How fast is education changing?

I sometimes teach an evening class at Parkland College. In my “Intro to SQL” class, I have been experimenting with open digital badges. One of my latest excursions led me to, a badging platform that incorporates online portfolios and attempts to form bonds between the educator, the student and the employer. Recently I had an excellent chat with Ben Roome, co-founder of Which led to me reading his own blog post on the intersection (or lack thereof) of higher education and employment:


Ben makes a strong point about how the pathway from “school” to a job is changing. Specifically, the growing trend where learners are taking learning into their own hands:

Millennials have grown up in a social-media-saturated environment where an individual’s contribution is measured in part by their ability to navigate the wilds of the internet and extract meaning without external guidance. This growing importance of self-directed learning can be seen as a natural response to the increasingly rapid pace of change all around us. But this trend also represents something of a cultural shift away from industrial age hierarchies and towards internet era meritocracies–collaborative communities of empowered individuals.


He uses the example of HackReactor, which sounds very impressive (12-week commitment, 98% of grads get a job). But this got me to thinking…. we here in Champaign-Urbana have grown up in a Big Ten University town. This “industrial age” research institution is still pulling in significant numbers of students, and the baby sister Parkland is not doing half-bad either. This tells me that there are still large numbers of students who believe the “old school” school is the way to go.


As I talk to more and more people, I see that “education reform” is happening all the time – it’s just faster in some places than in others. And it doesn’t always look the same, it really depends on what one needs. As cool as things like HackReactor and open digital badges seem, I realize they are not for everyone. The “industrial age” school works for some people. Not for everyone.


So the question I have to ask myself is two-fold: 1) who is not being served well by the current system, and 2) what can we do about it? And while I am ready and willing to support those who are not well served, it is not my place to judge or label anyone. I stand ready to help, just let me know how.


If you want to measure the speed of change in educational systems, ask some key questions. What is the purpose of education? What does education look like? What exactly is a “school”?


Dear Former Student

Dear Former Student,




You concluded with “Students come first , thought thats what schools were all about”. I might suggest you use “learners” in place of “students”, but overall, I could not agree more. Please ask your friends (both former and current students) to repeat this message until decision makers finally understand what you truly mean by this statement. I also wonder, what would happen if students (learners) were the decision makers?


I think Nicole Lafond also interviewed this student:

“I thought that was the schools’ goals, to have kids come first.”


So tell us, students, what is the purpose of school? What should school do?

The Purpose of Education, part 4

A friend has suggested I read Ted Sizer’s “Horace’s Compromise: The Dilemma of the American High School“. I also checked out his “The New American High School“. I took a lot notes, and in reflection I was mostly concentrating on how Sizer defines the purpose of schools and education. Unsurprisingly, he came back to a couple similar themes time and time again; the goal of education is get learners to grow and exercise their mind such that they can learn on their own.


“Horace’s Compromise”, which was one report of three back in 1984, noted the challenge to the teachers of the time, which are still present today; teachers know of a better way to teach, but because of the box the system puts them in, they are constrained to teach according to the guidelines handed down to them. As stated in previous posts (“What are public schools supposed to do?“, Purpose of Education parts 1, 2, 3), there are many people who try to lay claim to what is important for our students, what they must learn and what they must become. An observation made by Sizer caused me to consider our own “mission statements” – Sizer found that most schools’ goals or objectives were very lofty but were not reflected by the day to day operations of the school. It makes me wonder how standardized testing and assessment helps all our students gain “knowledge, skills, and attitudes necessary to direct their lives, improve a diverse society, and excel in a changing world.” How does social promotion and strictly regimented time periods help in that endeavor?


Sizer has caused me to ask several questions about the architecture of modern public education. For instance, why is public education modeled on business, with a governing Board, a CEO/Superintendent, COO, CFO, etc? Why do we have over 500 pages of “board policies”, written by legal teams in legal jargon? (Even John Carver, of Carver Policy Governance, on which the Illinois Association of School Boards (IASB) is largely based, asks this question)

Where is teacher autonomy? We have some, but very little. Where is the student voice? I am thankful that efforts through the conduit of Dr. Taylor’s social justice team, more and more students actually have a voice and adults are listening. While it is trickling into board meetings via official student Board Liaisons and a little bit through the Facility Planning Tier I committee, we need a lot more.


