Let the Voter Beware

13 April 2010

With the state budget bottoming out and school district rainy day funds drying up, many districts around our state are dependent upon levy dollars. Districts can ask their local property owners to pony up for two, three, or four years of funding. The four-year option is a recent addition to the mix and is very popular because it means having to run a levy less often.

A couple of weeks ago, I had lunch with a friend in the local district I once called my home. A program he's involved in was on the list for the latest levy. The district told voters that if the levy passed, the program would stay...if not, it would be cut. The levy passed. What did the district tell my friend? That was a different story. They told him that his program was safe for next year and probably the following year, but after that, the voters would have forgotten what had been promised and he could be cut. He went from being the levy poster child to being told he's headed for the trash heap in days.

Wow. As a teacher, what do you say to that? Kind of a political nightmare. On one hand, there's no use pointing it out to the district leadership, because they're the ones telling you they think the voters aren't too bright. And, on the other, if you tell the voters they're being played, it will be the kids who lose out in the end as budgets are slashed.

He has some time to figure this out. His job and program are safe for now and it will be nearly four years until there is another levy vote. In the meantime, he and many others are hoping the school board will wake up and smell the need for new leadership.


Value Wars

19 March 2010

It's no secret that state budgets are in trouble---which means school district budgets aren't so healthy. There are many hard choices to be made between now and the start of the next fiscal year---choices based on what is valued the most (which isn't always kids).

An area school district has decided to keep funding its full-day kindergarten program. There are some (including The Union), however, who are against such a proposal because the money which funds those teachers and classrooms means that other district programs go unfunded. Class sizes in other grade levels increase, library and music programs are reduced---and that doesn't even consider the voices of secondary schools who are trying to avoid cuts. Is full day kindergarten more important than funding art specialists for every child in an elementary school? PE? The district views kindergarten as an investment---children who are well-prepared to read and have the best chance at success throughout their K-12 career. Is that better than being able to offer a more diverse curriculum?

I had a similar conversation with a friend last week. Some people are passionate about the arts, some place science first and foremost, others raise their voice for PE/Health. But there are some schools out there whose entire focus is math and literacy. Again, there's been a value judgment about curriculum---that it is more important to have children be able to read at grade level than to learn science (even with a kit). Is it better to have kids who can comprehend a text...or kids who understand a science concept?

I can hear you out there. I know you want it all---that all of those sorts of curricula and opportunities need to be present. You're thinking that they're all pieces of a rich and meaningful public education. For what it's worth, I agree with you. I think there shouldn't have to be these choices. I believe that every child should have access to a full range of opportunities in the classroom. All the same, schools and districts are making decisions based on budgets, which means that we have to take a hard look at what we value most.

If we can't do it all, what should we do?

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Enjoy the Trip

19 April 2009

Someone recently shared the link for the above video and I was enticed to watch it at first purely because I like Mythbusters and was interested in what Adam Savage had to share. It turns out that there is a pretty compelling story here: a teachable moment, as it were. Take 17 minutes and watch it all unfold.

You might say the story is about how Adam ended up making replicas of a Dodo bird's skeleton and the Maltese Falcon...but that is just a description of what's happening at the surface. Underneath is this passion and joy of learning...of taking a risk to try something new and the doors that it ended up opening. And most significantly, an understanding that the journey is the thing---not the destination. He points out at the end that "Achieving the end of the exercise was never the point of the exercise to begin with." Go, Adam, go!

I can't help but wonder about how this fits within schools these days. Are we more about the destination (the test, the grade, the diploma) than the journey along the way? What would happen if all of us had a "Creative Projects" folder that inspired us to keep learning and nurtured our passions?


Striking a Balance

24 January 2009

Next week, I'm heading out to work with some teachers who have been trying to implement best practices in grading this year and are running into some issues. I'm very much looking forward to the discussion. The questions they sent ahead of time about assessment issues, power standards, and student motivation are thought-provoking in the most delightfully nerdy way. This will be an awesome day.

