Monday, November 28, 2011

Reform: For Our Kids...right?

Can anyone oppose what's "good for kids?"
While perusing the Interweb the other day, wading past the funny cat videos, I stumbled onto an interesting article dealing with the word "reform".

 Reform Is Not a Dirty Word:  The real meaning of school reform by Kayla McGannon.  This commentary posted by the Interim Executive Director of Stand for Children Colorado, dealt with the the recent election of the Denver school board and its larger implications.  A year ago I'd have commended this organization for their efforts to make things better but now I am more reserved about whether what they are advocating actually makes things better.  I am also more than a little confused about the title of the article and what this organization really does or who they are. 

As a product of the pre-reform failing public schools, I dug deeper.  Constantly frustrated by special interest veils and networks of vagueness it can be tough to tell what people or groups support.   A brief peek at their Board of Directors and I started to get a more complete picture.   I digress as this post is not about that group, corporate involvement in education or seemingly anything at this point. Back to the article. 

The title seems to lead one to conclude that there are only 2 groups of people out there. "Those who support positive change or "reform" in our schools, and those who oppose such measures in favor of the status quo.  The staus quo is unacceptable by the way.  This group endorsed 3 candidates and I question what that term reformer actually means. 

Later we are introduced to the idea that there is a third group emerging.  The "posers" who claim to be reformers and use phrases like "real reform".  Huh?  In the end 2 of the 3 candidates the group supported won election.  The campaign message seemed to be "for our kids"  or "what's best for kids."   Lacking an enumerated list of what reforms this might involve it is hard to disagree.  Any effort proposed to "fix" the problems linked to the idea of what's best for kids gains traction quickly.  Maybe too quickly.  

The article later sought to bring us all together "After all, if we are all reformers, we are all accountable for the quality of our public schools." A laudable goal but one that is rarely achieved in the divisive environment of reform.  I was more than a bit disappointed in that I only found common buzz words in the campaign messages.  Likely the outgrowth of a focus group meeting to identify phrases that garner support.   I am coming to feel this approach is reshaping our educational landscape in a way that is not beneficial.   That is not rhetoric without forethought.  You can read the article for yourself but I am increasingly wary of who and what is really driving change. 

So where is momentum driving reform originating?  From the people close to the schools affected by them every day who don't use these buzz words.  It would be tough to support the idea these people in schools are not for kids.  Or is the push from someone else working for foundations that have an agenda?   Normally it is the diversity of opinion on these complex issues that eventually bear real fruit.  It is difficult to hear much diverse opinion from many powerful reformers. In fact it is alarmingly uniform.  Any concern expressed about change overshadowed by well crafted "for the kids" language.
Before you bite an Apple, know where it comes from

After searching for more information on the Stand group I came across their publications page.  Even a cursory review led me to some conclusions that seem common when finding things about education online.   There is an agenda out there and a great deal of effort to bring more and more people on board with that agenda.  Nothing wrong with that I suppose.  But there is if you disagree with that agenda and don't feel it is actually best for all kids, schools, parents, teachers, our economy, education or America as a whole.  Further if that agenda includes an effort to suppress dissent.  The online comments following the article were polemical but also very also interesting.  Here are a few samples: 

Isn't Stand for Children a front for corporate "education reform" which is in the process of destroying America's public education system?........ Colorado "reform" is a great example of the damage Eli Broad and Bill Gates are doing and Stand for Children is an example of how their billions are being employed to take away local control.
You're article reads like an extended propaganda piece with a transparent agenda that in no way actually benefits children. In fact, after reading your blog, I was amazed and appalled at how blithely you could recount as reforms the measures that are clearly contra most of the research. I pity the children and their teachers who work in your state.
I agree that the word "reform" has been tainted. A word which once meant bettering education for children has now been warped into attacking teachers through faulty evaluations and then punishing and firing them in a blatant attempt to weaken their unions. It has become the worship of meaningless test scores. It is now the cold pursuit of failure in order to close neighborhood schools thus privatizing education and allowing the takeover of public institutions by corporate interests.REAL reform has to do with equity in funding and services, a well-trained and experienced teaching force, the autonomy and freedom for teachers to use progressive non test-prep practices, and the desire to address the gross inequalities and devastating effects of poverty we allow children to grow up in. Real reform addresses children and the people who work with them in humane, supportive ways.
I am sick of having to write the word "reform" in quotes. I want my language back.
Your organization stands for greed, not children. So please sit down.

