Principal Z Pleads for Help

I am a high school principal in Central Harlem, NY. I love my job and I make enough money for my family. My request for support below is not about me and certainly not about making money, although it will involve money. My life’s work is to end standardized testing in high schools (NYC in particular). With recent cultural events including COVID-19 and George Floyd which are global and run deep, I feel a sudden urgency to move my longtime side-interest into something much much bigger.

Over the past 17 years I have demonstrated with student data that using digital media can accelerate learning in high schools. My students always loved my lessons on how to count in binary. This was pretty complex mathematics but they mastered it so that they could next learn to write their names using hexadecimal codes. Learning mathematics from the context of digital skills just makes it that much more relevant.

As a school leader, coach, and teacher I have been putting these ideas to the test and they have always passed with flying colors. My staff created videos and recordings and celebrated achievement and used data in remarkable ways, producing breakthrough student outcomes year after year. As a robotics coach before that I saw the same results in my classroom.

Given what is happening today, I feel that we must unite to accelerate this work. It’s awkward asking for help. I don’t want this to be about me.

This is about a young transgender teen who manages to make it to high school without really being able to read. She is smart and even eloquent as a way of deflecting the reading issues. Our testing-based model of education leaves her out. Our country needs her voice, her talent to be shared at these times more than ever. We need her to reach the middle class, too! Give her a microphone and she can create a well-researched podcast. We can celebrate her achievement as a scholar in our schools so that reading is a feather in her cap rather than her trying on a new hat for the first time.

This is about all the students who recently discovered that they like being nerds when they work from home where others don’t harass them and all the teachers who found their talent working with students from home. They are clearly in the minority, but they should have access to doing this work if they can show success. Especially given the fact that as the economy suffers more people will need public education exactly at the moment that funding for our public schools is plummeting.

There is so much genius we are shutting out of our economy. And I’m not willing to let it continue when I think I see a solution to a chunk of the problem. The key outcome is to end standardized testing and replace it with opportunities for students to earn credits for high quality videos, podcasts, code, or social media campaigns.

The second key is not allowing government to assess quality since each administration feels pressure to raise scores and so they lower standards. I am proposing a system of incentives that are designed to drive quality digital content production. This digital native academic system replaces top-down standards and exams with decentralized “gates.” In this system the College Board will have to compete with WNYC to create well researched, well produced student content. I may not be a fan of competition as a solution in itself, but if we are competing to produce the best academic content in our high schools, I welcome that kind of competition. Today we have a race to the bottom with lawyers telling principals how to educate and unions colluding with governments to water down learning standards.

What I am asking you to help me with is an opt out movement for our high schools. A child can opt out of testing in the lower grades, but families can’t opt out of the Regents in NY or AP exams. Not yet. We need to have a gate at the end of high school that has academic value to universities and employers. And that is exactly what these open source credits provide.

I want to cry when I see millions of dollars being thrown at kids graduating from college to fix this complex issue of academic evaluation like Imbellus. Sure their chief scientists have credentials, but far from the front lines in low income schools every day. Their top-down solutions are down right dangerous.

Of course, those of us on the front lines don’t ponder larger-scale issues because we are focused on students in our charge. That alone eats up 80 hours every week. We have our work cut out for us already without expanding our circle of concern. At the same time, we are the ones who can recognize solutions that will actually work.

All the money spent by Gates and charter schools cannot solve the issue in high schools as long as the standardized tests and GPA are the only lasting measures of learning. Just hand money to effective teachers, no strings attached, and you will see more results than the top-down initiatives led by these well-meaning philanthropies.

It’s time to introduce a project-based gold standard certification of critical thinking specifically designed for high school communities. And critical thinking must include diversity in each and every classroom — without such a diversity of perspectives we are failing to educate our students. That’s really hard to do, but so is teaching calculus.

Such a complex issue can only be solved with crowd intelligence rather than a centralized research team. What I am proposing is a decentralized version of high school credit ledgers. That’s it. Just change that one line of the code that runs our system and we will discover so many unintended benefits. Benefits that are uniquely relevant to these times that we are living in today.

I happen to also be a former software engineer. I’ve designed a system that I believe could offer a ‘gold standard’ high school transcript using blockchain technology. That must sound nuts. I myself see that with some very smart people, blockchain projects are producing nothing useful. I’m not a fan of the space, generally.

But it turns out that education and economics are colliding in funny ways such that perhaps the first killer app in blockchain will be a high school credit system linked to a form of digital cash. That’s what my recent book is about. But my book doesn’t cover the details. My upcoming white paper will do that (here are two diagrams from that document 1, 2 — they won’t mean much without the key and details, but I know that diagrams can provide a fun sneak peak).

I understand education. I understand software. I need your help to build something that could become massive. We must start small and simple. I intend to have this movement born in Harlem where I live and work. Certainly many of my ideas have come from the Harlem community. I am stealing from what my students and their parents have taught me, what my staff have shown me was possible. What my foster daughter’s mother has shown me.

I heard a native American elder share that his traditions are oral, not written. The written word is magical, but also sterile compared to an elder teaching one-on-one. In eliminating reading from transmission, the elder must make time to spend with the next generations. That shared experience is a form of education so much deeper than even having to read and write. Our top-down system has led to lowest-common-denominator dynamics. With decentralized digital technology we now have another way that is relevant to the Digital Age. Certainly literacy is important but that should include making videos and podcasts an other oral forms of transmission. You can clearly see the influence of this perspective in the core values that drive my staff development. You can download the PDF here (if you don’t want to be on my mailing list just don’t click on the confirmation email — you will still get the “Four Keys” PDF).

I need you to trust me that I’m for real. 17 years of breakthrough student outcomes should say something. We don’t have time to waste. Please.

I’m open to doing this any way we can. I’m looking for introductions and ideas. My goal is to make this ownerless as an open source project so that it can go global without stigma based on ownership jurisdiction. The potential scale of a trusted ledger of high school content is overwhelming to me. That’s why I am asking for help.

And the beauty of this system is that standards come from the grassroots. So while it could become global in scale, it is also very local in its design. It’s a hyper-local way for students to tell their community’s stories for college credit.

I know all of this raises questions and concerns and lots of evidence of previous attempts in the education space which have failed. If you know me, you know what I’m about. This is for real. Read the book, book a 30-minute call with me, do whatever you need to give me a chance to show you what I have stumbled into.

Please let’s make this happen together! It’s time to end the education malpractice resulting from standardized testing. It’s time for teachers unions to demand the right to opt out of testing-based curricula as a teacher’s right so that they can focus on hyper-local cultural experiences. But we cannot opt out if there is nothing to opt into at the same time. Being forced to teach to the test is like forcing a doctor to injure their patients. We must make that known, culturally.

If nothing else, please follow me on Twitter and clap up this story — you can hold down that clap button to increase your voice in support, if you like. Having followers will raise my voice as I advocate for this to happen.

I’m sorry that I don’t have a clearer call to action like “fund my GoFundMe” or something. Like I said, I’ve got the technology but I don’t have the way to get a team together to build this.

Feedback welcome,

Principal Z

Ending standardized testing in NYC high schools by 2040. #DNAcredits #AcademicCapital EducationInTheDigitalAge.org