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 Response Page - Joe Graba Interview - Education    

These comments are responses to the questions listed below,
which were generated in regard to the
Joe Graba Interview of 07/25/08,

The questions:

_7.3 average___ On a scale of (0) strong disagreement, to (5) neutral, to (10) strong
agreement, should the fundamental organization of schooling change from
offering a standardized curriculum to creating a customized curriculum for
each student?

_3.9 average___ On a scale of (0) strong disagreement, to (5) neutral, to (10) strong
agreement, is it possible for traditional schools to accomplish such change
from within?

Wayne Jennings (10) (3)
Graba is right on, from my 50 years as a reform-minded educator.
Schools, particularly secondary schools, can't/won't change. Some people within a school want change, some don't resulting in gridlock. Many well-educated people who succeeded with the current model and are now decision makers can't entertain a different paradigm. Maximum efforts have been applied to perfecting the current model. It doesn't work well for too many students.

Janet M. Hively (8) (_)
The word "traditional" biases the question. If a school is focused on sticking to traditional education, then obviously it is not possible. If you are using the word "traditional" to describe "public schools", it is possible -- as illustrated by the proliferation of project-based "High Schools That Work" led by Gene Bottoms and the Southern Regional Education Board.

In Minnesota, we were moving toward customized education during the '90s with the Profile of Learning backed up by School to Work emphasis on individualized lifework planning and on service-based learning and work-based learning in addition to school-based learning. Changes in record keeping that allowed the student to be in charge of computer-based portfolios were in the works. Dozens of schools around the state had moved beyond pilots to the new system.

Then what happened. Politics. One challenge came from the parents of students who were doing well in the traditional system and didn't want to be messed up in their college application process by an alternative record keeping system. Conservative critics opposed a flexible system that put more authority and responsibility in the hands of students and teachers. The state was defensive and loaded on more red tape requirements that turned off the teachers who had not been part of the pilots. And, most of all, Ventura reorganized the Department of Children, Families and Learning and did away with the Office of Lifework Development. The Profile of Learning went away.

This experience in Minnesota should be teaching us how to do it better rather than showing us that positive change can't happen. From my perspective, the mushrooming of Charter Schools has ultimately weakened the public schools because it's drained away the energy of reform.

Charles Lutz (10) (3)

Scott Halstead (5) (5)
Customization may be possible, but it will take more resources. It would be very difficult in large schools. The use of the computer with interaction allows many changes in the learning process.

Chuck Slocum (10) (5)
I think we need to place organizational and individual incentives on existing schools to determine the workability of the change ideas being discussed. There are many education "experts" with ideas on making our schools more effective in teaching students; most of the ideas relate to models for heretofore "at risk" students. Mr. Graba suggests a far more sweeping concept through a student centered customized curriculum, one worth pursuing.

Al Quie (10) (0)
I came to the belief in what Joe Graba has so clearly explained 40 years ago. When big institutions exist for a long time and standardize, there are so many people who identify with the institution rather than the desired outcomes that many people suffer before enough change comes about. Often cataclysmic events speed up the process. The most important ingredient, however, is civic responsibility exercised collaboratively in community.

John Adams (8) (3)
I have been following Joe's work for years, and am familiar with the arguments and varied experiences of schools across the nation. I don't think that there is any question that his diagnosis is correct--but it's not helpful to blame the teacher or the unions. It's the system itself that has become defective given its task and the culture within which it is operating. Comment #7 (on higher education) is especially compelling given the extent of denial on our campuses that the world has been changing, and that the on-line proprietary schools are not to be taken seriously.

Robert A. Freeman (5) (4)
Question No. 1: I don't know that this is possible with available resources - clearly schools (especially high schools) need to change drastically to provide benefit to students but I am not sure it can be done all in one go, and it might be better to encourage innovative alternatives (such as charters, magnets, other models) to flourish and allow parents and students to make the choice for themselves.

