Friday, October 26, 2012

Doing Versus Thinking

Which is the more noble task? Generating the idea or carrying it out?  Action without thought is ineffective, but thought without action is useless.  The dichotomy reminds me of James' warning in the Christian Bible's New Testament.  He reminded early Christians that "faith without works is dead." For two millennia, Christians have debated the role of faith and works, but most would agree, they are not mutually exclusive expressions.

Likewise, ideas and execution-- thinking and doing-- cannot exist in isolation.  As teachers, we plan, we do, and after it's over, we think some more and evaluate so that next time we can do it better.  At least that's how it should work.

I'll admit, there are times when I don't see that I have time to think.  I simply "do."  I taught U.S. Government the first six years of my career.  It was my only consistent prep, so every year I had to prepare for a new class in addition to teaching Government.  I didn't have time to plan or think about what to teach so I relied on the previous year's material.  After six years, even I was tired of what I had to teach.  I started throwing away materials after I used them just to prevent myself from going back to them the next year.  But too often as a teacher we get so caught in the busyness of everything that needs to be done that thinking becomes a luxury that our time can't afford.

In regards to education, some people spend more time thinking than doing.  Educational structures facilitate this.  A recent article noted that with the exception of Administration, there is little room for vertical movement of teachers.  Making the choice to move upward in the world of education usually removes one from the classroom.  Many capable teachers do not seek higher level positions because of this, but do we really want to encourage good teachers out of the classroom anyway?

Administrators, guidance counselors, tech support, etc., all have their jobs to do; "Thinkers" don't include everyone that serves our schools outside of the classroom.  But from created positions in individual schools all the way up to our Secretary of Education, too many education professionals spend their day "thinking" without very much "doing."

How do we bridge this divide of "doers" who don't think enough and "thinkers" who don't do enough?

Thinking takes time.  We put quite a bit of thought and time into the Teaching Underground.  Still, we fail to match the depth of content or frequency of posting that so many others manage to handle.  The frequency and quality of the Underground is a product of how much "real" work we have to manage as teachers.  I'm sure most bloggers feel this stretch.  I've often thought "why do I do this, there is not enough time in the day and what do I really accomplish in the end? I'm simply thinking about my profession and sharing those ideas with others."

My answer: because thinking is just as important as doing and I refuse to give up the power of ideas to drive the efforts of my work toward meaningful ends.

To the doers:  Take a break.  Think about what you're doing, why you're doing it, and what you'd like to do next. Learn about what's happening around you and figure out your appropriate place within the context you live and work. If you have to leave somethings "undone" to protect your time and energy for thought, do it.  If you're too busy to stop and think, you're too busy.  You're going to harm someone if you keep going.

To the thinkers: Get your hands dirty. Not a casual drop in or guest appearance in the classroom.  Find a regular consistent way to directly impact a teacher, student or group of students.  Don't overburden the "doers" with good ideas that you can't test out yourself.  Remember that ideas don't have a life of their own, don't treasure them so much that when the doers tell you the ideas aren't working that you don't believe them.  If you don't remember what it's like to miss your lunch or postpone a much needed bathroom break because you're occupied with students, you're not connected with the place where your ideas are carried out. If that's the case, stop thinking so much and do something.  You're going to harm someone if you keep going.

To everyone who can make a difference: Give teachers the power to think and trust them to make good decisions. Provide the space and time for their experience and practice to gel into sound theory and plans for moving forward. Don't make decisions in isolation, but build systems that give teachers the ability to engage in deliberate thought about policy and practice.  Don't provide opportunities to attend after-school forums, complete surveys, or serve on another committee and consider it teacher leadership.  Consider placing certain decision-makers in the classroom more often, and give certain teachers a break from full teaching schedules in exchange for leadership roles.

Effective education requires a proper mix of thinking and doing from everyone, not a cadre of thinkers to direct the activity of the doers. This is education after all, not a beehive.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Everybody Loves Teachers

I am a teacher.  Everybody loves me.

