Reorienting the Search

Lost amidst journal articles, textbooks, and ideas, I decided to go back to the personal statement I wrote to get started on this graduate school journey, hoping it would help me find direction.

Pursuing research in education is my opportunity to circle these big questions, square my experiences, and dig deeper.

My vision for education was that we need to cultivate hopeful individuals, who think deeply and creatively, who develop their strengths and pursue their passions, who feel safe to take risks, who work effectively across cultures, and see opportunity in change. It is these aspirations that give direction to our actions.

What professional, social, and administrative support structures do teachers need to be innovative in their practice? How can a system-wide framework be designed to inspire personal investment? How do great leaders envision, design, and introduce large-scale initiatives when there is resistance? Is cultivating passionate and engaged teachers enough to shift an institution, school district, or nation towards change?

How do practitioners identify the problems that they need to solve? What tools do they use to solve them? What do they do with their solutions and how does that scale to the rest of the district? How do you study a multi-level, systemic process? How can schools change to meet the needs of their students, constituents, and society? How does this scale?

My commitment and passion for education is fundamental to who I am, and it is precisely this love that drives me to improve it. The world can be a better place if we are intentional in our actions, aware of our environment, and seek joy in learning and play. Living this at all levels – students, teachers, and administrators – will cultivate agency. After all, life is about possibility. If we see education as a set of rules that do not work or even include us, why bother? But if we live learning as a way to discover and transform, the possibilities are endless.

Book Notes & Thoughts: Change Leader, by Fullan


Next up on the read it and return it list is Change Leader: Learning to Do What Matters Most, by Michael Fullan (2011). This book was cited in something I read and I happened to be wandering the education stacks (yes, some people still do this) and I picked it up. I was curious about the first chapter: Practice Drives Theory: Doing is the crucible of change. Definitely in my court.

“All the best concepts to be deeply experientially grounded.” (p. xi) This book comes after Fullan worked on whole-system reform, engaging with practitioners and policymakers to change large, complex education systems. “The most effective leaders use practice as their fertile learning ground. They never go from theory to practice or research evidence to application. They do it the other way around: they try to figure out what’s working, what could be working better, and then look into how research and theory might help.” (p.xii)

  • “Doing is the crucible of change” (p.3)
  • “Effective change leaders … walk into the future through examining their own and others’ best practices, looking for insights they had hitherto not noticed” (p.11)
  • adaptive challenge (require new discoveries and behavioral change) vs. technical problems (we know the answer, solution just needs to be applied) (p.17-18)
  • “balance between capacity building and accountability interventions” (p.19)

Continue reading “Book Notes & Thoughts: Change Leader, by Fullan”

Book Notes & Thoughts: Inevitable, Mass Customized Learning


They apparently couldn’t choose a title, so there are three:


Mass Customized Learning (MCL)

Learning in the Age of Empowerment

by Charles Schwahn & Beatric McGarvey

I’ll admit, I did more skimming on this one than usual as it is meant to be a vision to practice manual and I’m not actually working in a school right now. I’ve also been part of a research group studying personalized learning schools for the past year, which means I’ve heard and seen a lot of these stories. I think for teachers and leaders in traditional school settings, however, this could be a powerful book for reimagining what learning can look like. The authors do a nice job of pairing vignettes from multiple perspectives – students, teachers, parents, leaders – with specifics about support systems or assumptions that we make.

One of the most compelling and frustrating aspects of educational change is that “we all know these things. Yet, our behaviors do not support them.” (p.82) When you finally see the disconnect between the way we do school and the way we choose to do the rest of our lives, from shopping to listening to music to hanging out with friends, you can’t stop seeing it. Some people might challenge that school shouldn’t be the same as real life – it’s “work” after all, whatever that means. I was recently reading over an interview with one of the teachers in our study and she said that her former colleagues keep commenting how she looks so much more relaxed and happy this year. It seems we are all perpetuating a system that stresses us out (kids, parents, teachers, and leaders included) just because that’s the way it is and always has been? So much of what we do – one test for all kids, writing papers and getting feedback a week later, sitting in lectures – isn’t actually the best way to do it. If our purpose is to facilitate learning, if this is the function of schools, then the form of our schools needs to follow this (p.78). Capitalizing on the technology and resources that are already at our disposal means that it’s possible.

