Hands down, the best part of my job is going to classrooms to see what new ideas schools are trying out in the endless quest to improve.
Here are the seven most fascinating ideas that I ran across in San Diego classrooms this year. Maybe you agree with them, maybe you don’t, but they’re bound to get you thinking. And if they work — or keep working — they might be worth bringing up at your local school:
Solving Einstein’s Algebra Problem
I was frankly amazed at how many people gravitated to this story about how Einstein Academy and its sister middle school started solving their algebra problem.
Einstein suffered the same problem as many, many schools in San Diego and nationwide: a sudden drop-off in scores when algebra hits. It traced the problem back to an overly simplistic way of teaching earlier math. Kids could compute but they didn’t understand what they were doing.
Einstein isn’t the only place to take this tack: San Diego Unified, for instance, is pursuing a new elementary math curriculum to try to improve algebra scores later on. There’s a growing belief that the problem with algebra really isn’t algebra at all — and Einstein could be an early sign of where schools are headed to try to fix it.
Letting the Kids Make the Rules
It might sound like handing over the asylum to the inmates, but one unusual charter school empowered kids to come up with school rules and mediate their own disputes.
“Positive discipline” is the zeitgeist for schools trying to curb suspensions, but few have taken it as far as Innovations Academy. Letting kids make the rules isn’t always pretty — or quiet. It’s hard to say whether it works because it’s tough to measure. But just looking into Innovations Academy leaves you asking bigger questions about how to teach children to get along and what they learn along the way.
English Learners Who Seem to Know English
The kids in this Pacific Beach Middle School class don’t seem like English learners. They chat in English with each other between lessons.
Yet they struggle to become fully fluent, especially when it comes to academic vocabulary found in textbooks and on tests. They’re called long-term English learners, kids who have been in the U.S. for most or all of their schooling who still aren’t fluent.
Pacific Beach Middle School decided that kids needed a firmer foundation in their first language, Spanish, to help push them ahead in English. Plugging biliteracy is now in favor in San Diego Unified, but this Pacific Beach school is rare in focusing specifically on long-term English learners, something that other schools could learn from.
Small (Change) Is Beautiful
I stumbled across the story of Euclid Elementary while looking at a chart of school poverty rates and test scores. Euclid immediately stuck out, outscoring schools with similarly high poverty rates. Yet nobody had ever mentioned Euclid to me as a success story, maybe because it doesn’t seem very flashy.
It was small changes, stable staffing and a sense of trust that turned Euclid around, not the dramatic overhauls that tend to grab headlines.
This is the kind of slow-and-steady change that San Diego Unified is pushing over more disruptive changes such as closing schools or converting more schools into charters, which have been promoted by the federal government as ways to fix perennially failing schools. School board President Richard Barrera plugged the school as an example of how schools can come up with their own reforms in his annual state-of-the-schools address. Now the question is, will other schools be so successful when San Diego Unified empowers them to come up with their own ideas — or will they simply drift on their own?
The Data War
This year the education world has been abuzz about using student test scores to evaluate teachers, an idea that the Obama Administration backs to bring greater accountability to teaching. San Diego Unified has taken a firm stance against it, saying it blames teachers and hasn’t been proven to improve teaching.
Yet some schools here are already using a similar kind of data analysis that tracks how individual students improve or stagnate each year to shape what they do, while not using it to formally evaluate teachers.
Stepping into a teachers’ meeting at Edison Elementary gave us a window into the debate over how schools should use data and where it falls short. It shows how the expanding use of data could change teaching, even if it doesn’t enter into evaluation.
Wording Up Without the Dictionary
Unless you were a really big word nerd like my coworker Grant Barrett, you probably dreaded those vocabulary quizzes when you were in school.
A San Diego Unified pilot program is trying to change the way kids learn words, teaching them to suss out their meaning the same way they would when they stumble upon new words in the real world, instead of rushing to the dictionary. It’s supposed to level the playing field for poor children and English learners, who usually hear fewer English words at home, putting them at a disadvantage when they come to school. The little program has already shown big results, but it depends on stimulus money that will soon run out — which means it’s all the more important to not lose sight of.
One Class Fits All
As one kid there put it, there is no “stupid class” at Correia Middle School anymore. All classes are gifted classes — and almost all kids are in them.
This story about a Point Loma middle school that stopped having separate tracks for gifted, typical and struggling kids was deeply controversial with some advocates for gifted education, but cast the spotlight on how one school is trying to conquer the achievement gap. Correia is just one school, but it raises bigger questions: Can schools keep serving all kids in the same classes — and if so, how? Do separate classes help or hurt?
Hey, I’m not perfect. If I missed your favorite story of a fascinating school idea, please post it here on the blog. And never hesitate to let me know about the next interesting idea afoot in education!