I became a teacher so I wouldn't have to work that hard and would get "summers off".  I always wanted to become a teacher so I could promote my own personal agenda and indoctrinate the students who are trapped in my classroom. I vote democratic and only support candidates that raise taxes.  Once I got a job teaching I joined the union so that I could get raises without doing more work.  After three years I was able to get tenure.  I now know that I can do whatever I want and don't have to worry about losing my job. I can ride the desk for 27 years and get my fat pension or as I like to call it my golden parachute.   This is key because I was in the lower third of my graduating class in college and am pretty lazy.  Now the job is just showing up each day and I really don't care too much about my students.  I just promote them to the next grade and don't place too much value in what they did and did not accomplish and learn in my class.  I tried other jobs.  But you know what they say.  Those that can, do.  Those who can't, teach.   I just don't want to be held accountable.  All I have to do is assign the kids a bunch of homework and if they don't learn it is their fault.

The paragraph above shows the mindset of those who hold the worst case impression of what I am.  I cannot say that at various moments in my career I have not been guilty of some of these thoughts but I can say safely they are not me.  It seems that in our technology heavy, impatient throw away world, the status of the teacher has diminished to such a degree that many say they are no longer even necessary.  Maybe so.  But if this is true than we must also dispense with many other roles in our society and the effect would not be good.  

Teachers do not perform life saving surgery, arrest bank robbers or feed the hungry (usually).  We are not engineers, bankers or mechanics.  Our contributions are much less tangible and far less immediate. But before we toss those in the profession under the bus never to return, we might be wise to pause and consider their world and in particular the world in their absence.  Like so many others Bankers, Engineers and even gardeners, they do jobs others cannot.  They work with people.  Not money, not machines, they don't sell stuff or fix what's broken-- public school teachers facilitate the development of young people.  Remember that public schools take in all children.  They deal daily with the problems that the rest of society isn't always willing to address.

Students arrive at the doorstep sometimes well prepared, sometimes not.  Sometimes well-fed, but sometimes hungry.  Some of them are angry and impacted by factors we have little control over.  Regardless, none of this is an excuse.  When they do arrive they are met by teachers. Some good, some not so good.  Frankly, all of us could use a little help with the problems kids deal with that aren't related to school, because in the end, their ability to succeed will impact the future for all of us.    

"I love Teachers"   "No Governor, I love teachers"
I viewed the Presidential Debate as background noise to my grading and threw in some of my Mystery Science Theater 3000 style commentary at various points.  My wife would prefer I didn't do this but I can be quite witty("We have boats that go underwater? AWESOME!").  My quick Google search yielded that the word teacher was used 28 times.  As the two candidates wrapped up Moderator Bob Schieffer led them to closing statements with "I think we all love teachers."

If everybody loves me then why don't they trust me as a professional?  Why don't they listen or even ask about my opinions on education reform?  Why don't they listen when I say I am overworked and feel unsupported?  Why don't they listen when I say that standardized tests have had a detrimental effect on the way a generation of kids learn?  Why don't they listen when I suggest changes to how we do business?  Why don't they understand their rhetoric on education is hurtful and demoralizing?  Why don't they acknowledge, they and most other decision makers in fact know very little about teaching, the day to day experiences of educators and what might be working and what might not?  Why don't they recognize the meaning of the word "public' school?  Why don't they see what they and others are doing is not helping but hurting?  Why do so many people(Chuck Norris, President Obama, Governor Romney, Interest Groups) make statements with the disclaimer "I Love Teachers?"

If you love me, you sure have a funny way of showing it.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Homecoming Friday

"This Homecoming thing could blow up on twitter"
Chester Brewer invented Homecoming in 1911 when he sought to increase interest and attendance in the annual football game between Missouri and Kansas.  He invited all alumni to "come home" for the game and a tradition was born.