Continue reading “Book Notes & Thoughts: Inevitable, Mass Customized Learning”

Book Notes & Thoughts: Disrupting Class

Book cover, from

By Clayton Christensen, Michael B. Horn, and Curtis W. Johnson

*note that these authors are not educators

Do not read this book, but if you do, please only read chapters 2-5. The authors’ do give a compelling argument for the way disruptive innovation happens, and there are certainly some good ideas for how to approach changing the educational system in there. Outside of that, see my comments below.

The authors propose using an innovation lens to study the problems in education, which are identified as problems by the international test scores that say the United States is behind other countries in math scores (TIMSS) and in the number of STEM graduate students and the changing demographics of Silicon Valley. (p.6) To their disparaging point about the “changing demographics”: from what I have read, it is still predominantly white men. A company like Google is still 70% male and 60% white, but I get it: it’s not 100% white men like the good ol’ days. Also, assuming the “diversity” comes from outside of the United States is not accurate and perpetuates stereotypes. That is not to say that some of the non-white and white people in Silicon Valley are not foreign nationals, but as our country continues to diversify, the workforce and management should as well. I realize that this is not the thrust of this book, but the cultural, racial, and gender bias in the way this book is written made me want to throw it against the wall repeatedly.

Downward trend in students that study math & engineering because the extrinsic motivation is gone when a country becomes prosperous (p.7-9)

“Assigning schools new jobs for which they were not built – and therefore not necessarily doing – has mean that schools don’t look as good in light of the new requirements.” (p. 45) I agree. I find it ironic that on page 156, in the chapter about the effect of early child development on academic success, the authors suggest that high schools should be tasked with teaching parenting skills to improve how they speak to their children in the first 3 years of their lives because that it the root cause of the achievement gap. Does that sound as contradictory to you as it does to me?

Schools are improving, but those improvements are not valued because of 2 disruptions: Nation at Risk, NCLB

p.45 disruptive innovation theory

p.46 key diagram of disruption


p.47 disruptive innovation is not equal to breakthrough improvement: it benefits nonconsumers – those unable to use the standard

p.55 “crisis in education” 1958 Life Magazine cover because of Sputnik

History of Education p.64

Job 1: preserve democracy and inculcate values

Job 2: provide something for every student (turn of 20th century – competition with Germany)

Job 3: keep America competitive (Nation At Risk)

Job 4: eliminate poverty (NCLB)

p.73 “schools have crammed [computers] into classrooms to sustain and marginally improve the way they already teach and run their schools, just as most organizations do when they attempt to implement innovations, including computers.” Thus the failure of a lot of 1:1 programs where students never use them or only use them for non-school activities.

p.74 “To succeed, disruptive technologies must be applied to applications where the alternative is nothing”

p.75 “organizations will shape every disruptive innovation into  sustaining innovation because organizations cannot naturally disrupt themselves”

p.81-82 computers serve to sustain the school model rather than disrupting

p.92-94 places with non consumption – ripe for disruptive technologies

  1. rural & urban high schools that lack funding or qualified teachers and online can offer AP or other options
  2. homebound/homeschool students
  3. credit recovery

p.102 pressures on schools

  1. technological improvements make learning more engaging
  2. design of student-centric software
  3. looming teacher shortage
  4. cost pressures

p.105 future classrooms – not the best but maybe the best possible

p.107 increased student:teacher ratio – I’m not a fan and it doesn’t seem to be what is working in PL

p.110 no more summative assessment with online learning because integrated into the learning process – only reason we need summative assessments is because we don’t know how students are doing during the learning process

p.135-6 second phase of disruption will be people assembling together to teach each other – custom-configured to each different type of learner – no mention of participatory cultures? connected learning?

p.136-7 all this stuff about tutors as the platform – no mention of Blooms 2sigma problem/research

p.140 having to teach material is when you finally understand it – this was definitely true for me with a lot of the biology I had to teach in my first year in the classroom

Teachers unions are almost always used as the example of barriers to change in the system, though on p.141 they do acknowledge that there are many factors, such as textbook adoption process and demand for standardization. I think they should also add elected officials who defund education and unfunded mandates that hamstring districts.

p.143 “Introducing student-centric learning through facilitated networks” – Who will build these networks? How will people get paid to create content? Earlier examples of facilitated networks included telecommunications or banking – “the network is a supporting infrastructure that helps the buyers and sellers make money elsewhere” and “participation in the network typically isn’t the primary profit engine for participants.”

p.147 Vignette about Principal Allston. It’s hard to take these as serious from three male writers: “Sitting in her office, flush from vindication of having given Maria the Arabic class she’d wanted, Stephanie Allston gets up, closes the door, kicks her heels off, and puts her nylon-clad feet up for just a moment.” Really?

