Elon Musk and Vernon Jones asked for advice. Here goes!

Dear Mr. Musk and Mr. Jones,

Amazingly — as I’ve been watching and reading the news, it turns out that both of you have asked for similar advice! So, I hope it’s alright that I’m addressing you together. You want to know how to spend money and promote ideas and policies that will move the needle forward and make a real positive difference for our nation. Thank you for that question and invitation, Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, and Vernon Jones, Georgia state representative.

For half a century, I’ve focused on education — first as a teacher, then as a school attorney, and now as a reformer and writer. I’ve learned a few things that I’d like to share — most pivotally, that education is the vital key to maintaining our nation and democracy and that we are failing so many of our students and our nation. As an immigrant English-language learner in 4th grade, I experienced how wonderful public schools can be — they were for me. But now, so many of our students are failing and losing out on the opportunities our nation holds for them — especially students in poverty, minority students, English language learners, many students with disabilities, and many other vulnerable groups. Gaps between those students and others are widening. The pandemic has made the situation worse — even dire.

Yet, in our centers of power in Washington and elsewhere, responses to crises generally involve creating new programs or funding current (often failing) ones.

My solution? Let’s look at the research before we jump in. It tells us to work with families at home. Work with moms, dads, grandparents, and other caretakers with children aged 0 to 5. Our solution to school failures and widening gaps among students lies in helping children before they get to kindergarten. Because many children come to school unprepared to learn, let’s do the right thing. Let’s be guided by efficacy and research before we create new programs or throw more good money after bad.

Research supports the benefits of a more direct (and undoubtedly less costly) approach. In the field of education, it makes sense to pay attention to a child’s home situation when he or she comes to school unprepared. Home is where the child’s first teachers live and is the most practical place to start preparing children for the social and educational experiences they will have in school. Home is where children’s educations begin with their parents and caregivers — especially in the vital area of language acquisition. From there, their education can branch out to daycare centers, preschools, or schools. As I see it, education does not start with an institution — other than the institution of home with family.

I suggest that we start in the home because powerful research supports the efficacy of this approach. In 1995, Professors Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley turned early-childhood education on its head with their report, Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Young American Children. Frustrated by their experience with programs that had no lasting effect on children’s language and growth, they sought a different route. Hart and Risley tracked verbal interactions in forty-two “well-functioning” families of infants and their parents in different socioeconomic situations — children whose parents were middle class/ professional, or lower/working class, or on welfare. Once every month until the children in the study reached age three, the researchers visited their homes, counting the number of words the children experienced.

They discovered that the numbers in the different groups varied widely, creating the now famous “30-million-word gap.” That is, children whose parents were on welfare heard and processed a reported 30 million fewer words in the first three years of life than did children of professional parents. I remember President Obama referring to this research in his speeches.

Even if that oft-cited number is too high, and even if other researchers have questioned this study (as they have), the essential message was astounding back in 1995 and still resonates today: education begins with children’s first teachers at home! The early life experiences of many children from lower-class or welfare families often does not prepare them to be “ready to learn.” Once in school, many of these children fall further and further behind. We know that if a child does not read by third grade, that child is more likely not to complete K-12 education. Some of these children enter the special-education system as students with disabilities, especially children in the categories of students with learning, speech or language disabilities (which comprise close to 60 percent of all students with disabilities served by the law). The bottom line: The importance of early-language acquisition at home cannot be overstated, especially as we know that early gaps continue into the school years. See, for example, Jessica Lahey, “Poor Kids and the Word Gap,” The Atlantic, October 16, 2014, http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/10/american-kids-are-starving-for-words/381552/

Given this reality, I am troubled that too often the push for early-childhood education circles back to the earlier, often disappointing institutional programs outside the home! Please help us here! Please use your creativity and clout to lead us to better ways.

Where is evidence that creating new programs will be effective on a large scale? See the long history of inconclusive evidence for the effectiveness of Head Start, a federally funded program, and similar programs. Of course, there are gems of schools — public and private, regular and charter, but they are not scaled to large systems.

The Economist’s “In the Beginning Was the Word” echoes this caution:

In January (2014), Barack Obama urged Congress and state governments to make high-quality pre-schools available to every four-year-old…That is a good thing. Pre-school programmes are known to develop children’s numeracy, social skills and (as the term “pre-school” suggests) readiness for school. But they do not deal with the [language] gap in much earlier development that [research has] identified. And it is this gap, more than a year’s pre-schooling at the age of four, which seems to determine a child’s chances for the rest of his life.”

Feb. 22, 2014, http://www.economist.com/news/science-and-technology/21596923-how-babbling-babies-can-boost-their-brains-beginning-was-word

Why do we not, instead, follow the research and good practices on language development and pursue the direct avenue at home? Why do we not proactively work with parents and children in the first place? If parents do not realize how important their role can be, let us take this opportunity — and duty — to share with them the value of talking with, reading to, playing and singing with their babies. The key is to talk, read, and sing!

