The Mountain and the Muhammed

30 October 2009

I am an interloper. A lifelong content person who often resisted being labeled as "techie," but has come to find herself in just such a position. What I am finding, however, is that while being a transplant provides opportunity for me to see connections between different groups, it doesn't mean that others do.

For example, Washington, like a lot of other states, is hot on the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) trail. STEM is the buzzword du jour among all sorts of stakeholders at the state level. Interestingly enough, educational technology is not included with any of the conversations. I guess they're not considered part of the big T. I think this is a mistake, but I'm not sure which group is the mountain and which is Muhammed in this situation. After all, I haven't seen content areas invited to many of the EdTech conversations.

How does this sort of stalemate end? How do we move from cliques to expertise to integrated conversations about classroom instruction?


Is It Bigger Than a Breadbox?

25 January 2009

Depending upon how you roll in the edusphere, you may have noticed that Educon 2.1 was happening this weekend. This event, hosted by Chris Lehmann's Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, is "an education conference. It is, hopefully, an innovation conference where we can come together, both in person and virtually, to discuss the future of schools. Every session will be an opportunity to discuss and debate ideas -- from the very practical to the big dreams." (Learn more on the Educon 2.1 Wiki.)

I watched the streaming video of the Sunday morning panel, fascinated to see reps from KIPP, Teach for America, and the Constructivist Consortium weigh in on what's happening with schools. Between listening, watching the "back channel" chat happening amongst other listeners, and peeking at Twitter, there was information overload to be had.

Comments from the panel included:
  • Schools are places where kids go to watch adults work.
  • Reform means schools fitting the form the kids need as opposed to the other way around.
  • We are beating kids over their heads with rifles because we can't afford the bullets. (re: NCLB Funding)
  • We should take all the worksheet teachers and put them in one school.
  • As the richest country in the world we should provide every student with a computer and a cello.
There was much head bobbing from the audience and many "Amen"s on the backchannel. My personal takeaway from all of this was simply "What next?" We know what's wrong with the system. We know the things we've tried to do to fix it. The people involved with this conference (even me, in a very remote way) are all very passionate about making schools the best we can for kids.

But what do we do to make that happen? What are the action steps? Because talking about it is no longer enough.

I worry that the people who attend these events are not the ones who have the greatest power to enact change. That is not a diss on anyone who works for change within their classroom or circle of influence. I am also incredibly jealous of anyone who was able to attend this conference. It is simply an observation that until policymakers are watching these conversations at 6:30 on a Sunday morning along with me, there will be no scaling up.

In my position, I have far more "power" than I have ever had. I merely utter the name of the agency I work for and whoever is on the other end of the phone line will jump to find the person I need to talk to or others at a lunch table will stop conversations and listen. I don't necessarily like this, but I am learning to make my peace with it. I am beginning to see how I might use my voice for change. However, even at my level, I am running into significant roadblocks. The people who can truly make things happen are so far removed (both physically and mentally) from the realities of classroom life that they refuse to consider the damage their words and actions are doing. They are not at Educon (or similar events) to listen to educators.

And so, my friends, what do we do to change this? What is our first step beyond our circle of influence? What is the answer to this first of 20+ questions about taking action?


What It Means to Make the Effort

28 December 2008

The results of a recent study of college undergraduates (n = 400):
  • If I have explained to my professor that I am trying hard, I think he/she should give me some consideration with respect to my course grade -- 66.2% agree
  • If I have completed most of the reading for a class, I deserve a B in that course -- 40.7%
  • If I have attended most of the classes for a course, I deserve at least a grade of B -- 34.1%
  • Teachers often give me lower grades than I deserve on paper assignments -- 31.5%
  • Professors who won't let me take my exams at another time because of my personal plans (e.g. a vacation) are too strict - 29.9%
  • A professor should be willing to lend me his/her course notes if I ask for them - 24.8%
  • I would think poorly of a professor who didn't respond the same day to an e-mail I sent - 23.5%
  • Professors have no right to be annoyed with me if I tend to come late to class or tend to leave early - 16.8%
  • A professor should not be annoyed with me if I receive an important call during class - 16.5%
  • A professor should be willing to meet with me at a time that works best for me, even if inconvenient for the professor - 11.2%
These results, if representative of college-age students, leave me almost speechless. They remind me of a conversation I had with a parent last year. Her son wasn't passing my class---he was rarely able to show any evidence of learning. Mom was convinced that they boy should get credit for the class because he was a nice person. In her mind, the fact that he wasn't a problem (behavior-wise) and did seat time should be enough. I don't know that I ever truly convinced her that it wasn't enough, but what I realized is that I was fighting years of the child (and parent) being rewarded for being nice. How many of this young man's teachers---and how many of the parent's teachers from years ago---had awarded time served for good behavior?

The information at the start of this post comes from an article in Canada's National Post suggesting "Entitled" Students Expect Better Grades (emphasis added).
The paper describes academic entitlement as "expectations of high marks for modest effort and demanding attitudes toward teachers."

It's a hot topic -- and source of much frustration -- among instructors, author Ellen Greenberger, a research professor of psychology and social behaviour at the University of California-Irvine, says.

"I would have trembled with fear before I suggested to some of my revered teachers that I wanted them to give me a higher grade," she says.

Ms. Greenberger's study reveals that students who are academically entitled are more likely to engage in academic cheating, exploit others, shirk hard work and display "narcissistic orientation."

She found virtually no connection between self-entitled attitudes and grades, meaning it's not just weak students trying to wheedle better marks out of their profs, and those who do so aren't reaping the benefits on their transcripts.

"It certainly suggests that these attitudes and behaviours aren't producing the desired effect," she says. "It's just making teachers crazy."

Ms. Greenberg was surprised that parenting appears to have little influence in shaping self-entitled students, with one key exception: students who say their parents often compare their achievements to siblings, cousins or friends are more likely to engage in these behaviours.

What interests me the most about the emphasized areas is how closely they relate to my ideas about some of the behavioral theory behind best practices in grading. If you're an oldtimer here, then I'm about to get into grandma territory---where you've heard the same story so many times you could tell it better yourself. But for you whippersnapper readers out there, the predominant theory about motivation in educational settings is Achievement Goal Theory. From an earlier post:

Without boring you to tears, the basic idea here is that students will pursue one of two goals within the classroom: mastery which values learning for the sake of learning or performance which values learning for the sake of external indicators. These students associate success with how their performance appears to outsiders, doing better than other kids, and achieving success with as little effort as possible. Performance goals lead to a greater amount of cheating, less cooperative learning, and students who pick the easiest tasks available (or are the first to give up when faced with difficult tasks). On the other hand, mastery goals have been linked with the development of new skills, an increased confidence in abilities, the preference for challenging work (and greater persistence in the face of difficulty), and a stronger sense of school belonging. Teachers have an enormous influence on the goal structure of a classroom. Even if kids walk in the door with a performance orientation, teachers can cause them to become focused on mastery goals.

When I read this article about entitled students, I see Performance indicators everywhere. These are students who have been conditioned to believe that the grade is the be all and end all for learning...and they will do whatever they have to for it. One might think that means that they're learning and engaging in significant study along the way---but that is not typically the case. Think about the responses to the survey...the sheer number of students who believe they deserve a B for showing up most of the time or trying hard.

What do we do about these sorts of values, assuming we don't like them? Personally, I think that schools need to take a long hard look at the messages they send students and parents. Are we talking about grades...or are we talking about learning? Do we set up policies and practices that serve to entrain the higher priority on concept mastery...or are seat time and smiles enough? I believe that we can get students and parents to focus their attention on learning if we set those examples. When I read pieces in the New York Times commenting on America's need to reboot, I feel like there is a connection to schools---our entitled society is not only a product of them, it models and encourages their development in our youngsters. Hedgetoad points out that

We aren't inspiring people who want to create. We're producing people who want to be famous and rich. A generation of would-be lottery winners. Not for creating something, but just for being something. I've had several would be famous hip-hop artists in my classes, but none of them want to put any work in actually writing anything. I remember one former student who swore he would be a writer as a job, but couldn't write a complete sentence. And nearly punched the luckless teacher who attempted to point this out. I could go on and on with the stories of student who expected that whatever they wanted would eventually fall into their laps with no effort on their part. Even so-called 'fun' assignments show little effort and generally end up as not much more than coloring pages glued to a poster board.

In reading the blogs of others, I can see educators fighting the same apathy and I can see people finding moments of brilliance. What kind of shift do I need to start to get more moments of brilliance and less apathy? How can my students be inspired to want to learn?
It takes all of us. It means that we as a society have to reflect on both the hidden and overt messages we are giving kids. And it means that we have to change those. We can't say that we value intelligent and creative people---and then set up the rules for school in ways that don't support this. We can't shake our heads and say "Kids these days." as if they are all in some sort of phase that they can grow out of. We created the playing field and we have the responsibility for making things better---not necessarily easier. I hope that we make efforts to do so.