p.155 It is really hard to read this writing about poor “young, single, inner-city mothers” and the previous section on how this lack of “dancing talk” is the cause of multigenerational entrapment: “the children of lower-income, poorly educated, inner-city parents are trapped in a multigenerational cycle of educational underachievement and poverty.” (p.153) While this might play a part, it is not the only piece of the poverty puzzle. What draws me to a networked approach to solving problems is that there is never one cause and one solution. It is always more complicated than that. Also, “welfare families”? How old is this research!?! Hart & Risley (began research in 1965) and a reference to, which conveniently sells software, hardware, and courses to improve the language exposure during childhood to “close the achievement gap.” Hmmm… I smell a white upper class rat.

p.156 “Professional couples…often are so anxious to get back to their careers after childbirth that they hand their babies prematurely to caregivers whose responsibilities for multiple children give them bandwidth for little more than business talk.” I’m pretty sure it’s not exclusively because of being anxious for their careers. Let’s remember that the United States often has NO paid parental leave for either moms or dads, and when there is, it’s sometimes as little as 2 weeks or at most 6 weeks. Aside from paid leave, the cost of childcare is more than college tuition in some places. Slamming parents for not making better decisions ignores the principles of their own book about understanding the decisions that customers make rather than making assumptions. And while we’re at it, maybe instead of yet another suggestion for schools to fix the problem through some home economics classes, which we know is really directed at the girls, not the boys, and which we know won’t actually work, as this whole book as been trying to point out, how about we focus on affordable health care that pays for prenatal visits and delivery in a hospital; quality, affordable childcare for whenever parents choose or need to go back to work; and a little less ignorant judgement on the part of the authors.

p.160 I thought finally they were going to talk about participatory cultures and connected learning! Nope.

p.174-5 In an interesting juxtaposition, the authors cite the Big Picture schools, which use project based learning and student teams, held up as a model for “integrated” experiences, then computer-based learning, which is about delivering content in a competency-based, self-paced, continuously assessed way. Big Picture, to me, feels very relationship and interpersonal based, whereas the computer-based learning seems much more individualistic, both person and content-wise. Also, I wonder how the Big Picture schools would stand up in a double blind, “gold standard” study?

p.223 “Districts should see chartered schools as heavyweight research and development laboratories whose charter, in essence, is to help the district match a school typology with students in a given circumstance.” I’m continually disappointed by the failure of the authors to address issues of equity and access. The idea of classifying students according to some schema, which they mention as multiple intelligences repeatedly thorough the book, smacks of tracking and/or the other many ways that discrimination happens. I’m not ready to commit to multiple intelligences as a way to sort children. It’s just not that simple.

p.224 “Rather than view [chartered schools, such as KIPP] as competitors that are to be isolated, district schools need to monitor the success of chartered schools so that they can define the circumstance for which each different architecture is the superior solution.” Well, maybe the chartered schools could share some of their data and/or access to understanding their school? Also, let’s not assume they are successful before we have evidence, shall we? Particularly in this chapter, I’m surprised they haven’t brought up New Orleans at all. My understanding there is that it’s now all charter schools there and students basically apply to which one they think will work best for their child rather than having a neighborhood school. I’ve also heard that it isn’t working out well, particularly for students with special education needs.

p.224 “Viewing chartered and pilot schools – mostly aimed at reaching the underserved segment of the market…” Are they though? My recollection of the New Orleans charters says that they’re not serving special education students well. Can you site something that gives evidence that charters are about underserved populations? What exactly do you mean by “underserved”? Is this by low socioeconomic status? race? English-speaking? special education?

p.230 diagram of tools of governance that can elicit cooperation

FullSizeRender 2

p.235 The authors suggest that we have reached a point with schools where democracy will not work for change, so, as illustrated by the Chattanooga Schools, “mayors have taken direct control of their schools districts” and “appoint[ed] a superintendent who shared their same vision, and the superintendent did not have to worry about pleasing disparate school board members who have competing visions for reform…. [I]n many ways, many of the structures of democracy no longer stand in the way.” This concerns me on two levels. First, the replacement of a public, democratic, educational system, once called the foundation of our society, by benevolent non-educator dictators? Second, I believe in a sort of fractal like alignment in culture for the different levels of education. If we want to live in a democracy, students need to learn to participate in civic life, to vote, to be engaged in community, and one way is for them to learn this is in schools. If we want teachers to teach this, they need to participate in a democratic organization so that their voices are heard, that they have representatives in governance. I don’t think we can reorganize schools from in an autocratic way from top down, ignoring the voices of teachers who are meant to carry out this work with students, and then expect them to cultivate a love of learning and civic engagement in their students.

