September 20, 2006

More Details of Philly's School of the Future are Revealed

... and it ain't pretty.

In fact, it's looking more and more like a train wreck in the making.

The oddest thing about these fawning newspaper articles is that they think this school is the greatest thing since slice bread, yet they are describing a regular horror show.

Students' class schedules look different, too. They don't take calculus, English or biology. Instead, they attend inquiry sessions, during which interdisciplinary instruction tackles real-life questions such as "Should Philadelphians be worried about avian flu?"

Students learn the science behind the disease and study the environmental concerns. They discover how to research the topic, then they learn how to communicate their findings.

If this simulation is half as bad as the lemonade stand simulation, these kids are in real trouble. As rightwingprof noted in the lemonade stand simulation, it didn't contain any math and was a simplistic simulation. How are these kids going to actually learn calculus, biology or English with so much time doing a dopey simulation? Learning calculus is difficult enough when taught directly. Why make the learning environment more complex?

"It's more like life and less like school. I can't think of anything I do that is 'This is math, this is social studies,' " said Shirley Grover, who is called the "chief learner."

Chief jackass is more like it. When will these educators stop drinking the Dewey kool-aid? Why does learning have to be like real life?

Twenty eight years ago Ausubel (1968) summarized the findings on this kind of wacky authentic discovery learning by saying that "actual examination of the research literature allegedly supportive of learning by discovery reveals that valid evidence of this nature is virtually nonexistent" (p. 497). And yet, today this kind of ineffective crap is still rampant in our schools.

The technology and instruction are innovative, but behind the flash, how solid is the education? Will a child spending four years studying such questions instead of a traditional textbook-based curriculum be prepared for college?

"The approach itself can be very good. It attempts to teach kids a kind of approach to solving problems that really can't be taught usually with conventional instruction," said Nancy Brickhouse, interim director of University of Delaware's School of Education.

Where have I heard this before? Oh yeah. Teaching Myth #1: The myth of process
The myth of process emphasizes what occurs during instruction and de-emphasizes what happens as a result of instruction. When activities and projects become an end in themselves, there is little accountability for learning outcomes.

And, what the hell is she talking about that this "approach to solving problems that really can't be taught usually with conventional instruction"? Of course, it can be taught in a more conventional manner. You just have to teach a whole bunch of foundational skills first. It is this inability to teach these foundational skills to kids like this which is the problem. Leapfrogging over those skills isn't going to remedy the underlying deficiencies. What these kids are doing is playing an elaborate game of hide the education.

"You are trying to teach kids how to make claims and support them with evidence. It's a very sophisticated way of thinking," she said. "It's much closer to what scientists do than what goes on in conventional science classrooms."

Actually, it is worlds apart. Real scientists have considerable domain knowledge in the areas they study. These kids have none. The "sophisticated" thinking done by the real scientists is based on their domain knowledge. What are these kids basing their sophisticated thinking on? See the problem?

But Brickhouse, who specializes in science education, is hesitant to support schoolwide inquiry-based instruction.

"I don't want to say that all instruction should be that way. I don't think that everything should be integrated," she said. "You don't have to take an all-or-nothing approach.

"There still has to be some sense to the curriculum, a building up of scientific understanding," Brickhouse said.

So when exactly is that going to occur in this school? These kids are freshman in high school. Most of them are coming in with the academic ability of a weak elementary school student, unable to do basic math. They are wasting valuable academic time they should be using to build up their math and science skills.

Paul Herdman is president of the Rodel Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to helping Delaware create one of the nation's best school systems.

"When you think about a good education, you need to provide a hook. You need something that is going to engage kids where they are," he said. "Hands-on, project-based learning does just that. It grounds the kids' interest in what they are learning in school."

Ding Ding Ding. That's our second myth in one article. Myth #2: The myth of fun and interesting.
The myth of fun and interesting ensures that the process is not only emphasized but is entertaining as well. This myth ignores the fact the initial learning of a skill or concept is rarely fun. It's the fluent performance and application in a new context that is enjoyable.

Needless to say, these kids are not going to be getting the education and practice they need to become fluid performers as they waste time doing hokey hands-on projects containing little in the way of academic skills.

But that's not enough on its own, he said, noting educators must take students beyond their interests and provide basic instruction all high school graduates need.

"You need to add some kind of core infrastructure," Herdman said, adding he thinks School of the Future leaders have the right mix.

Based on what? I want to see one example of an inner city public school with this "mix" that performs above-average. Average being well below what is required to succeed in college, but I don't want to set the bar too high.

Grover said her learners won't miss out on any content. School leaders incorporate Pennsylvania's standards for each grade into the inquiry-based lessons. The students will take the same standardized tests given in other public schools.

I believe Fordham gave the PA standards a two C's a D, and two F's. No help there. I cannot wait to see the results of those PSSA scores in three years.

Prediction: disaster and excuse-making.


Anonymous said...

I'm curious about the fact that the High Tech High in San Diego, which is a discovery school (no books at all when Oprah was touring) seems to be doing great.

otoh, apparently the principal is a dynamo, and hasn't been able to replicate his success elsewhere (I've forgotten most of the details of the article I read about him).

KDeRosa said...

They aren't exactly forthcoming with their standardized test scores. I can't locate them on their site.

Supposedly, the students take the Sat-10, yet no scores are posted. I'd even settle for CA test scores or SAT/ACT scores.

Superdestroyer said...


The average SAT score for HTH students was 534 in math and 533 in verbal, compared to 505 and 492 in the rest of the district, even as 87% of HTH students take the SAT compared to only 50% of
district students.

No exactly a tremendous SAT score considering that a traditional magnet school such as Thomas Jefferson in Fairfax virginia has a mean SAT score over 1400. Virtually every public high school in northern virginia has a higher SAT score than HTH.

KDeRosa said...

Good find, superdestroyer.

That's an effect size of about 0.35.

That's anywhere from middling to awful depending upon how selective the admission process is.

TurbineGuy said...

KDeRosa said...

Another good find by Rory.

HTH is signficantly whiter and richer (% getting free/reduced lunch) than CA's averag school.

State text scores middling.

TurbineGuy said...


Exactly what I thought on when I had a quick glance at the stats, but I figured I would leave it to you to explore.

Even though HHT is a discovery school, it did seem to at least have a good set of standards as to what kids should learn. (Explored the website).