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A Brave New World

26 December 2008

In a standards-based educational system, do grade levels really matter? A school district in Colorado has decided the answer is "No." and beginning next year, there will be no more traditional k-12 system.

A school district in Westminster struggling with declining enrollment and falling test scores will try something revolutionary next year that many say never has been accomplished in the Lower 48.

Adams 50 will eliminate grade levels and instead group students based on what they know, allowing them to advance to the next level after they have proved proficiency.

"If they can pull this off, it will be a lighthouse for America's challenged school districts," said Richard DeLorenzo, the consultant who implemented a standards-based model in Alaska and is working with Adams 50. "It will change the face of American education."

A district of 10,000 students and 21 schools, Adams 50 serves a working-class suburb north of Denver. Seventy-two percent of its students are poor enough for federal meal benefits, two-thirds are Latino, and 38 percent still are learning English.

Two years ago the district was put on academic watch because of achievement troubles; fewer than 60 percent of students graduate on time.

"What we are doing right now is not working," said Superintendent Roberta Selleck, who was hired in 2006 to reform the district. "We think this will be huge."

The new system will have 10 levels instead of the traditional kindergarten through 12th grade model.

Students will be tested this spring to determine their proficiency in reading, writing and math, and will be grouped next year with peers who are learning at the same level.

Next school year, the system starts with students now classified as kindergartners through eighth-graders and will expand into high school one year at a time.

"In a standards-based system, time becomes the variable and learning is the constant," Selleck said. "When a kid can demonstrate proficiency of a standard, they move on. There is nothing magical about a quarter, semester or the end of school. That becomes blurred. Learning becomes much more 24-7."

There's much more to read in the whole article from the Denver Post. I have to admit, I'm rather fascinated with the whole idea. It looks like standards-based grading practices will be used and mastery will be the goal. It's a bit buried in the piece, but Robert Marzano is consulting on this project---and a district could do worse than having him guide things along.

Still, if I may say so, this is one ballsy school district.

I would very much be interested to learn what the district will do with "outlier" students. I'm assuming that just because a 15-year old student is working at a 3rd grade level doesn't mean you put them with 9-year olds---you find the other 15-year olds who are far below their peers and group them that way. What happens to electives? Transcripts for college? Do kids only get the one test a year to determine placement---or is there some way teachers can have kids collect evidence of learning for a broader method of determining level? Would an ELL kid get to "skip" some levels once their language skills allow them to demonstrate the subject matter proficiency they may have had all along? What supports are in place for teachers? Parents?

While I doubt that this sort of model will become the norm in coming years, if it is successful, I wouldn't be surprised to see it adopted by others. I hope we learn a lot along the way.

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It's About Time

12 December 2008

Dan Meyer recently posted about the various sessions he attended at a conference. In the last one, he reveals a comment about why this recent learning experience was better:

As educators, the stakes are too high and the time constraints too stringent to settle for anything less than our best efforts, even if hearing that we shouldn’t lecture from bulleted slides for an hour is painful.

Oddly enough, I had just been preaching this message to a group of staff developers. First of all, time is too precious to waste either on bad classroom lessons for kids or poor professional development for educators. As teacher leaders, we must know best practices for all of these areas and be able to walk our talk. There is no time to waste with hit-and-miss ideas about what you think will work. Know what works and do it.

In addition to Dan's observations, I found that I had starred a post from the Principal's Page about poor presentations at conventions: You Can't Just Hand a Microphone to Anybody.
It’s just that they presented the same information I have heard over and over for the last few years.

Our students are farther advanced in technology than adults. Educators should allow cell phones in schools because they are mini-computers. We should use Skype because it is free (we do and yes it is). Schools need to be proactive, not reactive to changes in technology.

I get it.

Enough already.

I need tips or strategies to implement technology and not the same old rehashed PowerPoint presentation with 187 slides (by the way… I can read, so you don’t have to pronounce every word on every single slide for me).

If I seem angry that is because I am (see: not sleeping in own bed and haven’t had a decent cookie in days not to mention the dodging of so many PowerPoint bullets).

I know we are falling behind with technology in schools, but now I am convinced we may be falling behind in presenters.

Just because someone is willing to talk into a microphone doesn’t mean we should allow them (see: President George Bush… let the emails from North Dakota Republicans commence…).

Not everyone talking into a microphone is an expert.
And there was an interesting conversation on Twitter yesterday, too, about how presenters need to be more than just spewing rah-rah ideas. Schools have real problems. We need people up there who have real solutions. I don't care what Mick Jagger thinks. Time is not on our side.

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Rage Against the Machine

16 November 2008

My hunch is that every subject area (math, reading, science...) has its own infrastructure in terms of special interest groups. There are, of course, schools; but there are also parent groups, business interests, publishers of instructional materials, test-writers, professional organizations, and so on. The composition of the mob can vary---as can where the ultimate power lies---but there is no getting away from the sad truth that outside the safe confines of the classroom walls, education is a very political business.

I, however, am not a very political sort of animal.

I worry that while we say we are about leading change in science education, that the same voices keep being invited to the table---and therefore, the message is also the same. Not very changey, is it? And yet, if you appear to slight the establishment by not including them in various conversations, this can also be a danger. So, how do you get new ideas and broader participation without the old school turning against you?

I'm thinking that there has to be some way to honor the regular contributors---perhaps ask for their "help" or participation with some things while bringing in others for different meetings? Do we slowly introduce new to the old---adding one or two new voices to the entrenched PTB? I just keep thinking that as long as we continue to conduct business as usual, we're going to get the same old results. How do you nicely tell the old guard that they've had their opportunity, and "Thanks, but no thanks" for their continuing offers...that we're going to go in a new direction? Is there a diplomatic way to rage against the machine?

Non-Sequitor P.S. I haven't been to a National Science Teachers' Association convention (regional or national) in a few years, but there is one in Portland this week. Are you going, too? Drop me a line if you're interested in getting together.


The Blog, It Is A'Changin'

06 August 2008

Sometimes when I toodle around the edusphere, I feel positively ancient. My little corner of this on-line world is not quite four years old and it has seen a lot of change in that time---not just in my own life as a professional, but in the community in general. I am delighted to find new writers...and grieve the fallen bloggers among us. Oh, how I miss Graycie and Mr. Lawrence. Ms. Frizzle has moved on to new career adventures. I hope you all are well and happy.

I am certainly not ready to hang up my blogging shoes, but I have to admit that my focus has really had some major adjustments. I went from being in the classroom 80% of the 20% of the none of the half time. I've tackled elementary science, new to the profession teachers, an EdD, and delving into grading/motivation. I've learned how to make learning meaningful for adults as well as first graders. I got to both attend and present at conferences. As someone who is more interested in the journey than the destination, this has been a wonderful time in my life.

But change is coming again---good change for me. After twelve years in one spot, I have tendered my resignation. The school district is going down paths that I cannot follow. It has been noted by many that "all of the good ones are leaving." I've seen the people I respect the most already make their way to greener pastures, and it is now my turn. It makes me sad that we are having to abandon something we love and the students we've cared for to leadership (both administrative and union) which has no interest in doing the right thing, let alone the integrity to carry it through. The supe is fond of saying that "You're either on the bus, or you're not." which is oddly reminiscent of others I can't identify with. I've made my choice, as have many others I know. My friends who have already emigrated remark at how much more enlightened other districts and programs are. They have not found Utopia, only relief. This used to be an amazing place to work. Perhaps it will be again, someday. I hate to think of exactly how derelict it will become in the meantime...but I can do no more here.

As for me, I have a new job and a wonderful future. I have a very big job working with the state---a job I'm not sure that any mere mortal can actually do and do well. But I will try. And starting next week, I will launch myself into all sorts of new experiences and start growing as a professional in ways that I would never have anticipated when I started my career. This old dog is going to have to learn all kinds of new tricks.

I'm not sure what this will mean for this space. I do plan to continue blogging, but there will be a lot about my work that I won't be able to share. (My hunch is that it would make for very dry reading, anyway.) Now that I will be away from a school, I think it's more important than ever that I stay connected to the conversations happening around the edusphere. I need to keep tuned into what is happening with teachers---and most importantly, kids. I can't be effective as a leader if I am removed from all of that. My hope is that my transition will be good fodder for talking about how to make large scale change happen...that I can make the legislation to classroom process more transparent (although it's doubtful I will be able to make it be logical)...and that having this role will provide a different kind of perspective and voice in the edusphere. I don't know of any edubloggers who do the kind of work I will be doing.