Just one page later, the authors write, “Although better learning is the goal, states and districts cannot ‘enact’ better learning. All they can do is create the conditions that motivate teachers and students to do whatever it takes to get better results.” (p.236) Oh really? So now we should pay attention to teacher motivation?

“They haven’t made soccer practice virtual yet, but even that might be useful.” (p.242) Um, I’m pretty sure it’s called Fifa 15 on XBOX One.

They do not develop the modularity idea. They describe is as opposed to interdependent, where interdependent means that all the parts are dependent on each other, rather than something like a Dell computer which could be built of components bought from different sources. What would this look like in education? Is it just about having a clearer system of credits or badges that indicate which standards are mastered?

Their final recommendations to graduate schools of education includes “circumstance-based statements that will help us make much better progress in the years ahead as we learn what each individual student needs, not what works on average for students in a school” (p.248), yet they cite randomized controlled trials or double blind studies as “a significant step forward” (p.196) in their section on education research. They qualify this that this is the first step in their descriptive phase of the research pyramid that they propose, and that RCT should be a starting point to then investigate the anomalies, underlying conditions, or circumstances that affect those that respond or do not respond. I wish they could have given some examples here. I think I might need to read Meredith Honig’s book that they cite about education policy. Something I think they are missing, however, is that the methods for how you understand circumstances are not possible, in my growing understandings of how these things work, through RCT. You need qualitative researchers who do research from constructivist, post-modernist, and critical approaches. The questions asked by researchers in those paradigms allow us to understand people and learning.

As you can tell by my comments, I have a lot of objections to how this book is written and what is written in the book. What scares me is that this is stuff people outside of education really like: praise on the back book jacket includes Jeb Bush (presidential candidate), Joel Klein (Chancellor NYC DoE), and Jim Collins (business leadership writer). There is certainly wisdom to be learned from outside of education, and I will definitely take away from this book the ideas of targeting non-consumers and disruptive innovation, but I would hope my writing would never come across so insensitive nor so dismissive of an entire field of work that I do not even work in.

Continue reading “Book Notes & Thoughts: Disrupting Class”

Introduction & Chapter 1, Organizing Schools for Improvement

Book cover. Retrieved Dec 16, 2014 from

One book I’m reading during the “recess” from classes is Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago (2010), by Bryk, Sebring, Allensworth, Luppescu, and Easton. As I’ve done for other independent readings, I’ll try to summarize the chapters and add my own reflections at the end. I’ve found that writing these blog posts improves my comprehension and memory of the research. It’s like all that research on learning actually works!


Policy context: The research presented in this book is based on the reform initiatives in the Chicago Public School (CPS) District beginning with the Chicago School Reform Act of 1988. Essentially, Local School Councils (LSCs) were given the authority to determine how to education their children, including hiring the school principal. Eight years later, some schools had shown marked improvements while others languished; this research effort tried to understand why. Continue reading “Introduction & Chapter 1, Organizing Schools for Improvement”

Reading Notes: Ch. 1 & 2 of Social Network Theory and Educational Change


Daly, A. J. (Ed.). (2010). Social network theory and educational change. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Education Press.

As part of my research this fall, I am making my way through this 2010 primer on Social Network Theory. I am going to try to blog summaries and reactions as a way to understand what I’m reading.

The big questions I’ve had over the past few years have all, in one way or another, been related to understanding “change trajectories,” to use a term that Judith Little uses in the Forward (p.xiii). I’ve observed top-down change be inspiring but ineffective at changing classrooms and bottom-up change also be inspiring but fade when the individual runs out of steam or moves on. This has drawn me to educational change that is facilitated by networks, where individual work moves toward a common goal in a way that feels coordinated and supported.

My big question: How do we understand educational change trajectories?

“Organizations are inherently relational. They are social systems consisting of people with differing interests, goals, and preferences, interacting, communicating, and making decisions” (p.29). It’s amazing how often this is ignored by proponents of a particular program who want to focus the product or goal rather than the relationships. I think what appeals to me in particular about SNT is the ability to use it’s theory and method at all levels and phases, whether it is situated practice, district curriculum goals, student graduation rater, etc. Our networks impact everything we do – it is the interstitial human stuff – and our “positions in a social structure have consequences” (p.17). Continue reading “Reading Notes: Ch. 1 & 2 of Social Network Theory and Educational Change”