Sizer has also taught me that we need to question the purpose of our local schools often – for the basic reason that the purpose should be constantly changing in a constantly changing world. Sizer recognizes there are no perfect answers to the messy chaos of relationship-based communities and their schools. Raymond Callahan pointed out in “Education and the Cult of Efficiency” that we run our schools like businesses for the sake of “efficiency”, but what we lose is the richness of human relationships.


Between the two books, Sizer has a number of practical, relevant an eye-opening chapters. I’ll close with one on “Space and Cost”, in which he talks about the physical buildings we call “schools”, as it is directly concerned with the current focus of the school board and an impending expensive November referendum.

“First, challenge the notion that we collectively – through the state – have the obligation to educate all our children by means of a formal, school-building-based collective schooling. Might there be effective alternatives, such as a mix of homeschooling and in-school schooling? Or computer-based lessons that can engage students anywhere? Or in space shared with other enterprises, such as a community college or public library?”

 – “The New American High School” page 113

He makes four more points (pg 114-115):

  • Alternatives to a dedicated building that is completely busy from 7:30 am through 2:00 pm and mostly empty otherwise – can it be used for other things, does the learning have to only occur during those times?
  • Are the state’s educational and assessment goals legitimate? If not, what are you going to do about it?
  • Which public resources that are already available to higher education, public libraries, public radio and public television could be applicable to elementary and secondary grades?
  • Examine (question) the plans for school systems; “human intellectual activity is not orderly and some human needs and abilities are crippled by too much uniform channeling” – do our systems constrict creativity?


More to come.

What are public schools supposed to do?

I have often asked myself variations on the question “what is the purpose of school?” When asked, my then 9-year-old daughter offered her perspective, “to learn how to learn.” I asked her a year later about the purpose of the teacher, and she said “to make learning fun.” (for more reading, “The purpose of Education” part 1, 2, 3)


I find myself aligning with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, and many others both before and after MLK, who paints a picture that the purpose of education is to generate successful citizens. Citizens that can navigate and participate in society, that know how to collaborate and compromise, engage in healthy debate to voice different ideas, and overall “be family.”



A related question is “what is the purpose of the board?” (part 1, 2) Basically, the school board sits at the 10,000 foot level (right below the clouds) and determines where the bus is going to go in the long run.


Having laid all that out as a preamble, I now turn your attention to the November 16th school board meeting, the agenda of which can be found on boarddocs (I still do not have a way to deep-link the agenda – you will have to navigate there manually). In particular, the interesting presentation on High School Configuration. First, I think it is great that this board is trying to 1) be very open in their discussion, and 2) are trying to invite the community to the table on “big issues”.


The High School Configuration document is interesting because it starts off with a summary of Lisa de la Rue’s literature review. For those that want to rewind back to the June 11th, 2012, meeting, I have a couple notes you can look over; June 9th, before the meeting, and June 12th, after the meeting. Basically, there is a weak correlation between school configuration and student achievement (too many other variables). This current document goes on to list several pros and cons between a 1-HS model, a 2-HS model (current) and a 3-HS model. I noticed a trend in the carefully phrased “possibilities” – the single high school model might increase the number of opportunities/services while at the same time might decrease climate, while at the other end (not really an extreme) the three high school model looses the number of offerings (due to lack of consolidation) but increases the innate intimacy. Funny how the two high school model has one and only one “concern” listed. Oh, by the way, the current HS principals will be spearheading this presentation. 🙂


I am not shy about my own preference, but the point I want to make with this post is that I believe the board as a whole needs to focus first on what kind of students they want to produce. Regardless of configuration or location, when you hand a diploma to a kid, what qualities and traits will they have acquired because of Unit 4? What exactly is a successful citizen? What about those students for whom the current system is not working at all? What are we doing wrong if students (young citizens) are “failing” the public school system?


The district administration has recently taken a stronger stance in support of Positive Behavior Facilitation (PBF, a concept originated by Dr. Edna Olive who has a book by the same title). Mr. Orlando Thomas and Ms. Katie Ahsell are pushing PBF, with good effect, with ACTIONS staff used throughout the district. During a recent email exchange with Dr. Wiegand, it sounds like the district is looking at including PBF and cultural relevancy more thoroughly within Professional Development in the near future. Having read Dr. Olive’s book, I find myself agreeing with her belief that “relationships are everything.” In fact, Dr. Olive goes so far as to call PBF a paradigm not a program; it is more of mindset, a method of taking a step back and thinking about all the factors going on in a given situation, starting first with yourself.