Hang in there with me. The blog may be a'changin'.

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04 August 2008

I had an administrator ask me last week how I was able to make such dramatic changes in my grading practices. The question came from someone who is wanting to guide these sorts of changes in her own staff---and, perhaps, has already tried. It's one thing to understand that change can be painfully slow. It's quite another to be faced with staff who don't change at all. She was looking for a catalyst. Maybe in listening to my own story she would find a nugget to use with others. I don't think that I was of great help, but the question has made for some nice reflection.

In terms of grading, what I said was that until a few years ago, I wasn't even aware that there were alternatives. I only had one kind of system used with me during my own schooling. Grading was not something that was discussed during my teacher education courses. And I have yet to have any formal professional development offered to me regarding grading practices. We talk about instruction a lot. We even talk about assessment. Evaluation, however, never seems to come up. I suppose that sounds silly---never to even question the way grading is done. Bertrand Russell said that "In all affairs, it's a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted." While I can be certainly be accused of having some sense of intellectual curiosity about teaching...I never did about grading. How many experienced teachers would say the same, I wonder?

I told the administrator that when I did have the opportunity to do some reading, thinking, and chatting with colleagues, what I found was that these practices were a good match for my own philosophy about the classroom---that what happens there should be about kids. I was a traditional grader for most of my career, but to her, it appeared that this was something that was always part of my teaching life. I think this was because best practices in grading are so congruent with what I believe about education. When I finally stumbled upon them, the only intelligent response was "Duh."

The level of cognitive dissonance around grading practices is jet engine in scale for most teachers. It is too noisy to comprehend. I've seen several who take a look at things and can't talk about it for awhile...and still others who understand what they should do, but can't take that final plunge. They inch toward the edge, making small changes as they go---no more zeros, only considering summative information, and so on. But the full meal deal is too frightening a prospect for them. I don't have an answer for this. Maybe it's okay to go with small changes. Or perhaps we as professionals need to shout "Cannonball!" and just dive into the deep end, pulling our colleagues along with us.

In the end, I didn't know to how to steer the administrator. On one hand, I think she is well within her rights to insist that best practices be used---as long as she is willing to support that with intensive professional development and other help. I don't want to go to a doctor or other professional who justifies doing something the same way as was done 100 years ago for no other reason than "That's how I've always done it." I think our children at all grade levels deserve evaluation of their learning based on a reason better than "That's how my work was graded when I was in school." Using best practices doesn't devalue a teacher's professional judgment---that is still going to be a large part of evaluation. Instead, we can be assured that we are doing the right thing for our students. Jump on in, teachers and admins, to the standards-based grading pool. Take off the water wings. I know you can swim.

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Five Things I Wish Ed Policymakers Understood

01 August 2008

Nancy, the always delightful Teacher in a Strange Land, has offered up a meme concerning the five things educators wish policymakers understood about the public school system. I feel honoured to be tagged by the first group she named for the meme: Stories from School: Practice Meets Policy. Besides, we Washington edubloggers have to stick together.

And with that, here we go...
  • Change is slow. Perhaps we all wish that it weren't, but the reality is that just because legislation is passed one day doesn't mean schools can implement it the next day. There are always discussions of who will do the work, how resources will be made available (and which will be taken away in order to make time for the new), responsibilities for accountability measures, and more. Meanwhile, we're not working in a vacuum. When we change one variable, it impacts everything else in a school community---and not always for the best.
  • Along these lines, don't pass any legislation that doesn't have specific funding sources attached. If you want to require that schools fulfill certain obligations, then you need to provide the dollars to do so. Most districts are already at the breaking point trying to fulfill all of the various mandates. They should not be forced to choose between providing a school band program and buying books for classrooms.
  • It may be that policymakers don't realize the totality of the financial strain they place on schools. I think this is because they don't take time to look at the big picture. What are all of the pieces of legislation schools are trying to manage? What new ones are you trying to pile on top this time around? Take a step back and look at all that schools are supposed to do. Consider SPED, transportation issues, technology needs, standards and assessments, fine arts, nurses, and so forth. If you are going to add something to the plate, think about what you might take away. The various committees and groups need to talk to one another. Don't try to push through a change in the law based on one letter from a constituent or news event. Be holistic in your approach.
  • If you really want to change what happens in the classroom, you have to change the instruction. Changing graduation requirements for kids isn't going to get you there. Invest in high quality professional development, such as instructional coaches or other job-embedded support. We might not be able to get a superstar teacher in every classroom, but we can do more to make teachers effective.
  • It is time to do away with closed shops/forced unionism. While these laws may have originally been written as a protection for teachers and working conditions, they have resulted in creating places for poor teachers to hide. Unions protect the lowest common denominator in our schools. Our children deserve better than that.
I believe in standards-based education. I believe that all children deserve access to a rigorous curriculum---whatever that may mean for the individual student. And I believe that we can make social change happen. In order to do that, however, policymakers are going to have to engage in some learning of their own about what day-to-day operations in schools are really like.

This is a meme where anyone can play. So, please do join in if you would like. I am going to specifically reach out beyond my state's borders to
  • Clix at Epic Adventures Are Often Uncomfortable. Her east coast perspective can balance out us westerners.
  • Athena from Texas. She can chime in from the south (and from a small town).
  • Mr. McNamar from The Daily Grind. He's a former Washingtonian, but is now ensconced elsewhere. As he spent the last year dealing in contrasts, I'll bet he has a worldly view to share.
  • I would love to hear from someone who works with the pre-school or primary crowd as their experiences serve as forecasts for the rest of us. Mrs. Sommerville, are you interested? Elbows, Knees, and Dreams? Organized Chaos? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller?
  • Finally, I'd like to see some administrative input. Perhaps one or more at LeaderTalk would be willing to chime in? Stories from School did some nice modeling on group blogging in this area.
What do you think? What should our policymakers understand about education before constructing legislation?

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Blissless Ignorance

26 July 2008

Late last night, Chris Lehmann posed the following idea on Twitter: Question on my mind: How can you demand that people to improve if you don't improve the circumstances of their life / work / etc?

My response:
Perhaps "demand" isn't the right road? Perhaps we inspire or support or model?

I agree completely. So why do we see so little of that in today's educational landscape? Especially in urban settings?

I think we do model another "reality," but may be unwilling to accept that many are happy as they are.

Regardless of the late hour, I couldn't quite let the idea alone. (I really liked Chris' original question and hope that he makes a post of his own about this---it's good stuff to think about.) Do we (educators) assume that because parents and children are living on wages made at McDonald's and Wal-Mart (and/or on government assistance) they aren't happy with their lives? Is it because we don't think we would be?

I like to think that standards-based reform is about equity of opportunity. Not everyone needs or wants to go to college, but perhaps not everyone wants to spend the rest of their days restocking items at K-Mart, either. In working to ensure that every child has mastered the "basic" educational background, we are trying to keep as many pathways as possible open to children. It is not that after years of working a minimum wage job that someone can't earn a college degree, but I think that it becomes more difficult with time.

I am wondering if we forget the time involved with generational change. I have had a few students over the years who have said that they were to be the first ones in their families to graduate from high school. An awesome thing, to be sure, but also a bit sad---how can it be the 21st century and some families can't claim to have a high school diploma among the lot of them? For how many of us did it take a generation (or more) beyond that to find the first college graduate? Master's degree candidate? We now expect that all of our kids will be "college ready," but is this how cultural change happens? Can we "demand," as Chris originally posed, our ideas of improvements be taken on by families?

And how does the staggering dropout rate play into this?

I was thinking about a primary aged student this year who was so excited because he had just taken his first ride in a mini-van. Mind you, he had gotten this ride from CPS because mom had died a year ago and now dad had broken some laws and was going to in jail for a good long while. This is not a story about the resiliency of children so much as it is a point of interest about perspective. The child had something wonderful happen (from his perspective) and my initial reaction wasn't one of support, but one of pity because the standard of happiness was so "low" in my opinion. Who am I to judge, however? If riding in a mini-van is the most awesome thing ever, why not help the kid celebrate? Later, perhaps I could share a story of my own. And still later, provide other "firsts" for the student to experience---first chapter book read, first science project awarded, first trip to visit a college campus.

All that can happen for now is to provide opportunities and to help students be aware of what choices they can have. It should be up to them what they ultimately do and how much happiness they find---not whether or not they fit our conventions of what an enlightened life contains.

