kitchen table math, the sequel: what do parents want?

Saturday, June 14, 2008

what do parents want?

In my district, the administration is constantly buying stuff nobody actually wants.

Next year, for instance, taxpayers will be picking up the tab for new K-5 report cards with a compressed scale (4 points instead of 5), a new middle school math teacher so we have enough math teachers to put one on each of the interdisciplinary teams, and Project Lead the Way.

I imagine there are plenty of parents who think these things are perfectly fine acquisitions. (What people who don't have kids currently enrolled in the schools are thinking by now, I hate to imagine.) But if you'd asked parents to email future spending suggestions to the school board, I doubt that "extra math teacher to even up the interdisciplinary teams" would have appeared on anyone's list.

For a couple of years now, I've been trying to suss out what parents want. Parents with a capital P, I mean. What do surveys and parent behavior suggest is the number of parents who would freely choose Everyday Math, for instance? (I've come to think this figure is somewhere in the neighborhood of 30%, but that's another story.)

New data came my way today in the form of an Economist article on for-profit schools in Sweden ($):
BIG-STATE, social-democratic Sweden seems an odd place to look for a free-market revolution. Yet that is what is under way in the country's schools. Reforms that came into force in 1994 allow pretty much anyone who satisfies basic standards to open a new school and take in children at the state's expense. The local municipality must pay the school what it would have spent educating each child itself—a sum of SKr48,000-70,000 ($8,000-12,000) a year, depending on the child's age and the school's location. Children must be admitted on a first-come, first-served basis—there must be no religious requirements or entrance exams. Nothing extra can be charged for, but making a profit is fine.

The reforms were controversial, especially within the Social Democratic Party, then in one of its rare spells in opposition. They would have been even more controversial had it been realised just how popular they would prove. In just 14 years the share of Swedish children educated privately has risen from a fraction of a percent to more than 10%.

At the time, it was assumed that most “free” schools would be foreign-language (English, Finnish or Estonian) or religious, or perhaps run by groups of parents in rural areas clubbing together to keep a local school alive. What no one predicted was the emergence of chains of schools. Yet that is where much of the growth in independent education has come from. Sweden's Independent Schools Association has ten members that run more than six schools, and five that run ten or more.

The biggest, Kunskapsskolan (“Knowledge Schools”) opened its first six schools in 2000. Four more opened last autumn, bringing the total to 30. It now has 700 employees and teaches nearly 10,000 pupils, with an operating profit of SKr62m last year on a turnover of SKr655m.

Like IKEA, a giant Swedish furniture-maker, Kunskapsskolan gets its customers to do much of the work themselves. The vital tool, though, is not an Allen key but the Kunskapsporten (“Knowledge Portal”), a website containing the entire syllabus. Youngsters spend 15 minutes each week with a tutor, reviewing the past week's progress and agreeing on goals and a timetable for the next one. This will include classes and lectures, but also a great deal of independent or small-group study. The Kunskapsporten allows each student to work at his own level, and spend less or more time on each subject, depending on his strengths and weakness. Each subject is divided into 35 steps. Students who reach step 25 graduate with a pass; those who make it to step 30 or 35 gain, respectively, a merit or distinction.

Again like IKEA, no money is wasted on fancy surroundings. Kunskapsskolan Enskede, a school for 11- to 16-year-olds in a suburb of Stockholm, is a former office block into which classrooms, open-study spaces and two small lecture-theatres have been squeezed (pictured). It is pleasant, but basic and rather bare. It rents fields nearby for football and basketball, and, like other schools in the chain, sends pupils away to one of two specially built facilities for a week each term for home economics, woodwork and art, rather than providing costly, little-used facilities in the school.

Teachers update and add new material to the website during school holidays and get just seven weeks off each year, roughly the same as the average Swedish office worker. “We don't want teachers preparing lessons during term-time,” says Per Ledin, the company's boss. “Instead we steal that preparation time, and use it so they can spend more time with students.”

Many schools would be horrified to be likened to IKEA, but Mr Ledin goes one better. “We do not mind being compared to McDonald's,” he says. “If we're religious about anything, it's standardisation. We tell our teachers it is more important to do things the same way than to do them well.” He then broadens the analogy to hotels and airlines, which make money only if they are popular enough to maintain high occupancy rates.

One selling point that any parent of a monosyllabic teenager will appreciate is the amount of information they will receive. Each child's progress is reported each week in a logbook, and parents can follow what is being studied on the website. And the braver among them will be keen on the expectation that the children take responsibility for their own progress. “Our aim is that by the time students finish school, they can set their own learning goals,” says Christian Wetell, head teacher at Kunskapsskolan Enskede. “Three or four students in each year may not manage this, but most will.”

