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Snapshots of Innovation: Travels With Chen (After Steinbeck's Travels with Charley)

Milton Chen

Senior Fellow
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One of my favorite books in high school was John Steinbeck's Travels With Charley, his account of his road trip around the U. S., late in his career, accompanied only by his French poodle Charley. Not having traveled much as a boy beyond my home state of Illinois, into Wisconsin and Indiana, I was mesmerized by his stories of the vastness and diversity of our country.

I've been on the road much of the fall, giving talks related to my Education Nation book. So I'll follow in Steinbeck's footsteps and tell you what I'm seeing and hearing. To start, I'm amazed at the range of initiatives, organizations, and local leaders banding together to reinvent our school system. Innovations such as distance learning, 1:1 personal computing programs, and project-based learning are continuing to gain ground and supplant the old system.

America's Best Idea

Many of you will recall Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan's marvelous series on the history of the National Parks, named after Wallace Stegner's phrase, "America's Best Idea." Our public parks, libraries, and schools are unique, complementary institutions in our democracy. Together with public broadcasting, I refer to these four systems as the cornerstones of the American nation. Yet all of them are severely underfunded for their missions and the value they create for our society.

In September, I participated in the first meeting of the new National Park Service Advisory Board, a group of 12 distinguished citizens appointed by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to serve as advisors and sounding boards to the NPS. The committee is chaired by former Alaska Governor Tony Knowles. Secretary Salazer and NPS director Jon Jarvis addressed the group and spoke of this pivotal moment in the history of the Parks and the need to reinvent the National Park system as it approaches its second century in 2016.

Based on last year's recommendations of the National Parks Second Century Commission, on which a number of us also served, the NPS is implementing a number of groundbreaking changes. These include a greatly elevated and more visible education mission, to help students understand our nation's most significant places -- environmentally and historically. There are 392 National Park sites in our country, from Yosemite, Yellowstone, and the Everglades to Civil War battlefields, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and the laboratory and home of Thomas Edison. The Flight 93 National Memorial is one of the newest additions this system. Our goal is to use these places to provide authentic learning experiences for American students and our millions of international visitors, both in person and online. Already, many NPS sites offer videoconferences and virtual field trips to students.

Edutopia has covered a number of partnerships between schools and National Park sites, such as how the Ferryway School in Malden, Massachusetts incorporated a trip to the Saugus Iron Works to help students design their own waterwheels. Just search on "National Parks" in the Edutopia search bar to see the wealth of Edutopia's coverage, including how students at the Crissy Field Center, part of the Golden Gate National Parks, studied the effects of an oil spill in the San Francisco Bay here in my home town.

I'd be interested in hearing from Edutopia users on projects you have done with students using National Park curricula, field trips, online content, or virtual field trips. Have you incorporated NPS web content into classroom lessons or taken students on a trip to a National Park site? Have your students had a chance to learn from National Park Rangers? Just add a comment below.

Innovations in Ohio

On that trip, I stopped in Columbus to speak to a group of three Ohio districts who are part of a Next Generation Learning project, supported by the Stupski Foundation here in the Bay Area, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and the Ohio Department of Education. The Cincinnati, Upper Arlington, and Orange City school districts are building on new approaches already in place to expand 21st Century assessments, technology use, and learning time and places, precisely the "edges of innovation" I discuss in Education Nation.

Improving assessments for classroom, district, and national accountability is the most important change we can make, among all of the proposals for reinventing schools. As we all have learned the hard way, what gets tested is what gets taught. When assessments are narrow and based on memorization of facts, the curriculum narrows to focus on memorization. How are you designing new assessments to measure deeper learning? Can these assessments be shared to compare across classrooms and schools and improve teaching and learning?

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Carol Atsave's picture

I'm a "Brand new" teacher,changing careers in mid-life stream. I'm finally fulfilling my dream job of being a teacher. I want very much to be the best teacher possible in order to help my students succeed. I'm always searching for new techniques, methods and innovations to help my students fulfill their dreams of their future. Not only is Edutopia helping me to do this, but Milton Chen's "Travels with Chen" has given me some great ideas on how to get my student's excited and interested in learning. Thank you Mr. Chen and thank you Edutopia.

Gloria Mitchell's picture
Gloria Mitchell
Middle school teacher

First, thanks so much to Mr. Chen for spotlighting these issues and innovations in education. I recently bought a copy of "Education Nation" and am enjoying it -- and I'm looking forward to lending it to fellow members of our school district advisory committee.

Second, I've been watching this particular blog entry in the hopes that someone would post a response about school districts that are using assessments other than the standardized, multiple-choice format with which we're all so familiar, and which has such lamentable shortcomings when it comes to testing skills like writing, critical thinking, and creative problem-solving. I am trying to persuade fellow parents and community members that pressing for higher test scores is not the same thing as demanding educational excellence.

Recently our district superintendent, who is very focused on the test scores, declared that "What gets measured, gets done." But the unfortunate corollary is that what doesn't get measured, doesn't get done, and right now there's an awful lot that isn't being measured, either qualitatively or quantitatively, at the school or district level.

Mr. Chen writes, "Improving assessments for classroom, district, and national accountability is the most important change we can make, among all of the proposals for reinventing schools." I believe this is absolutely true. As a parent and concerned citizen, how can I help make it happen?

Allen Ralston's picture
Allen Ralston
Superintendent of Schools, Clearbrook-Gonvick #2311, Clearbrook, MN

Dr. Chen your talk at the Minnesota Association of School Administrators was very inspiring. I cornered you at the book signing and told you a little bit about my school. When we talked you asked about our school and if I would share some of the programming. Our school district is in the second poorest county in Minnesota. My school district has a 60% free and reduced lunch count and 20% of our students are Native American, of those students most come from the Red Lake Reservation. Our district has done many different things four different robotics teams, More Project Lead the Way courses in our district then most schools in the state. Every student will graduate with three PLTW courses on their transcript. 70% of our students go into STEM related careers at 2 year or 4 year institutions. Our graduation rate is 98%. Our goal for every child by 2015 is reading at their grade level at graduation (12th grade level). We do many, many things and students run faster into our school then when they leave. I am including a link for you to look at as you requested about our school. Come see us when you can. Here is the link:

Again thank you for the inspiration.. I have given away all 20 copies of Education Nation... to others all across our state who need validation of their belief in a positive school environment and innovation in education.

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