As a parent with a child in a public school, and a former member and local leader of a Stand for Children chapter, I never imagined that "ed reform" would be a dirty word.
Later, when Stand for Children had begun receiving huge donations from corporate funders and foundations, and had turned away from grass roots work, reform had less and less to do with the problems I wanted to see addressed in my daughter's school (primarily lack of resources).
Now, when I hear groups like Stand for Children speak of "reform", I hear an ideologically coded message promoting privitization of public education. Here reform has little to do with evidence or feasibility, and nothing to do with my own schools' needs--Stand's reform exploits and cultivates the prevailing loss of confidence in and cynicism towards public institutions, and self-governance.
Stand's "reform" is a dirty word indeed. 


So is all this what's best for kids?  It would be nice to be included in that conversation.  I'll close with is quote from the article:"Long into the future, no one will remember who supported which policy. What they will remember is whether those policies actually made a difference. "   I would simply point out that there are a frighteningly small number of actual educators who support these reforms.  That ought to mean something and maybe provide some insight into what is best for kids.

 Sometimes it takes someone more articulate than yourself to make a point. 
In the current national discussion about education reform, the loudest voices are not necessarily those of the people who are directly affected by what happens in our schools – the students, parents, teachers and school communities themselves.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Ten Reason’s We’re Thankful at the Underground

1. We’re employed. Once taken for granted, a job in today’s economy is certainly a reason for thanks.

2. We’re teachers. That means that we’ve got more than just a job. It is as much who we are as what we do.

3. You Tube. Education, entertainment, social connections, and sharing. And, where else could you find something like this.

4. We’re married to educators. Going home to someone who understands your day saves hours of explaining “how was your day.”

5. Albemarle County (High School). We work with some pretty amazing adults and students every day.

6. Free food. Nothing says thank you like free food. Whether an occasional plate of cookies to full-blown meals provided by parents, we certainly love being fed.

7. America. (Playing the Patriot card seems appropriate)

8. Readers. It is humbling to see that people continue to read our blog. We certainly appreciate your support.

9. Inspirational Quotes. When you just don’t know what to say, it’s great to rely on the greats. “If they can make penicillin out of moldy bread, they can sure make something out of you.” (M. Ali)

10. UVa playing Va Tech in a meaningful game for a change at home. Go Hoos!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Basic Ideas of Education...I mean democracy

Once upon a time before NCLB, I actually taught government. Then I was told I didn't.  Just that simple(in a related twist Turner was told he did).  The details of why are lost among the recesses of my mind but I was  reassigned and not because of anything I did.  It was a result of NCLB language.   As a younger teacher it takes time to build a library of resources. Thus I relied heavily on the textbook in those days.  So maybe I didn't meet the term "highly qualified" by my degree when I started but what new teacher ever does?   I thought 6 years would have earned me that label.  I was wrong.

Cleaning out the room last summer I came across some of the materials I used teaching government once upon a time.  I recalled working hard to convey to all my senior students key ideas about our great nation.    Liberty, Freedom, Opportunity and all the other cool stuff that makes us who we are as a country.  It reminded me that I struggled with the constantly changing landscape of the politics.  Elections made it hard to keep up with the faces and names.  I learned quickly to steer the focus of my students to the bigger ideas of our democracy.

One thing I constantly stressed with my kids back then was that they mattered.  Once they turned 18, and even before, they could make a difference.  Their voice, their wallet, their time and of course their vote were all ways to make an impact.  I tried very hard to instill in them a sense of political efficacy.  Beyond that I tried to convey that there is a common set of beliefs that somehow weaves us all together as Americans.   As I examined an old notebook of mine and weighed its fate, some of the materials caught me eye.