Today, Homecoming has transformed into something much bigger.  At our school, which only dates back to 1953, the tradition goes far beyond welcoming back alumni to the school.  It involves all sorts of activities.  There's is spirit week where student and staff dress to each day's theme, the Powderpuff Football game followed by the spirit bonfire, the Pep Rally, the pre-game tailgates, the Homecoming Dance.  Maybe most exciting is the football game where our Patriots take on a member of the Commonwealth District (where we have struggled to create a rivalry simply because we are two hours from all the other teams.) Our teams have fared pretty well against Commonwealth foes but next year we are moving to the much closer opponents of the Jefferson District. 

My colleague wrote on the subject of our school community a bit last year in this October 2011 post.  Homecoming week illustrates the duality of today's public schools.  First and foremost we are tasked with "educating" our young people academically.   But schools do so much more.  The most valuable experiences can occur far from a classroom.  I know this was the case for me when I attended the very same school where I now teach.  Character, leadership, responsibility, teamwork and the basic skills of how to get along in a larger society all cultivated through something other than a formal lesson.  Are schools the only place where this occurs?  Certainly not.  But in a school, in a school community, we have the opportunity to help young people develop themselves.  

Outsiders often overlook this unwritten curriculum so integral to the growth of students helping to prepare them for their future.   What students learn and pick up beyond the classroom through things like athletics, clubs, honor societies and the diverse culture of our school community is so valuable.  As Brewer likely understood, it is about the people.   Seeing a student excel on the field or stage in a way you would never see in a desk is an experience unlike any other.  The non-academic opportunities provided by a school environment afford our students chances to immerse themselves  in life.

Sure we try to teach things like respect for authority, punctuality and the importance of a good work ethic but that sometimes gets lost in translation. The effect is some students simply don't like school.  Maybe nothing will change this but activities that some might call meaningless can actually combat this dislike.  I'm reminded of the smiles on all the faces arriving on the school doorstep to a high five from the mascot, watching 800 students from varying backgrounds mingle amongst each other before a game,  seeing a 17 year old present to a group of several hundred peers, watching the C student become a leader by turning to a teammate demanding more effort; all hard to replicate. 

There is constant tension between our academic mission and the non-academic pursuits of a school.  Extra-curriculars can be extremely frustrating and disruptive to the classroom teacher.  But, coming out to a game, service project or a concert can help remind us to look at education as so much more than academics. It has been a hectic week with PSATs, fire drills, and all the Homecoming associated activities, but we manage to balance it all.  Our young pupils manage to do so in a way I am not certain that our generation could equal.  Life is busy and the fatigue of constantly being so busy is obvious.  The chance to relax and join with them in what Mr. Brewer could hardly have envisioned all those years ago is a chance we should not pass up.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Educational Leadership: Part II

“It’s all about the kids.” That’s the rationale given by high-profile education reformers and policy leaders for decisions that largely dismiss or ignore the importance of teachers in the process.  “It’s all about the kids” is often thrown around to set up a false dichotomy that interests of teachers stand in opposition to the interests of students. 

I don’t doubt the sincerity of politicians and education leaders, but if they really want to best serve students without spending time in a school, the only way to do so is by supporting the teachers who do.

I’ve worked with several different types of student leadership groups.  When pressed to answer the question “why do you want to be a leader?” most students answer honestly.  They want to influence decision-making, have a say in matters that affect them, design projects to help others in the school and community—rarely do they reflect on the reality that leadership is about facilitating growth and maturation of those they serve, creating the best environment for others to reach their potential.  “You’ve already proven you can make something of yourself, the next step is to make something of the other guy.”  That’s one of the first lessons I use in the leadership class that I sometimes teach.   

We need more of this in educational leadership.  Adults who want to empower other adults to become better at what they do; not adults who want to exercise control or power to push their own agendas.To effectively lead in that regard, three things are needed.

1) Leadership must come from within.  A leader is a part of the system, not above or outside of the system.  Our most recent post mentioned a request from the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors to the School Board that they consider merit pay for teachers.  To the Board of Supervisors I would say, “thank you very much for your financial support of our schools, but you don’t know what is best for our system.”

