Monday, February 15, 2010

Is multi-age inquiry-based education too hard on teachers?

Carolina School for Inquiry made AYP this year, its fourth year of existence.  WOO-HOO!!!

Many new schools aren't judged for AYP (adequate yearly progress) until their fourth year because it takes at least that long for the effects of the new school to overcome the old schools.  In the case of CSI, a charter school, Richland School District One chose to be cautious and use AYP to keep track even in the first three years.

Not only did CSI make AYP, it is leading the district in many areas of testing on the statewide PASS test. 

This is important not only to CSI parents, teachers, and students, but to all advocates of excellent public education for all people.

This is what we heard from detractors, mostly in Columbia, but even from some blogger in Alaska:
  • Inquiry is for white, middle-class children.  Other children don't learn because they aren't (fill-in-the-blank) culturally/genetically/mentally able to learn through inquiry.  They need tables, worksheets, and yelling teachers.  (How's that tably/worksheety/yelly thing workin' for ya?)
  • Inquiry lets children do whatever they want and so they won't learn basic skills or achieve the standards or learn the essential boring stuff.
  • Teachers aren't willing to work hard enough to properly implement inquiry.
This is what we see:

Carolina School for Inquiry has a diverse population of students.  It reflects the urban/rural, social, cultural, and ethnic makeup of Richland School District One. 

As a charter school, every child has a parent who decided to give multi-age, inquiry-based education a try, although not every parent is able to be in the school as often as they'd like (including me.)  Parents do make a difference in their child's education, but we can't blame the parent and move on.  As Victoria Dixon-Mokeba says, each child brings the best parents they have and if that's not such a great parent, that child still needs to learn.

Carolina School for Inquiry has some excellent, committed, professional teachers.  These teachers work longer and harder than many of their counterparts in traditional public or private schools.  They attend professional development courses to improve their knowledge and skills in both subject matter and in inquiry, multi-age, and differentiated education theory and practice.  They grade not with simple formulas and ABCs, but with a combination of kidwatching and written and oral evaluation. 

My son's report cards are always at least four pages long, and in them I can see that his teachers really know him as a learner.  We have been lucky to have teachers committed to multi-age inquiry since he began here in third grade.  I understand that not all teachers at the school have been willing to put this kind of time into the narrative report cards, and I feel sorry that their parents and students haven't experienced a well-honed narrative report card. 

In order for Inquiry to be done right, the teachers have to be committed.  They need to understand differentiated education and know how to implement it.  They need to have a carefully crafted plan.  Although Inquiry teachers are flexible, they can't fly by the seat of their pants.  Each child needs to have what is in effect an IEP, an individual education plan.  The teachers can't use pre-fab lesson plans, even if they have "worked" in traditional classrooms for 25 years.  At CSI, there are no children left behind.  The teachers can't say, "I've done all I can with that one, he's a lost cause."  Each child must learn to be the best learner he or she can be.  No excuses.  No "try" only "do."

A couple of teachers are complaining that multi-age, inquiry based education is too hard.  They can't say it doesn't work.  They don't say the kids don't learn.  They say that it is too hard.  They focus on multi-age, saying the class levels are too broad, but as we have said, if inquiry is done right, the developmental levels are not so important as in a traditional classroom.  We don't need "bluebirds" and "crows."

And as I've said, my son's teachers have all been committed to the best student learning, so I don't really understand what the other teachers' problems are.  But I do know that Carolina School for Inquiry is a school of choice and if it doesn't fit the need of a teacher, they should find a more traditional, easier school at which to teach.

There are thousands and thousands of committed, energetic, professional, child-loving teachers out there.  CSI only needs seven of them.

Congratulations to Victoria Dixon-Mokeba and the fine staff and faculty, to all of the students, and to all of the families and friends of CSI.  We are a success and now almost everyone knows it.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

A better place to be: Carolina School for Inquiry

Over five years ago, I became part of a group of people who wanted their children, and all children, to have a better place to learn. After some discussion and research, we decided to start a child-centered, inquiry-based, multi-age public charter school in Richland County school district one.

I almost didn’t become a part of CSI because I had misconceptions about what a charter school is.

I thought that a charter school was a sneaky way of having a private school paid for with public money. I thought charter schools were conservative, using old-fashioned methods that people think used to work to teach kids, but never really worked for most kids. I thought charter schools had uniforms, workbooks, and rote teaching.

