Archive for the ‘Reflections’ category

The Quagmire of Education Reform

October 17, 2010

Is there any better word to describe education reform today than quagmire? Can anyone deny that the mixed messages, rules, “guidelines,” and financing formulae contrived by education reformers have resulted in “a perilous, mixed-up and troubled situation”?

My biggest concern with current education reform is that it involves so few educators with any classroom experience. Am I qualified to regulate the auto industry just because I’ve ridden in cars all my life and am a pretty decent driver? Clearly not, yet others seem to be using that logic to justify their involvement in education reform. After all, most of the reformers have spent years in school and really believe they know what will make our schools better.

Since there is a lot of talk about the “factory model” of education, let’s think about that for a moment. Have you ever taken a behind-the-scenes tour of a factory or watched a craftsman create a piece from start to finish? If so, you likely said, “I didn’t know all that went into making (whatever).” The same is true of education. If you have never spent time in a real, operating classroom (and I’m not talking about countless tours of schools that provide great photos ops and sound bites), if you have never been the person responsible for educating students, then you may not realize the impact relationships and factors unrelated to curriculum have on instruction and achievement.

Building relationships with students takes time. Sometimes that time looks (to the outsider) as frivolously used, wasted time, yet “fun” is a great relationship builder. Often teachers are told all their time MUST be spent on INSTRUCTION – instruction that will yield results on an accountability model that clearly assesses isolated, factual knowledge, with NO consideration of thinking, problem-solving, creativity or affective development. They are told they must post their lesson plans so anyone entering the room will know what should be happening and criticized if what is happening does not match the written plan. This criticism often happens in writing, without any opportunity to explain why the lesson deviation occurred and creates a culture of defensiveness.

Time, unfortunately, is a finite quantity, and teachers are often placed in an untenable position. If they do what they know is right for students but deviate from the system-sanctioned, system-monitored guidelines, they jeopardize their jobs. The fact that (in too many places) teachers are held strictly accountable to pacing “guides” that no human could adequately teach to mastery is not addressed. The curriculum is king in public schools, anointed by the politicians, and the test is the evil enforcer. Even though the most successful charter schools provide wrap-around services that address the underlying problems of poverty and parenting, these elements often get short shrift in public school in favor of content curriculum and “the test.”

Which brings me to my second biggest concern about current educational reform – the charter movement. A bedrock premise of charter schools is the ability to do things more innovatively by cutting the red tape that ties the hands of public school practitioners.

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of listening to Ron Clark address the Tennessee LEAD audience. Throughout his engaging, entertaining speech, I couldn’t help but mentally juxtapose his out-of-the-box, creative, connected, relationship-rich philosophy against the rigid strictures by which public school teachers must operate. Those rigid strictures are IMPOSED on teachers by the governmental bodies – be they local, state, or federal – who deride and demean teachers for the results of education within those systems then laud the performance of isolated charter schools who have been exempted from many of the outside constraints.

Ron Clark would likely wither in a public school environment today. The first time he jumped on a desk or disturbed the class next door by frequent chanting, the documentation trail of his “deficiencies” would begin. He would be beat down by warnings to conform and driven to leave as many of our best teachers are. Oh wait, that already happened. He left the public schools to create a rich environment with rich resources and tons of parental involvement – an environment that is not driven by a state test.

I realize Ron Clark worked in a difficult public school setting, but he was very fortunate to work with quality administrators who allowed his gifts to shine. Plop him down in another setting with a rule-following, conformist administrator with no tolerance of his antics and ideas, and he could just as easily have been hounded out of the profession.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the ideas behind Ron Clark’s school. I completely believe that students can perform well on assessments if teachers provide rich, high quality learning experiences. But rich, high quality learning experiences take time – time that is not available to most public school teachers, particularly since teachers are not the people in charge of allocating how time is spent. When district guidelines mandate teachers cover WW I in four days (and monitor to make sure you keep pace with the other teachers), there isn’t much time for implementing rich, high quality learning experiences. Nor is there much time allocated for designing these rich, high quality assignments. As I visit schools, I see almost every moment of the school day consumed by assigned tasks. Personal planning time is very rare in many places. During planning time, teachers hold data meetings, serve some kind of assigned duty, meet with parents, etc. Almost every day has a prescribed use of planning time. Is it any wonder that some teachers fall back on letting the textbook guide instruction and use “canned” lessons of questionable quality?