My own high-level goals for any student going through Unit 4, regardless of the physical building they happen to be in, are:

  • her sense of curiosity, creativity and wonder are encouraged and enhanced; she is a critical thinker who, because she is a life-long learner, questions everything
  • although she is a single citizen, she is a valuable citizen who appreciates the value of others around her; ergo she seeks to resolve conflict, collaborate, and compromise as needed
  • alongside her repertoire of reading, writing and math skills, she also gains the confidence that she can acquire new skills as desired
  • she is both street-wise and world-wise


What goals do you have? What goals do our students have? And how will we realize those goals?


I hope lots of people show up for the chat tomorrow, and I hope many more continue to provide input on their own priorities. I urge the board to focus more on the purpose of Unit 4 schools, and provide course corrections to the administration as necessary. Personally, I don’t think the board as a whole should decide the location or the configuration; certainly as individuals and voters they have an opinion that should be expressed, but as a board, I see their job as setting the big picture first.


Let’s make learning fun. 🙂 And let us learn how to learn. Always.

Catching a dose of Suli Breaks

Just stumbled upon this guy while browsing, very thoughtful and intellectually provacative.

Why I Hate School But Love Education [transcript: ]

I Will Not Let An Exam Result Decide My Fate [transcript: ]

Personally, I do acknowledge that college and higher education does indeed open the doors towards upward mobility for some people. While at the same time, I see many kids getting saddled with huge debts. I don’t know how long it will take for Obama’s dream of free higher education to become a reality, but I think the whole point of what Suli Breaks is trying to make is that you have to decide for yourself what your destiny is going to be. As one quote goes, either you work towards your own dream or you work for someone else’s dream. To me, this is the guts of democracy; informed people trained in the arts of critical thinking.

Deep respect for Suli Breaks. Guy’s got talent.


Credit to YouTube’s Education Channel – they got a bunch of fascinating videos linked:

Seeing the trees, or a forest?

The “Keep Central Central” group, formerly known as “REWIND” (and with slightly different leadership), is making a push to argue for a site for the “new” Central to be almost anywhere except Interstate Drive. Well, anywhere south of I-74. There is a press conference advertised this coming Saturday (Jan 31) at 10:00 am at the Champaign Public Library; the doors will open at 9:15 am for the room for people to gather and mingle. And this morning, Bruce Hannon has a letter to the editor in the NG.

Even though these conversations are happening WAY TOO LATE in the game, I am glad that they are finally happening. Moreover, I wish more people were involved in those conversations, especially new voices.

But here is where I have a problem – I will use a quote from Mr. Hannon’s letter to make an example:

“Only a no vote will cause this board to work with our citizenry toward the best solution, a central city location.”

No, Mr. Hannon, I think you missed the bigger picture.


Rather than direct my arguments against Mr. Hannon, with whom I have never spoken nor communicated, I will address this as an open letter for all of us to consider.

First and foremost, there is an even bigger vote that just happens to be on the same day (April 7th) – voting for 4 school board members (there is one more seat that is uncontested). If the citizenry were truly earnest in wanting a board to work with them, they would be very mindful about whom they elect to represent them, and then hold those elected agents accountable. Voting “NO” on the referendum and also not focusing on new board members is a complete waste of time, energy and votes.

Second, stop being so passive aggressive! I have heard quite a few members of the “citizenry” complain about the board, but leave out the most crucial aspect of having a voice – they do not offer constructive criticism or viable alternatives for the board to address such complaints. If you think the board is not working with the stakeholders or “owners”, how do you suggest they do so? Believe you me, I have already made my own suggestions, and have been talking with board member candidates about changes I would like to see (see my IASB post).


So in my opinion, we have spent way too much time focusing on the “trees” of a high school site. Yes, it is an important issue, and obviously a lot of people feel passionate about it; it is not my intent to mitigate that. However, we must keep in mind the whole forest – what is it that the Champaign Community Unit School District #4 does? You could answer that question by looking at the Mission Statement, crafted quite a long time ago and tweaked over the years. More specifically, what do you want our fine school district to do? What does Unit 4 produce or provide?


In our community of some 80,000 odd people, we have 80,000 different ways to answer those questions. I believe that is a problem. So why not have passionate discussions about this root issue? Why not form citizen groups around this topic?


One way or another, the “tree” of a new high school site will pass away in a few years, and will be replaced by other “trees”. If we do not contemplate the gestalt of public education, we will forever be bickering about which tree to tackle next.


