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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

The Daring Dozen 2006: Our Heroes

Twelve who are reshaping the future of education.
By Edutopia
Edutopia Team

Thousands of teachers, administrators, enterprising students, and other concerned thinkers are devoting themselves every day to finding creative ways to improve our schools. In an era of budget cuts and unprecedented challenges, there is no shortage of villains. But they are vastly outnumbered by the legion of heroes who make a difference. We could present a Daring Dozen in every issue for years to come and never come close to honoring them all. But we hope that this year's movers and shakers represent everyone who puts a shoulder to education's wheel.

Zach Bjornson-Hooper

Credit: Brian Cairns

1. Zach Bjornson-Hooper: Whiz Kid

Last summer, the town of Moraga, California, dedicated June 22 as a day to honor Zach Bjornson-Hooper for his environmental work. Perhaps the most notable thing about this recognition is that the honoree is just sixteen. Bjornson-Hooper may be young, but he is wasting no time. He uses a free period at school to tinker in the lab to conduct research on protein synthesis for a possible treatment of a rare liver disorder. "I'm eager, although some of the stuff is way beyond me. But I'd like to get a head start," he says.

In sixth grade, Bjornson-Hooper experimented with growing E. coli bacteria in his refrigerator to explore the possibility of a micro fuel cell that could power a car using the same bacteria that, in food or water, can make us sick. But public acclaim for the young scientist accelerated after he completed a personal research project in which he tested water served on seven commercial airline flights and found E. coli, salmonella, and even insect eggs. His experiment caught the attention of the Wall Street Journal in 2002, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency launched its own investigation, validating his findings.

Last October, in Bangalore, India, Bjornson-Hooper was elected one of four North American representatives for the United Nations Environment Program's TUNZA Youth Advisory Council, a network that shares and develops environmental-protection strategies for local communities and beyond.

Named one of Teen People magazine's "20 Teens Who Will Change the World," Bjornson-Hooper has received three congressional recognitions and the 2005 International Young Eco-Hero Award, given by the organization Action for Nature. On a recent visit to Southeast Asia, he began thinking about medical research overseas. His goal: "I'm interested in making vaccines cheaper and providing better health care in developing countries."

The Campolindo High School senior isn't just a master of the petri dish. A student of the piano for ten years, he has performed with some of the best pianists from California in the Music Teachers Association competitions. His photography has also been exhibited in group shows.

Looking for a head start, Zach? Looks like you're already way ahead. -- Cheri Lucas

Jason Kamras

Credit: Brian Cairns

2. Jason Kamras: Top Teacher

Jason Kamras is a prime example of education's attention deficit disorder. His name should be known to every educator, parent, and policy maker, but his Q score wouldn't register in any celebrity poll. There should have been a ticker tape parade for him in our nation's capital when he was named National Teacher of the Year, especially because he teaches math and social studies right there, at John Philip Sousa Middle School.

Thirty-two-year-old Kamras is the fifty-fifth teacher honored by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the first from the District of Columbia. A graduate of Princeton University and the Harvard Graduate School of Education, he entered the teaching profession through Teach for America, the program that places college graduates as teachers in inner city schools for two years. (See the profile of Teach for America's Wendy Kopp.) Kamras has been at Sousa for eight.

Improving mathematics learning for his students, 90 percent of whom come from low-income backgrounds, is one of his priorities. By doubling the amount of time spent on math and emphasizing technology to help students visualize concepts and their connection to the real world, Kamras cut his students' failure rate in half to 40 percent in just one year. They have met the school district's measure of adequate yearly progress in math every year he has taught. And he has pushed them to go beyond merely learning at grade level, instituting an early-bird advanced math class and a course on algebra for eighth graders.

An avid photographer, Kamras founded the EXPOSE program, providing digital cameras, editing software, and DVD-publishing tools for his students to create autobiographical photo essays on their families and the history of their city. This project earned him the Mayor's Art Award for Outstanding Contributions to Arts Education.