To prepare for this adventure, I've been doing some snooping, er, background research about the school. I've looked at their test scores, demographic breakdowns, and teacher information. I visited their website. I read the most recent edition of the school newsletter. I Googled.

What I've learned is that this is very high-performing school according to traditional measures: SAT scores, AP, Jay Mathews/Newsweek ranking, and so forth. The accolades are impressive. And yet, from the information the school directly shared with me, they have some very traditional problems with kids not doing homework or who are permitted to retake tests (but don't...or fail them on purpose first so that they can go back and retake them).

In some ways, this is not a surprise. From the external front this school is putting out, the school values performance (engaging in behaviors that result in grades/rewards). The teachers I'm going to work with, however, value mastery behaviors (learning for the sake of learning). Kids are therefore a bit confused. When the overall message from the school environment is "AP! WASL! Top School!" and within one classroom it is "Take risks! Keep trying!" there is going to be some dissonance.

It will be interesting to have a discussion about striking a balance. The fact is, success should be celebrated wherever it is found---from great AP scores to the most recent drama production to Joe/Jane student meeting standard after a long struggle with a concept. I don't know that we need to throw out our performance messages, but I think we need to emphasize other aspects more. How powerful is it when the lead story in the school newsletter reflects different learning opportunities happening at the school rather than the AP test breakdown? How do we communicate both the fact that WASL scores are well above district and state averages and also provide context for these to reflect learning? I think it can be done. We just have to be more purposeful in the making the outward messages we give to students and the community match our intentions about learning.


Plugging in the Community

10 August 2008

I ran across an article in Education Week that made me think, at first, that this was going to be another "blame the adults" scenario. While I am all for teachers being responsible for creating a healthy learning environment, I also believe that it is up to students to choose to engage. With the advent of NCLB, teachers and schools are having to take on too much of the "blame" for low student achievement. I admit they're a key piece---and we know that teacher quality is the strongest influence in the classroom---but they are not the only factors in a child's life.

What I ended up liking about Reversing Reluctance in Education Week is that it showcases a program that holds the community accountable---not just the schools. Supporting students is every adult's responsibility as part of the Communities in Schools program. They appear to be getting some good results from their efforts:
While fewer than half of all low-income and minority students in the United States complete high school, 85 percent of CIS students do, and two-thirds of them go on to some form of postsecondary education. In Georgia, the birthplace of the CIS “performance learning center” model, more than 75 percent of center students who were classified as seniors in the fall of 2006 graduated in 2007. Nearly all of them had either dropped out or were on their way to dropping out before joining the program.
The program has two major components. The first is a focus on relationships between families and school. This includes everyone in the school, not just the teachers. Secondly, these relationships are leveraged to help students "discover" the "I cans...": (1) I can learn; (2) I can have a reason to learn; (3) I can control the learning process; and (4) I can help others learn.

Community is the difference-maker. As CIS co-founder Bill Milliken writes in his book The Last Dropout, this is really an adult problem. It represents the failure of adults to, as he puts it, “provide and model a community that acts as a safety net for young people.” Communities own schools, but frequently forget, ignore, or abdicate their responsibilities to children for most of the day and year. Kids are in school from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. for 180 days a year. But they are in their homes and communities from 3 p.m. until 8 a.m. during school time—and 24/7 for the remainder of the year. In fact, from birth to the age of 18, children spend more than 90 percent of their lives outside the schools.

Our group has learned how to bring together the people, agencies, and organizations within the community that can support schools by doing the things that schools themselves cannot, particularly connecting to those students whose academic success and social well-being are threatened. We’ve had success linking external supports to the schools and aligning them to support the schools’ responsibility for attendance, grades, and graduation. These include domestic-violence interventions, job training and placement, dental care, mental- and physical-health care, child care, parent education, and more.