Pockets of promising efforts are currently under way. We need far more. Here are some samples of programs for families of children up to five years of age.

· A program in Providence, Rhode Island, called “Providence Talks” sends trained visitors into homes to do what is described above. Home — Providence Talks.

· Too Small to Fail’s “Talking is Teaching: Talk, Read, Sing.” Too Small To Fail

· California’s “First 5,” a state initiative enrolling parents and caregivers in research-supported practices; First 5 California — State Site.

· Zero to Three. Home • ZERO TO THREE.

· Start Early, formerly An Ounce of Prevention; Homepage | Start Early.

An ounce of prevention, indeed! In order to ensure equity for young children, we need to scale these in-home efforts toward national policy to help parents be as good at teaching as they can be. They can then send their children to school ready to learn, often without a need for any disability label.

Mr. Musk and Jones. You are both amazingly creative. Help us help our children and our nation! Let’s talk! Perhaps you/we can create prizes for parents and caregivers who are “doing the right thing” for their children. We need to be positive and encouraging. We need to find heroes at home! Prizes? Perhaps a ride in a space ship or in a Tesla?! Let’s honor and reward and encourage people. Together, we need to end the “opportunity gaps” that now thwart the lives of so many little kids — before they even start!

Mr. Musk and Mr. Jones, please help us here! I for one — and many others — stand ready to work with you on this vital crucial effort.

Thanks for reading,

All the best,

Miriam Kurtzig Freedman, JD, MA

This was originally posted on Medium

School crossing signs. See US in bottom right corner!

This was originally posted on Medium

Many, many thoughtful and concerned people are asking this vital question. Let me set my thoughts –as of right now. I’ll write more about this, of course.

Here’s today’s conversation starter.

Today’s headlines tell us two very critical and disturbing facts about our public schools.

First, that student enrollment is down — across the board, with special declines at kindergarten levels. Parents are not sending their children to school. They are seeking and creating other options for them.

Second, that funding for public education is far down. All those businesses that were forced to close because of the pandemic, all the stay-at-home orders are leading to less tax revenue — in fact, many businesses are, instead of contributing to the general funds, receiving funds from public sources. As a result, funding for public schools is less available. And… pre-pandemic, there was already some movement toward less support for public schools CITE! For all children.

So in this time of turmoil, what is happening in special education? Special education is the federal program for students with disabilities that started in 1975 at the federal level with the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act). Today, that law provides services for some 14% of US students. The costs? It’s hard to estimate, as, to date, Congress has not demanded an accounting. So, by estimates, the costs for special education services are around 21% of school budgets and for educating students with disabilities — accounting for both the general and special education services they receive –are estimated at 40% of school budgets. Think about that!

Yet, even in these dire times, it appears that special education lawsuits continue and that bureaucratic requirements have not budged. A brief discussion with a data analyst revealed that nothing has changed — the same numbers are still being crunched as in pre-pandemic days. As well, my quick informal inquiry about the two types of lawsuits that are typically being brought now illustrates for me the essence of our overwhelming challenge: Whither special education after the pandemic?

The first type of lawsuit grows out of the reality that many school districts now serve only the neediest students in person — while keeping most students are remote. Not surprisingly, parents of children with milder needs are bringing claims to have their child in school also — claiming that the child is more disabled than the district had determined.

The second type of lawsuit concerns compensatory education — the lawsuits we’ve been expecting. Such lawsuits attempt to make up for lost services and lost skills and knowledge during the pandemic. It is clear beyond doubt that many students with disabilities have suffered learning loss and that many services were not provided. Undoubtedly true. Therefore, these are generally claims that will prevail!

But, a fact overlooked too often in our discussions about special education, is that such types of loss are also true for many general education students, especially poor, non-English speakers, homeless, etc. Yet, only students with IEPs are entitled by law to compensatory education. Phyllis Wolfram, the executive director of CASE — the Council of Administrators of Special Education — warns that if we pay all compensatory services that may be owed to students with disabilities, “It would break the system of public education.” Think about that! Is that what we want for any or all of our children?

What is the essence I cited above? Special education, the law of rights through the labeling of a small group of students as entitled under that law — can expect that group to ever expand until the system breaks down. As I see it, we are there now.

In many ways, the law of good intentions has grown beyond recognition since 1975 — and become ever more expansive in terms of the student labels that it now includes, costly, complex — and I daresay, intrusive on the continued effective functioning for our schools for all students.

What to do instead? I suggest we return to a sensible program by acknowledging the obvious. Even during this pandemic, many school districts acknowledged that there are in essence, two groups of students with disabilities –those with mild/moderate needs (who make up 80–90% of the students covered by this law, and those with profound/severe needs (who make up 10–20% of the students covered by this law). Schools have started to serve this latter, smaller group in person. This division also tracks the 2017 Supreme Court decision, Endrew F. v Douglas County. We do have two distinct groups of students with disabilities — now served under this one law. The fit is not great. We need to do something about that!