Instead, I learned that a charter school is a laboratory to test innovative ideas to see if they will help improve education for all children.

A group with an innovative idea establishes a contract with the state of SC and with the school district, in our case Richland One, promising that our idea will work BETTER to educate the children of SC. The key is to find a new way of teaching. In our case, we took two tried and true methods, inquiry and multi-age, and combined them in a way that we believed would improve all children’s learning.

In addition, the charter group promises to teach ALL children better, not just the ones we might pick and choose. In the process, the charter organization takes on a great responsibility for both education and finances.

The contract between Carolina School for Inquiry and Richland One says that our innovative method that we believe will better educate children is a CHILD-CENTERED, MULTI-AGE, INQUIRY-BASED curriculum. This is not the only way to teach, but this is what CSI has agreed to do.

When we first established the school, some parents tried to change it to what they thought a charter school was. Some wanted more homework and less talk among student, but that is not CSI. A couple of parents thought the school would allow their children to run wild and “express themselves” in ways that society deems inappropriate. That is not CSI. Currently, a couple of teachers and a handful of parents are saying that multi-age doesn’t work for them and the charter should be changed.

I have to ask them if they have checked our test scores. I have to wonder if they have looked at the students’ success. I have to wonder if they are committed to the CSI charter.

I have been lucky to have teachers committed to the learning of each child. When Mark was in third grade, the first year of CSI, he had a wonderful teacher. Although she was a first year teacher, I think she understood and was committed to inquiry in a way that some teachers entrenched in traditional learning aren’t. She was like the Good Shepherd of the parable, who knew each child’s name. She also knew what he or she liked and didn’t like to do and how to encourage a child to push beyond the “easy” to the challenge. She steered Mark toward books that he enjoyed, and helped him get past his obsession at the time --- a fine set of books that he’d really outgrown.
I use her as an example, but as I said, all of Mark’s teachers have been wonderful. And one of his best is a teacher who succeeded in traditional schools for years but has fully embraced the multi-age, inquiry-based curriculum of CSI.
One concern I have heard about multi-age classes is that it is hard to teach children with such a broad range of development and abilities. And yet, walk into any group of six year olds and you will find a broad range of development levels and abilities. In fact, one child may be all over the chart in his physical, emotional, and intellectual development. He may be great at math but struggle with language arts. She may be able to read on a 5th grade level but have the social skills of a kindergartener.

The idea of multi-age education is to teach children where they are developmentally, without stigmatizing them by “holding them back” or pushing them ahead when they are not socially ready.

With Inquiry-based education, each child should be learning in his own way in any case. Although it might not be necessary to have formalized forms such as used in special ed, each child should, in essence, have an IEP, his or her individual education plan. If each child is being taught in the way he or she can best learn, the multi-age issue is moot. It’s hard work for the teacher, but it is a great way for the children to succeed.

Being a part of a charter school is harder for parents, teachers, and administrators, but we CHOOSE to be a part because of our commitment to excellent public education. Our goal is student achievement: every child will be the best he or she can be. It doesn’t matter where his starts, how he stacks up against others, or what we want him to be. He needs to be his best.
And CSI has done this well. Look at the children. If you can, read the narrative report card, which tells you exactly what your child can and cannot do, where he is strongest and where he needs to challenge himself. Ask Ms. Dixon-Mokeba if you can see Mark’s report card. I’m as proud of the teachers who took the time and who had the knowledge of my son to write them as I am of my son. Look at our over-all test scores: look at the levels of improvement since the child-centered multi-age inquiry based curriculum has been given a chance to take hold. Look at the success in AYP.

Does looping (having a teacher go from grade to another with the child) work? Yeah, it does. There is plenty of evidence in Richland One and Two. So much so, I’d have to suggest it’s not innovative. Does that mean other schools shouldn’t use it? Of course not. Does that mean CSI, as a charter should be allowed to use it? No. It’s not innovative.

Carolina School for Inquiry is a SUCCESSFUL CHILD-CENTERED, MULTI-AGE, INQUIRY-BASED school. Our children are excelling, and I pray they will be able to continue to grow. And to those teachers & parents who feel that child-centered, multi-age, inquiry-based education is not right for you or your child, I wish you the best and hope you find a better place for YOU to be.