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The Edge of Your Rut Is Not the Horizon

01 June 2008

I was reading an article asking "Can you become a creature of new habits?" from the New York Times. My answer to the title was "I'm least in some areas of life."
All of us work through problems in ways of which we’re unawares. Researchers in the late 1960s discovered that humans are born with the capacity to approach challenges in four primary ways: analytically, procedurally, relationally (or collaboratively) and innovatively. At puberty, however, the brain shuts down half of that capacity, preserving only those modes of thought that have seemed most valuable during the first decade or so of life...

Ms. Ryan and Ms. Markova have found what they call three zones of existence: comfort, stretch and stress. Comfort is the realm of existing habit. Stress occurs when a challenge is so far beyond current experience as to be overwhelming. It’s that stretch zone in the middle — activities that feel a bit awkward and unfamiliar — where true change occurs.
While I can't claim to be adventurous in all areas of my life, I do find that I am willing to "stretch" professionally. The William Wordsworth quote which kicks off the article seems to highlight the frustrations I have with most of my peers (and groupthink at large within the district): "Not choice, but habit, rules the unreflecting herd."

So, what do we do about that? How do we help our peers move from a comfort zone to a stretch zone...without stressing them? What are the most important areas for this? Technology? Grading? Instruction?

And for kids? If their brains are going to "pick two by puberty," which ones do we want most deeply ingrained? The article suggests that the current standards-based climate emphasizes the first two...but I'm thinking that one from the first pair and one from the second pair might be more valuable. In truth, I like the second pair (collaboration, innovation) best; but having worked with a few people who fit that description, I can say that it's frustrating. You never actually get to a point where you can make actual plans and figure out the details. Mind you, all of the ways of forming habits are available throughout a lifetime---but they are not equally relied upon. As teachers, which do we value most in our students?

You cannot have innovation, unless you are willing and able to move through the unknown and go from curiosity to wonder. How do you help yourself make that move?

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Turning It Around

17 February 2008

What are the options for influencing positive change in failing schools? If you're Chicago, the options include a complete housecleaning: pink slip the principal and staff, hire new people, as well as "other key elements [such as] added time for teachers to plan and collaborate, longer school days or school years, clustering turnaround schools so they can learn from one another, local authority over budget and curricula, and support for teachers and administrators from outside the school, such as the district or an outside group." These schools are referred to as Turnaround Schools. Their appearance is recent---and results uncertain.

As you might imagine, this kind of drastic change for a school is unpopular with the teachers' union and is also a bit nervewracking for parents. Perhaps this amount of change is just too radical in nature. As for me, the outsider looking in, I like the idea. Why? It takes a long time to reculture a school---years and years. In the meantime, any number of children continue to be poorly served. A new staff with a new vision, training, and expectations is an opportunity to take a building in a new direction in a hurry.

But what about the neighbourhood and families? They're not going to change. High poverty areas will not suddenly become middle-class. Students with significant issues on the home front are still going to have those issues. My personal response to that is that as educators, we have to do our best with the aspects of a child's life over which we do have influence and control. We might not be able to keep mom from bringing a new man home every evening...or dad from spending money on booze and cigarettes as opposed to new shoes for the child; but, for 8 - 10 hours a day, we can provide a safe and caring learning environment for a child. It has to be the best we can make it. The same school staff doing the same things is not going to make an impact.

I'm sure I'm not the only one who will be watching Chicago's experiment progress. How many other cities are in need of significant solutions to school problems? While we may only see high profile (read: urban) examples of this, I do wonder if this type of approach will be considered in smaller towns. Will a teacher who has turned his/her nose up at the standards in favour of sticking with the same old, same old finally realize that unemployment is around the corner? Will unions stop protecting the poorest performing teachers in order for schools to move toward building successful staffs before a district sends them all packing? Or will "That can't happen here" prevail? Chicago's efforts may well determine many of these answers for the rest of us.

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Will 2008 Be Different?

21 December 2007

As the calendar year wound down this week, various conversations with teachers made me wonder "Will 2008 be any different?"

  • I know a teacher who is just fantastic in the classroom. It's someone who constantly strives to improve instruction, tracks information on students, seeks out professional growth opportunities...and has hit a wall in terms of collaboration. No one wants to talk about what works for kids---only what's convenient for teachers. In order to continue to have some passion for work, this teacher is going to have to find an environment that supports that. This is not the first time someone has "outgrown" that particular school. How many more times will this happen before anyone in a leadership capacity notices that the culture there doesn't allow the best teachers to be retained?
  • Another related discussion centered around "bad" teachers. If it isn't any secret as to who isn't getting it done in the classroom, why don't we get them out of there? Why do we move them around to different grades or schools...put children who have parents who won't complain about poor teaching into seats...and so on?
  • And last of all, if schools and districts which are in the last step of school improvement sanctions are able to have school-wide structures for common formative assessments, targeted instruction toward the standards, and reporting structures which enable high-quality analysis of student progress without union interference, why can't districts which are only at the start of the school improvement process? When will teacher unions wake up and realize that what happens in a classroom is about kids---and that it in the best interests of their membership to support best practices and accountability?
Sadly enough, I don't think 2008 is going to be the year when we will see any of these questions answered other than "Not this year."

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Familiarity Breeds Isolation

22 September 2007

A teacher asked me an interesting question this week. He wondered if the willingness to collaborate with peers decreases with years of experience in the classroom. Those first few years, you need all the help you can get. You reach out to others, grab onto any piece of quality curriculum you can steal as if it were a life raft, and do what you can to keep growing in your profession. At some point, however, you have the basics under your belt and have a certain amount of comfort in doing what you do. It grows into an attitude of "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Shutting your classroom door to the outside world becomes the norm.

It's an interesting point to ponder. In my experience, I would say that secondary teachers are more prone to becoming independent contractors than their elementary peers. I admit that it's easy enough to do. There's quite the wolfpack baying at the doors of the classroom: concerns from admin, parent issues, community needs, legislative mandates, and more. Why not give in to the temptation to just close one's door and stick with what you know?

I see a couple of problems with this. First of all, the teachers I know who strike this particular attitude also have a good number of unsuccessful students. It doesn't mean that what happens in their classrooms is bad teaching, but it also isn't reaching every kid who needs to learn. I would think that they'd want to expand their repertoire a bit to support children. The second impact is far more problematic in my mind: there are always some teachers who crave a collaborative environment and are being stifled or driven from the profession due to the frustrating lack of community.

I think that those teachers who do maintain that sense of intellectual curiosity for the classroom over the span of their careers are also those who look for opportunities outside of the classroom at one point or another. Some move to administration. Others find different types of leadership opportunities. I believe that their goals are to find ways to make positive change happen and to build the kinds of places where familiarity breeds neither contempt, nor isolation, but real learning for teachers and students.

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We Never Talk Anymore

29 March 2007

I spent some time the last two days at an assessment conference. I learned some valuable things, but not just from the presenters. Some of the things admins from my district did (or in one case, didn't) say gave me a lot of pause for thought. If anything, it really highlighted for me all of the disconnect in the district.

  • Principals don't seem to think that they have the power or ability to get rid of bad (i.e. ineffectual) teachers. My assumption has always been that they do, but that taking this on is more work than it's worth. It means a ton of documentation, ongoing Union hassles, and as one put it, political suicide. I'm not thinking that swinging the pendulum over to the "hire and fire at will" power for principals, but if admins can't help kids by getting the worst teachers out of the classrooms, who can? One of the admins thought that peer observation protocols would be the avenue for this. I don't see that happening. Teachers are not evaluators of other teachers (at least not publickly). There's no authority there. Meanwhile, why would an admin ask a great teacher to throw herself under the bus when he's already admitted that such things are political suicide?
  • There are too many expectations of admins (including my own). Time is a precious commodity. We in Curriculum would do well to keep the words of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (1471-1530) more in the forefront of our minds: Be very very careful what you put into that head, because you will never ever get it out. In particular, if we share tools and strategies with admins, we need to remember that at least some of them will latch onto these ideas like lifesavers. Not all of these ideas are good...and not all of the people who convey them understand the power of their role. Ouch.
  • While we understand that in the classroom that only a small fraction of kids are going to get what we're teaching the first or second time around, we don't apply that concept to working with adults. There is an underlying assumption that because an e-mail was sent, a mention of something occurred at a meeting, or information was presented in another format, that everyone retains every morsel of this. Beyond that, there is this indignation (I'm definitely including myself with all of this, by the way) when all of the parties involved don't remember things in an identical manner. An admin was saying today that Curriculum has no idea what his staff needs...we never ask. And yet, we just completed a major survey to find out and have several groups of teachers providing feedback to us on an ongoing basis. Was the survey completely forgotten, I wondered? Or was it that the information was returned in a way that he didn't recognize---perhaps things didn't look like he thought they should?
There are other examples I could give from the last two days, but the heart of the matter is that we're all misunderstood in one way or another. I don't know how to fix it other than many more opportunities to cuss and discuss the issues---which takes a lot of time that no one seems to have. Yet, until we each all have some level of common understanding about what is happening in our schools, no meaningful change is going to occur. It feels overwhelming in the face of the continued expectations placed on schools, but we have to figure out a way to make it happen.

