Tinkering, not transforming

Washington state’s share of $3 billion in federal School Improvement Grants isn’t funding significant change at turnaround schools, concludes Tinkering Toward Transformation by the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Education.

. . . with some exceptions, districts and schools in Washington state are approaching the turnaround work in ways only marginally different from past school improvement efforts. Despite the hard work of administrators, principals, and especially teachers, the majority of schools studied show little evidence of the type of bold and transformative changes the SIGs were intended to produce.

Two of nine schools studied took a comprehensive approach to rethinking instruction, analyzing data and improving the school climate, while the rest adopted “a hodgepodge of intervention strategies.”


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  1. Bill Leonard says:

    …in other words, this latest fededral dollop of largesse has proven — yet again — that throwing more money at the problem is not the answer.

    • No…throwing money at the problem without addressing the problem itself is not the answer. Throwing money at the issue of putting kids dead center of education gets my attention.

      Schools need to take on transformation, yes…but the transformation is from a place of teaching to a place of learning. In other words, focus on discovering who these kids are and dedicate support, time, and resources to helping them become the people they want to be.

      Too much of school is imposing, coercing, coaxing and manipulating. But you simply can’t get kids to learn stuff they don’t care about. Discovering the identity of students from K-12, is critical.

      Got money? Throw it at that.

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        But Lisa, school is about teaching what we want to teach no matter what students want to learn. True, the unfortunate result is that they forget almost all of it soon after the class is over. Butl the alternative wouldn’t just be transformative; it would be revolutionary. Do any of us really want that? Things would be very, very different.

      • Supersub says:

        Cool, I’d love to teach video games, sport appreciation, and junk food. Teaching only what students are interested in wil put us back to the 1700’s.

        • You don’t think much of kids, do you?

          • Supersub says:

            I value kids the same I value adults… and by that their ability to make wise decisions is limited by their experiences. Children have a strong tendency to follow in the footsteps of their parents or other adults that they have significant exposure to. Its hard enough to teach disadvantaged students dry subjects like algebra and grammar… simply excusing them from learning it because they’d prefer not to cognitively handicaps them for the rest of life. Sure, its fine if they’re not going to use language or numbers, but personally, I’d like to give them the options of writing a resume or maintaining their finances.

            This is another one of those “sounds great and idealistic” ideas that will work for a select few students whose parents highly supplement their education, but will cause other students to drown in educational deficits.

        • Roger Sweeny says:

          I think you’re on to something. Students certainly are interested in “video games, sport appreciation, and junk food.” But I think they’re also interested in how their world works and what they can expect as they grow older. They are also interested in what will prepare them for their future, whether in regard to a job or to their non-work life. Late elementary and middle school kids are constantly asking, “When will I ever use this?” By high school they stop asking because they know they won’t get a straight answer.

          By then we have decided, “What you should do is take courses like I took in college, just in less depth.” If you are going to be a teacher, this is great preparation for your future life. But for most other young people, it isn’t. And the’re not real interested.

          Teaching nothing but “video games, sport appreciation, and junk food” would do our young people a disservice. But so does our present system.

          • If the institution showed respect for who kids are,from the very first day of Kindergarten, kids would know that their ideas are valued. One open door leads to others. Passion leads to accomplishment; accomplishment leads to self-respect. Self-respect comes along with being open and aware of the world outside.

            There is no downside to the first priority of any school being to discover and honor the interests, passions, the identity, of children.

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            OMG, there is such a downside. Discovering and honoring the interests and passions of students would mean breaking up the class into smaller groups based on their interests. These groups would be ever-changing. Much of the interests would be things the teacher did not know much about or was unable to provide activities concerning.

            And what would you put on transcripts for college?

          • I know, Rog. I know. It’s a deal-breaker.

          • Young kids do not have enough experience with life or the world to know what might be of interest or importance to them. They need to be exposed to good literature and knowledge across the disciplines; initially through read-alouds and then through their own reading. Certainly, schools should allow some choices about assignments, so that kids can play to their interests, but failing to expose kids to new ideas and new knowledge amounts to educational malpractice. As for telling them that their opinions are valued, we’ve had too much of that. Kids aren’t being taught the difference between “I think”, meaning a position supported by facts and logic, and “I feel”, which is academically meaningless and irrelevant. Because no one knows what the future will hold, k-8 education should be about establishing a solid background of knowledge and skills. Specialization, according to student interests and talents, can follow. NB: I say k-8 as a general rule; some kids may be prepared to make choices earlier. such as kids academically prepared to enter a STEM magnet by 6th or 7th grade.

          • Sean Mays says:

            “When will I ever use this?”

            Roger – I tried to give this answer in math and physics classes. Unfortunately, the kids want to know it EVERY day.
            Me (Day 1): This unit is about solving quadratic equations. These arise in many areas of science, economics, etc. Then to examples; as a physics major I often gave physics examples.
            Them (Day 1): Ummm, OK …
            Them Day 4: Why do we have to worry about complex roots, imaginary numbers; are you *%$ing with us Mr?? They just made it up?