I can see some bristling at that remark.  Isn’t it like a child telling his or her parents “why can’t you just give us money and leave us alone”?  It’s nothing like that at all.  It’s like a lawyer telling the client "I know you're paying me, but you don't get to tell me how to do my job."

Large districts increasingly turn to outsiders like Joel Klein and Cathy Black to “lead” their schools.  Other leaders like Michele Rhee and Arne Duncan are only marginally connected to classroom education through a few years of experience before moving into leadership positions often beyond the building or even district level.

One of the ugly issues of the last four years of Presidential politics came from the question of citizenship by birth.  All of our elected political leaders must be citizens, and the President, a citizen from birth.  You can’t make decisions about what’s best for America if you’re not American.  You shouldn't make uninformed decisions about what’s best for education if you’re not an educator.

2) Leadership requires competence.  Competence is demonstrated only through consistent effective performance.  Recently, my colleagues and I have discussed two principles and how they relate to education. The Peter Principle is a belief that, in an organization where promotion is based on achievement, success, and merit, that organization's members will eventually be promoted beyond their level of ability.  Most districts do not promote teachers based on competence.  The notion that rewarding teachers with pay for good performance continues to float, but rarely do systems promote teachers beyond the classroom for consistent effective performance.

Beyond the classroom, an additional degree will place an individual on the promotion ladder-- from the building level administrator (a step sometimes skipped) to division-level responsibilities involving finance, human resources, building services, and many other diverse positions.

There are many effective and competent leaders in education beyond the classroom.  I’m lucky enough to work with many of them.  But, while conventional wisdom likes to point out how “bad teachers” are killing education I would argue that we’re more likely to find competence in the classroom than outside.  Teachers work up to their level of competence.  Once they reach it, they continue to perform in the classroom. 

3) Leadership requires self-awareness.  A second idea we’ve talked about lately is the “Dunning-Kruger Effect.”  Through a series of studies at Cornell University, Dunning and Kruger demonstrate that incompetent people typically don’t recognize their incompetence and fail to recognize competence in others.  It’s analogous to the student who thinks he’s prepared for the test until he starts to study.  Only then does he recognize how little he truly knows on the subject.  Furthermore, subjects who display competence are more likely to show less confidence in their abilities.

This idea is dangerous for education when highly confident individuals, unaware of their incompetence push reforms and policies without understanding the impact.  The inability to recognize competence explains why so many merit-based plans or other evaluation systems are flawed.

Subjects recognized the severity of their incompetence when exposed to appropriate training for the skill.  Higher levels of educational leadership become more isolated from this exposure.  In the classroom, my incompetence results in immediate exposure through confused students, inappropriate behaviors, complaints from parents, etc.

At higher levels, from where can this exposure come?  Unfortunately, when an administrator, superintendent, state official (keep moving up the chain) makes an incompetent or bad decision, the only way they will find out is from a subordinate.  Two problems here: 1) for a superintendent to stand up to a state official, a principal to a superintendent, a teacher to a principal—takes a lot of nerve and risk. 2) If the subordinate has the nerve to question a policy from a superior often it is dismissed as a complaint. (remember, incompetence doesn’t recognize competence in others)

What does this mean for teachers?

1) Embrace and support effective leaders. Do everything in your power to make sure they understand how necessary they are. 

2) Remember your primary client- the student.  Sometimes you have to jump through hoops, but you’re in the classroom with your clients every day.  Use your good judgment and do the right thing.

3) Build credibility and legitimacy by showing competence in your job.  Parents and students will become evidence of your ability giving greater weight to your voice beyond the classroom.

4) Stay informed. Pay attention to legislative actions, express your opinion, and educate the public through your network of friends and colleagues. (Or just refer them to The Teaching Underground if that’s too hard).