So here is your homework. Figure out what you want public schools to do. From there, determine which school board candidates are willing to make that an Ends for Unit 4, or persuasively convince them – it is the job of the elected school board members to exercise governance over the school district. Period. Take this conversation to existing school board members as well – we already know that two of them are in the middle of four-year terms.

Your homework is due on April 7th. Turn it in at the County Clerk’s office.


PS – one final note. The NG tells us that recently in Danville the public had an opportunity to “meet and greet” two of the seven school board candidates. I am calling on the nine Champaign school board candidates to hold open “meet and greet” times as well. Kerris already has semi-regular “office hours”, take advantage of it! I collected their contact information on a separate page if you want to reach out to them; most, if not all, are more than happy to meet and talk with members of the community.

food for discussion: prioritize low-ses access to new Central

What if, whenever and wherever we build a new Central, what if we as a community and a school district prioritized all forms of access such that any child on the free and reduced lunch program could readily take advantage of the new facilities and resources. Let me be clear, by all forms of access, I mean the following:

  • All children on the free and reduced program, with the one and only limitation being sheer capacity regardless of other quotas, will have automatic priority to enroll at the school
  • Whenever school is in session, not only will the child have ready transportation at the beginning and end of school, but transportation will also be available for extra-curricular programs at the school, as well as transportation for parents/guardians for conferences
  • Options to participate remotely, not only making the educational materials available online, but actively assisting in the home networking solutions


In some ways, you might be thinking “sure, this is all nice and pie-in-the-sky, but impractical and too expensive”. Perhaps if that is your response, we need to rethink the purpose of free, public education, and how it is provided.


So if you put a high school on Interstate Drive, make sure any low-ses family that wants to get there can. Costs money? You bet! Logistical nightmare? In this day and age, are we not called to be problem solvers?


Like I said before, the location of a high school, let alone a brand new high school, is of less importance to me than what I consider to be a higher priority – making sure we provide a free, high-quality public education, especially to those that really could benefit from it.


I invite you all to chime in, especially you silent types who usually don’t say anything. 🙂

Letter to the editor submitted

I have been wanting to solidify my “position” (as it were) with regards to the ongoing saga of the High School siting and a property tax referendum. The more I think about it, the more I realize that the physical location of the high school, and even the amenities that come attached to it, are of a minor importance compared to a need for the school district to have a solid bank account of Trust with the community. To me, it is paramount that the community and the school district work together to reach a commonly agreed upon, mutually beneficial goal.


Having said that, here is the letter I have submitted (online) to the NG editor:

“To save man from the morass of propaganda, in my opinion, is one of the chief aims of education. Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction.

The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. But education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals.” From the Maroon Tiger (January-February 1947), “The Purpose of Education”.

Regardless of where Unit 4 ultimately decides to build a new high school, regardless of when the referendum is put on the ballot, as a community we must first remember the purpose of education and take our civic responsibilities seriously. Personally, I need three things in order to vote for a future high school referendum.

First, I need to see the work of uniting the administration, teachers, students, parents and community; like a prized cultivar, we must be selective about propagating characteristics that enhance our society. How do we collaboratively imbue creative and moral thinking?

Second, I need the school district to involve and educate the public in regards to a 10-year strategic plan and a 40-year vision, via a minimum of three charrettes.

Third, I need a well-understood financial plan. Will yet another tax referendum be put on the ballot in five years, especially if external sources continue to decline?


The quote is from a letter that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr wrote to the Morehouse College campus newspaper in 1947 – the entire letter is very instructional.


Having time to chew on the recent events of the past couple days and hearing from parents and a board member, I have several observations that have steered my thinking

  1. While a number of people are voicing support for a possible high school at the Spalding Park area (including myself), it seems extremely unlikely that the board will ultimately go with that location due to a number of problematic obstacles:
    1. railroad tracks
    2. money involved to purchase land, eminent domain, tear down Judah, make safe walk ways, etc – all for land that the Board has said several times is too small
    3. will the park-district do a land-swap with the Atkins-Ponder lands we just purchased? Probably not.
  2. It is possible these talks will open up the possibility of negotiating land at Dodds Park. But I am not holding my breath
  3. No matter what, it is going to be very challenging for the district and the board to come out of this looking good; if they go with Spading Park, the tax referendum will likley be more expensive, while the Atkins-Ponder site garners more negative attention from those who are most vocal.
  4. The district has already conducted phone surveys, opinion polls, a so-called “Town Hall” and various forms of “Community dialogues”. I don’t think more of the same is going to be very effective.
  5. Board member Jamar Brown has said that when he talks to folks on the north end, they are less concerned about the location of the high school and more concerned about discipline issues. Yet discipline issues are not the focus of any phone survey, opinion polls or “Community Dialogue”. Why not? What is really most important?