Kamras views teachers as civil rights activists. Sousa was segregated until a 1954 challenge to its status led to the desegregation of DC public schools. "To honor the school's unique role in the movement, I feel compelled to guarantee that it serves as an agent of social change, advancing those who have been ignored or constrained," he says. Kamras is also a digital rights advocate for teachers and believes every educator should have the same tools he uses: a laptop, Internet access, an LCD projector, inexpensive student-response devices for classroom polling, and a smart whiteboard for interactive classroom displays.

There is one small sign that our nation's best teachers may yet attain the public acclaim they deserve: "Jason Kamras" is an entry on Wikipedia.org. -- Milton Chen

Carol Flexer

Credit: Brian Cairns

3. Carol Flexer: Decibel Diva

If you sat in the back of the class and still did well, you deserve extra credit. According to Carol Flexer, Distinguished Professor of Audiology at the University of Akron and Northeast Ohio, you were at a disadvantage. Within the next three years, Flexer hopes that her research into the auditory quality of classrooms will make the front row and the back row equal learning environments.

Good hearing is a key component in the development of communication, literacy, and academic competency. "It's all about the brain," Flexer says. "Anytime hearing is used, think auditory brain development." Children's highest auditory centers are not completely developed until fifteen years of age. According to Flexer, the entire range of spoken sound isn't available in standard classroom practice. Obstacles include acoustics, variation in a teacher's voice from moment to moment, and general background noise.

A major obstacle, Flexer says, is that the hearing problems aren't easily apparent. When we don't hear something properly, we probably don't know what we haven't heard. "Hearing loss is rarely all or nothing at all," says Flexer. "It often falls unnoticed in the middle." Nationwide, studies have shown that 15 percent of students suffer from hearing loss and, as children spend on almost three-fourths of their day listening, this is one of the most significant problems we face in schools.

For twenty years, Flexer has been researching and advocating sound-field technology, a system that can be applied in classrooms to optimize students' hearing. (See "Turn It Up," July 2005.) A teacher holds or wears a wireless microphone, and the sound of his or her voice is evenly spread through infrared technology and through speakers distributed in the ceiling. When it's a student's turn to talk, he or she uses a second microphone (available to the entire class), which both makes students aware of their own speech and emphasizes to them that they are speaking to the class as well as to the teacher.

The idea behind this system is simple: The better the hearing, the better the comprehension. If Flexer has her way, every row will be the first row. -- Alexei Bien

Jonathan Kozol

Credit: Brian Cairns

4. Jonathan Kozol: Writer of Wrongs

Jonathan Kozol gives minority children a collective voice. Stating his cases in rich and at times heartbreaking detail, the gifted writer forces us to confront what we often ignore: that we need not travel to third world countries to find kindergartners who dump cockroaches out of their sneakers each morning, or teenagers promoted through high school when they can neither read nor write.

Taking readers inside decaying schools in the South Bronx, the South Side of Chicago, and East St. Louis, Kozol traces how children's early dreams are dashed by the reality of their hopeless surroundings. "What he says must be heard," says Elie Wiesel, a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. "His outcry must shake our nation out of its guilty indifference."

Kozol, who turns seventy this year, still looks like the freedom-school teacher he was during the 1960s in Boston, where he chronicled his first years as an educator in Death at an Early Age: The Destruction of the Hearts and Minds of Negro Children. Kozol was inspired to write the book after the murders of three civil rights activists led him to a summer job teaching reading to poor children at a local black church. Later, after he read a Langston Hughes poem to his fourth-grade students, Kozol was fired for "curriculum deviation."

Many books and several decades later, Kozol has not lost his passion and outrage. His latest book, The Shame of The Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America, continues where his classic Savage Inequalities: Children in America's Schools, left off in 1991. After visiting more than sixty public schools, he concluded that desegregation, supposedly the bright legacy of Brown v. Board of Education, is dead. He writes, for example, of a Seattle neighborhood where half the families are Caucasian, yet 95 percent of students at the local school, Thurgood Marshall Elementary School, are black.