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Nothing Endures But Change

19 March 2007

While there's no reason why Heraclitus would have had NCLB in mind when he wrote the quote I've used for today's header, I'm sure that ancient Greece was no less full of sturm und drang than the world we live in. Education and politics have been bedmates for a long time. We in the public schools might wish that they would go to couple's counseling once in awhile; however, it looks unlikely.

Personally, I don't mind a bit of change. What I do mind is that "we" don't seem to leave any initiative in place long enough to really examine what the effects are. There's always the bigger better thing on the horizon. By "we," I mean both educators and politicians. There is plenty of guilt to go around for both, but today, I'm going to point the finger (you can guess which one) at the political side of things.

The National Science Teachers' Association (NSTA) sent out this update this afternoon:

More than 50 Republican members have signed on to a bill, the Academic Partnerships Lead Us to Success Act of 2007 (A-PLUS Act), that would allow states and districts more flexibility in implementing state-based initiatives using federal education funding. If passed, this legislation would fundamentally alter the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act.

The A-PLUS Act would allow states to "opt out" of NCLB if it held a referendum or if two out of three state entities---the governor, the state legislateion, and the state's highest-elected education official---decided the state could no longer meet the law's accountability mandates. States that elect to opt-out would still get federal funding and could combine funds from certain education programs into one funding system. They would be freed from the requirements of each federal education program and could use the funds to advance their initiatives.

You can read more in a Washington Post article, a detailed description on the NSTA website, or a section-by-section summary provided by NSTA. This is certainly not a change which would be limited to science---so go poke around for yourself and see how things sit. I like the idea of more flexibility, but I worry that the ability to opt-out may mean that those groups of students which have traditionally been "left behind" will be allowed to fall through the cracks again.

Within our own state, there are bills in both House and Senate which would alter our current testing in math and science to end of course assessments for algebra, geometry, and biology---all of which would be multiple choice items taken in a web-based format. I find this possible change disturbing. It is such a slap in the face to all of the work teachers and students have done to become better thinkers in math and science. Science is so much more than a set of terms in biology. It is irresponsible to send students away from high school without the tools they need to adapt in an ever-changing which includes probability, chemistry, measurement, and process skills.

Right now, there isn't a lot I can do except prepare to roll with the changes. Whether I like them or agree with them or not is really not part of anyone's considerations. I just need to endure.

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The Grand Scheme of Things

22 February 2007

I've tried to blog several times this afternoon and evening. My trouble in posting was not due to issues with Blogger (for once), but rather my difficulty in getting some clarity around the day. I really do try to write everyday. Blogging is definitely something that takes discipline, in that regard, and yet I want to make sure that posts are meaningful, too. I want the things I think about here to be more broad than just my own little sphere of influence. I hope to make some sense of my place in the Grand Scheme of Things.

I learned today that 7 of our 12 elementaries for next year will have new-to-them principals. I also found out that the person who has given heart and soul to setting up the kit center this year is on a temporary contract...and could be bumped from her job by a secretary (!) in an involuntary transfer. I discovered this afternoon that a man who can't plan his way out of a paper sack is going to be given an admin internship for next year, while a competent teacher will not. It was cemented for me today how much damage people in leadership positions can do when they have no leadership or people skills. And more.

These things are paralyzing my brain, making it hard to post. I don't like to whine here...whining accomplishes nothing and doesn't recognize or respect that everyone has travails to endure. This week, though, has just knocked me on my fanny and I'm having a hard time regaining perspective on the Grand Scheme of Things. I have to figure out what my choices are and move on from there. Tomorrow is supposed to be quiet. I have a few projects I can manage at work and perhaps things will sort themselves out in my mind as the day passes.

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Foolish Consistency

24 January 2007

Teachers who have been on the job for awhile tend to have a "wait and see" philosophy about things. It has grown out of several experiences where something old has suddenly become new again...not to mention wave after wave of reform. It seems easy to just ride out the tide and see what the next new thing will be, especially if you're not a fan of the current ideals.

Standards-based education has been around for over a decade now, and while it doesn't look like it's going away, the form it takes keeps shape shifting. Now that we have a loose grip on our state standards, it appears that there could be some rearranging of things. HB1288 was introduced, recommending that the state standards be reviewed in light of both national and international standards and any adjustments suggested by September 1, 2007. Meanwhile, the feds are also suggesting a look at some national standards. I can see some pros (does this mean the feds would have to bear all the costs for testing) and cons (we're too big of a country to have a common set of curricula) to this. I really just want legislators to leave things alone for a couple of years. I feel like the wound of education reform is never going to heal because lawmakers keep picking at it. Sheesh.

I'm a little nervous about the state direction. I cringe to think what teachers will say when they find out that all of the hard work they've put in to align their instruction with standards has to be changed yet again...not to mention all of the district monies used to buy aligned materials and so forth. Foolish consistency might be the hobgoblin of little minds, but it might also mean sustained focus in the classroom.

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Dreaming on the Job

18 January 2007

In Washington, the Office of the Superintendent for Public Instruction (OSPI) oversees certification, assessment, and other public school related programs. From what I hear, working there is the ultimate grind. It is not unusual for the state supe to call you at 11:30 at night with a project to do. You are expected to be available 24/7. This doesn't keep most of us in Curriculum from watching the job postings.

This one has captured the interest of a lot of folks: Director of Education Reinvention (Secondary). What the heck is that? The person in this role will...
  • Provide collaborative, visionary leadership for programs that provide assistance to schools. The director supervises school improvement initiatives as well as providing oversight to programs related to high school education reform, e.g. Student Learning Plans, graduation requirements, and advanced placement issues.
  • Provide direct leadership responsibility for evaluating program staff, developing program budgets, preparing, overseeing, and issuing requests for proposals and grants to schools and districts. The director will work closely and collaboratively and report directly to the Assistant Superintendent of District and School Improvement and Accountability.
  • Develop expertise in high school reform research and initiates and works collaboratively with multiple stakeholders to develop high school models for "The High Schools We Need."
(There's another job for someone to do project management.) The most attractive aspect of these jobs is that last bullet---the idea of creating new high school models is really intriguing and exciting. Here is a chance to reinvent (hence the job title), the high school concept. It gets your juices flowing. Another attractive aspect is that it would mean working with the former Boss Lady: an environment we know we can thrive in. Will anyone in my office apply for these jobs? I doubt it. It's not the right time for these particular opportunities, but it is fun to dream about them.

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The School Who Cried, "Wolf!"

11 January 2007

Every school culture is unique. It's an amalgam of leadership style in the main office, teachers new and not-so-new to the building, and an ever changing student clientele. Schools take on certain personalities. The district becomes a family that has siblings with a variety of attention-seeking behaviors.

The elementary math specialist and I just finished another round of grade level meetings. As expected, some teachers are unhappy with the new science kits. But the interesting thing is that the biggest complaints came from the same two schools. In fact, these are the same schools that whine about nearly everything that happens in and around the district. They have no ability to pick their battles, the result of which is another iteration of rage against the machine.

I told another staff member in Curriculum that if a teacher from a school that doesn't continually complain had said the same things about the science kits, I would have snapped to attention. Sadly enough, because it's the same teachers complaining about science and math curriculum, writing program and coaches, leadership issues, the new report card, and more---I tuned them out. I let them vent, but I didn't take any notes. This seems to be true for others who are their targets...which then leads to even more frustration on the teachers' part because no one is responding. I'm happy to support what I can, but at some point, it becomes their responsibility to stop crying "Wolf!" at every single thing. (Or, perhaps, we should show them the Whining Rubric and see if we can't at least move them toward the standard.) These schools are also the ones who refuse to participate on district committees or initiatives---so anything new appears even more as something done "to" them, rather than "with" them. They choose to be victims.

We need a bit of change on both sides. These schools are going to have to come to the table with more than "It's so unfair!" and from the district end, we need to look for new ways to get them engaged and involved---to give them a different sort of voice in how things work. In the meantime, these schools and teachers are going to be lost lambs---and continue to be thrown to the wolves.

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Tell Me How You Want It

04 January 2007

The Curriculum department recently did a survey to get a little input on what staff think they need in terms of professional development, as well as how they would like to receive it. We looked at the results today and there wasn't anything out of the ordinary. What did my heart the most good was that science was the number one area identified by elementary teachers as a need. Perhaps I might actually get more time and resources allotted for that.