Question No. 2: I believe that is possible but I think schools need either a strong incentive or penalty for it to occur without the state mandating it. Experiences with NCLB have shown that penalizing the school system for not achieving results is very controversial and unpopular. However, with financial pressures on the state, it is unlikely that significant new money will be available for trying to forge new curricula and alternative methods of delivery (and any new money will certainly be directed to increase teacher salaries, not to pedagogic experiments). Therefore I do not think that these changes are going to come about organically within traditional school systems but are more likely, as Graba indicates, in alternative models such as charters and online schools - these models by their very nature are going to attract more innovative educational thinkers. Funding for such experiments will likely have to come from private sources such as the Gates Foundation. If these alternative teaching methods are shown to produce results then the traditional education system will certainly end up adopting some of them if they have to compete for students.

Ann Berget
Your Question #2 assumes that some degree of agreement with Question #1.

Such experiments with "custom" curriculum in the past ("free" schools of the 1970's, for example) have yielded schools and students with no foreign language experience, little/no higher mathematics, inability to write even a simple paper, and little in the way of higher order thinking skills.

BTW, charters don't have a stellar record on these things so far. An interesting tidbit: charter school transportation costs have been a break-the-bank burden for districts and boards for some time now.

Mr. Graba's ideas are shopworn and cliche`d, although this seems to be what contemporary educational correctness expects, maybe even demands. Educational gurus have been chanting this same stuff for a very long time now, without producing much. Only his point #14 even mentions the education process from the side of the student, that is, that a student needs motivation and that this cannot be mandated or regulated.

For example, students who fail tend to be students who have high absences and often have substantial disciplinary records. There is nothing surprising about this. Such students are not likely to be enrolled in more advanced classes regardless of the structure of the school, although they compromise the educational environment for those around them.

It would be much more helpful to interview informants who look at the educational environment more dispassionately.

Glenn S. Dorfman (5) (10)
What needs the most change is not the organization so much as the quality of the teachers and parental engagement in the process of learning. Teacher education is a farce from Columbia Teacher's College to Mankato State. Teachers must be skilled in their respective subject matter (s) and have a developing pedagogy that can be evaluated for effectiveness through measurement of student performance. We have been talking and studying this issue for so long now we have poorly educated several generations. Maybe we should export our kids to countries that have better learning results!

The concept of "disruptive innovation" is not Christensen's but rather Joseph Shumpeter's: From Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (New York: Harper, 1975) [orig. pub. 1942], pp. 82-85:

Vici Oshiro
Very interesting discussion. Need to know lots more before answering above questions. Joe Nathan at HHH Institute is also very strong on charter schools. Don Fraser has been convening a group to look at achievement gap for nearly two years. Examples I have heard about rely very heavily on such a strong commitment from teachers that any teacher with kids at home would find it exceedingly difficult to participate. It would put his/her own family at risk.

Growth and Justice also considering education. Where is that effort at present?

Beware of unintended consequences.

The articulation of the change from universal access to universal achievement about 1990 is very helpful. Succinct and easily understood.

Clarence Shallbetter (4) (3)
Not sure whether the proposed change is similar to the model used for special education or is significantly different. If it's the same or similar where will the resources come from to do it? Are there places where this investment should begin? Should a model be developed along the lines of the early education model the Civic Caucus recently discussed? It's also not clear whether this model will enable students who desire to go into trained jobs out of high school could receive this training in the way much of it was possible for some when vocational high schools existed.

David Broden (10) (0)
The customized curriculum is really the only way an education can evolve--as I look back to the education I had the quality of the education and the approach was that the teachers looked at each member of a class and focused on the individual while also providing an
overall framework to commonality. This was customized at its best--because it kept everyone able to share together and learn the social skills that come from education but yet each had their own path and focus projects and opportunities. We must get to have the curriculum tailored to each student and in that way give each the opportunity to begin to express their individual interests and shape a challenge for each and yet have a common thread --that education system will be much like life in the real world and how each student will evolve into society--it will make the student feel that what he is doing in school is relevant and with that be successful. A tailored approach setting the path for each student must be the focus of all evolving education if we want to move ahead effectively.