The conversations he recounts with children are unforgettable. In one, Kozol speaks with Pineapple, a South Bronx fourth grader he has known for six years. Pineapple is having a bad year; staff turnover has introduced her to her fourth teacher in one school year. "What's it like?" she asks Kozol wistfully. Kozol asks Pineapple what she means. "Over there -- where other people are," she says, meaning "where the white people live."

Critics complain that Kozol blames segregation for educational failure within minority communities without really examining whether forced integration would create better results. Sadly, most of the students Kozol writes about will never get the chance to find out. -- Kim Girard

Mitchel Resnick

Credit: Brian Cairns

5. Mitchel Resnick: Cricket Wrangler

Kindergarten -- an idyllic time of finger paint and finger puppets, share day and modeling clay. At least that's the reputation. For Mitchel Resnick, it's much more.

"Kindergarten is often the last time children learn primarily through exploration, not memorization," he says. "Sadly, the opportunities for that kind of playfulness are diminishing in our schools."

Resnick hopes to change that state of affairs. He directs the Lifelong Kindergarten group at MIT's Media Laboratory, where his researchers hatch projects designed to bring the free-form learning of kindergarten to elementary school, middle school, and high school.

One example is the Cricket, a programmable robotic kit designed for teens that is short on the traditional gears and metal bits that typically make up such fun packs. Instead, it includes colorful pipe cleaners, tiny pom-poms, scraps of felt, and Lego blocks (the Danish toymaker is a prominent sponsor of the Media Lab). One AAA battery provides power, while an infrared transmitter allows wireless communication with other Crickets.

Junior scientists program their robot's movements using the accompanying Pico Blocks software. Writing code is as simple as dragging and dropping blocks of commands on screen. By using the kit (available commercially in April as the PicoCricket) to build and program their own robots and kinetic sculptures, Resnick says, students learn important science and engineering concepts.

One slightly bizarre Cricket project includes making a fruit xylophone. First, young programmers use the software to assign a musical value for various slices of pineapple, melons, pears -- whatever. The mini application is then transmitted wirelessly to the Cricket. Next, pieces of fruit are lined up, touching each other, and a wire running from the Cricket is attached to the end piece of fruit. A second wire, also linked with the Cricket, is twisted onto a paper clip and used as the mallet; with each touch, an electrical circuit is completed. Each piece of fruit changes the resistance in the circuit. The Cricket measures the electrical resistance and plays a different note each time it changes. Stay tuned for a fruit salad fugue with variations.

Resnick, a former writer for BusinessWeek magazine, believes that the process of designing, testing, and modifying kinetic creations is what makes learning stick. "It's not about tearing open the plastic and playing prepackaged games, but about creating your own games," he says.

Cricket is just the beginning of the wonders emerging from the Lifelong Kindergarten lab. Resnick is also developing a new programming language, called Scratch, that enables kids to make animated stories and interactive art -- and then go online to share their creations. It will be commercially available this summer.

In 1993, he also helped establish the first of what is today an international network of one hundred Computer Clubhouses in twenty countries. The clubhouses are after-school centers where primarily low-income kids ages ten to eighteen learn to express themselves creatively with new technologies. Thousands have attended the clubhouses. For them, the spirit of kindergarten is eternal. -- James Daly

Brad Jupp

Credit: Brian Cairns

6. Brad Jupp: Teacher-Pay Trailblazer

When Brad Jupp became lead negotiator for the Denver Classroom Teachers Association in 1990, he recalls, the union and the Denver Public Schools were "highly committed adversaries." In 1994, as the two parties sparred over policy and pay, Jupp led a five-day teacher strike. The upshot was a paltry boost in pay raises from 1 percent to 1.2 percent, and a revolution in Jupp's vision of collective bargaining.

Now, twelve years later, having fostered cooperation between the two former antagonists, Jupp has successfully spearheaded a groundbreaking reform of teacher pay. In 2004, union members ratified the Professional Compensation System for Teachers, the nation's most comprehensive overhaul of a system that has until now rewarded teachers equally whether they work hard or just show up. Last November, Denver voters sealed the deal by approving an annual $25 million property tax hike to fund the initiative.