Secondary is a bit of a mystery in some ways. They did identify areas of need---but were completely blah about all of the suggested models for delivering in-service. I have a feeling that if we went back to them and said, "We know what you don't want...tell us what you do want." that the reply would be "Leave us alone!" I think this answer would be perfectly acceptable if continuous improvement in the schools is evident...but it isn't. So, according to the survey, they want a lot of information, they just don't want to have to engage with it. I've written before about the inertia of secondary ed. Change away from that continues to be elusive and yet all kids aren't getting what they need. There isn't a culture of lifelong learning in most of the buildings. I don't know how we're going to change that, but I think we need to try.

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Out of Chaos, Comes Order

07 December 2006

These days, most of us in the district are hoping that Nietzsche was right. It's an awfully bumpy ride this year and it's just going to get rougher.

School closures will mean lots of change. How do you box up and move two entire schools? They're not all going to the same spots. Will teachers who have technology (LCD projectors, document cameras) get to have those move with them? What happens to students who have attended one school for a few years and although their school isn't closing, they will be shifted to another school due to boundary changes? If you're an administrator and Superstar 3rd Grade teacher is assigned to your you take one of your current 3rd grade teachers and reassign them? We have first grade teachers who have been teaching 1st grade for over 20 years. If they're assigned to a different grade level next year, it will be a lot like starting all over again.

How do you plan for next year when the state legislature might very well change things like graduation requirements late this spring. Will we still run math lab classes for kids who don't pass the WASL? If we will be funded for full day kindergarten, how do we factor that into school closure? What about all of the district initiatives in progress at the moment...will everything be put on hold and kept in limbo next year while things settle down? (Might mean my job is not quite so full.) And the feds? NCLB is up for reauthorization.

At the moment, Boss Lady 2.0 is pushing us hard to get all of our ducks in a row regarding our program. Massive budget cuts are on the way...changes to schools mean we'll need to create new support systems for teachers with fewer resources. We'll be in a reactionary mode to anything legislatures toss our way instead of being more proactive about student learning.

Here's hoping that a butterfly is now flapping its wings in an Amazon forest, setting in motion a series of events to bring a bit of calm to our district.

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Information Overload

05 December 2006

I can get my eyes and hands on a lot of information---moreso than other teachers simply because of the nature of my job. This can be a very handy thing when you need to look for district trends, get a phone call from a parent whose name is unclear in the message and needs you to call her back, or have to bring together various pieces for a presentation to the school board. Other times, it's just a burden.

We aren't being allowed to hire for the part time position at the science kit center (we do have a full-year sub). The reason is that someone in my building is going to lose her job---at least, the particular position she has---and "they" anticipate moving her into the science kit center. The only problem with this? The person in question doesn't know. This really seems wrong to me that others of us know and she doesn't. I don't know if there's anything I can do about it. I don't think I should tell the gal...what if the district finds money to keep funding her job? Or chooses to move her to another role and not the kit center? It's not my place to interfere and yet by being given this information, it has partly become my business.

Meanwhile, someone in my department is going to get a very rude awakening about various things. The Boss Lady 2.0 isn't going to pull her aside for a private critical conversation. Instead, it will happen in a meeting with all of us. Again, this just seems wrong to me. I wonder what would happen if some of us tried to visit with her first. We haven't done this because, again, it's not our place. Boss Lady 2.0 is the admin. She is the one who needs to keep all of us in line, but a public forum doesn't seem like the most ethical or sensitive way to do so.

What's a goddess to do?


Is Our Legislators Learning?

19 November 2006

Some of my fellow edubloggers here in Washington have already posted a thing or two about the new Washington Learns report. For those of you living elsewhere, Washington Learns was an initiative by our governor to take a deep look at the educational system in this state. The report is meant to prod the legislature into making a commitment to providing a quality/world-class system here in Washington.

In general, there are some good suggestions here. Every dollar spent for early childhood education saves eight dollars that would be spent for remediation later. It's a no brainer that the Washington Learns group suggests phasing in full-day kindergarten and reducing class sizes k-3. A first grade teacher in my district referred to her role as one of "baking the cake." She meant that if teachers at the primary levels didn't create a basic foundation, no "icing" could be added in later grades.

Other things in the report are a bit scary. As much as I like the idea of supporting high quality math and science education, this part bothers me (emphasis added):
  • By December 2007, the State Board of Education will adopt international performance standards for math and science benchmarked to the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) or the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and will adopt high school graduation requirements aligned with those standards.
  • By July 2008 for math and by July 2009 for science, the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction and the State Board of Education will identify no more than three curricula for elementary, middle and high school, along with diagnostic and other materials that are aligned with the new standards.
  • By December 2007, the State Board of Education will incorporate into their accountability plan the requirement that schools must use one of the state curricula, with exceptions granted by waiver from the State Board of Education for districts that demonstrate outstanding student performance in math and science.
Um...are we really going throw out the state standards that we've developed over the last ten years? The same ones that the WASL is aligned to...not to mention all of the districts who have developed alignments to those standards? I don't mind a state approved list of curricula, but only three? This seems quite limited. Meanwhile, what happens to districts like ours which just spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on new math and science materials...let alone little districts which can afford change even less than we can? Some publishers out there are vicious lobbyists. How will we ensure that the selection process for these materials doesn't line the pockets of those with flash instead of substance?

Mind you, none of the items listed above has the caveat that most of the things in the report do: "Subject to appropriations..." This means that the legislature isn't going to consider subsidizing or supplying these materials, once they are chosen.

Some people in my district aren't too concerned about the report simply because of all of the items that the legislature would have to find a way to fund (and in a hurry). I suppose that a "wait and see" attitude is called for. The legislature won't convene until early next year and their extended session could well last into the summer. Whatever things happen as a result of this report will likely not occur according to the suggested timeline. Legislators may not choose to accept all of the report. Their ideas about what learning should look like in Washington could be more broad.

In the meantime, I'm off to have a closer look at the TIMSS and PISA benchmarks. I haven't the heart to tell teachers that it's possible we could be starting all over again.

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The Other Shoe

07 November 2006

We're waiting for an awful lot of shoes to drop around here. Fate must be a millipede.

The big one around here is the Superintendent's recommendation to the Board regarding school closures. That happens tomorrow evening. The safe bet is two schools on the list, but I like the dark horse: three elementaries. I taught a fifth grade class today at the school which would most likely be number 3 on the list. Kids were busy and happy. Teachers seem secure. I wish them well but budget and enrollment indicate that if they survive a cut this year that it will only be a temporary reprieve. I don't think the district is going to want to go through all of this multiple times. They might as well make deep cuts and redraw lines just once.

Most of us in Curriculum are still waiting for the Come to Jesus meeting, although it now looks like it's scheduled for Thursday. The person in charge of literacy here knows no bounds. This is not entirely her fault, as the previous Boss Lady did quite a bit of enabling. But there now seems to be enough critical mass and abuse of resources that the current Boss Lady is ready to make some changes. It's too much to go into at the moment. I'm not gleeful at watching the fall of Writing in the district. I am relieved that other content areas will get attention and that teachers will no longer be expected to do poor quality assessment on this woman's orders. It does mean telling elementaries "Oops, we really shouldn't have made this plan." I don't think they'll be upset.

Will we still have jobs next year? Don't know...and won't until February or so. We teachers are starting to build our own parachutes. It's far better to make one's own luck.

Beginning teachers and mentors are starting to take off. I spend a lot of time feeling guilty about not being out with the newbies more, but one of the mentors pointed out that I've already been in their classrooms more than the previous person. They think I'm doing a lot more positive coaching than noobs have had in the past. I don't know that it's true---I just wish I could do more.

The Washington Learns report will be out on Monday. I know a lot of us around the state are holding our collective breaths to see what will be in the final version...and what the legislature will do with the information starting in January.

The budget for the kit center is fleshed out, but the numbers won't be revealed until the morning. Our coordinator has been working very hard and getting lots of freebies, but my guess is that our start-up will be more than our budget. There have just been too many surprises this year.

There's so much more going's hard to keep things straight from day to day and school to school. My focus is so split among the 16 new science curricula out and about in classrooms and the new teachers and district craziness that it's hard to sit still and complete one full task; however, all too soon, it's going to be raining shoes around here.


Closing In, Part II

27 October 2006

I went to breakfast this morning with some friends who teach at one of our elementary schools. They told me that someone had been out the day before to give them "the talk." I wasn't sure I understood. "You mean Boss Lady 2.0?" as she is planning to visit all of the elementaries. "No. We and another school are 3 and 4 on the list for closure. This was our 'heads up.' They won't tell us which school is which."

