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Post Puerto Rico's Instituto Nueva Escuela: A Model for the Mainland US?
Created by John Eipper on 12/19/21 4:19 AM

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Puerto Rico's Instituto Nueva Escuela: A Model for the Mainland US? (Sam Abrams, USA, 12/19/21 4:19 am)

John E is indeed right to wonder if there's much chance of a reversal of the trend in the United States of marginalizing courses in art, music, carpentry, and cooking in the name of STEM courses and test results. Perhaps Miguel Cardona, Biden's secretary of education, will lead the way. Cardona is a career educator from Meriden, Connecticut. He knows kids and schools.

The problem is that Cardona for now must operate according to the rules established in 2015 by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which replaced the notorious No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2002.

Under NCLB, all states had to post annual improvement in results on exams in reading and math for each cohort of students (defined by race, income bracket, level of English proficiency, and disability) in grades three through eight or forfeit federal funding (federal funding constitutes, on average, 9 percent of school district budgets).

This carrot-and-stick approach had predictably perverse consequences: schools crowded out time for science and history as well as art, music, carpentry, and cooking to focus on reading and math to prepare students for the annual exams; and worse yet, as it was the states that administered these annual exams in reading and math, the states lowered the bar defining proficiency in order to keep federal funding. That NCLB wasn't devised by Monty Python should be the only surprise.

ESSA, alas, isn't much better. The stick is gone. Federal funding doesn't hinge on annual improvement in exam results. But states measure schools by these results. And in the spirit of NCLB, many school districts now use value-added models (VAM) to evaluate teachers, gauging their effectiveness by the change in results on standardized exams posted by their students from the previous to current year. As there are many vitiating factors involved in the change of exam results for students from one year to the next, VAM is rife with problems.

One place to look for inspiration is Cardona's ancestral homeland, Puerto Rico. Cardona is the son of Puerto Rican immigrants, and Puerto Rico is home to the largest network of public Montessori schools in the United States. This network, called Instituto Nueva Escuela (INE), now comprises 45 schools across the island. INE schools are filled with art, music, and play.

The network was started as the House of Children in the San Juan suburb of Guaynabo in 1994 by a down-to-earth career educator named Ana María García Blanco, who is still at the helm 27 years later. In contrast to charter schools, there's no admissions process and no attrition at INE schools. Children in the neighborhood are automatically admitted and they stay. And there's certainly no focus on test prep. That's anathema to the Montessori vision, after all.

I visited several INE schools during two visits to the island in 2018 as a member of the Resilient Puerto Rico Advisory Commission, which was assembled to make recommendations to the government in the wake of Hurricane María. These schools made clear that we have the answer at home. It's helpful to look to places like Finland, where I have spent considerable time visiting schools and interviewing government officials and policymakers. But something quite close to the Finnish approach is to be found in Puerto Rico.

Cardona knows about INE. Ana María told me last week by phone that she recently met with Cardona when he visited Puerto Rico. Ana María said Cardona was impressed with the INE model. So, in answer to your question, John, maybe Cardona can draw on his ancestral homeland to turn the tide.

JE comments:  Fascinating!  The first step for educational success is to inspire kids to want to go to school--and to make them lifelong learners after they leave. 

Sam, I cannot stop peppering you with questions.  How should standardized tests, which I presume are here to stay, be changed to measure true intellectual development, rather than the regurgitation of content acquired in marathon sessions of "teaching to the test"?  Problem-solving may be quantifiable, but what about creativity and curiosity?

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  • Do Today's Kids Want to Learn Carpentry and Cooking? (Tor Guimaraes, USA 12/20/21 3:29 AM)
    Regarding the important issue of reversing the trend in the United States of marginalizing courses in art, music, carpentry, and cooking in favor of STEM courses, we seem to think that a president, a few Congress members, and/or high-level educators can meaningfully change the tide. I don't believe so because such choices are deeply embedded in the national culture. American youth culture (individualistic, narcissistic, self-indulgent, etc.) has widely and strongly polluted other cultures. But cultural changes in the other direction is much less prevalent. I suppose that is a natural result from US hegemony for several decades. All humans want to be apparent winners. Presently, for example, how can we change American culture into Finnish culture and the corresponding realities on education? That is the enormity of the challenge.

    So-called vocational technical subjects like carpentry, plumbing, welding, etc. are relatively well paid but not very glamorous. We must have STEM because that is how we develop new technology for innovations and grow high-tech companies, new weapons, and make more billionaires. American universities are schizophrenic in some ways. They all pay heavily to have sports programs to keep alumni excited but take money away from arts and humanities.

    I really don't know much about this critical topic but want to fuel the discussion.

    JE comments: My nephew, a mechanical engineer by training, taught himself to weld on YouTube. He has become very good at it, and the art of welding is greatly informed by a prior knowledge of mathematics, chemistry, and physics. The Finnish model as I understand it does not sacrifice STEM in favor of "soft" subjects, but rather teaches the STEMy skills through practical application.  And doesn't knowing how to do something truly useful bolster one's self-esteem?

    A bigger topic perhaps concerns today's youth.  Are they as narcissistic and self-indulgent as we old-timers assume?  Hasn't every generation had similar complaints about youngsters?  In any case, it's not the kids who decide what is taught and how; that is up to parents and policymakers.

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