Parents are teachers of their children, and can meaningfully contribute to the learning by checking homework, reading to young children, asking questions, engaging kids in conversation, and the thousand other ways parents create a stimulating learning environment at home.”

  7. No standardized curriculum. “While managed instruction strategies are ideal for the earliest grades, more freedom and flexibility in pedagogical approaches is necessary for the higher grades.” “We should return to a more focused approach [to curriculum], with more class time devoted to a smaller number of essential subjects. Even though the breath of subjects would be more limited, we should embrace many different ways to teach the same material.” First Move program taught chess to second and third grade students in order “to stimulate higher-level analytical thinking skills and to improve the learning outcomes in the areas of math and reading”. What does it mean to be educated? At minimum, “upon leaving school our children need to be literate, with strong working knowledge of spoken and written English, to have mastery of mathematics (including geometry and algebra, though trigonometry and calculus are probably overkill), to understand the natural world, to grasp the core concepts of science, to understand how democracy works, and to know the history of their country, region, and state.” But most important is the ability to think critically.

  8. Early intervention and specialized instruction. Leaders should focus on immediate, micro-remedial action to help kids showing the first signs of difficulty. Stop social promotion, all kids need to be prepared before advancing. Stop teaching to the least common denominator, lowers the rigor of the lesson and wastes resources babysitting and disciplining. Segregate special needs if appropriate, to target to students individual needs.

  9. Spend money as though it were your own. “We are the only country in the world where non-teaching administrative positions exceeds the number of teaching positions.” Outsource whatever tasks you can, including transportation and food service and consider nurses, therapists, security, janitorial, clerical, and administrative positions. Eliminate the costs associated with WASL and other standardized tests. Let capitalism work and it’ll be obvious which schools are suceeding.

  10. Plant the seeds of success in life: values, character, leadership. Boy and Girl Scouts as model to “focus on values, character and leadership, and the equally important goal of establishing a pattern of accomplishment for kids”.

  11. Establish a culture of excellence. Excellence DNA “takes many forms: open and honest communication; teamwork; the elimination of bureaucracy; a shared vision and passion for the work to be done; a unified view of wanting to be the best; a commitment to constant improvement; the elimination of the attitude, “That’s not my job.”” Develop level 5 leaders as described in Good to Great. Example of Toyota culture based on continual improvement and mutual respect.

Tackling all of these issues seems daunting, but Oki recommends focusing first on choice. All else will flow from that, but have to focus on four areas of choice:

  1. Student. Using the Disabilities Education Act as a model, Oki recommends some rights for students, including: assessment of each student’s present levels of performance, allowing students to choose the school suited to their learning style, if student experiences learning difficulties a team will convene to develop a detailed plan for addressing, explanation to parents of the need for intervention, alternative or modified assignments, specially designed instruction, in-class teachers aides, and access to other related services that lead to effective learning progress.

  2. Classroom. Improve on the quality of the students entering colleges, implement new curricula for teacher that optimizes teaching in a customized way, increase the starting salaries for new teachers, offer bonuses to entice more teachers to pursue math and science or teach in tough schools, create new compensation that is merit based, create better system for assessing teacher performance (Lakeside school and Ohio Teacher Initiative Fund evaluation criteria).

  3. School. “Granting greater freedom to principals would lead to increased responsibility and accountability.”

  4. Community. Girl and Boy Scouts, YMCA, Boys & Girls Clubs, mentoring, tutoring, etc. Specified outcome might include “reducing behavioral problems at the school, decreasing truancy,improving study habits, improving subject matter competency, or building a more involved parent community.”

The book ends with Japanese concept of Kaizen – a management concept for incremental, gradual and continuous improvement. Success “relies on the long-term view of encouraging everyone to participate in making small improvement suggestions, frequently and regularly.” Can lead to substantial change.

Wouldn't it be cool to add to mission statement of schools: “Provide a joyful education that allows every child to pursue his dream.”

I want to reread or go find the following sources cited in the book:

  • Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Annual Report, 2008

  • Washington Learns, World Class, Learner-Focused, Seamless Education 2006 Report chaired by Gov Chris Gregiore. Current generation is less educated than parents for the first time.

  • Lakeside schools and the OTIF teacher evaluation performance standards and peer review guidelines

  • Good to Great, Freakonomics

  • Enriching Children, Enriching the Nation by Robert Lynch

  • Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Young American Children, by Betty Hart and Todd Risley

  • Disrupting Class by Dr. Clayton Christensen

  • First Move, American’s Foundation for Chess


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