One section I had written said:
Basic ideas of Democracy
    1. Worth of the individual(respect all people, make sacrifices for group: like taxes)
    2. Equality of all persons(does not mean all have same abilities, all should have an equal chance      and same under law)
   3. Majority rule, minority rights(usually make correct decisions, must listen to minority)
   4. Need for compromise(blending of different views, important to freely express ideas)
   5. Individual Freedom(everyone given freedoms but they must be limited, complete freedom would result in anarchy, democracy balances freedom and authority)

That pretty much sums up a great deal of what this country is about.  Oh and the fact that we are awesome...that part I left out.  As I sat my mind wandered to how I would deal with today's political climate if still teaching government.  What a challenge I thought.  Or is it?  Politics certainly enters my classroom discussion from time to time.  With 9th graders you have to tread a little lighter than with 12th graders.  I'd describe the grasp of politics for most of them as knowing just enough to be confused or dangerous.  But I sense they also share a love of our nation coupled with a growing dislike of the political tensions within the government running it.  Left or Right it doesn't seem to matter. 

These thoughts of our government segway nicely to thoughts about education.  We live in a nation that sees fit to place the important choices in the hands of those farthest from the classroom, farthest from the students, farthest from the parents and farthest from the impact of those decisions.  To paraphrase JFK "the very word secrecy in a free and open society is repugnant."  This approach has come to symbolize our country’s educational management in many ways.  Small numbers of people with a great deal of influence.  Dissent is dismissed or silenced not welcomed.  The idea of questioning things and being able to ask questions and get answer is intertwined with independence is the seed that made this nation strong. Within our many of our nations school systems that idea has been stifled and confined by a desire to control or micromanage, much to the detriment of our children, our schools, our profession and our future.   Top down decision have become the norm.   Nationally there has always been concern about ceding too much control to those at the top and the practice is reserved for extreme crisis.  Existing or manufactured that seems to have been the case in education. 

There are a handful of professional endeavors as noble as to teach the young.  That is not to say teachers are in any way better than any other member of our society.  But is an acknowledgment that they perhaps best understand how to educate. Why is it then the financing, structure, and curriculum of our schools is controlled by those who no longer work in a school?  As flawed a model as there ever  was.  

Our democracy allows for each of us to find his or her own path and pursue it as we see fit.   Pity it does not allow some of these same freedoms within our schools. I guess there's good reasons for this.  But it could be argued that schools are now operated by the ill informed who do not visit, ask or experience before making decisions. Who follow the reform of the hour with no accountability as to the result.  Who make decisions without enough concern or understanding.  Subject to be  misinformed either intentionally or out of ignorance . 

Our schools are not political capital..  They are not an intellectual laboratory.  They are not static.  They are not perfect. They are not all truly failing.  And most certain of all most people in them think they are not currently being well led from the top.   Failure here lies with anyone who does not recognize the value of allowing our schools to create their own identity, community and pursue it to best serve their own kids.  

What all that venting reveals is I have a low sense of educational efficacy.   Surely I make a difference with my kids.  But it grows increasingly more difficult to do so as well as I used to. 
Whether it be new testing, curriculum, value added, compensation practices, treatment of longtime employees, resource allocation, over-reliance on technology, a disconnected leadership structure, poor evaluation systems, promotional practices, privatization of public school funds, reform policies in general, they are woeful when compared to what could and should be done. In short it just seems a lot going on here is contrary to much of what is on the list above.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Watching Chaos

I admit my attention span is short and I'm tired of hearing or using the word Occupy.  But I don't tire as easily when discussing or informing my views on education.  It is in this context that the following video becomes relevant.  Imagine if you will entering a classroom where the teacher is disengaged, irrelevant and unresponsive to student needs.  Then compare that to what occurred at a Panel for Educational Policy(PEP) meeting in New York recently.

Is what we are watching a response by a public that sees leaders as disengaged, irrelevant and unresponsive?   Has education reform become too reliant on Top Down decisions in pursuit of desired outcomes?  How are these top down decisions being perceived by stakeholders?     Are the few creating a process that ignores the voices of many that could affect lasting and positive change?    Will this closed process engender support or further alienate decision makers?   Is this approach consistent with the ideals of democracy?  Shouldn't we expect more from our leaders?  

