When the STEM Community Gets it Wrong

I call it the pendulum effect. American society has the interesting habit of fixating on something considered ‘the solution’ to any given problem–in this case education–and when we do this, we easily lose sight of the bigger picture. In essence, we go from one full swing of the pendulum in one direction to a full swing in the opposite direction where the pendulum stays locked often forgetting the pendulum is meant to swing both directions–consistently–at all times–in order to maintain proper momentum.

Recently, we had two of our juniors win a prestigious web design award that is partially sponsored by Google. The competition centered around a group’s ability to design, advertise, create a business plan, demonstrate functionality and market. My colleague, Nic Carroll, sponsored their group’s efforts and went with them to receive the award. (They won in all categories overall!) While at the Atlanta Google office and listening to Google leaders speak, Mr. Carroll was struck by how hard they pushed STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) as the solution to all educational woes and downplaying the efforts of studies in humanities and the like. This got both of us thinking. You see we’re both firm proponents of STEM, but like most ideas in education or business its merely a buzz word that doesn’t give credence to what matters most–critical thinking.

What we’ve learned in our time as PBL teachers using a humanities base is that it really isn’t about how much STEM is implemented into a program of study; rather, the onus should be on innovation, critical thinking and problem solving. All three of those concepts can be accomplished in any area of study if presented through inquiry. STEM is not the only solution and if we’re not careful, we’ll find ourselves swinging the pendulum in the other direction to sit and stay once everyone realizes that our kids can’t write or draw off of history’s critical lessons or create with any new ingenuity due to a lack of art. It doesn’t have to or need to be this way. We can have both STEM and humanities working in conjunction, asking the right questions, and developing critical thinkers. I worry, however, that those in the technology businesses and large technology conglomerates will stifle the idea that the humanities are as important a resource as STEM studies.

What do you think? Isn’t a balance necessary. We’ve have a humanities-based PBL classroom for three years now, and we’ve seen tremendous growth in thinking and innovation through our program. We must be careful not to fool ourselves into thinking there is ever one, black and white solution.

2013: How Project-Based Learning Could Change Everything

Happy New Year!

Each new year brings with it a promise; a promise that this year could be the best year of our lives; a promise that we will form good habits and get rid of the bad ones. And we’re right–for the most part. We also know that truthfully it is quite hard to change bad habits, form better ones, and there is no way to predict what a new year will bring. Still, the promise of what could be is one of the many magical parts of life.

This particular year, for me, already carries with it at least one bitter disappointment. I falsely believed I would be a shoe-in to be approved to present at this year’s ISTE conference in San Antonio; alas, it is not to be. I found out about midway through December that my proposal was not accepted. It was initially a blow to both my pride and ego, but once I had a chance to think about it, I had to admit that I was also simply disappointed because what I get to do for a living is something I want to share with the world!

I was as wary as anyone when I first started to explore and research project-based learning (PBL), but I very quickly realized that this might be a game changer in public education. You see, our politicians are all looking for quick fix legislation to help improve student performance. I think most who would read this blog can agree that this will never help alleviate our educational woes. For instance, most recently, the state of Georgia passed a constitutional amendment that allows the state to approve more charter schools. The claim for the need for this direct change was that parents and students need more choice. I agree, but not with more charter schools that one, will only siphon more money away from money strapped public systems and two, many of them will never close due to parent outcry no matter how bad the performance of the school is nor how underfunded it is. No, I believe it is all about generating choice within our current public schools.

PBL, as well as problem-based learning, could be a very viable solution.

Don’t get me wrong, for a program like the one I helped to develop in The Studio, it does take a bit of money, or at the very least being very creative with whatever current technology a school possesses. Still, with the implementation of PBL programs within public schools, you immediately give students and parents choice. PBL involves a different type of learning and is renowned for its ability to develop very strong soft and analysis skills. The emphasis is taken off the teacher and put more squarely on the student, their choices, and ownership of their learning. Without changing everything about a school and by offering a separate program that becomes a part of the DNA of a school, all stakeholders involved have an opportunity to win. Our program isn’t perfect, but in many ways it is starting to thrive. Students entering their first year of the program dote on it constantly as do their parents, students are interacting with real world problems and developing an understanding of required standards, and maybe more impressive is that some students are falling in love with learning again–something that is often lost during middle school years. It isn’t for everyone, but that’s why it would be an option, a new way to learn, something different from the status quo–a choice.