5) Remember that even when you feel like others see you as a cog in the wheel, that everyday YOU exercise the true power of leadership: You have the power to create the environment that allows each person you interact with to become the best person they can.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Merit Pay Considered in Albemarle?

Teaching is sharing, not competing.
In a seemingly unimportant story about a meeting between the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors and the County School Board about compensation strategies the following screamed out at me:  "Supervisors also asked the board to consider a merit-based compensation scale. "

Come again?  One would think that something as important as Merit Pay or Merit-Based Pay would fly a little farther up the news flag pole locally but sadly that is not the case.  No worries, Teaching Underground has you covered.   In fact we've had you covered on the topic of Merit Pay something like six times already.  We will say again with a loud and unwavering voice that making kids part of the pay equation is a bad idea.   Don't believe us?  Keep reading.

"Merit Pay" seems like a Panacea for all that ails schools performance wise, but also financially.
Can this be so?  The concept is to boost student achievement and improve our schools using bonuses for teachers.   Many are supporting this flawed concept.   Common sense and mounting evidence suggests Merit Pay is not only a failed solution but that it is not even an improvement.   For this idea to be suggested is contrary to what most educators already know.

Nashville schools were part of the most scientific evaluation to date and after 3 years of study Matthew Springer, executive director of the National Center on Performance Incentives announced the following:.
 “We tested the most basic and foundational question related to performance incentives — Does bonus pay alone improve student outcomes? – and we found that it does not.”  

I tend to be wary of "centers for" things but it seems prudent to point out the above name seems to suggest they would be looking for evidence that it did positively affect student performance.   The RAND corporation's mission is to improve policy and decision making through research and analysis.  It might seem RAND has failed on the front end part of their mission here.  Meanwhile New York City, Chicago along with the State of Texas tried and abandoned such plans after showing no improvement.  But here we are.  Still dealing with faddish cavalier approaches to reform.   Education Historian and expert Diane Ravitch has a better sense of things and doesn't mince words here on the subject.

Bad  reform ideas seem more contagious than good ones.
No Child Left Behind and now Race to the Top pushed by our Education Secretary Arne Duncan fail to comprehend the complexity of what motivates all of us who teach.  A uniform system of pay does indeed do little to motivate us yet we show up every day and good teachers have yet to beat down the local government or statehouse door calling for such a shift.  We teach not to be rich but to make a difference.  Fair pay and work conditions are far more important.  It is exceedingly difficult to measure teacher effectiveness and quality and designing a valid system is elusive so we settle for something else. The only result of PfP is the further demoralization of teachers and more reliance and focus on standardized exams which are debatable in terms of their measure of showing teacher quality.  Something they were not designed to do.    The United States is constantly compared to Finland where they've focused instead on reduced class size, boosted teachers’ salaries, and eliminated most standardized testing.   It would appear we are resolved to forge our own reform path come hell or high water.  It is hard to turn the reform train around.

We could separate Merit Pay and Value Added(another topic we've covered pretty well) and they both amount to Pay for Performance.  You can pay me for what I do, or, you can pay me for what my students do.  The latter is a bad a idea and no sound example of the former truly exists.  That does't change the fact that current compensation practices are inadequate and potentially outdated.  I can only hope is the same will soon be true for Merit Pay.   Most teachers simply ask they be paid what they are really worth something that is rarely the case.

In the meantime we plan on doing our best to "educate" our local representatives on the subject with the hope that Merit Pay might not progress far beyond consideration.    We'd encourage you to voice whatever our your view is as well. 

Monday, October 8, 2012

Monday Mashup

Things in Charlottesville are hopping.  In a few short lines here is what is going in.  We got new desks.  After 3 years of trying new desks have arrived and we even got chairs, once we tracked them.  There's a great deal more to the story but new desks are great and we are happy.  Hopefully the students are as well.

In class we have hit our stride.  We both agreed that after parent conferences you settle into a little groove and the groups seem more comfortable with you, as you are with them.  The chaos of the start of the year has dissipated and students are still energized.  It is a great time for learning and as the weather changes we just try to tap into that energy and help them learn. 

Speaking of learning  The Teaching Underground is now 2 years old.  How'd we miss that?  We turned two years old and we missed it.  We feel bad.  No cake, no candle, nothing.  It was October 1st 2010 when we started this little venture and we have come a long way.  But we are still "stuck" in the basement.  Oh well there are far worse fates.  Life goes on and so will we.  Please don't hold it against us and please no gifts.

"The roof, the roof, the roof is on fire..."
The Cavalier Football team is 2-4 and their practice facility caught fire in what some are calling a metaphor for the season.  We lost to Duke.  Again!  But have faith in Coach London.  As a Cavalier fan, you must never be short on faith.  Faith and patience.  And take solace in the fact that Virginia Tech also lost which has helped us avoid the taunting of our government teaching basement colleague.  Mr. Turner also got lucky and defeated my team in Fantasy football...barely.  I blame Drew Brees and Marques Colston who each had about 10,000 points. But he might be wise to remember this: When you lose you should say little.  When you win say even less.    Karma is always watching

Not exactly connected to Karma but maybe to the same part of the world His Holiness the Dalai Llama is visiting Charlottesville this week.    We extended a lunch invitation and we'll wait and see if he is able to accept.  It was rather informal and if he can't make it we'll understand.  Maybe he'll just catch up with a few of our past blog posts.  The Dalai Llama is among the most admirable person in the world and those fortunate enough to have met him seem better for it.  Given the chance for a private audience what would you speak to him about?  Makes you wonder doesn't it.  One thing for sure is that he seems to value education and on that we can all agree.   Our hope is he has a wonderful visit.  This is his third time he has graced our community, the first since 1989.   One of my favorite quotes attributed to him is "Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible."

Busy as we are teaching and working with our current students we haven't had as much time to get our thoughts together for new blog material.  But one unique thing about this time of the year is the reappearance of some former students as they have a brief break from college.  I sat with one at the home football game on Friday and our conversation ranged from the Higgs Boson to cross country running and even the merits of marching band uniforms.  Another student I saw this morning is enrolled at the Naval Academy at Annapolis.  He was always a little ahead of his peers but when I first saw him this morning at the other end of the hall I thought "what is the admiral doing here?"   He seemed more mature than I will ever be and certainly wise beyond his years.   I also ran across another past student at the grocery store and he told me stories about his "crazy roommate".  Normally these tales are rich with hyperbole but based on what described I think his roommate is actually crazy. Finally one sent me a kind note recalling a lesson from 8 years ago as she prepared to write a college anthropology paper.  Really?  Sometimes you just have to saw "wow."

I also came across this movie trailer which sort of makes you say "wow", in a completely different way.   

Friday, October 5, 2012

Education Leadership

Educational Leadership- Part I


That’s not German…It’s phonetic for a question more people should ask themselves.  If you couldn't figure it out, you probably shouldn't be in charge.

What could we, the TU, know about Educational Leadership?  Truth be told we know a thing or two.  This post is an adaptation of a presentation the Underground was privileged enough to conduct with members of the student body while they attended a school leadership retreat. It is relevant because the void of true leadership from anyone in a high enough position to make a difference is starting to hurt.   The only thing worse than no leadership is bad leadership.  And that is exectly what the Feds and state legislatures have been giving us the past few years.  In fact I am beginning to think the term Educational Leader is actually an oxymoron. As we grow accustomed to gridlock in DC, the only thing clear is we are lacking enough leaders willing or capable to lead us to a better place. This might also be true in education.

Above the building level what we need systemically is great leadership. Not common in a profession where upward mobility is rather non-existent.   School divisions find leadership even harder to come by because promotion from the classroom is often an escape for some.  Still others see the classroom as a necessary chore to enter educational leadership. It is increasingly easy to hop online and pick their Ed.L.D. with little or no teaching experience and whamo...they are making decisions for us all.  It's not that outsiders shouldn't contribute but Corporate style leadership in education is not too popular with many people in education. 

