Going Backwards

When I was a teacher, we developed our curriculum based on the principles of backwards design. Grant Wiggins & Jay McTighe’s seminal book Understanding By Design posits a fairly simple model. First, decide what enduring learning outcomes you want to meet. Next, craft essential questions that have neither a right nor a wrong answer but invite exploration. Then decide on how you will know that your students know those enduring learning outcomes– what evidence will prove their knowledge? Finally, figure out what activities and instructions will convey those enduring learning outcomes best. Or, in other words, decide where you want to go and then map out a course to get there. What will be your landmarks? How will you know you’ve arrived?

If one thing is clear right now, it’s that schools– all schools, K – 12, four-year universities– have lost track of the enduring learning outcomes we are teaching to. Education is not an end in itself. Academia is not a self-sustaining ecosystem. There is no inherent good in education. Education, as James Comer points out, has a job to do:

“…the expressed purpose of education is to help prepare students to be successful in school and in life; to protect and promote their own health, development and learning, to be highly competent workers in school and beyond, to be competent and responsible family members (parents if they choose) community members and citizens capable of finding gratification and meaning in life.” Link

Education is a tool that lives in service to something larger than itself. And while my early-20s-something self dreamily talked about “making the world a better place”, in reality, everything I was doing needed to be about making sure my students would make a substantive positive contribution to our national economy someday. It’s about jobs.

It’s time that educators did some backwards design around the fundamentals of our own institutions. What is the purpose? What are our goals? (And, here’s a hint, “graduation” isn’t enough.) No Child Left Behind & high stakes testing have narrowed our focus to only what lies immediately before us. We need to be asking what our society needs from our education system. Why should taxpayer dollars be invested in this at all? Is education not the biggest R&D expenditure we make as a nation?

I have many educator friends– indeed, I was one myself– who protest that “corporations shouldn’t be dictating what we do in the classroom”. The anger is justifiable. For years we have suffered the slings and arrows of legislative directives, crafted by people who have never spent a day of their lives as teachers, whose last experiences in schools were during their own student days. We have seen profiteering charter schools co-opt public education in the name of “efficiency and effectiveness”, yet those schools haven’t found the magic bullet either. Being responsive to employer needs, however, is not letting your classroom material be dictated by some nameless, greedy enterprise. It’s ensuring that what you’re doing in the classroom will prepare your students to be successful. It’s keeping in mind what is good and important and practical about what we are doing. It’s the respect of giving our students context for their learning. They deserve to know when they’ll use algebra (answer: all the time). If we don’t align them for the world that is and the world that is yet to come, if we insist on clinging to our idealistic visions of Maria von Trapp in the meadows (or whatever your particular utopia might be), we risk condemning our students to irrelevance.

This is one of the many areas where technical colleges excel. We are legally bound to have close industry connections through advisory committees made up of industry practitioners. Our teachers are all former practicing professionals in their fields. We are held accountable not only to graduation rates but also to placement rates– the percentage of students who land a job in their field of training. Our overall college placement rate is 76%. It’s much higher in many of our programs. Our advisory committee members hire our graduates– and give us very honest feedback about how they’re performing.

What would education be like, K – 12, 13 – 20, if we held all schools to that same standard?


Point C to Point A

As I work with our diverse student population, I’m learning that I can’t make assumptions. I can’t assume that our students will read beyond the top of the screen or even the text beyond a picture. I can’t assume they’ll turn the page. I can’t assume that students will be able to problem solve something as basic as figuring out how to assemble all the materials needed for registration in time to enroll without very clear instructions. For someone who started planning her college search in 8th grade, this is a definite shift.

Backwards design. Knowing what your goal is and then having the know-how to construct a path to get there. Our students all have the equivalent of a high school degree and yet for far too many, simply figuring out the steps to get to point C from point A is too much to do without structured guidance.

How do we teach that level of independent problem solving, without which innovation isn’t possible? And who is responsible for making sure that it is learned?

Higher education in our nation has become, for many, the last chance for success. I hear teachers talk with increasing frequency about wishing they could teach students who want to be in school rather than students who are there for a myriad of other reasons– government incentives, parental or spouse pressure, desperation. Our charge in public community and technical colleges, however, is to teach everyone. All comers. Whatever the motivation, when they cross our front threshold, they become our responsibility. That is our mission. Student success. As defined by a job in their field of study. How, then, do we help our students learn that most basic of life success skills, the ability to know where you want to go and figure out how you’re going to get there?

Part of the innovation in higher education has to come from the ways we address these kind of challenges– the social emotional development pieces that are becoming as critical as skills training. This is the kind of investment that doesn’t have a clear ROI. It’s difficult to quantify the economic benefit or efficiency savings of having an employee with solid inferential thinking skills– and yet we all know how taxing it is to work with someone who lacks it. When employers tell us that they need workers with strong soft skills, this is what they’re referring to. I wish it was possible to invent a soccer ball that would solve this problem, but it’s not that easy. If students don’t learn how to independently plan for success with us, it’s still a skill employers rely on and those who don’t learn it will not be equipped to compete.

The innovation conversation has to remember that it’s not just Ivy League graduates who will lead us forward. It’s not a tide that can carry just a few select people ahead. It’s a total overhaul of the way we work and no one can be left behind. These are the tools that are required for this age and it is incumbent on us as educators, as citizens to ensure that all people are ready.


