First Person

Voices: Creating teacher-led innovation

Alexander Ooms says Colorado is finally following the lead of other states and embracing a start-up mentality as it tackles education reform. 

edseeds logo
EdSeeds is a new program aimed at sparking creativity and risk-taking in school reform.

On the surface, Colorado has all the right ingredients for K-12 innovation: a fertile ecosystem of talented educators, an engaged philanthropic community, supportive legislation and policy and the open and collaborative culture of the West. However these promising ingredients have yielded little of substance. Why is this so?

Back in 2008, the Colorado legislature passed the Innovation Schools Act. At the time, there was  great optimism that the energy of education reform combined with the ability to remove various constraints would produce a wave of innovative new approaches. Five years on, and it has not been so: the act itself is notable mainly for its unfulfilled promise, and the schools that came into being under the act have shown little to no change. A formal evaluation from November of 2011 summed it up thus:

…interviews at the seven Innovation schools suggested that at least on the surface, the majority of these schools had not made significant departures from their practice prior […] To a large extent, Innovation schools are very similar to DPS schools in terms of the curricula they use, their calendars, and their instructional time.

What went wrong?  I believe that, in large part, Colorado’s innovation has been focused on the wrong scale, initiated by the wrong people and pursued at the wrong time:

  • Currently, the focus of innovation has usually been entire schools. But new schools take several years to start, are difficult to change quickly and the complex problems inherent in a large system can be a stifling environment for innovation to thrive. Instead, innovation is best fostered at the classroom level, and should start by solving specific and discrete problems.
  • Too many innovation attempts are pushed from the top down instead of growing from the bottom up. Innovation is most likely to originate from teachers. Teachers – not the legislators, administrators and policy wonks who usually try to dictate change – know classroom challenges firsthand. Teachers are closest to students, best able to formulate and test ideas and most likely to observe real change.
  • The traditional school day is not a fertile ground for innovation. Most schools have a low tolerance for trying new things and many teachers work within a number of constraints: a set routine and curricula, a linear series of goals and metrics and 25 or more kids at once. New ideas are more likely to flourish if initially tried in smaller groups outside the traditional school setting – summer programs, after school or during weekends.

These are not particularly novel ideas. The concept of design thinking and the emergence of places like Stanford’s d.school, combined with the lean startup movement have been redefining the idea of innovation in other industries for some time.  The ability to develop new products – and sometimes new companies – in a matter of weeks has taken root within technology accelerators, such as Boulder’s TechStars or Silicon Valley’s Y Combinator.

Education is just now beginning to notice. In several pockets across the country, such as 4.0 schools in New Orleans, the K12 Lab in Palo Alto, Socratic Labs in NYC or the national effort of Startup Weekend Education, these and similar ideas are taking root.

Long thought of as an education pioneer, Colorado has been late to this effort. But that is beginning to change. An EdTech Meetup group is increasingly active. Last year, a program called DesignEDU convened educators and other professionals from across the state to engage in a series of design programs over two days. This spring, I’ve been involved with the introduction of EdSeeds, a program initiated at the Donnell-Kay Foundation in partnership with the Colorado Education Association that works with small teams of educators on specific classroom challenges. (Hopefully other organizations will post about their programs in the comments below).

I am more discouraged about the prospects for traditional district reform than at any time over the previous decade. But the constellation of the small but intense lights of these growing innovation efforts make me more hopeful about real and substantive change in education than I have ever been. Most innovation is a slow and unsteady process – the first modern airplane flight went all of 120 feet and only came after various experiments with printing presses, bicycles and motors. There will be many false starts along the way. But we have started the journey, and probably the best thing about it is that we don’t know where it will take us.

First Person

I’m a teacher in Memphis, and I know ‘grading floors’ aren’t a cheat — they’re a key motivator

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Shelly

Growing up, my father used to tell me not to come to him with a problem unless I had a solution.

That meant I learned quickly what kinds of solutions wouldn’t go over well — like ones involving my father and his money. His policy also meant that I had to weigh pros and cons, thinking about what I was able to do, what I wasn’t, and whom I needed help from in order to make things happen.

I sometimes wish decision-makers in Memphis had a father like mine. Because more often than not, it seems we are talking about the problems void of a solution or even possible solutions to vet.

Right now, the issue in Memphis and Shelby County Schools is the “grading floor,” or the policy of setting a lowest possible grade a teacher can assign a student. They have been temporarily banned after a controversy over high-school grade changing.

Grading floors aren’t new to teachers in Memphis, or to me, a fifth-grade teacher. I have taught and still teach students who are at least two grade levels behind. This was true when I taught fourth grade and when I taught sixth grade. Honestly, as the grade level increased, so did the gaps I saw.

More often than not, these students have been failed by a school, teacher, leader or system that did not adequately prepare them for the next grade. Meanwhile, in my classroom, I have a responsibility to teach grade-level material — adjusting it for individual students — and to grade their work accordingly.

That’s where “grading floors” come in. Without a grading floor, all of my current students would have grades below a 65 percent.

Can you imagine seeing the face of a fifth-grade boy who tried his hardest on your test, who answered all the questions you gave orally, who made connections to the text through auditory comprehension, only to receive a 0 on his paper?

I don’t have to imagine – I see similar reactions multiple times a day. Whether it’s a 65 percent or a 14 percent, it’s still an F, which signals to them “failure.” The difference between the two was summed up by Superintendent Hopson, who stated, “With a zero, it’s impossible to pass a course. It creates kids who don’t have hope, disciplinary issues; that creates a really bad scenario.”

I know that as years go by and a student’s proficiency gap increases, confidence decreases, too. With a lowered confidence comes a lower level of self-efficacy — the belief that they can do what they need to do to succeed. This, to me, is the argument for the grading floor.

In completing research for my master’s degree, I studied the correlation between reading comprehension scores and the use of a motivational curriculum. There was, as might have guessed, an increase in reading scores for students who received this additional curriculum.

So every day, I speak life into my students, who see Fs far too often in their daily lives. It is not my job as their teacher to eradicate their confidence, stifle their effort, and diminish their confidence by giving them “true” Fs.

“This is not an indication of your hard work, son. Yet, the reality is, we have to work harder,” I tell students. “We have to grind in order to make up what we’ve missed and I’m the best coach you have this year.”

In education, there are no absolutes, so I don’t propose implementing grading floors across the board. But I do understand their potential — not to make students appear more skilled than they are, or to make schools appear to be better than they are, but to keep students motivated enough to stay on track, even when it’s difficult.

If it is implemented, a grade floor must be coupled with data and other reports that provide parents, teachers, and other stakeholders with information that accurately highlights where a student is, both within the district and nationally. Parents shouldn’t see their child’s progress through rose-colored glasses, or be slapped by reality when options for their child are limited during and after high school.

But without hope, effort and attainment are impossible. If we can’t give hope to our kids, what are we here for?

I don’t have all the answers, but in the spirit of my father, don’t come with a problem unless you have a solution.

Marlena Little is a fifth-grade teacher in Memphis. A version of this piece first appeared on Memphis K-12, a blog for parents and students.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede