Drew Bixby

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How can an "outsider" help improve public schools?

I am frustrated with public schools. I want to help make a difference, but I feel unwelcome to assist. How can I help make a difference with education at its core?

I feel like I am helping apply bandages when broken bones go unattended. As a "non-teacher", I feel like an unwelcome outsider who "doesn't know" and "should let experts do their job". I've tutored, been a guest speaker, built software tools, helped develop compacts, and assisted teachers in different capacities. (These were on my own initiative; the most I ever received going through official channels was an automated "thank you for signing up".)

The core of public schools is going in the wrong direction. They are too focused on tests and curriculum rather than inspiring innovation. They blame the government for these burdens. They blame lack of resources. They blame lack of… It does not take the latest technology or the most expensive classrooms or highest paid teachers. It takes looking at the system differently. Focus on teaching the kids the skills to innovate and tap into their desire to learn; then they will learn the curriculum.

There are approaches that have made a difference. Many do not require additional costs per se, but they do require shifts that bureaucracy is not likely to make (e.g. starting school days a little later, longer school days, exercise programs, concerted efforts by all the teachers).

I can no longer afford to be patient on the sidelines. I witnessed many district initiatives go no where over the past decade. My daughter enters the education system in the next few years. How can I help make a difference with education at its core?

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    Apr 10 2011: Your negative experiences (feeling unwelcome) surprise me a little. After graduating from college, my first full-time job was 4 ten-hour days (M-Th), giving me every Friday off work. Wanting to contribute something to public education, I approached some teachers at my old high school about helping out on Fridays, and was accepted with open arms. For the next several years, I assisted the head physics teacher, served on committees, and even had a hand in organizing a new "Principles of Technology" course blending science with practical hands-on project work. Perhaps the educational climate has changed from what it was 20 years ago, or perhaps it was simply that these teachers already knew who I was, but I found the experience very positive and welcoming.

    Another avenue to approach might be with charter schools such as KIPP. I'm guessing they might be more open-minded to outside assistance than a standard public school with all its attendant regulations and red tape. Yet another avenue is to assist home-schoolers in your area.

    Although it probably goes without saying, never discount the significance you have in her educational development as her father! Kids with supportive, pro-active parents enjoy an incredible advantage over those with disinterested parents. Involve her in real family decisions (money, trip planning, home remodels), read with her every day, build a library for her to use as she grows, exploit every expression of your daughter's curiosity as an opportunity to explore and learn, etc. Your personal efforts are unlikely to effect sweeping reform in the public education *system*, but your actions will always have greater impact on your daughter's intellectual, emotional, and moral development than any army of professional educators ever can.
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      Apr 15 2011: On your first point, let me clarify. First of all, I have signed up numerous times through the system and rarely if ever gotten a response. That definitely is not "welcoming".

      Second, when I have approached teachers directly, they were willing and eager for me to help, but even the teacher implied that "box" they had to teach in was frustrating. I was frustrated because I was just helping them teach in a way we both knew was broken. I want to help free that teacher to do more. Helping them get out of the box is where I feel unwelcome (by the administration).

      For example, I helped teach Excel. We approached it from the perspective of "here is a business man who is saying you need to know Excel in the workplace". There is value in that. The problem is I was trying to teach them a skill when they have little desire to learn or understanding of the relevance. Learning skills is easy when someone wants to learn and understands why it is relevant to them. Coming into a class and trying to demonstrate relevance and teach the skill at the same time is missing the point especially when there is no underlying desire to learn. This touches the core of what is missing in public schools. Again, I feel schools are unwelcome to outsiders coming in to help fix that core. This doesn't mean I know better what that core should be, but there are still ways I can help.
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        Apr 20 2011: It's good to hear you have been welcomed by teachers. To be honest, those are the only people I bothered to approach, and it was enough for me to get in and do some good.

        Your comments on relevance are key. If a kid doesn't see the immediate and personal relevance of something, there will be little interest. This is not a flaw in character so much as it is a reflection of contemporary culture: American kids are largely sheltered from adult concerns. While no adult could argue against the logic of learning Excel in order to be more employable, a young person who has never had to earn a living and faces limited employment opportunity at their age even if they desire to work will have to "stretch" to see your adult point of view.