Like most organizations the parochial strength of within simply does not see the need to make the adjustments. Outside forces must set challenges, force the changes etc. Somehow the "good" that does exist within the system must be leveraged to work with the outside forces to accept the changes and to take the ownership of the change and bring it inside. Working to find the link of new and changing ideas with the ownership from within and getting those within to accept and see the value is a must or the turmoil can be very disruptive. There are way do to this and that must be the focus.

Dennis Johnson (0) (0)
In most cities, the public education system is beyond repair. Control over education should be returned to parents, with a credit voucher given to the parents for each child, to be used in the school of their choice, or for home schooling if that is their choice. If they waste that choice, that is then their responsibility.

Brian Thiel
I hope you send a copy of the Graba talk to every public, charter and parochial superintendent with an additional copy to every school board, probably best to a home address of the board chair person.

It is very important to discuss long-term policy with all the current players. I had a 25-year career in computing, networking and the Internet, perhaps the leading example where disruptive technology drastically changed the entire business and personal landscape. While many original computing companies died or greatly retrenched, not all lost out... some changed themselves greatly and are now at the top of the heap, e.g., IBM, HP. If even some of the existing educational institutions and unions have the perspicacity and courage to change, they need to have the incentive placed before them. If some of them do, they can bring their existing resources to bear on a new direction, perhaps bringing necessary changes faster and affecting favorably more children.

You may be confident that in/when I have a seat in the Legislature, I will be very vocal and persistent to challenge and push all educational leaders to change and to find ways to permit and give incentive to alternative entities who will move forward rather than merely defend themselves and their traditional institutional perspectives.

Bob Brown (8) (1)
While I generally agree with many of Joe's comments, it is too simplistic to just say schools have to be either standardized or customized for each child. I know that Joe, Ted, and other critics of the current system (of which I am one) realize that many students (best guesses are 50 or 60 per cent) do reasonably well in the current system. The problem is that both the top students and the educationally challenged students frequently do not have their educational needs met. And just because you have a customized program doesn't mean that each student has a unique learning package. And programs should be tailored to the various learning styles - for example, we now know that males and females generally approach the learning physics differently. To be successful, an educational system should have a variety of delivery systems - face-to-face, interactive

TV, internet, etc. as different individuals do in different systems. Finally, I definitely agree the costs of higher education have gotten out of hand.

Malcolm McLean (9) (2)
This is perhaps the very best report I have > received from all the excellent reports from CC over the years. I think Joe Graba is very much into something big. I am not an expert in this but have volunteered for many years in the first grade of a St. Paul urban school. In addition, I was president of a small college for 16 years. I have taken the liberty of passing on Graba's comments to the current president of Northland College where I served. I noted to her that one of the few advantages that a small, private college has in the education field these days is to make decisions and changes promptly if it needs to. There is a small population cohort that needs to understand the set of problems ahead and discuss and act on suggestions for a new approach. The small college does not face the huge problems of bigness, dug in departments, state authorities, etc. which large state universities and big private universities as well. I think that is what is meant by variety in our educational offerings.

My volunteering for many years in what is now called the Paul and Sheila Wellstone Elementary School (formerly Saturn-Riverside) tells me clearly that the children - mostly immigrant, many poor (it's a Title I school)- reflect a enormous range of ability. All the teachers I have worked with try very hard to serve all the children in our classes but it is so difficult. This last year, for example, a small Karen tribal boy from Myanmar (Burma) showed up in November (not September) with basically no English. He made some progress during the year but was so far from the skills and talents of several Somali and Ethiopian kids, for example, that they were really living in difficult intellectual worlds. He had no English vocabulary; the others were outstanding students with probably English vocabularies of several thousand words.

Chris Brazelton (10) (6)
Change is possible, but even change for the better is often resisted. Any change will require buy in from all stakeholders. Gathering them for the discussion is a daunting challenge.

Schools in the Waldorf system understand that different children learn via different methods, and therefore uses a more broad approach with sight, sound and touch. Even that system does not take into account the different speeds at which children learn.