I believe that we should consider that the vast majority of students with disabilities with mild and moderate needs, and general education students, need schools to more than ever — provide better general education. Better teaching. More focused lessons. Personalized as needed. These students need education more than they need “special” education.

Luckily, we have some superb models. Please check out competency based education, as practiced in Westminster Colorado. — Where Education is Personal. https://www.westminsterpublicschools.org/cbswps. And see, in general, the Aurora Institute. https://aurora-institute.org/our-work/competencyworks/competency-based-education/

Another model is the reading contract — whereby schools promise to get everyone to read and to keep at it until success is achieved. Please check out Nate Levenson’s work and his new book, Six Shifts to Improve Special Education. Since most students with mild or moderate disabilities enter the system because they did not learn to read, this approach is promising. Be direct. Teach reading!

There are many other promising models and fabulous professionals working across our nation for all students. They need our support. As I see it, the special education law should no longer include these students as the system has become dysfunctional — and is not even helpful for the students it seeks to help. See, for example, the fact that labeling a student in order to serve him — is not helpful — in fact, damaging to many. It’s time for them, as well as all students to get the best general education services possible. See, for example, Kalman Hettleman’s writings. https://www.baltimoresun.com/opinion/op-ed/bs-ed-op-0326-special-education-20190320-story.html

For the 10–20% of students with severe or profound needs — yes, our society owes them an appropriate education. Perhaps a task force of all stakeholders can develop a better way forward — that focuses on appropriate education more than compliance or legal procedures.

If we don’t fix this, I see our public schools imperiled. We’ll see more parents exit. We’ll see less public support for public education. Already, those trends have started. Ultimately, my fear is that broken policies that keep on keeping on and don’t focus on ALL students will leave our public schools evermore for the have nots. Such a development would be tragic — as public education is the backbone of our democratic republic. We need a new model that will make the current one obsolete, to quote Buckminster Fuller. I’ve set out one controversial path. What is your path?

As a passionate supporter of public education, I see the pandemic as the opportunity to finally fix our very broken system and build schools that can work for all students. Our nation needs that now more than ever.

After the pandemic: whither special education? What do you think? Your thoughts? Your plan? Your suggestion? I’d love to hear!

This was originally posted on Medium

The untimely death of Professor Clayton Christensen at the age of 67 has jarred many of us. He was truly an amazing and influential innovator and disrupter.

I consider myself lucky because I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Christensen at his presentation in Boston many years ago — speaking about education. He was very clear and inspiring, and I’ve continued to follow him from a distance ever since.

I’d like to share some of his thoughts on the limits of data. We in education are directed to collect data, data, data. Our governments demand it. We’ve absorbed the call that is in the air everywhere. We’re supposed to gather data to — we are told — prove our methods and thereby, improve student outcomes.

We mourn the death of Clayton Christensen, the Harvard Business School professor who is known as the disrupter — a management guru who assisted so many companies to create anew — many in Silicon Valley credit him for their success. See tributes by Bill Gates and Stephen Jobs, for instance.

And yet, Christensen questioned the primacy and continued piling on — of data. As I read and listened to his two short presentations at the Drucker Forum in 2014 and 2016 — I was so moved and amazed.

While, like many, I’ve taken the idea of data collection as a given, here’s a disrupter who dared to question it and where it’s leading us and which opportunities we are missing. Take a listen. You’ll be glad you did.

_________________

Here’s part of

The 12th Annual Global Peter Drucker Forum honored him, as written below.​

“We are deeply saddened by the passing of Clayton Christensen.
He was a towering figure — intellectually, morally and physically. We had the enormous privilege to have him as a supporter, mentor and friend of the Drucker Forum. As Steve Blank puts it, we all stood on Clay’s shoulders….

…… Clay spoke at the Forum in both 2014 and 2016, and had planned to be back in 2018. Sadly, as his health declined that became impossible. You will find videos of his memorable presentations and discussions below. These are historic documents, yet hold absolute relevance for today and for future Drucker Forums. At the 2020 Forum, we will continue the celebration of his life by adding our own recognition of the immense value he brought to management thought and practice.

Our thoughts of condolence go most deeply to his wife, Christine, and his children.”

Richard Straub, Founder & President
Angelica Kohlmann, Chair of the
International Advisory Board

Global Peter Drucker Forum

Now back to me….

Here are two of the clips that the Drucker Forum provided which deal iwth the limits of data.

Data collection is a vital issue for those of us who toil in the public school arena –as we are pushed to collect more data and to create programs driven by data. Really? Please share these clips with colleagues who work in schools and who create programs for schools. I believe you’ll be glad you listened to them.

In so doing, we’ll be honoring the memory and legacy of Clayton Christensen.

Innovation and Growth

“Growth comes from (disruptive) innovation and the link between the two is investment” … and how misguided metrics thwart growth. Watch the video.

The Limits of Data

“Data was not created by God. Data is a representation of a phenomenon, but the data is not the phenomenon” … and why that should make you desperate for theory. Watch the video.

This was originally posted on Medium