My sincere hope is that this upcoming year will hold the promise of spreading this message, changing a few mindsets, and maybe helping those making big decisions to see there are still good alternatives out there don’t decimate what many consider to be an important staple to the freedoms we enjoy here in our country–the public school system.

For the record, I hope to attend ISTE nonetheless this year. Maybe I’ll have better luck in 2014!

The Great Charter School Debate: Part 4

This is the final post of my series on the November 6th vote on amendment 1 (the charter school amendment) in the state of Georgia. Here is a student made video that says basically what I, and many others, have already been saying. If you live in Georgia, vote wisely in a few weeks. Check out the video through the link below.


The Great Charter School Debate: Part 3

This is a letter written by Sean Murphy, a local Atlanta businessman. You can find this same letter already posted both by the AJC (Atlanta Journal Constitution) and the Gwinnett Daily Post. If you couldn’t tell already, I’m admittly against the charter amendment on the ballot in November here in Georgia. Not because I have anything against charter schools, but for the same reasons Mr. Murphy so eloquently presents in his letter. Please take the time to read:

By Sean Murphy:

I am a successful metro Atlanta business entrepreneur. My political preferences are irrelevant because Amendment 1 on the Nov. 6 ballot is opposed by people in all parties.

As a businessman and a parent, I oppose Amendment 1 – the school issue – because despite what the charter school association and the “families” for schools tell you, the reality is that Amendment 1 is about trust and truth.

The ballot question should ask whether you want your local school board, for whom you can vote, to make decisions about your schools; or do you want a small group of appointed people accountable to no one to make those decisions? There is not one thing in the enabling legislation that requires parental involvement so there is nothing local about it, particularly when you see all the out of state corporations paying to persuade you to vote yes.

Folks, this is not about charter schools. It is not about choice. We already have both. This is about truth and trust.

There’s a lot of misinformation – and misunderstanding – about this Nov. 6 ballot amendment, the T-SPLOST of Education.

Georgia has more than 200 charter schools. More are in the pipeline. Like all schools, some are good, some need improvement.

According to the Georgia Department of Education’s Charter Schools Annual Report, charter school students do not exceed other public school children’s performance. Said their report: “Over the past five years, the overall performance of charter schools compared to traditional public schools has been mixed but both groups have traditionally demonstrated the same general performance trends.”

If the amendment isn’t about charter schools, what then are the issues?

Accountability, your tax dollars, and expansion of state government. Trust and truth.

•Accountability: Rather than local school boards’ accountability to the voter, a state appointed group of seven people will be empowered to create a separate system of schools. Although they will use your tax dollars for funding, they are not elected; if you don’t like what they do, you can’t vote them out. Unchecked power will be in the hands of this small, politically appointed group that will decide how and where schools operate.

•Your tax dollars: Taxpayer dollars – yours – allocated to public schools will be siphoned off to pay for these “new schools” and the for-profit companies that manage them. In other states – look no farther than Florida for evidence – corporate profits are the overriding goal of the charter school movement, not education.

Some charter operators in Florida have been indicted. Others pay no property taxes. But rest assured, they contribute heavily to state legislators’ campaigns. None of us can afford a dual school system answering to no one. Even state school Superintendent Dr. John Barge said we can’t afford it and that charter schools are being approved routinely by both local school boards and state board of education.

•Expansion of state government: We recently voted for or against a penny sales tax to fund transportation. In many regions, it failed. The main reason given? Distrust of government. If you distrust government to build or improve roads, do you want to expand its power with unchecked authority over schools?

The ballot question has been written blandly to mask the true intent and the true beneficiaries. It reads: Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow state or local approval of public charter schools upon the request of local communities?