We also lose children when we don't take into account that all children are not going to be good at math or science, yet more and more are driven by costs and demands to teach to the core subjects and cut arts, sports and other programming.

These children who fall through the cracks (chasms) in our educational system sometimes end up in our correctional system. We spend the money on them eventually! Obviously, the answer is not just funding. It means such an overhaul of our educational system while still operating a system. In some regards, it's like trying to rebuild a ship while steaming along at sea.

Bill Hamm (0) (0)
Should students have a personally customized curriculum? There is nothing new about this very old "Outcome Based" education proposal or the effort to repackage it and attempt to get it through again. The answer is a "0", it was a stupid idea before and it is a stupid idea again because it only makes education more cumbersome and ends up teaching even less.

Your second question doesn't really lend itself to your grading format and it should not happen so zero is again my answer.

Your organization has a serious lack of understanding of what is wrong with education and how we went from an education leader 30 years ago to an education loser today.

Ray Schmitz (6.5) (5)
My basic uncertainty comes from the interrelationship of the modern school to the modern family. The school is an extension of the family in that it is a necessary day care center for much of the day when the parents are working. Look at the issues on a snow day or the panic when a change in the school year is proposed. Parents have no other leisure activity other than school activities and transportation. Suddenly there is tailored education with flexible schedules, multiple focuses and all the other bells and whistles. Is that consistent? Sounds like a problem to me.

As to the ability to change, I heard a speech a few yrs ago, the author is gone from my memory, but his point was that with the multiple school boards in this county one of them should have found the magic solution in the same way multiple monkeys on multiple typewriters etc. I am really concerned that this structure, along with the growth of the other layers at the state and federal level if not capable of accomplishing anything. The only solution they have is to fire the superintendent, in the same way the football team responds to the losing season. I suspect that the superintendents of today have started updating their CV's before they get the pictures hung in their offices, a couple quick years of high plans and lofty promises and off to the next bigger district before anyone has time to really look at what has not happened.

Ed Dirkswager (10+) (10)

Tim McDonald (10) (2)
Go Joe!

Diane Flynn
Graba's conclusions are very interesting and I am a big supporter. One of my best math years was 6th grade when we moved at our own individual pace. We grabbed our folders, did our math, had teacher and parent support for new concepts, and proceeded though the levels at our own speed. Very motivating and I learned a ton. I'm curious about point 14. I agree with Graba that reading needs to be intrinsically motivated, but what does he propose to make this happen?

Wish I could have been there for his interview. My Stanford thesis in 1984 was about computer-assisted instruction---a novel and much-disputed notion at the time.

Bright Dornblaser (5) (6)
Not clear with teachers becoming advisors where students acquire the knowledge society deems minimum ally essential Projects provide K. of course but a publicly transparent evaluation system is needed to learn whether essentials are learned.

It is possible for schools to accomplish change from within. DC is an example. No doubt others. Disruptive pedagogical changes no doubt are useful to demonstrate. But, what does it do to prepare quality teachers, to pay them to teach the disadvantaged, to prepare and use innovative school managers? Useful concepts presented, but insufficient.

Tracy Leahy (8.5) (6)

State Rep. Carolyn Laine (10) (8)
This discussion brings me full circle back to what I envisioned as an education student in college, why I spent 10 years on a school board, what I longed for in my own 5 children, and why I choose my particular Ph.D. graduate school. I still hold out hope that the people themselves within our public school system would resonate with the authenticity and vitality possible under change of this nature. I need to discuss with these folks how I might be of help.

Tom Swain (8) (2)
Larry and Ann Schluter (6) (6)



The Civic Caucus   is a non-partisan, tax-exempt educational organization.   The Core participants include persons of varying political persuasions, reflecting years of leadership in politics and business. Click here  to see a short personal background of each.

   Verne C. Johnson, chair;  Lee Canning,  Charles Clay, Bill Frenzel, 
Paul Gilje,  Jim Hetland,  John Mooty,  Jim Olson,  Wayne Popham  and  John Rollwagen.  

The Civic Caucus, 01-01-2008
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