Thus, the eighty-five-year-old payment model -- which University of Wisconsin researcher Allan R. Odden says originated partly in Denver (and Des Moines) to correct salary inequalities for women and minorities -- ended where it began.

Under the new system, also called ProComp, teachers will receive raises higher than their regular cost-of-living boosts for, among other things, exceeding expectations of student growth on the state test, meeting student-growth objectives set collaboratively by teachers and supervisors, and earning positive performance evaluations. The system provides additional bonuses to teachers working in hard-to-fill positions and hard-to-serve schools.

A key to Denver's success, Jupp says, is that the school district made the change slowly, running a pilot program from 1999 to 2003 and considering teachers' and administrators' concerns at every step. Jupp's role was pivotal; he left his post teaching at-risk middle school students to lead the pilot-program design team, then staff the task force that created ProComp, and finally coordinate the election efforts and planning needed to put the system into practice.

In the four weeks before teachers approved the plan, he visited nearly one hundred schools to answer questions and present teachers with the information they needed to know. Parties on both sides of the debate have anxieties about such dramatic change, Jupp says, so the hardest part was "defusing the kind of bluster that often forms the debate on teacher pay but doesn't lead to any meaningful change."

It's still early to see clear payoff for the reform, but an evaluation of Denver's pilot program found the promising result that some objective setting by teachers was associated with higher student achievement. Jupp also believes that linking pay to professional outcomes is the only way educators will ever see real change in their earnings. -- Grace Rubenstein

Barbara Rountree

Credit: Brian Cairns

7. Barbara Rountree: Dreaming and Doing

Barbara Rountree, a veteran educator and former professor at the University of Alabama, wonders why technology has so profoundly changed such professions as banking and medicine, yet has lagged so far behind in education. But instead of complaining about the quality of schools in her home state, Rountree founded the Capitol School in Tuscaloosa in 1993. This preK-12 school offers its 140 students "as many educational opportunities as possible," says Rountree. And it does so through a tech-strengthened curriculum tailored to each student's needs.

"From the beginning, our goal was to move away from large-group instruction to small-group and individualized instruction," Rountree explains. "Technology has enabled us to do that."

From the age of nine, all Capitol students use laptops, while the younger ones log on to desktops in classrooms. Students turn in work online, design their own Web sites, and communicate with peers around the world via email. They post book reviews on the school site. The list goes on.

Underlying this approach is the philosophy Capitol teachers adhere to: They don't ask, "How smart is a child?" They ask, "How is a child smart?" For Rountree, this isn't a catchphrase coined for marketing purposes. It's the influence of Harvard University psychologist Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences, which states that each person possesses his or her own strengths in each of eight forms of intelligence.

Implementing the theory takes many shapes at Capitol. Students delve into a broad range of subjects, from languages, art, and technology to physical pursuits such as swimming, gymnastics, and tennis. Each week, high schoolers spend time with mentors in the working world.

Rountree's vision for Capitol is the practical reality that grew out of a wealth of experience, both academic and practical. Besides earning several degrees, including a doctorate in education from Vanderbilt University, she worked as a public school teacher in Alabama and Tennessee in the 1970s and as an educational consultant at schools worldwide, from England to Peru.

In her work abroad, Rountree discovered what was missing in her own backyard. "Returning home brought culture shock," she recalls. "When I was abroad, I felt like I was shopping in a grocery store with all the ingredients needed to create a good education. Then I came home to starving students."

Although Capitol is private, Rountree sees the school as a beacon of reform for public education in Alabama. The school is billed as "a private school with a public mission," and Rountree intends for her brainchild to eventually become Alabama's first public charter school. (Alabama is one of seven states that does not allow charter schools.)

Until that day comes, the relentless leader hopes that Capitol's ability to provide a world-class education within the constraints of a public school budget will inspire others to do the same. Capitol's average tuition is $6,746 per student, compared to Alabama's public school cost of $6,300 in 2002-2003 (according to the latest data available from the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics). Says Rountree, "What's always plagued me is the question, 'Why aren't we offering our kids more?'" -- Evantheia Schibsted

8. & 9. Dennis Littky and Elliot Washor: Met Makers

Dennis Littky and Elliot Washor

Credit: Brian Cairns

The high schools Dennis Littky and Elliot Washor have created are wildly different from what teens in America have come to expect. They need no chalkboards, lectures, or textbooks. But the two educators say there's nothing wild about it; children learn best by doing meaningful work that engages them, so the model is far less strange, according to Littky, than the notion that lecturing at twenty-five students makes for good education.