Sounds logical, but unless we vote “no,” here’s the reality check: Budget cuts to our schools, larger classes, shortened school years, teacher furloughs and layoffs.

In most Georgia counties, schools are our largest employer. This is a serious economic impact in our communities.

Know the facts before you vote:

•This is not about charter schools or choice. It is about who chooses and who approves applications.

•Parents already have choices – magnet, public, private, home and charter schools.

Is the amendment even needed? As the old adage goes, follow the money.

Those who favor expanded state government, lack of accountability and a separate, unequal, dual school system are spending millions for your “yes” vote. They call themselves Families for Better Schools or Parents for School Choice. Don’t be deceived. Several out-of-state political action committees are behind this. Visit www.votesmartgeorgia.com to understand the real “families” and the real issues.

Truth and trust. Get the facts before you vote on Nov. 6.

The Great Charter School Debate: Part 2

I’ll let the following do the talking for this post. If you live in Georgia, read carefully, and make an educated decision moving forward for November 6th:

On November 6, Georgians will vote on a proposed change to Georgia’s Constitution that has significant
implications for the state’s public schools. Below are some facts about the constitutional amendment toeducate voters on this issue.

Amendment 1:
Provides for improving student achievement and parental
involvement through more public charter school options
(House Resolution 1162)
“Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to
allow state or local approval of public charter schools upon the request of
local communities?
Yes or No?”

8 Things to Know About Amendment 1…
1. Amendment 1 is not about charter schools but about who approves them and
how they are funded. It calls for a third party to authorize state charter schools that
have not been approved by locally elected boards of education.

2. The ballot question gives the impression that the state cannot approve
charter school applications now. Georgia law authorizes local school boards
to review charter school applications, and allows for an appeal to be made to
the state if an application is denied. There are more than 110 charter schools
operating in Georgia today, 15 of them approved by the state.

3. Amendment 1 makes way for the creation of a politically appointed state
commission with the authority to approve charter schools. In 2011, the
Georgia Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional for an appointed state
commission to create and fund charter schools. With Amendment 1 state
leaders are seeking to rewrite the Constitution and bring back the state’s
former charter school commission. The seven members would be appointed
by the State Board of Education, also an appointed body, from a list
recommended by the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Speaker of the
House. Local boards of education, on the other hand, are elected by and
accountable to the people in the community they serve.

4. For many years Georgia has not funded traditional public schools and
locally approved charter schools as required by state law. In 2012 a school
district receives only about 85 cents of every dollar it earns based on the state’s QBE funding formula.

5. If approved, the state commission will determine how much tax-supported funding its charter schools will
receive. The Governor’s 2013 budget includes $8 million for the 15 state-approved charter schools now in operation.
Because of HB 797 passed in the 2012 General Assembly, at least $20 million more will be needed in the 2013
supplemental budget for those 15 schools, which serve 15,000 children compared to the 1.6 million taught in
traditional public schools.

6. State School Superintendent John Barge reports that the state will provide signifi cantly more money
(72% more) per student in state special charter schools ($7,400) as it provides for traditional public school
students ($4,290). Based on the average number of schools approved yearly by the defunct charter commission (seven
schools), an additional $430 million in state funds will be needed over the next fi ve years to pay for commission-approved
charter schools.

7. Passage of Amendment 1 will lead to the establishment of a dual system of public schools in Georgia, one
under local control (elected local boards of education) and the other under state control (an appointed state
commission). The governing boards of the state-controlled charter schools would not be required to follow the same
ethics code or accreditation mandates required of local boards of education.

8. Funding for the campaign in support of Amendment 1 is coming almost exclusively (95%) from outside of
Georgia. Contributors include many for-profi t education management organizations that stand to benefi t from
passage of Amendment 1, and from out-of-state corporations and large foundations. (Source: August 31 offi cial
campaign disclosure forms)

Developed for informational purposes only. Learn more about the different views regarding Amendment 1 by visiting
http://www.votesmartgeorgia.com and http://www.bettergaschools.org.