When we listen to the stories of students who dropped out, struggled in school, or became overage and undercredited nonachievers, we are often struck by these young people’s creativity and intelligence. Many have survived challenges in their lives, within their families, and on the streets that would have crippled their peers headed to Ivy League schools.

Their failure is at least as much a failure of school systems and communities as it is their own. We need new forms of schooling that teach key academic content in ways that engage these students and prepare them for successful futures, and we need to help them build strong relationships with adult mentors who will support their efforts to stay in school and succeed. And we need to link schools and communities in mutually beneficial, two-way relationships that provide young people with a healthy preparation for a productive future.

Schools have too much on their plates these days. Most of the mandates have their heart in the right place (student achievement), but don't have the necessary funding and support pieces to help schools make this a reality. We're going to have to reach out more to the community. I hope it will reach back.

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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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Bottle It and Sell It

30 June 2008

Two different blog posts caught my eye last week and got me thinking once again about the perfect storm of factors that leads to student achievement. First up is Jenny D., who---much to my delight---is blogging again now that her pesky PhD is out of the way. She points the way to some Good Research examining why some small school programs have led to better results than others. She notes from the study that "a good small high school also needs the right type of leadership and a cohesive and collaborative group of teachers interested in working to improve instruction" and wonders if the "small" part is really that important of a factor. Meanwhile, over at Joanne Jacobs, it is noted that it's the culture of a class, not its size, that makes a difference for student achievement. Her source is based on anecdotal evidence, unlike Jenny's, but they are both getting at the same idea: it's the "right" mix of people in a classroom that make magic happen.

This is all well and good to note, but my question is, "Can it be replicated?"

I've had close to 90 different groups of students over the years. And even if I think about those groups which were studying the same thing (e.g. "biology"), I can't think of any who were identical in nature. The dynamics of every class are different. I'm different every year and every class period as my energy ebbs and flows. Probably every teacher has a story of how the presence of one single child could completely change the tone of a classroom---either for better or worse.

Educational research will likely get better at describing the general classroom level factors which lead to improved student achievement, but no one is going to be able to determine the recipe for bottling and selling it. We can do all we can to implement best practices, use strong curriculum, and valid assessments...but at the heart of it all are people. And small people at that. Young people with their own home lives to make sense of and development to deal with. That doesn't excuse schools from providing the very best they can and holding high expectations for every child. It's just a recognition that at some point, we have to acknowledge the limitation in all of our research is that we're talking about human beings.


Garden Party

29 May 2008

I was pondering the idea of integrity where leadership is concerned. I suppose that at this point in my career, administrators shouldn't hold any surprises for me---and yet I still get an eye-opener now and then.

What I'm coming to realize is that integrity is a matter of perspective. The administrators I respect the most approach integrity as being true to their personal vision and convictions. Whether or not I might agree with those views is a different matter, but I respect that their actions match their words. And at the other end of the spectrum are those who are true to the job. That is to say that they are there to push the papers, play the political game, and pick-up a paycheck at the end of the month. They may talk the talk of school improvement or a focus on kids, but it is not their first love. Somewhere along the way, they've lost enthusiasm and intellectual curiosity. Whatever reasons originally drew them to admin have not been adapted as times have changed. They do the job as it is with no thoughts of what it could be.

Should we, as Ricky Nelson suggested, learn our lesson well? Since we can't please everyone, should we learn to please ourselves? At the garden party of education, does having integrity also mean having a bit of selfishness about one's ideals?

I understand how easy it is to become disillusioned with working in education. If you care, it's hard work to be in a classroom...and even harder to steer a school. What variety of integrity is the right one?

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18 May 2008

There is hardly a public school out there which doesn't have some variation of student attendance issue. We need students to come to school in order to move their learning forward---and yet there are a host of reasons why they don't. While I don't want to talk about issues surrounding compulsory attendance measures, I do want to talk about this question: Are we creating a generation of sticker junkies?