Very interesting.

It had been kicked around for some time that three elementaries might be closed. I did mention that to my friends, but it wasn't until later in the day that it hit me: Why would you tell both #3 and #4 if they both aren't seriously being looked out for closure? The district has been pretty open with the top two choices...and there has been a lot of work to keep things out in the open and rumors to a minimum. What reason could there be for stirring up two more schools?

A newspaper article in the area printed an amount close to the magic number I've been hearing: $5 million. That's the shortfall expected. (Each elementary closure = a $.75M savings.) But today, it was revealed that the number could be as high as $11M and Boss Lady 2.0 has already been warned that she will only have a "skeleton crew" in our office next year. She was away today on jury duty.

I could kid myself and think I'm "safe." Science is a core area (although not by SPED standards) and scores are horribly low across the district. One would think that the district will keep a math, a science, and a literacy person on board...that there are lots more "expendable" positions, no matter how essential we may view them.

I don't mind going back to the classroom, which is what will happen if/when my job is cut. I do think that I'll have to make doubly sure to get as much done for district science this year as I possibly can. It may very well be that in a few months, there will be no one to finish the alignments and support the teachers. Whatever we're able to create and get to schools may be the last for a very long time.

I hope the last one out of Curriculum remembers to turn off the lights. The district needs the money.

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Closing In

26 October 2006

School closures are a fact of life in this part of the country. Housing prices that are out of reach for young families coupled with smaller family sizes means that there are a lot of empty classrooms: classrooms that cost a lot of money to keep. My district currently has over 1800 seats at its elementaries that are empty this year. While no final decisions have been made (and won't be until Valentine's Day 2007), the threat of closing 2 of our 14 elementary schools is driving a lot of other things within the district. Any other changes have been put on hold for now, knowing that the stress of the closures, people changing jobs, programs being cut, and so on will be enough to deal with. There's no sense in talking about rolling out the new report card district-wide.

Seattle schools are also facing some closure issues. Theirs are quite ugly---lots of name calling and personal attacks, when in the grand scheme of things, these are not personal decisions. I can't say that if I wouldn't be upset if I was a parent in an area where the neighbourhood school was slated for closure, but I hope I wouldn't hurl racial slurs at the supe.

There are lots of articles (like this one in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer) examining the issues in Seattle and some thoughts about the supe (who is leaving in August). It does take a certain kind of leader to be able to head a school district, let alone do it well. We're very fortunate where I am. We have one who knows that "Kumbaya consensus isn't leadership at all -- it's death by a gazillion selfish interests."

The remainder of this year promises to be a bit of a wild ride, especially for those of us huddled down in Curriculum. Our jobs may very well slip away with budget cuts. Some people have already looked into retirement options...others are already in line for transfers back to the classroom...still others are training for other jobs. We can see the writing on the wall much more clearly than many in the district. If you're a music teacher in an elementary school, good luck. If you're a coach, be prepared to have fewer players---a combo of "pay to participate" and less travel funds. This place is going to be a much leaner machine in a few months.


It's Been Swell...But The Swellin's Gone Down

24 July 2006

As of May 1, here was our district student enrollment:
  • k: 713
  • 1: 847
  • 2: 843
  • 3: 908
  • 4: 883
  • 5: 968
  • 6: 893
  • 7: 972
  • 8: 1084
  • 9: 1129
  • 10: 1102
  • 11: 1019
  • 12: 979
As you can see, we have our largest numbers at the high school level, but that swell isn't going to last for very long. When you graduate 979 from the system the same year that only 713 enter, there are going to be some issues down the line. At an average class size of 25, you're already talking 10 fewer elementary teachers per grade level.

People just aren't makin' 'em like they used to. Kids, that is. Family sizes are smaller and the birth rate is slowing down. The numbers of pre-K children in the area are also much less than they were 10 years ago. That, coupled with housing prices that only retirees and/or "empty nesters" can afford doesn't make for a rosy financial forecast for the district. There really isn't much we can do about either of these things---we can only plan accordingly for smaller classes.

What will this mean? Fewer teachers for one...and fewer schools for another. Every school needs a kitchen staff, transportation, custodial and secretarial support, utilities, and more. Closing one or two schools is a significant savings. These closures do mean an impact on jobs. The district is hoping that attrition in one form or another will open up enough places for those with continuing contracts to be employed.

Things must be similar elsewhere. The district anticipates 30 new hires at the district orientation. Twenty have been hired so far---and not a single one of them is a teacher who is new to the profession. Considering that 20% of my job with the district next year is to support newly minted teachers, it's not looking like I'll have much to do. I doubt that the remaining 10 spots will all be filled by n00bs...not if there are experienced (and good) teachers being squeezed out of jobs elsewhere. This seems to be the case so far. Meanwhile, I doubt the district will be handing out any continuing contracts to new staff...and I know that HR was delighted this year to extend leaves of absence and sabbaticals for staff who were away this year because it meant fewer headaches in trying to find them spots to have upon return. It's only a temporary stay, of course. I don't think I'd want to be the last one hired in this district. You'd be dusting off the resume fairly quickly.

Anyone out there feeling swell?

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Organized Abandonment

25 June 2006

I learned some new educationese this week: organized abandonment. This is another immigrant term from the business world:

The first step for a change leader is to free up resources that are committed to maintaining things that no longer contribute to performance and no longer produce results. Maintaining yesterday is always difficult and extremely time-consuming. Maintaining yesterday always commits the institution's scarcest and most valuable resources--and above all, its ablest people--to nonresults. Yet doing anything differently--let alone innovating--always creates unexpected difficulties. It demands leadership by people of high and proven ability. And if those people are committed to maintaining yesterday, they are simply not available to create tomorrow.

The first change policy, therefore, has to be organized abandonment. The change leader puts every product, every service, every process, every market, every distribution channel, every customer, and every end use on trial for its life. And the change leader does so on a regular schedule. The question it has to ask--and ask seriously--is "If we did not do this already, would we, knowing what we now know, go into it?" If the answer is no, the reaction must not be "Let's make another study." The reaction must be "What do we do now?"

In three cases the right action is always outright abandonment:

1. When you think that the product, service, market, or process "still has a few good years of life." It is the dying products, services, markets, or processes that always demand the greatest care and effort. And we almost always overestimate how much "life" actually is left. Usually, they are not dying; they are dead.

2. When the only argument for keeping a product, service, market, or process is that "it's fully written off." To treat assets as being fully written off has its place in tax accounting, but for management the question should never be "What has it cost?" The question should be "What will it produce?"

3. When for the sake of maintaining the old and declining product, service, or process, the new and growing product, service, or process is being stunted or neglected.

For every product, service, market, or process, the change leader must also ask, "If we were to go into this now, knowing what we now know, would we go into it in the same way we are doing it now?" And that question needs to be asked about the successful products, services, markets, and processes as regularly--and as seriously--as about the unsuccessful products, services, markets, and processes.
---from Change Leaders by Peter Drucker in Inc. Magazine, June 1999

My understanding about this as it applies to education might also be called "How to Remove Outdated Responsibilities." We consistently ask teachers and principals to add items to their routine, but we never offer them ways to remove others so that the job is reasonable. We ask people to keep doing what we've done because well, we've always done it that way.

I know I'm oversimplifying things. As nice as it sounds to be able to work with people to get them to identify things to let go of, I also know that most people aren't all that excited about change, no matter what form it takes.

In the case of elementary science changes---which I have to sell to principals tomorrow---the organized abandonment is already built in. Some teachers are going to have to learn to use a new curriculum, but there will be fewer kits, a longer time to use them, less management of materials, and teacher materials that will be theirs to keep. We giveth something to their plates, but we taketh away quite a bit, too. I have already heard from several teachers that they like this plan. Principals? Not so much. They're worried about having staff angry about change (a valid concern) and that they didn't have at least a year's notice about the changes (kids can't wait...get over it, admins). But perhaps in the name of organized abandonment, I can help them see some value.

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Change Theory

27 May 2006

I've been reading a lot about theories of change as they relate to education. We have a lot of changes staring at us in my district---some of our own initiation, like the new curriculum materials; others are imposed, such as getting every child to meet the standards. Regardless of the origins, my job is (in part) to support teachers in making transitions. Teachers are people, too, of course, and are often not all that excited about doing something different.