Love to hear some comments after watching.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Fixing Education

“Either fix our schools or get used to failure”

News stands across the country will feature that statement top and center on the November 14 edition of Time magazine this week. To accompany the piece, its author, Fareed Zakaria, hosted a CNN GPS special “Fixing Education” on Sunday evening. In a sick economy, I suppose that another attack on education sells magazines and draws ratings at least, and lessens the economic downturn for someone. Of course in this case, that might be just fine. It turns out that the author has found the magic bullet for building an excellent system of education and turning the American economy around. Quite profound actually, here is the solution:

“work harder and get better teachers”

Why didn’t anyone think of that already? Well, according to the author the answer is very clear. Half of American teachers graduated in the bottom third of their college class. I guess there aren’t enough smart people in education to figure out the “work hard and get better teachers” formula. Mr. Zakaria arrived at this articulate solution to the education problem by looking overseas toward nations that seem to get education right.

He first points to South Korea. American school children spend less time in school than in South Korea (and many other Asian nations.) He uses the 10,000 hour rule described by Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Outliers” as proof-- 10,000 hours engaged in a task for one's skill set to reach 'expert' status. In a stroke of genius, he suggests that if American students just spent more time in school, we would see dramatic improvements in the system.

The second “global lesson” comes from Finland. These sneaky Scandinavians managed to stay under our radar while they built an education empire by selectively hiring the best and brightest as teachers. On top of that, they pay them well and treat them with the same professional respect as doctors and lawyers. They emphasize creative work and shun tests for most of the year according to Zakaria. That’s the second variable in our formula for excellent schools—find better teachers.

This article is so ground-breaking, its impact could spark a revolution. Why stop at education. Imagine the possibilities if this model were applied to other professions. The NFL- if we just find the best coaches and make them practice longer with the team we’ll win the super bowl every year. Investments- if we just find the best and smartest portfolio managers and make them work long hours we’ll get the best returns. Retail- if we just hire the best salespeople and have them put in lots of hours, our profits will skyrocket. Or what about industry- if we just hire the most productive workers and increase their hours, our profits will hit the roof. Maybe our government could even function better if we would just elect the best officials and make them spend more time in session.

I doubt I’ve been too successful in my attempt at humor, but honestly, this article had quite the opposite effect of making me laugh.
Further Reading on the burden
of schooling many children face.

Let’s look first at time. Most American school children spend thirteen years in school, one-hundred eighty days a year, at least six hours a day. Over 14,000 hours in class (not counting homework). This far surpasses the 10,000 hour rule. Personally, my children are involved in athletics that probably account for between 3-5 hours per week averaged over the year. My middle school son just began a weekly commitment to Destination Imagination and I’m sure that as he and my elementary aged daughter get older, their athletic and extra-curricular involvement will increase. They also have church related commitments that equal 3-5 hours a week. My family values each of these commitments as much as education and I don’t expect my children’s “earning potential” to suffer because they don’t spend enough time in school. I would actually think that my children would suffer from requirements that they spend additional time in school beyond what is currently required.

Then what about these “exceptional teachers.” In other contexts, just take sports for example, an exceptional athlete may never reach their potential until placed in the proper situation. Teaching doesn’t take place in a bubble. Current systems for measuring teacher quality focus almost entirely on how well they affect student achievement on standardized tests. Looking to Finland without addressing the fact that children in Finland are taken care of in a near socialist fashion fails to recognize that the highly qualified teachers of the nation are dealing with students who are highly prepared for school by a government system that fully addresses issues of poverty, health care, and safety that are left to the schools to deal with in the United States. In the United States, we’re labeling effective teachers by student test scores. In Finland, they are labeling effective teachers by their training and efforts.

Putting the two together, Zakaria interviewed Bill Gates for the article and news special. Gates and others assert that experience doesn’t have an impact on teacher quality. It would seem that if Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule was so strict, a teacher would have to practice for ten years before making it to “expert” status.

Mr. Zakaria, I appreciate that you are concerned about the public education system in the United States, but I worry that articles and news broadcasts such as yours do more damage than good. You have limited exposure to the reality of day-to-day education in the United States and your simplistic view of what we can do to fix it reveals the danger of the “arm-chair” administrator to our system.

I teach in a school district with average SAT scores of 556/554/544 (Reading/Math/Verbal). Eighty-Three percent of our graduates pursue higher education. Ninety-three percent of our students graduate on time. The College Board recently recognized us for efforts at increasing access to the AP curriculum while increasing the percentage of students scoring a three or higher on the exams. (81%) Of those, I taught AP to nearly 150 students last year with 90% scoring a three or higher. As an individual teacher and a district, we're doing pretty well.  We also recognize that status quo is not an option and consistently work to improve our effort on behalf of students.