The pair launched the nonprofit Big Picture Company in 1995 with the goal of promoting radical change in American education. They based their flagship school, the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center, or the Met, in Providence, Rhode Island, on the guiding question, "What's best for kids?" The answer: small, personalized learning environments where students perform real work in the community and design their own curricula according to their interests.

At the Met -- the model for dozens of similar schools opened since 1996 -- groups of no more than fifteen students work with the same adviser for all four years. Two days a week, the teens work as interns with professionals in a field of interest to them. The other three days, schoolwork consists almost entirely of projects designed by the individual students, in collaboration with advisers and parents. Typically, students integrate their internships and projects, such as one who, while interning at a hospital, researched fibromyalgia and created a pamphlet in Spanish for Hispanic patients. Instead of taking tests, teens build portfolios and give quarterly presentations of their work, which they must defend like a dissertation before advisers, parents, and peers.

This concept sounds unstructured compared to a conventional classroom, but it's working. Littky and Washor's Big Picture Company now manages a network of thirty-six schools in underserved areas of sixteen cities, with plans to open nearly twenty more through a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The schools boast an average dropout rate of 2 percent, and 96 percent attendance; 98 percent of graduates have been accepted to college, and many students take college courses before they matriculate.

Ten thousand times, Littky says, he has answered the question, "Won't kids be disadvantaged if they don't learn basic content, such as math and science?" He counters that hardly anyone remembers the specifics of what he or she learned in high school chemistry; the more valuable lesson is to think like a scientist and to love learning. Teens tune out and drop out because school is boring, Littky contends. The question he and his Big Picture colleagues want every educator to tackle is, "How do we take a kid's interest and passion, use the real world, and get the kid engaged?" -- GR

10. Dean Kamen: King of the Science Fair

Dean Kamen

Credit: Brian Cairns

Dean Kamen has spent most of his career inventing breakthrough medical devices: a wearable infusion pump for hospital patients, the first insulin pump for diabetics, a portable dialysis machine, a wheelchair that can climb stairs. In 2001, he unveiled his Segway Human Transporter, a two-wheeled, self-balancing vehicle.

But what really gets Kamen excited is FIRST, a nonprofit organization he founded in 1989 dedicated to making science as exciting as football or basketball -- the "Olympics for smarts," as he likes to call it. Today, he's one of the reigning gurus of the high school science fair.

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is a national competition in which teams of high school students build robots from a prescribed packet of materials. They then go head-to-head (or mano-a-mechanism) in an attempt to outmaneuver and outsmart their opponents. The teams compete in front of crowds of fans cheering as if they were at state basketball tournaments or rock concerts. The winners of regional matches then meet in Atlanta's Georgia Dome to vie for the championship.

In 2006, FIRST expects 28,000 students and 1,125 teams from nearly every state as well as Brazil, Canada, Israel, and several other nations to take part.

Knowing that students live in a sports-fueled marketing culture, Kamen decided that the best way to create the same kind of excitement about science and math was through spectacles in which cleverly constructed machines battle with the intensity of video-game ninjas. Because of Kamen's own reputation as an inventor and entrepreneur, he was able to enlist politicians, corporate leaders, and educators to support the competition.

Success stories abound. For example, East Technical High School, located in an impoverished section of Cleveland, was slated for closing. In just five years, though, East Technical became the science/engineering magnet school for the entire school district. More students there now try out for the FIRST team than for basketball and football combined. A 2005 Brandeis University study of FIRST noted that 89 percent of FIRST alumni go on to college; twelve students from the initial FIRST team received scholarships to such schools as MIT, Cornell, Georgetown, and Case Western Reserve.