The Concerns Based Adoption Model (CBAM) was developed in the 1970's as a way of identifying different "stages" individuals might be in during a change. The idea is that staff development must be focused at whatever stage is current---until a person's questions and needs about the change are addressed at that level, they won't move to the next aspect of the change. The stages are organized from more personal concerns at the beginning ("What will happen to me?") to a more global viewpoint.
  • Stage 0 Awareness---I'm not concerned about the new thing (e.g. books, teaching strategy, power structure in the building).
  • Stage 1: Informational---I'd like to know more about it.
  • Stage 2: Personal---How will using it affect me?
  • Stage 3: Management---I seem to be spending all of my time getting materials ready.
  • Stage 4: Consequence---How is my use affecting learners? How can I refine it to have more impact?
  • Stage 5: Collaboration---How can I relate what I am doing to what others are doing?
  • Stage 6: Refocusing---I have some ideas about something that would work even better.

As I think about moving toward using a standards-based curriculum, I have teachers across all of these stages. One of the ones I work with is annoyingly stuck in Stage 3. But now that I recognize this, I know I just need to sit down with him and spend some time talking about organizing things for this new way of teaching. He knows there are different expectations---he meets regularly with other teachers to talk about them---but nothing changes in the classroom. So, I'm planning (plotting?) now to get him to Stage 4 by the end of September.

The Southeast Educational Development Laboratory has lots of newly revised tools for using CBAM. I think that these could be very helpful as I continue to work with teachers, because until I can work with them on addressing their needs, the classroom needs of kids will also be wanting.



24 May 2006

...or "How not to be graceful."

It's no secret to regular readers here that there are changes in the wind for my district. However, when I hear/read something that is not said to be confidential and involves another person (or department), my assumption is always that the other person already knows this information.

Wrong assumption this time.

On Saturday, the Boss Lady told me that it would be "prudent" if our library services were located in the same place as the science kits and media. After all, they will be in charge of circulation.

When I mentioned this yesterday after a meeting with one of the library people, it was all brand new to her. And let me tell ya', that staff ain't too happy right now.

We met again today, and even though the Boss Lady is out of town, it turns out that the meeting planned for today was to talk to the library people about moving. So, they would have heard it anyway...and not from the Boss Lady (which is where it should have come from, I believe). Anyway, I feel bad about disrupting their little world, even if that wasn't my intention. I just couldn't imagine that the Boss Lady would say that they could be moving without at least discussing it with them first.

The Boss Lady's Gal Friday said that the Boss Lady had tried to have the conversation in her own way, but the library people didn't pick up on things. I guess she should have been more obvious with her thinking.

Too late now. The cat's outa the bag...and not in the most hospitable fashion. But we'll all have to make the most of things as they are. There are going to be changes for all of us. We can either be proactive and help with the planning or just let it roll over us.

Where is that cheese, anyhow?


Other Duties, As Assigned

20 May 2006

Ah...the phrase most educators dread: "...other duties, as assigned." It's kind of the escape clause in the contract for the employer, although it certainly doesn't give them free rein on your role.

It is Saturday, but the Boss Lady is at work and her e-mails have me scratching my head a bit. Will I be doing the mentor program...or not? Will I be running the science kit center? And apparently I'm being moved to another part of the building...instead of up to the center. It's all sounding a bit odd. That coupled with the other various bombshells dropped yesterday should make for an interesting week of gossip while the Boss Lady is on holiday next week.

Considering that I don't have an official job description now, "other duties, as assigned" is looking like it's going to be my main thing next year.

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16 May 2006

One of the things I miss about teaching junior high is that the school year would gently roll to a close. High school---and now Curriculum---are not like that at all. It's a scramble to the finish line. Between elementary science, secondary science, as summer seminar commitments, my plate feels a little full these days.

I did spend a couple of hours this morning with our current mentor program coordinator. I have a much broader sense of what those duties will entail---and how that will be one more ball to keep in the air next year. Here is what is already going to be juggled:
  • New science kit center to set up and maintain for grades k - 6
  • Provide two 8-week rotations of science kits to grades k - 5, including some new materials
  • Implement curriculum mapping for grades 6 - 9
  • Develop "cadre" model of staff development in math and science (3 meetings per year; 1 rep per grade level per school)
  • Full year science for grades 7 - 9 at all schools for all students
  • New curriculum materials for grades 6 - 9
  • New facilities for science at two junior highs
  • Professional development offerings for k - 6 teachers
  • Science notebook development and integration for grades k - 6
  • Trimester grade level meetings for grade 7 - 9 alignment work
  • Development of common assessments for grades 7 - 9
  • Program revision for alternative schools
  • Investigate remediation opportunities for high school students who don't meet the standards in science

The mentor responsibilities will include

  • Weekly 30-minute observations of new teachers during the first quarter of the year
  • Weekly e-mail communication to new teachers and their mentors
  • Monthly meetings with all new teachers
  • Summer training for the induction program

And more goodies. I won't be bored next year.

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Reality Can Be a Bummer

04 May 2006

My district is starting to have to face a lot of hard budget issues. The Supe sent out his letter last week and things haven't gotten any rosier since then.

So what do you choose: have a fine arts program or librarians? School nurses or secretaries? Do you buy books for students or athletic equipment? Who gets the fun job of suggesting that a school (or two) be closed?

Over the years, lots of things have been trimmed from the budget. We've protected as many programs as we can, but they are starting to realize that moved up on the list of cuts due to the loss of so many others.

Things look bleaker in years to come. There's declining enrollment, more demands from the government, and we have to make some ugly choices. The current one deals with instructional materials. We found out today that there will only be $300K for k-12 materials. The new science adoption for grades 6 - 9 will be $225K. Will we get the needed books for next year? Will math? What about other grades and subject areas?

Not everything will be a loss. It appears that I will be gaining two more Boss Ladies next year. I don't know if I like this idea yet. I suppose I need some time to get to know them and see what their values and plans are.

Next year's gonna be a whole lot different. There's no escaping that reality.

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The Incredible Shrinking School District

26 April 2006

A piece from the superintendent's letter to staff today (emphasis added):

"Based upon a demographic study completed in 2000, our School District will continue to decline in student enrollment for the foreseeable future. Since 1999 we have lost 611 FTE (635 headcount) students and according to the last study, we could lose approximately one thousand additional students between now and 2010. Several years ago we planned to update the demographic survey in 2006; the study is ongoing and the results will be available not later than this summer. School districts in our state and across the nation are experiencing the same enrollment decline. The decline is attributed to the drop in the national birthrate. What we know right now is that when we take into account the loss of state revenue due to declining enrollment, our District will have lost nearly $7.6 M between 1999 and 2010."

Holy Katzenjammer kids. One thousand students in the next four years?

Meanwhile, fuel costs rise for buses. Our infrastructure is rapidly aging and technology becoming more antiquated each day. There are ever more mandates from the state and feds for us to fulfill.

The supe filled four pages with budgetary considerations. The bottom line is that we have to significantly tighten our belts...which means that jobs and programs are going to go. (Three elementary art positions were cut last week.) I think that this is his "pre-emptive strike" at getting information out before cuts are made this year. We've all been given fair warning.

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18 April 2006

I have a lot of "this and that" saved up...

Coach Brown wrote a thoughtful post on how we're killing kids with low expectations. I really like the post, but his comment system isn't being friendly to me. So, I decided to just point you in his direction for a great read. I've had all of the same frustrations he vents about---and no answers, either. Someone who does could make lots of money.

I woke up in the wee hours on Sunday morning with a frightening thought about our elementary science program. Our plan has a giant hole...just when we thought we were being smart about things. You see, we budgeted for two kits per grade level for next year and will buy the third in 2007. What we didn't think about is that two kits isn't enough to serve all of the schools at the same we're going to have to be ready to go full throttle in September. How we will accomplish this is a mystery at this point.

I got to hear today about how one teacher in my building is leaving next year because the new math curriculum will be "too much work." This is because it isn't delivered in the traditional math sense: teacher lectures, kids do lots of practice problems. The teacher would actually have to engage students with various activities with the new program. Heavens! A person at central office told me today about a run-in with another staff member from the school where I teach. This teacher reeked of alcohol and admitted being on the way back to work. I don't know that anything will come of that information, but it does make you wonder.

Curriculum is its own conundrum. With each passing day, I realize how blissfully ignorant I am about things. So many others there are unhappy with the direction things are taking...and in the next breath are glad to have had the increasing support in recent years. I think I'm just going to keep my head down and work on what I think would be best. I have my evaluation meeting with the Boss Lady on Friday. We'll see if she has the same opinion.

I've completed the requirements for my first class toward earning my EdD. I'm looking forward to having next week "off," especially considering the volume of meetings that are on the calendar. For now, I'm just enjoying the sense of accomplishment that comes with completing the course.

It's Spring. Get out and enjoy it while you can!

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