Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Green Schools

The U.S. Department of Education recently announced their first Green Schools awards. Seventy-eight public schools were honored for their environmental impact, sustainability and "innovative school reforms."

It should be noted that the presumably now-healthy students in these Green Schools could be destined for a life of low achievement, underemployment and possibly even incarceration, but will undoubtedly have the satisfaction and peace of knowing they attended school in an environment that promoted recycling and a minimal impact on the environment.

As is the case with almost all education initiatives, there was data used to make the determination for which schools deserved this incredible distinction. For example, schools that now use rain barrels, previously-used pavement or off-grid solar power measured rainfall, tire pressure and iPad charge time, respectively. In the case of districts using school buses powered by used cooking oil for fuel, students who could correctly guess what type of food was made in the cooking oil were given a higher score.

The department's press release described the academic benefits for rope climbing, kayaking and other activities in their outdoor classrooms. In fact, reading "on the green" was used to enhance wilderness adventures. To ensure that school parents and communities were also involved in the green initiative, some schools posted "no idling" signs in parking lots and distributed garden produce to local shelters.

Students were prepared for growing up in the 21st Century by caring for bunnies, chickens, goats, fish and ducks. However, there was no mention of students learning about the anatomy and physiology of these animals in their Biology classes. One can only imagine these animals will also benefit from the enhanced green environment and live forever in their nurturing environment.

The one glaring omission from this press release was the hundreds of public schools deemed failing by the department and the hundreds of thousands of students attending these schools who cannot read or write on grade level. The effort put in to determining Green Schools meant that even less was being done for the students who have been failed by the public education system. Further, the message that everything is blissful as long as schools are recycling and minimizing their impact on the environment and therefore, focusing on getting students smarter isn't important, is part of the reason our nation is where it is today: performing significantly below countries that have clearly established the importance of a good education.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Alpha Authorizing

Jim Goenner is an excellent speaker, regardless of the topic he's presenting on. True to his nature, Jim Goenner presented an excellent workshop on Alpha Authorizing. Goenner started by talking about Ted Kolderie's July 1990 paper called "The States Will Have to Withdraw the Exclusive." Kolderie spoke about the system's need to change the incentives in public education. Kolderie's goal was to improve public education for ALL students. He proposed these goals be met through choice (empower families to choose their schools) and diversification (empower someone other than the district to create new public schools).

Goenner said that authorizers can either be change agents, market makers, forces for quality, and catalysts for excellence or they can be gatekeepers, monitors and evaluators. Goenner encouraged authorizers to think innovatively and challenge the "givens." Instead to foster an environment that attracts talent, capital and entrepreneurship. Authorizers should provide leadership and ideas for improving education, rather than being reactive to policies and practices that stimulate mediocrity.

Geonner stressed that public charter schools are "chartered" (a verb) and not "charter" (a noun). They are dynamic and evolving. Charter schools should foster an environment that attracts the can-do people who can strategize creative solutions.

By focusing on quality, charter school authorizers should:
*Thoroughly screen applicants and their applications.
* Measure and evaluate performance.
* Preserve discretionary judgement; in other words, be able to make wise decisions on a case-by-case basis rather than being locked in to policy restraints that aren't what's best for students.
* Protect school autonomy.
* Appropriately intervene when people fail. Don't be afraid to step in to close a charter school that doesn't perform well academically.

By being a catalyst for excellence, a charter school authorizer should
* Recognize and reward performance.
* Encourage the replication and expansion of successful charter schools.
* Create new performance-based paths for authorizing, overseeing and renewing charter contracts.
* Relentlessly pursue excellence (at all levels).
* Protect, preserve and advance the idea behind chartering. This is in regard to Kolderie's assertion that "someone other than" districts should be able to create new public schools.

Goenner also highlighted several statistics from the National Alliance for Public Charter School's website. He noted that every authorizer should have established key performance indicators for their schools collectively and individually. These indicators can fall into the broad categories of academic achievement/growth, fiscal performance and sustainability, organizational performance and student engagement.