“So I walk into an advisory class,” says Roger Lowenstein, “And I tell the kids to take out a piece of paper and I ask the kids, in three sentences, what’s the difference between school and jail?” High-energy, bespectacled and outrageously articulate, Roger is in the middle of a story in answer to my question about the purpose of education. A former criminal attorney who also spent years as a television writer, Roger founded L.A. Leadership Academy charter school eleven years ago with the goal of educating the next generation of community activists.
“So the kids tell me the difference between school and jail is that we have PE,” he says, appalled. “So I say: but you get exercise in jail! And they tell me about the food. So I say: but you get food in jail! And they tell me about the dress code. So I say: you think you don’t have a dress code in jail? Fifteen kids, they could not tell me the difference between school and jail! So finally they say: what do you think? And I say: it’s about free will! If I go to school in the morning and I didn’t choose to be there, I’m in fucking jail! I tell them, you know why you don’t have a good answer to this question yet? It’s because you don’t think of yourselves as free! And you know why not? Because you don’t want the responsibility that comes from freedom.”
I can easily see why Roger must have been a formidable opponent in court. “Until you see yourself as free,” he told the students that day, “until you use that freedom to make yourself a better person, you’re not gonna be educated. You’re just gonna sit there and let it all go over your heads.” To Roger, the exercise of free will is the essence of education. “I went through this exercise with my whole staff, too,” he tells me. “Our students need to see themselves as actors on the world stage.”
I’m fascinated by his school’s emphasis on social justice. Unlike my former school, which had a thrifty one-sentence mission (“preparing students for college, leadership and life,”) L.A. Leadership’s mission statement has values that are expressed as a mandala, or circle, that “represents wholeness, and can be seen as a model for the organizational structure of life reminding us of our relation to the infinite, the world that extends both beyond and within our bodies and minds.” But how does this idea play out on the ground, with real kids? At L.A. Leadership, which started in Koreatown but has since moved to Lincoln Heights in East L.A., 100% of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch and 61% are classified as English Language Learners. How does L.A. Leadership translate its ideals into practice?
Roger acknowledges that it’s been a long haul. “When I came in the only thing I knew was to keep class size down. I had this fantasy that with a skilled teacher in the room, we’d be witnessing sixteen individual learners in there.”
Since this is my own personal conviction, I’m dying to hear more. Why wouldn’t that work?
Roger is shaking his head. “It’s all about differentiation,” he says, using the education term for meeting kids at their own level. “No matter what you do, there’s always gonna be someone who doesn’t get it and there’s always gonna be someone who’s way ahead and bored.”
So what’s the solution? “Technology,” he says. “Right now is the most exciting time in education. Real reform is being driven by technology. What if every kid has a tablet? And on that tablet is a textbook? And it’s redesigned so that it’s game-based. Kids take English literature, then they’re immediately assessed, then if they pass, bingo! they’re on to the next level. Every kid is moving at their own level.”
But does the technology exist? Roger’s convinced it’s getting there. “We have the hardware. It’s all about software now and we’re pretty close. Salman Khan has fixed education,” he says, referring to the former hedge fund analyst who founded the Khan Academy online education program, which started as video tutorials and now is a website with classes in math, history, science and other subjects, with the stated goal of “providing a free world-class education to anyone, anywhere.”
In a perfect world, Roger says, an 11th grade English classroom would have 60 kids. Roger outlines how it would work: 20 would rotate between stations, with a teacher as a facilitator, 20 kids would be at computer stations working, 20 would be doing per exchanges in a loosely guided discussion, and 20 would be working with a teacher. A third of the way through class, a tone would sound and kids would rotate.
It’s a dream I’ve heard before, most notably at a meeting last year led by an assistant secretary from the Department of Education. But can it actually happen? For real? Roger’s convinced that it can. “If you want to make a contribution,” he tells me, “you’ve gotta understand what’s out there and who’s doing it. We’re on the cusp of an amazing revolution.” In pursuit of this goal, Roger says, “I kicked myself upstairs” to the board of directors, hiring as his replacement an expert in this technology-based teaching, which is called blended learning.
My brain, which spent a tremendous amount of time in the 20th century, is struggling to imagine a multi-tasking classroom. My friend Marion works at a charter school that’s been using blended learning for three years. I fire off an email to Marion begging to observe some classes so I can see blended learning in action.
Meanwhile, I log in to Khan Academy and sign up as a student. Though they don’t have English classes yet, I sign up for the closest cousin I can find–World History. Roger is right: if I’m going to write about education, I’d better learn more about what’s out there. It’s time for the revolution to come to me.
In other news, I’m very excited to say that I’ve been asked to do a twice-monthly commentary for L.A. School Report, a website about the intersection of politics and education. Click here for my most recent post there about the criminally overcrowded conditions in LAUSD classrooms.