Many good teachers don't want to leave the kids thus restricting their influence. But they aren't too fond of seagulls either.  New leadership hires usually come with a dizzying list of degrees but potentially absent the insights and experience most needed. When you look even higher, the void is so pronounced that few people in the upper echelons have any connection as to what is actually happening and what is actually needed on the student level.   How frequent and in what context was the word education used in the recent Presidential debate?  That says a lot about where education fits into the public consciousness. Is that an indictment of current education policy makers nationally…yeah…I guess it is.  But they are not all purposefully disconnected.  Some are victims of time and distance from the classroom. 

Defining leadership is simple…defining good leadership…not as easy. Defining Good Educational Leadership even more so.  In its most basic form leadership is the capacity or ability to lead. To lead is to either get in front to show people the way or to go along with them, maybe even push from behind. One thing that becomes immediately clear is those who are the leaders can’t always show the way directly.  

Jobs within education are very different and quite stratified.  So the "lead by Example" motto falls by the wayside. It's hard to provide the example when you have no experience in a specific area from which to draw.  There are currently so many levels of leadership in what some call the bloated education bureaucracy.

We’ve said before that anyone referred to as an "educator" should be required to teach a class.  Just to keep their feet on the ground and their heads out of their rumps. More importantly would be the fact that they would get to deal with kids each day.  A leader takes an active role in making something happen with others. Teachers do this all the time.  The “others” are referred to as followers, so I guess I am a leader and a follower(hey by the way are you an official follower of the TU…if not you can do so on the menu at the right).  Kids are the constant in education and people who wall themselves off from that figuratively or literally impede their ability to lead effectively. 

In reality leaders in education are not only outside of the classroom, they are in it. Principals, Superintendents, and School Board Members all play a key role in the chain of leadership and direction of policy. But the anchor points of that chain are the teachers and the parents. They are both the ones with the most understanding but also often the most disconnected the point of influence.   This disconnect from leadership and students causes or results in an over-reliance on data and numbers.

Too often they operate with suspect understanding and a predetermined outcome devoid of feedback or empathy to those affected. They are too often asked to make decisions absent key information.  Leading by mandate handed down from above alienates followers and often loses sight of the real needs of students. 

The skills of leadership are elusive and fluid.  They take practice.  Some aspects of leadership can be learned and developed and this makes perfect sense.   What is often missing in educational leaders is that they work with people that don't see they have to earn the position. That relationship has grown even more complicated as education has become politicized. The educational, economic and political considerations now seem to overshadow an individual’s ability to make a difference. That is after all what good or bad leadership eventually does…make a difference.

Give some thought to a several important questions. What is the Goal of Educational Leadership? A better way to think about this might be to ask what do good educational leaders do? Think about their impact, their influence on other people, how they spend their time. Why they became a leader in the first place? 

A brief answer would be good leaders make things better. They make it easier and better for kids, teachers, parents…everyone.   Educational leadership should improve our schools thus ultimately the future for our kids.   Such positions should not and cannot be used for personal advancement, promotion or for any other reason but to make things better.  While at the top level this may show as pushing hard for a change to gain a desired national outcome to put a feather in the cap, at my level it would be empowering people to create, develop and improve things all the while forging relationships that move us all forward.  That isn't a lot to ask is it?

We may write a bit more on this topic but in the meantime take a few moments to view this video and see if you can think of how it might apply to educational leadership.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Numerically Speaking, Who is the Best?

It is actually a stupid question.  Most say it is Michael Jordan.  But there are a number of ways to determine the best basketball player of all time.  For some it depends on which number you look at.  Where a player ranks in terms of a particular statistical category is the usual measure.  Scoring, rebounding, assists, simple wins and losses, game winning shots or even number of championship rings.  Some move past this and direct focus on who could change a game or wanted the ball in their hands at the end of the game. 