For Kamen, any sense of satisfaction is tempered by a belief that FIRST can do much more. He is unlikely to be happy until FIRST is seen on national television with ratings that rival the Super Bowl. Those who know Kamen are unwilling to bet against him. -- Glenn Rifkin

11. Joy Hakim: Page Turner

Joy Hakim

Credit: Brian Cairns

Twenty-five years ago, when Joy Hakim was a reporter for the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, she was sent to cover a state school board hearing in Richmond, where administrators and textbook publishers were at odds about content. Curious, Hakim opened one of the books and began reading. She was appalled by what she saw. "Everyone was saying they wanted a good history textbook," she says, "and I felt that after years as a journalist, I could do a better job."

She also thought that if she created a middle school history book with an engaging narrative and energetic writing, the publishing industry would fall at her feet. Now she says with a laugh, "I was so dumb."

She took a year off to write a book called A History of US, which makes intriguing connections (in the way, say, that E. L. Doctorow's novels do). One year turned into seven, and one book turned into several. Publisher after publisher rejected the books, not because they weren't good enough, but because they were too good. Hakim was even told that her books were "too readable." Hakim eventually prevailed, and Oxford University Press published her histories in 1993 as library reference materials. Since then, four million copies have been sold.

Hakim enlivened middle school science books as she had history texts. She was no more a science expert than a historian, but as a newspaper reporter (and editorial writer), she knew how to track down the right people and ask the right questions.

Also, Hakim didn't want to turn her readers into scientists; she hoped to inspire interest in science. "The best science courses are geared to the 3 percent of students who will go into science," she says. "My books are aimed at the other 97 percent."

Hakim has produced two books of a three-part series: Aristotle Leads the Way and Newton at the Center. Next will come Einstein Adds a New Dimension.

Though compliments from educators pour in, Hakim's favorite accolade came from an eight-year-old boy, who said to her at a book signing, "I don't know when you're going to die, but when you do, please tell someone to keep publishing your books." -- Owen Edwards

12. Wendy Kopp: Teacher Tapper

Wendy Kopp

Credit: Brian Cairns

The save-the-world spirit that infuses many new college grads is too often blunted as they start job hunting. Frequently, they discover that at major world-saving organizations, their bachelor's degree may qualify them only for photocopying and phone answering. Yet after graduating from Princeton University, Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America, discovered a way to marshal that spirit and multiply its effect exponentially.

In her program, now in its sixteenth year, a new corps of 1,500 of the nation's highest-achieving college graduates fan out across America every year to teach for two years in its lowest-income schools. These members of the corps frequently have no background in education, but they have demonstrated leadership, academic achievement, and the determination to make a difference. After a five-week training period, they take the plunge into the classroom.

Kopp spelled out this vision in her senior thesis, reasoning that young talent should be recruited as aggressively for the mission of educational equity as they are by Wall Street. With seed money from Mobil and office space donated by Morgan Stanley, she got Teach for America rolling.

Since then, the number of young adults entering the corps each year has quadrupled, while the annual applicant pool has swelled dramatically from 2,500 to 17,000. The program's reach now stretches from Los Angeles to the Mississippi Delta.

Skeptics say Teach for America members are underqualified as teachers and typically leave their posts after two years of service, but supporters point to the program as proof that traditional certification is not the only path for good teachers. A survey of principals last year found that nearly two-thirds regarded corps members as more effective than the school faculty overall in raising student achievement.

Furthermore, contrary to the claims of the program's naysayers, 60 percent of the program's alumni continue in education as teachers, administrators, or policy makers. Even those who go into other fields, Kopp says, "have the insight and the conviction that comes from having taught successfully in a low-income community, and because of that they will be real leaders for broader social and educational reform."

Teach for America is staging a campaign to boost its members' impact and to expand its ranks from 3,500 to 8,000 members teaching at any given time. Kopp points to the "outrageous gaps" that persist in educational outcomes along racial and economic lines, but she sees progress in the growing national conversation about standards and accountability. If Teach for America can reach its goals, she believes the organization will play a fundamental role in reshaping education. -- GR

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