        Thinking back to my experience helping out in a high school, one of the more engaging projects was coaching teams of students to build solar-powered model cars. The relevance of knowledge and skills gained in such a project to life outside of high school are legion, but that's not what drew kids in. They just wanted to make a car *go fast* on sunshine. This was the "hook" by which we caught their interest, and which we used to subversively teach them mathematics, physics, project management, teamwork, problem-solving, etc. We did most of our work after hours, but involved teachers by having students reference them as experts during the school day when they needed help figuring out how to overcome some problem with their car. Suddenly students saw these teachers (and their expertise) in a whole new light, infusing relevance into subjects they might otherwise have thought pointless.
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      Apr 15 2011: Yes, I can assist my own daughter, but my I don't just want her to "enjoy an incredible advantage". I want everyone to be better and all the greater good that comes from that.

      You are also correct about KIPP and I have been starting to reengage with the one locally.
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    Apr 21 2011: Here's an idea. What are your thoughts? I am thinking of putting together a think tank of people (administrators and teachers) from public schools and successful private schools and some parents who home school. The first objective would be to identify the top 5 barriers to implementing approaches which have been successful outside public schools into public schools. Then, talk through logistics of getting around those top 5 barriers. Thoughts?
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    Apr 18 2011: The teacher (and the parent) knows the child. The minister of education doesn't. Therein lies the issue..
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      Apr 18 2011: Yes Scott, there was a time when decision-making was a local responsibility. There has been a gradual and deliberate move to shift control of education from these local bodies and place it into a centralized governing body.

      You may have noticed school system amalgamations. The closing and combining of smaller schools and school districts into larger regional educational areas.

      Generally people were pleased to have larger schools with fine facilities, but there is always a price to pay. During these amalgamations, financial decision-making power was transferred to the Minister of Education and the local power was down-graded to 'advisory' councils. It was all quite slick - without fiscal control of all you really have is a puppet government. In short order I was informed that I was to report directly to the Minister. Previously I reported only to the local Board.
  • Apr 16 2011: Hi Drew,

    I'm finishing up my undergraduate degree and I transferred out of the Bachelor of Education for many of the same frustrations that you have expressed. The truth is, the teachers that you so badly want to help really have so little power to change the system that is almost laughable (if it weren't so sad). I found the concept of education, and the philosophies of education that go into the system relatively brilliant (here in Canada, I can't speak for anywhere else of course); but all that it made me want to do is school my own children, because I know how poorly these philosophies can be implemented.

    I don't have any special ideas for you to make a difference with education. The only thing I have felt compelled to do is to someday maybe become a politician myself and help to lobby better education from that side. I more so wanted to empathize and share my story. I'm looking forward to future comments in this thread...
    • Apr 17 2011: Hi Natalia, I would be very interested to know about the experiences that made you change your mind. You say that the brilliant philosophies are poorly implemented. Can you expand on that a bit - what caused the disconnect? Thanks.
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      Apr 21 2011: I appreciate the desire to resort to home schooling, but it does not address the bigger need for educating all students. Your perspective is important because you have seen the inside. Can you provide some specifics? Perhaps that would be a place to start is by addressing some specific issues for teachers.
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    Apr 14 2011: Maybe a little off topic, but here is an outsider's recent blog article:
    http://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2011/04/changing_incent.html

    "In the U.S., under the No Child Left Behind Act, students have to pass certain tests; otherwise, schools are penalized. In the District of Columbia, things went further. Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the public school system from 2007 to 2010, offered teachers $8,000 bonuses -- and threatened them with termination -- for improving test scores. Scores did increase significantly during the period, and the schools were held up as examples of how incentives affect teaching behavior. It turns out that a lot of those score increases were faked."

    It resonate with an example given by Barry Schwartz, here at 11:42 :
    http://www.ted.com/talks/barry_schwartz_using_our_practical_wisdom.html

    In my view outsiders should educate and gently force policy makers to create good rules, to tolerate "canny outlaws" and encourage "system changers" - as Barry says.

    Why is this working in all those movies about schools? See "Freedom writers" and others.
  • Apr 10 2011: Drew, with regards to your comment on the lack of answers, I saw your post some time ago but there have been so many posts on transforming education, I suppose there was a bit of apathy or weariness on my part, unfortunately.

    Based on your comments, the schools do not appear to be open to change. The previous posts have offered some very good suggestions. The idea of a charter school is a good option. I would add that you also need to engage the elected officials - they depend on your vote so you do have some influence. Also, once your daughter in school, be sure to join the PTA, parents council - whatever they have for parents. But the system is like a gigantic lumbering dinosaur and does not change direction easily. Persistence is required and to be fair, the beginnings of the change are noticeable in a few public figures who speak out and in those of us on this forum who also speak out.

    I placed my son in a private school for the first few years but eventually took him out, home-schooled him for several years and he has since returned for the last couple years of high school. He is now 17 and was recently accepted by a couple of universities to study neuroscience. The children can succeed but you have to be willing to stick your neck out and take the blows. What is that proverb about the nail that sticks out is that one that will get hammered? But for the children's sake, it is well worth it.
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      Apr 15 2011: Thanks for your feedback. I get the weariness and I wish it were not so.

      I can be very persistent, but I want to focus my persistence in the right area. The question is "what is that right area?" I've served on PTAs and other councils, but these have had very specific mandates which are usually projects which only aid the system status quo or documents with little or no impact - certainly nothing to do with the core of the educational approach.

      Elected officials is certainly an idea. There might be something if I can help demonstrate how it will help them see how a different approach might help with their budgetary issues. That may be a good separate TED question: How can a new approach to education be presented to School Boards focused on budget crises? Thoughts?
      • Apr 16 2011: Drew, Unfortunately I have no answer for a short term fix. I realized this with our own system. I would have considered a charter school but they are not allowed in Ontario. My best option for my own child was home schooling which turned out to be the best decision. We were able to get our school work done in a few hours. There were three non-religious homeschooling groups in our area so there were lots of group activities, trips , museums, sports, theater and so on - incredibly bright, active and talented kids of all ages and varied demographics. Invariably, when we went to organized academic sessions at museums etc, they would comment on how knowledgeable and interested the kids were, compared to those from the regular school system. In some cases, parents and teachers are a part of the problem but the biggest problem is the system itself. It must be very frustrating for the teachers who want to excel in their work as well.
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    Apr 10 2011: I agree, let's talk.

    Have you thought that perhaps you don't need to go through the public school system? Where I live, in the heart of Virginia, between 15 and 20% of the students are taught at home. There are many reasons, curricula, philosophies and arguments but the facts are there are a huge number of kids that are reachable without needing titles, and without red tape.

    One of the fastest ways might be for you to explore what sort of educational co-operatives there are in your area. Parents who teach at home still look to qualified educators to help with specific subjects in the arts, STEM, languages and more.
    For myself, I've taught at a homeschool co-op for six years now and have become increasingly aware of the need for these students (all students, really, but these are the ones I can reach) to practice innovation, collaboration and design. I am in the process of finishing a design/engineering introductory class for 28 homeschoolers where we learn and practice innovation, group work and inventiveness every week.

    It may take you a year or two to establish credibility but once you do you can propose and author needed courses, including ones tailored to your interests. Best of luck to you and your daughter.
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      Apr 15 2011: That is an interesting idea. It is an approach worth considering to help launch ideas into a bigger picture.

      I've tended to stay away from home schooling because it is not a viable model to help the entire school system. Obviously, it relies upon a high level of parental involvement and support; such involvement is one of the key problems in public education. But, as you say, it can be a way to establish credibility.
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    Apr 10 2011: Hi Drew. OK, let's get started.

    Some basics...looking for a place to start...

    It is vital to establish credibility and trust with the classroom teachers (and administrators). This person will be held responsible for anything you do or say while you are in their classroom. The teacher will have to explain to administrators and other parents what you meant or intended so trust is important.

    You must never undermine or judge the teacher. They are the professional and unless they conduct themselves in a manner unbecoming, say corporal punishment or other such abuses, you are to be supportive. This is credibility.

    Reading is a great area to begin with. Do not under-estimate the importance of reading in learning. At any age. I bring in Ministers of Education, and once the Governor General of Canada (Queens official representative) to read to children, and both seemed to enjoy the experience.

    Small learning group support is very beneficial. Classrooms are too large and diverse for adequate individual attention. This is where you could play a role.

    Supervision - lunch and noon, bus and after school. These informal interactions can be as important as formal.

    Coaching and other special interests and skills. Did you mention you have abilities with technology?

    Schools are understaffed because the funds are just not there for full service. Reliable, caring and supportive parents are always welcome.

    Here's one last piece of advice. Never go over their heads to get what you want. A sure-fire way for them to retreat.

    I won't stick up for every school but I also won't pre-judge. Teachers are working to capacity and there seems to be little progress and a lot of set-backs. It leads to a number of new teachers to re-consider the profession.

    If you help clarify your circumstances, I will be able to narrow the discussion.
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      Apr 15 2011: Thanks for the feedback.

      Let me clarify. I do not feel unwelcome by teachers. Your points and suggestions for working with teachers are all valid and helpful. As long as I help the teacher teach within their box, everything is fine. Same with campus administrators. The problem comes when I try to help the campus administrator or teacher, who wants to be free of her box, get out of her box. Then, dealing with the system and district administration in particular, I feel unwelcome to participate.

      The problem is core of the system is not on the right track. I know this because there some other systems are much for effective and efficient at teaching (e.g. KIPP Austin). I am not saying I know what the core should be, but I am willing to help bridge that gap. I am free labor, I feel unwelcome to help district administration in any way (and they don't seem to be doing much on their own).

      Thoughts?
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        Apr 15 2011: You are referencing something you call 'core' in your comments. If I understand your meaning, you cannot ask teachers and/or administrators to change core.

        No educator, not even the CEO has this level of authority. This authority lies with the non-professionals...the politicians. Try to remember that educators are servants.

        I find the "outside the box" comment to be a bit tiresome and cliche. No one has any idea what this means. It's only used as an attempt to qualify unspecified and unsubstantiated attacks.
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          Apr 18 2011: OK, I agree with your comment "educators are servants" and, as I understand you, they are "servants" to "non-professionals...the politicians". Also, I conclude from your comments elsewhere that professionals should be driving what is learned and how it is learned. So, how do I help change the system and allow professionals to do what they can do. What can I do to help beyond voting?
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        Apr 18 2011: Ah, such good questions. Have you ever thought about running for political office? This would be very helpful if you were working from the inside.

        I appreciate your support but I don't think any professional group should operate without a 'watch-dog'. There is such a thing as cheques and balances to safe-guard everyone from the temptations of power. But you are correct, it can be very frustrating to be commanded to carry out a game plan that you know is wrong or will be fruitless - other than these mucky-mucks will gain some political currency.

        Now, the game rules, so to speak, are legislated within what is commonly called The Education Act, or The School Act. Every jurisdiction (State or Province) has their own particular name, but it's all the same.

        The rule book would have to be changed through the legislative body of that particular State or Province. You see, education is not a Federal responsibility (I believe it to be the same here as there). Each State or Province directs it's own education program. So changing the 'core' as you call it would require 50 separate legislative amendments for the USA - one for each state. In Canada, there would be far fewer to change but I daresay it would be no easier a task.

        You would need some help in order to accomplish this task. I see you are from Texas. A fairly conservative-minded state, if I may say so. How might the average Texan view the changes you seek? If this sort of change is possible there then there's reason to hope it could happen elsewhere.

        Please forgive my gross generalization of the fine people of your State.
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          Apr 21 2011: Politics is not my strength. But, even if it were, there are still many limitations to what a politician can do. I've seen this even at the school board level with people who had good intentions, but were stifled by all the structures already in place AND people's unwillingness to see change (even when it is for their benefit).

          I think there would be more value at a grass-roots level enabling and empowering parents and teachers. If you do that, the politicians will adjust. The question is where and how to start.
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    Apr 8 2011: Any thoughts or suggestions? The lack of answers is interesting.