Kobe, James, Jordan, Russell, Chamberlain and many others enter the conversation at various points.  Experts weigh whether it is even fair to judge players from different eras against each other.  The game changed.  For that matter whether it is even fair to compare players who play different positions as their roles are different.  Guards, centers all perform different jobs.  If a guard leads your team in rebounding, you've probably got issues.   

Student and even teacher excuses  can be more plentiful
Personally while I love college basketball, I've never really enjoyed the NBA and get a bit more into the NFL.  With the advent of Fantasy Football these conversations have taken on a new dimension.  Fantasy teams mean players are valued not for talent, heart or value to the team... but for how they stack up on the tally sheet.   Numbers can mislead you and as you stare at charts of player data.  Participants in fantasy leagues neglect the big picture and only look at stats.   Yards, points per game, supersede all else in a data driven world.  They can make you think a player is good when they are not and vice versa.  Like many the Underground has found enjoyment in this diversion.  We have become especially fond of pointing out the ineptitude of other basement member's fantasy squads.    This is a big week as we play each other.  No worries, I've got him covered. Not sure that's true but what is for certain is that fantasy sports have changed the way we watch the game and how we find enjoyment in sports.  The argument is less about who is the best and more about who had the best fantasy day.  Let's jump from athletics to education. 

As you are likely aware there are significant efforts to place a metric on the effectiveness of teachers.  The "game" has changed.   We worry less about who can teach and instead who has the best scores.  Politicians and reforms are using the obvious impact of teachers have on student performance as a reason to try and rate them using data.   Unable to affect change with what studies say is among the biggest factor, poverty ,they then go to teacher quality by default.   Out of their mouths flow phrases like "every child deserves to have great teachers" and that turns into some bastardized form of accountability.  The next step is to make some metric the measure of whether or not a teacher is effective.   Too often this is connected to some sort of test.   Having a score or number then somehow legitimizes your ability and skill as a teacher.  It quantifies your impact.  For me and the rest of Virginia's teachers, forty percent of my evaluation as a professional is taken from student growth.  I am fortunate it is not directly tied to a statewide test score as this approach seems to be incentivized by Race to the Top Funds,.... yet.  It is that way now.  But I foresee the day when that is not something I will be able to say.   While I've been wrong before concrete numbers matter.

To date, I have created my student goals and begun to plan on how to implement them but I am still not quite certain what or how I will use this to show growth without being too subjective.  I am choosing one measure of student growth related to our lifelong learner standards and their ability to write.  But because I grade this work it is invariably subjective.  Which leads us to the more objective method.  Standardized tests.  Sparing readers the indignity of why they are flawed as a true measure and far from ideal when it comes to telling whether or not someone can teach, I'll just say they are as misleading as fantasy points.   In fantasy football a player's team can build a big lead and that could actually hurt their point total.  Teachers are the most significant in-school piece to student learning and success but they are not the only piece and there is much out of and in school that plays a role. There's the motivational of students, desire to learn, attendance, class size, social incentives, socio-economic level, and school size all of which top a list that researchers constantly study and debate.  

These guys have taught me a lot
Teachers matter.  I know they matter a lot.  But other things matter too.  To attempt to objectively measure why one teacher might be better than another has the potential to prove as fruitful as an argument about who is the best NBA or NFL player.  And conceivably more pointless.  How much authentic learning goes unappreciated or is even replaced with narrow result oriented instruction?  The end result of this effort and energy does little to help me improve as a teacher and frankly I feel less supported.   Am I more inclined to narrow my approach to serve my goal(s)?  I hope not.   But the best way to measure me as a teacher is to be in the room with me while I teach.  Not once, but a lot. Still... improving teachers and learning by measures such as this is just that, a fantasy.  Thus it does little to improve the quality of education for students.  Maybe we should instead focus our attention on working to support all teachers and devote resources in their service, not to figuring out who is the "best".