In other words, are schools too quick to pull out extrinsic rewards (stickers, ice cream, drawings for prizes...) as a way to promote attendance?

I was thinking about this last week after reading the follow-up article on the Georgia program which paid students to study. (I blogged about this in January...Motivation Matters has more.) Thirty-five students finished the 15-week program.

At the rate of $8 an hour or $32 a week, Jailyn and the other students had the chance to earn $480 by the end of the school year. The amount they actually earned was tied to their attendance and participation.

Taylor said Jailyn put a lot of his money in a savings account.

"We also used this opportunity to teach budgeting and how to spend money," she said. "And in the end, he didn't do it for the money. He did it for himself."

This sounds great, but I admit I'm still suspicious. What will happen in the fall when Jailyn and the others aren't given money to do what they should be doing? If behavioral research is any indicator, the levels of motivation will decrease---and potentially be lower than before the program was implemented.

I talked to an area principal who is wrestling with some significant student attendance issues. The immediate reaction is to go the rewards route. I'm not convinced this is the right path. Don't we first need to know why students aren't coming to school? Will a sticker or a promise of an ice cream bar change that for the long term? Or will it just reinforce a sense of entitlement?

Maybe I'm old-fashioned, but I like to think that one of the primary purposes of schooling is to foster a love of learning. If the school is a place where kids want to be, they will come. Are we creating extrinsic reward junkies in our elementary schools only to have them disengage and drop out at upper grades when the stickers stop?
Dealing with student engagement issues, lesson design, and high quality instruction is far more labor and time intensive than just buying a bunch of stickers, but isn't that what we should be doing?


Maybe We Could Get James Lipton, Too

16 April 2008

I was dozing on the sofa last night, listening to Alec Baldwin interview Gene Wilder on TCM. While the discussion was not James Lipton-esque, I couldn't help but think of all those Inside the Actors Studio pieces I'd watched. Since my brain was in drift mode, it didn't seem to be a far leap to get to wondering what a Teachers Studio would look like.

This seemed like an interesting idea.

What if you had a highly selective school devoted to both training teachers---and enhancing their craft? It would have to be staffed by master teachers (not necessarily education profs/researchers) and perhaps attract an "Artist in Residence," such as Thomas Guskey or Linda Darling-Hammond, once in awhile. Do you think being a very exclusive place to learn the art and science of teaching would attract a particular kind of clientele---one which might not consider the profession now? What about being a site where experienced teachers would come for intensive inservice in a particular area in order to perfect their craft? It would be a retreat for people to celebrate teaching.

There are plenty of bubble-bursting details I could add to this, but for the moment, I'm liking it. What an interesting way to elevate the perception of classroom work---both for teachers and for the public at large. Anybody with me?

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The Impatience of Achievement

01 April 2008

How much forward progress can we expect a school to make within a month? A year? Can we measure student achievement in terms of weeks...or do we need a broader time span to adequately assess any gains that are made? I wondered about this while reading Glimmers of Progress at a Failing School in a recent Sunday edition of the New York Times. It's about an elementary school in Newark which is now in its seventh year of being a "failing" school. There seems to be an abundance of anecdotal evidence that change is happening---but what will test scores show?

As I watch the day-to-day efforts of teachers and paraeducators to help support student learning, I think about how those tiny baby steps each session will eventually add up. The problem is, will anyone outside notice? A child receiving intensive interventions may double their score on progress monitoring tests, but still be within the range of intensive services. For kids who aren't yet able to meet the standards, it would appear that this type of progress is still worthy of recognition and celebration. It means the schools are on the right track. Change takes time. Schools didn't become failures overnight---and we can't expect that they will be exemplary at the snap of the fingers, either.

I worry about the staff who work so hard every day to help kids move forward. As a coach, I fret about their stamina---and how to nurture that---in the face of a world which doesn't recognize the little moves forward and just the big steps back. How do we make the fruits of their labours more tangible and easily recognized? What can we do to hold the impatience of achievement at bay?

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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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