Also, here is a more recent NG article:


I have no doubt that due to poor planning over the long-run and growing enrollemnt, we have a clear and present need for more capacity. Yes, we can do portables as Board President Laurie Bonnett suggested for a “Plan B”. Obvioulsy, this is not ideal. But neither is making an unwise choice that will effect us for the next 50 years or so.


What do I suggest? We need to do the hard work of building relationships, building trust, getting out there and learning what our parents, students and residents need. We need to work together to get those ends met. We need to make sure we educate with the goal of thinking critically, intensely and with morals. This is a burden we all share, not just the teachers.

An afterthought: politics and civic responsibilities

As I was working on my previous post, in the back of my mind is the question “Why am I spending so much of my time and energy on the school district?” After completing the post, I sat for a while and contemplated that question. And this is what I have come up with.

Our society is shaped and formed by the values, ethics, morals and internal “rules” passed on, or “taught”, by others. The most commonly-held perception (I think) is that this process occurs today in a classroom, all during the course of “learning” grammar, mathematics, science, history, etc. Or perhaps, while some may strenuously disagree, I think they stridently hope that things like “values” and “ethics” are being taught at school. *grin* We cannot discount other significant “teachers”, like peers, parents and even our situational environment (where we live, how we live, what happens near and around us). It seems to me that, more and more, the official focus of public education is to train up and prepare people to go to college and then get a job. So while the softer, deeper things of values, ethics and morals are still being conveyed in one fashion or another, they are not the focus at all.

As I stated in The Purpose of Education, part 2:

Here is what I want “education” to be: an environment where Good is taught, Wisdom is imparted, Happiness is pursued and Peace reigns.

Here is the purpose I want for education: To find the Absolute best things

For me, Unit 4 is just a microcosm of bigger arenas; it is not unlike an onion, with public schools on an inside layer, the City next, then County, State and finally Nation. I cannot wrap my head around the “big” domains, so I stick with something that is relatively bite-sized. Something I can satisfactorily engage in, see results. So when I preach civic responsibilities and then mention keeping school board members accountable, I fully realize there are bigger fish to fry in the context of “civic responsibilities”. I get that. I know. But my brain is just not big enough yet to graduate on to the myriad of issues at higher levels. For me, “true politics” is being able to exercise some form of democracy in all domains.

Having said that, I have to clarify that I do not believe “true politics” or “democracy” is the end-all-be-all of human existence. I think it is a mechanism and framework from which we must work in America. But I firmly believe it falls far short on a global scale, and other forms of human relationship (including governance) must be exercised. For instance, the ubiquitous “golden rule”, love others as yourself. Four simple words that anyone would find to be a challenge when put to the test. (incidentally, I just noticed that Wikipedia has a very interesting and comprehensive entry on this term)

So why do I spend so much time blogging about Unit 4, talking to people about Unit 4 and visiting Unit 4 schools? Because this is how I am practicing my skills for the larger domains, and right now, I have a passion for public primary education burning within me. The “love others as yourself” is particularly vexing, but I am working on it.

Digging at the root of the matter (part 1)

There are times when I find I have to take a step back. Especially this past week or two, with so much hubbub about the CFT negotiations, the Futures Conference, elections, the Immigration Forum and Bristol Place. And there is so much else just roiling beneath the surface – I am sure you can relate.

So as I step back, I see two very general categories, or catalysts, or … I don’t even know what to call them. But they get our goat. This is no great epiphany, but I had to start somewhere.

  1. Differences of opinion
  2. Money

It is not hard to find someone who believes in something different than you do. It is not hard to stumble across blogs, facebook pages, sound bites, tv ads or written commentary that expresses a strong opinion, and chances are that a large number of people feel differently. It is probably more accurate to say “think differently”, but the “feel” part of it is that knee-jerk reaction, that gut-level almost instantaneous “you’re wrong” thought that bubbles up unbidden. When we actually discipline ourselves to really think and not rely so much on “feel”, some great conversations and deliberation can happen. I was reminded of this just yesterday witnessing an exchange between a parent (Karen) and a Unit 4 administrator (Cheryl Camacho); what is awesome is that questions, thoughts, and genuine interest are traded back and forth – I find this to be an excellent learning experience. I invite you to join in (I will be right after this post *grin*).

From there I am going to Read the rest of this entry »