The constant fixation on aggregate numbers paired with stories of great success and great failure at the expense of the commonplace paints an entirely unrealistic picture of what goes on in our nation’s schools every day. It also creates an unnecessary urgency for uniform dramatic change that will kill the success of systems such as mine while attempting to fix the problem of underperforming urban districts. The tagline on the cover of Time—fix our schools or get used to failure—unfairly labels a school such as mine, already demonstrating success and consistently moving toward improvement, as a problem. Instead of recognizing our efforts, we’re scapegoated as the primary obstacle to our nation’s recovery from an economic crisis.

Thanks for the quick fix, we’ll get started on it tomorrow and tell you how it goes. Unless of course you’d like to open real dialogue and acknowledge the diversity of the education systems in the United States and figure out how we target the areas that are failing, develop innovative solutions to consistent problems, and sustain and nurture the systems and teachers who continue to effectively prepare the next generation for a productive life in a global society.

Friday, November 4, 2011

How Much is Too Much?

Let's dismiss for a moment all the academic things schools do.  I suggest this since I admit readily that kids learn as much  (perhaps more) about life outside of my classroom as in it.  I strongly believe that the rich nature of the experiences that kids encounter in school best enables them to succeed and thrive.

But, that is not why schools exist.  Schools were created to teach our young people what society determines they need to know.  For better or worse, this is how students and teachers are measured.  If a kid does not "get" what they need, the school shares an increasing amount of the responsibility.

In recent years the pressure has grown to maximize what kids learn.  Few would argue with the idea that we should try to teach all kids more.  What sometimes goes unnoticed is the price paid for such efforts and uniformity and even volume.  NCLB was clearly motivated by efforts to better serve populations that were traditionally underserved in public schools.  But it turned into a monster that must be fed. 

It’s not as much about what is taught as it is about what is measured.  We grew so eager to measure what kids learn that we’ve made the measurement the point.  With so much additional focus on testing, something has to go to make room.  Trying to keep good, fun, quality learning becomes a greater challenge by the day.

So, something’s gotta give.  There is just not enough time.  We could go to school every day all year. The problem would still exist.  

 Time has come today
Young hearts can go their way
Can't put it off another day
I don't care what others say
They say we don't listen anyway
Time has come today

Those are prophetic words indeed.  I see the relationship of these words to education as we continue to fit more and more into a full glass.  The constant is not the length of the school day or calendar, it is the fact kids are people.  More accurately they are young people.  They need time for themselves.  They need to decompress.  They need downtime. 

Each year it seems we ratchet up the pressure on them to do more to the point where the phrase joyless childhood might even apply to some.  Though I think of Chinese schools first with this description, I hear more and more from anguished parents and students who are reaching the breaking point.   

Most conversations about time come back to the topic of how much time students spend on homework.  I am aware that homework now consumes a significant portion of my students’ lives.  They have trouble finding the proper balance.  For too many it amounts to spending too much or none.  I always laugh at how we now control their access to sugar, fried foods, websites and the like but don't seem to recognize or seek to help them choose an appropriate course workload.

So how much is too much?  With 9th graders it is among the most commonly asked question. 

Our division moved from a schedule of seven periods to eight periods two years ago.  Is this too much?  Who knows, but is certainly has become for a number of students.  Maintaining high standards and continuously increasing achievement with a greater volume of coursework conflicts with some basic notions:  We want kids to enjoy school so that they choose to participate, we want kids to develop a love of learning, we want kids to be kids and have the freedom to explore a diversity of opportunities outside of the school environment.

A recent article from the Atlantic puts a focus on how much this emphasis on quantity and volume of instruction might impact our children.

"Since about 1955 ... children's free play has been continually declining, at least partly because adults have exerted ever-increasing control over children's activities," says the author Peter Gray, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology (emeritus) at Boston College.  

Even in the form of additional opportunities and offerings, educational requirements are adding to the ever-increasing adult control of children’s activities.
The article concludes by saying:  
When parents realize the major role that free play can take in the development of emotionally healthy children and adults, they may wish to reassess the priorities ruling their children's lives. 

Perhaps it is not only parents who need to reassess priorities.