            The daily justification burns up lots of time. Time is precious – especially if you believe mentors and coaches that tell me “kids can only maintain attention for 1 year of age.”

            How much justification and how often? If we’re trying to prepare them for the real world; maybe a qood question to ask ourselves(at least for HS kids) is – how often will their boss expect to justify him(her)self?

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            I teach high school physics and physical science. In my Honors class, I make a big deal of how useful math is to describe and predict (and eventually control) the world. My students will probably tell you I love math. And yet I can’t really justify requiring most students to know more than Algebra 1/Geometry–which is, in fact, all the math I use in my courses. Most students will not ever use anything beyond that. The time they spend on advanced trig and, yes, complex numbers will never get them anything they want or will use.

            Actually, that’s not quite true. Many will need that math for future courses! This is what we often tell students when we try to justify what we are doing. But that just pushes the argument back one step. To pull a number out of the air, maybe one in fifty people will use any math past Algebra 1/Geometry in their life after graduation. Yet we require at least half of all high school graduates to take more than that.

            We often justify requiring the math because that one in fifty will use it and we want to open those doors. But time is limited. Some of those students will become plumbers but that is no reason to require half of all 17-year-olds to learn how to install a toilet.

          • Michael E. Lopez says:

            I think you’re on to something Roger. But one seldom goes wrong with the truth.

            “The quadratic equation by itself is usually useless, but it is an important piece of a larger body of knowledge we call mathematics that is very important to the functioning of human society. Maybe 1 in 30 of you — maybe more, maybe less — will use mathematics at this level or higher in your jobs, and you’ll use it to make the world a better place for your fellow citizens as software designers, engineers, doctors, academics, cryptologists, and the like. Maybe you’ll be one of those, or maybe you won’t. We don’t know yet, but that’s why it’s important, and it’s important enough for us to say that all of you are going to have to study it because we the adults tell you to. Now shut up and get to work.”

            Said with a smile, of course. Teenagers respect honesty. And respect is important when you’re dealing with compulsory education.

            The compulsory nature of public education dominates the learning dynamic in classrooms. While you can (and should) expect students to do the work, you can’t reasonably expect all of them to like it, and you shouldn’t hold it against them when they don’t.

          • What you all are missing is that there is no age limit on when you can learn. We don’t need “just in case learning.” We can have “just in time learning.” If someone realizes they need to learn something for a path they choose, they can go ahead and study that thing. We don’t need to cram a bunch of stuff into kids that they’ll never remember if they aren’t going to use it.

          • Roger Sweeny says:


            I would love to see things move this way. The compulsory part of compulsory education would then become providing a firm foundation for future learning: being able to read with understanding, being able to communicate with writing, being able to use addition, subtraction, multiplication, division,fractions, and simple equations, having a simple scaffold of history and science to build future knowledge on.

          • Supersub says:

            Lisa…the problem is that in many cases, years of background knowledge are required. Sure, you can wait until you need it to start learning it, but you’ll have to wait years until you can use it.

            Roger…isn’t that the point of current K-12 education?

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            Sort of. But there are so many other points …

            For example, we organize school by age cohort. All 10-year-olds are in 4th grade, and all 4th-graders do a unit on fractions–even though Jack and Jessie understood everything in the unit a year ago. A year later, most all the 4th-graders have been moved into 5th grade, even though Jill and Jerome don’t understand fractions at all.

            The practical difficulties of dividing students by what they know are enormous. Besides, we are interested in their social lives and don’t want to separate them from their friends. Also, lots of people in education feel that keeping everyone together is more moral and democratic.

            I see some of the results in 9th grade: a distressingly large number of students who are reading and writing and doing math well below “grade level.” Most of them never catch up and are bored and frustrated.

            In high school, we do not ask ourselves, “What should young people know to be good citizens and workers?” Instead, we say, “They should take courses, and those courses should be simplified versions of the ones we took in college.” I teach science and when I was feeling sarcastic once, I thought, “Isn’t it wonderful that everything people should know about science breaks down into 3 equal parts? And isn’t is wonderful that those 3 parts correspond almost exactly to Biology 101, Chemistry 101, and Physics 101?”

            Moreover, we make almost no effort to determine if students have actually learned what we think we have taught. If students feel they can be honest with you, they will tell you that most of what they studied for tests is gone within a few months of the end of the course. Many of them will give you a smaller time window. And I have heard (hopefully pretty much in jest), “Next August? Try the next day.”

            However, the practical difficulties of deciding what is truly important and then making sure that graduates actually know it are truly enormous. So we don’t. We end up with young people who have been “exposed” to vast quantities of information but who often lack foundational skills and knowledge.

  2. When our eye is forced to be on the prize of drill, kill, and bubble fill, we will never do more than tinker.