There is a fundamental disconnect in our country between business and education. Employers are consistently reporting that they cannot find workers with the skills they need and yet the Great Recession has left hundreds of thousands of Americans without jobs. This year’s graduating college seniors are facing job prospects only marginally less bleak than last year’s. The obsession with standardized testing that led to No Child Left Behind has not improved “results”. State budgets have cut education funding to the bone and yet we are asking our schools to do more with less… but are schools doing the right kind of “more”? Did we miss the mark by thinking the only problem was a lack of data & accountability? Do we perhaps actually need an approach more about completely revisioning the purpose of education and the mission of schools, preschool to post-graduate, in our country?

Thirteen years ago, I decided that the best way to change the world was to become a teacher. It wasn’t an easy decision. I had grown up in a family with generations of teachers. I spent my childhood waiting for my mother, a high school history teacher, to get out of faculty meetings. I knew that she worked far into the night grading students’ papers. We had several of her students live with us while they went through family crises. Teaching was a hard, hard job.

Worse still, I wanted to teach elementary school. Young children. I was living in D.C. then, working for a well-regarded think tank in an administrative role. When I told people my plans, the respect I’d been accorded by association with my employer vanished. “Can you teach me how to color?” one young man leered.

I spent two years at Bank Street Graduate School of Education, teaching during the day and taking classes at night. I chose Bank Street because I wanted the hands-on, practical experience along with a rigorous intellectual challenge in a setting that saw children the way I did– as real people with valid ideas, partners in the process of learning.  After graduating with a masters of science in early childhood / elementary education, I chose to teach in independent schools. I started my teaching career in 2001, the same year No Child Left Behind was passed. “Teaching to the test” was starting to dominate public school life. That wasn’t my vision of education. My vision was pretty much this:

And, indeed, that’s how I taught for six years, first through fourth grades (although I spent three years teaching third grade and there is a part of me that will always be a third grade teacher). We explored the world together through math, technology, reading, writing, history, science, music and art. We wrote every day. One of my favorite memories was the day it snowed and we had to cancel a planned field trip. I led my students on a senses walk outside, calling out “Look!” “Hear!” “Taste!” “Smell!” “Touch!” as we tromped through the snow. Once back inside, we sprawled out and wrote poems about our experiences (yes, we. I wrote, too). Oh, I was very Maria Von Trapp.

I left because I burned out. Not from the kids, but from the tension between the parents, who were either too present or not present enough, and the administration, which was always, always too present without being supportive. It wasn’t easy to transition out. Prospective employers saw “teacher” on my résumé and assumed that I wanted something in a school. They couldn’t see how my experience running a classroom– organizing, managing, providing feedback, coaching, planning curriculum, communicating– translated into the non-education world. And yet I have drawn on my teaching experience every single day of my working life.

My career took me first into school administration (K-12) and then back into my first love (and undergraduate major)- politics. I managed two campaigns, one local, one for the state legislature. Everywhere my candidates went, education was on people’s minds. A year ago, I began working at a public community college. A two-year technical college. This is the first time I’ve been employed at a public institution. I love it. Our students are wonderfully diverse– older than your typical community college student, with a rich array of immigration stories, socioeconomic & ethnic backgrounds. Our students are training for careers, not just jobs. Their programs range from two months to two years. Our average placement rate is 76%– meaning that 76% of our students find jobs in their field. We are successful at what we do, although we are constantly seeking to improve.

I bring a unique perspective to the education conversation. As a former teacher, I know first hand what it’s like to work in a classroom, scrambling to put together lesson plans, waking up in the middle of the night thinking about a problem with a student, meeting with worried parents, having the hard conversation about needing further testing, celebrating the “ah-ha!” moments. I have taught in overcrowded public school classrooms in inner city New York. I have taught in quiet independent school classrooms in verdant New England. I have taught the children of parents who relied on food stamps and lived in public housing. I have taught the children of millionaires.

I also bring a policy view– not just education policy, but public policy from the perspective of an elected official dealing with an array of competing interests.

And then last June, I participated in the Marshall Memorial Fellowship, which took me to Europe for 24 days, discussing trans-Atlantic relationships and the European Union with policy leaders from five different European nations and a broad cross-section of the United States. My companions included the sharpest rising legal minds in the country, legislative leaders, veterans, public policy analysts, and business people.  For the first time in my career, I stopped hearing that guy in the bar in D.C. asking if I could teach him to color. I started to realize that I had something important to bring to the conversation. None of my fellow Fellows knew what it was like to teach kindergarten in Spanish Harlem. None of my former teaching colleagues had visited a trade school in Berlin. None of my current colleagues have talked with candidates for statewide office about higher education policy. None of my business leader friends knew how to teach a first grader algebra or how to read.

At a recent Marshall Forum in Dallas, the focus was on the economy, both here in the US & in the European Union. There were plenty of sessions that included “innovation” in the workshop title and none that centered on education… and yet, we kept coming back to education.

“Innovation” is a hot buzz word now. I’m interested in how education relates to and supports innovation. Innovation is a habit of mind, a culture of being as much as a result. It is essential for success in this post-Great Recession, Etsy-generation world. It is, in many ways, a core American value. In order for our nation to thrive in this new age, we have to figure out a way to align our education systems with the requirements of an innovation economy. I will be writing about higher education and workforce training, but I will also be writing about innovation in general and the ways in which our entire perspective on education needs to change to ensure the coming generations are prepared.

I hope that you will engage in a conversation here. Education cannot happen in a vacuum. Innovators and educators are in the same business- making things and people better. It’s time we started to talk.