Performance monitoring is also important within the company: it tracks the performance of individual teachers to see which ones do best as personal tutors or as subject teachers. It offers bonuses to particularly successful teachers and is considering paying extra to good ones from successful schools who are willing to move to underperforming ones.

The Swedish Model
June 12, 2008
Knowledge School!

Woo hoo!

You can't get much further afield from the middle school model than that.

Here's the school's description of its educational concept:
Goal-oriented educationAs a pupil at Kunskapsskolan you will be setting long-term learning and attainment goals. At the start of school you, together with your teacher and parents, set and agree on the learning and attainment goals you will work to meet at the end of your final year.
This means that at the end of your last year, your grades will not come as a surprise, and it is our aim that you meet or exceed the attainment goals we have agreed on. The long-term goals will be broken down into a plan with termly goals and weekly goals, and these are followed up week by week in individual tutorial discussions.
Part of this process also includes finding the learning style that best suits your needs, enabling you to develop learning strategies to meet or exceed your goals. It may be a question of finding out where you learn best, or which study techniques will better help you to understand.

Personal supervision for support and control
At Kunskapsskolan, you will have a teacher as a personal tutor who will follow you through your school years, help you and train you in planning and developing your learning strategies, follow up your school work and be available for support and control. As you learn to set your goals yourself and to plan your own time, you will be allowed to take a greater responsibility for your own studies. Thus, our method of working will teach you to take personal responsibility and to become independent - this is not something which you need to know how to do when you begin with us, but something which you will learn step by step.

Unique opportunities for parents to follow the school work
Your parents will have a unique opportunity to follow your studies in your logbook and via the web-portal Kunskapsporten (The Knowledge Portal), where the planning and material for the steps and courses are available. In addition, the teachers will enter all your results, remaining tasks, comments etc in the school´s Pupil Documentation System which is accessible via the Internet.This reminds me of the Keller Plan, a terrific teaching technology that disappeared shortly after students and instructors alike applauded its effectiveness. I took two courses on the Keller Plan at college, one at Wellesley & the other at Dartmouth. The Dartmouth class was a required statistics course, the only statistics course I ever took, and I still remember a great deal of the content. (fyi: Teachers can use a lecture format with the Keller Plan.)

I assume something's been lost in translation with the "better to do things the same way than to do them well" line ?

This is droll:
Mr Hultin is unapologetic about any problems the school choice system may have caused to state schools.
In some urban neighbourhoods, 10-20% of students now use the voucher scheme to attend private schools - leaving empty spaces at state schools.

"Of course there are losers", says Mr Hultin, "because schools which do not attract parents lose out and they should be losers."
Swedish parents enjoy school choice
Teachers' union supports the system.


Anonymous said...


Have you thought about getting a new blog template? Just curious.

Anonymous said...

All of these isolated success stories seem to have a common thread. Kids go at different (appropriate) speeds. Kids have clear goals. Kids are measured against those goals. The teaching is directed. The focus is restricted to acadmic excellence not extracurricular social reengineering.

Makes me go hmmmmmm?

Note the technology creeping into this Swedish example. I'd bet that Kunskapsporten is a DI engine. I'd bet that kids are being taught in their 'zone'. Betcha' can make money at this on the $153K per teacher being spent in the U.S. of A.

Anonymous said...

It does definitely sound like Paul's model for technology that adjusts to rates, and it definitely sounds like they have some actual instruction behind it. I wish we could see the courses, to know what the instruction consists of, and what the assessment looks like. Anyone know anyone in Sweden?

le radical galoisien said...

This looks promising -- but of course I want to know how these students compare with other students who aren't in the voucher programme.

Anonymous said...

Kunskapsskolan has a demo on its Swedish website, where you can at least get a feel for what the portal looks like:

As for results, statistics from 2007 show that Kunskapsskolan performs significantly better than the national average in English and Swedish. 2008 figures are expected to show a similar advantage in Maths as well.

Ben Calvin said...

I assume something's been lost in translation with the "better to do things the same way than to do them well" line ?

I don't think so. It's a pretty common statement when talking about standardizing anything. If you do somthing the same way, you know how it's being done. There may be a better way, but it needs to be implemented across the board, and not just one person (or teacher) doing something different than what the system assumes.

Catherine Johnson said...

Ben -- thanks -- I was kind of assuming that, but couldn't tell....

Catherine Johnson said...

Any suggestions about a new blog template?

I'm scared of new blog templates....I fear a Total Blog Meltdown...

Catherine Johnson said...

comments on Knowledge school