Chris Lehmann, founding principal of the Science Leadership Academy (SLA), a progressive science and technology high school in downtown Philadelphia, has two children, ages 7 and 5. Like millions of parents across America, Mr. Lehmann sends his kids to school each day hoping the education they receive will inspire them, will keep them interested and will turn them into well-rounded individuals.
But Mr. Lehmann, who spoke Feb 10 at the LHRIC's Technology Leadership Institute event titled "Beyond Tools: Thoughtful 21st Century School Reform," is worried. Why? Because he believes the public school system is failing its students.
In a 2 ½-hour presentation, this former New York City educator suggested ways that schools in our area could implement the same ideas that SLA has successfully integrated since its founding in 2006, making it the nation's first legitimate example of a "School 2.0" design.
The inquiry-driven school, with a one-to-one laptop program, partners with The Franklin Institute, one of the oldest science and technology museums in the world, and focuses on science, technology, mathematics, and entrepreneurship. Admission to SLA is based on a student interview, previous test scores, the recommendation of a teacher or counselor, and the successful completion of a seventh- or eighth-grade project that strongly represents the student's abilities.
Building and Learning
Mr. Lehmann, who was honored by the White House last year as a Champion of Change, suggested that rather than continuously testing students, educators should allow them to "build and learn stuff that matters."
Referring to the popular book, "Fifty Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do)," by Gever Tulley, Mr. Lehmann said educators might take a few lessons from Mr. Tulley's premise that mastery can minimize danger. Experiments in the book include licking a 9-volt battery, playing with vacuum cleaners and boiling water in a paper cup.
"Tools are important to let kids use," added Mr. Lehmann. At SLA, Mr. Lehmann explained that longer class periods allow for that kind of creativity, because additional laboratory work is encouraged in science classes, while performance-based learning takes place at other, more appropriate times.
Standardized Testing is not Enough
Referencing the educational system's propensity for data-driven decision making, Mr. Lehmann said that in order for the initiative to work, the collected data must be of a high quality. Standardized testing measures, which are used throughout the nation as a policy strategy to establish stronger accountability measures for public education, are "cheap and give us the false illusion of a number," added Mr. Lehmann.
Using the Nebraska STARS (Student-Based, Teacher-led Assessment and Reporting System) as an example, Mr. Lehmann said schools that are under the direction of their state education departments should be using testing either as a pedagogical tool or a policy tool, but never both. The Nebraska initiative requires school districts to develop local assessment plans that are aligned with state (or district) learning standards. It also emphasizes the importance of using multiple assessment measures, rather than relying on a single test.
At SLA, a school-wide rubric is used to assess benchmark projects that are conducted every quarter and that parents can easily understand. Students are graded on the design of their projects, their knowledge of the subject, how they applied that knowledge, the process they took to complete their projects, and on presentation.
Each week students spend a number of hours at various organizations that partner with the school on special mentoring programs. They include The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, The Franklin Institute, the Drexel Research and Demonstration Lab, and The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, to name a few. In addition, entrepreneurs visit SLA classrooms and law students come from nearby schools to enlighten students. A yearlong Capstone project, completed in the 12th grade, further enhances the inquiry-driven learning process at SLA, he added.
In Mr. Lehmann's opinion, the idea of meaningful instruction has lost its value and been replaced with the "delivery of instruction."
"I think we can dream bigger," said Mr. Lehmann, urging educators to create "caring institutions" where instructors teach kids, not subjects. In addition, schools should be inquiry-driven, and by that Mr. Lehmann means that educators can ask students how they think and feel about certain aspects of their education. "To ask those questions and to listen deeply for answers and then to change one's practice based on those answers is the sweet spot," he said.
Project-Based Learning in Action
Creating a school that is "understanding-driven and project-based" is what Mr. Lehmann would like to see for the future of American public education. And while schools throughout the nation say their assessment system is based on project-based learning, many of them rely on the results of a test to validate that theory, he noted.
At SLA, where Advanced Placement courses are unavailable, and where assessments are based on tests and quizzes, class participation, homework, and "real world projects that matter," allow students to own the work they do, he said.
Creating a Vision
Asked about their hopes and visions for the future education of students, some TLI participants pointed to successful summer programs as examples of more creative learning. Others expressed their concern about creating a balance between educating the whole child and the required testing of each student. Mr. Lehmann conceded that summer programs are great ways to get schools started, but he also acknowledged that visions are wonderful, but without structure they tend to be an illusion.
Paramount to that vision, said Mr. Lehmann, the co-author of "What School Leaders Need to Know About Digital Technologies and Social Media," is in SLA's hiring practices. Prospective teacher candidates are asked to provide sample lesson units to an interview panel that includes the principal, current teachers, students, and parents. Described by Mr. Lehmann as "consensus-based hiring," the interviewing of candidates is repeated until a suitable candidate is found and his or her qualifications are agreed upon by all members of the hiring group.
Educators should be building systems and structures that reflect that type of vision, Mr. Lehmann added. "Teachers care about kids, but very few of us know how to care for kids in an educational environment." Every worker at SLA shares in the same vision, said Mr. Lehmann, even the school police officer and the janitors.
Though technology is a necessary part of school these days, Mr. Lehmann said it doesn't have to be talked about as much. Instead, it should be "ubiquitous, necessary and invisible." Rather than focusing on the fact that students are using technology, educators should focus on the work that students are accomplishing because of it. "Technology transforms the ways kids create, research, collaborate, present, and network," said Mr. Lehmann. "Schools have been doing these things for years; now they can do it better."
To create a similar vision in our local school districts, Mr. Lehmann encouraged participants to seek out stakeholders and then ask a series of questions to address their fears about change and what the worst consequences of their best ideas might be. Above all, he cautioned, "Be intentional about your time and about the tools you use, and don't do this by yourselves, because it's really hard and it requires all of us to be learners."