Let me be clear. I believe teachers have become the scapegoat de jour for the ills created by others. That is not to say they are blame free nor that there aren’t bad teachers who need to be removed. I am saying teachers are not the sole cause for the mess in education today, yet they are being abandoned to sink in the quagmire of reform efforts that often conflict with each other. Which leads me to my final point.

As teachers, teacher-leaders, and concerned others, we have GOT to overcome the passivity that seems pervasive among teachers. I see so much blind acceptance of all that is imposed from above and way too much “this, too, shall pass” attitude that urges people to keep their heads down and stay out of the line of fire. If we don’t like the changes, we have GOT to become more vocal and communicate our objections and the reasons upon which we base those objections. We have GOT to showcase our successes more than the failures. We have GOT to get past grumbling and complaining to actually taking a stand and DOING something to change the situation.

That will be hard for many teachers. We can’t forget, particularly in these economic times, that many teachers rely on their paychecks to support families and can’t afford to rock the boat too much. That’s one reason they are so vulnerable to the misguided dictates of rich reformers. Teachers’ commitment to students is another vulnerability. When politicians say it’s OK to take away pre-planning days and furlough teachers without pay before school starts because the teachers “will work anyway,” they are blatantly taking advantage of many teachers’ sense of commitment to the well-being of their students.

It’s a real dilemma.

There are no easy solutions to reforming education, but we, the teachers, need to be at the table whenever possible. That might sometimes mean we need to crash a party to which we are not invited. Becoming more vocal can only help. Participating in the REBEL Education Reform day of blogging is a start. Let’s strive to escape the quagmire of current reform by adding our common sense ideas to the conversation and put education back on solid ground.

Thank you, Tom Whitby, for organizing this day of blogging for education reform.


Thank You, Uncle Sam

May 31, 2010

Memorial Day seems like an appropriate time to reactivate my blog.  As I’ve checked my Twitter feed and read comments on Facebook, many people are extending appreciation to veterans. It’s a little thing, but, as a veteran, it makes me feel good to see more people realize freedom isn’t free.

I enlisted in the Air Force out of high school for several reasons, but the primary reason was patriotism. Between my junior and senior years in high school (the summer of 1970), I spent 6 weeks studying at Oxford University through a future teacher program sponsored by the NEA. Our group followed the seminar with three weeks traveling around Europe on a mini-bus. It was during that summer abroad that I became keenly aware of the many comforts and privileges I had taken for granted my entire life—access to bathrooms, grocery stores, cars, air conditioning, water—the list could go on and on.

Several world events were also occurring during that time period. One was the fight for the ERA amendment and the other was the Vietnam War. Enlisting in the USAF was my attempt to put my “money where my mouth” was. If I believed women deserved equal rights, then I had to bear equal responsibilities. That meant I needed to serve in the military, just as my male friends were being called by the draft to serve. I had an obligation to give back to the country that made my freedoms possible. [It wasn’t all patriotism and altruism, though. The GI Bill was an excellent enticement.] Little did I know how much I would gain from the experience. The Air Force provided me an excellent transition from childhood to adulthood. I had plenty of freedom to make my own stupid mistakes but there was always someone available to help me if I got in over my head. If I hadn’t married a man with children that lived with us and been hot for a remote assignment, I likely would have stayed in the Air Force until retirement. So, I often say I left the #1 most stressful job (air traffic control) for the #2 most stressful job—teaching.

My eight years as an air traffic controller in the USAF contributed significantly to my development as a teacher and administrator. Skills that my military experience developed include:

  • A heightened sense of “situational awareness”—In air traffic control, one must always know where all your planes are and where they’re going next. As a teacher and administrator it is also essential to know what is going on around you. Being oblivious is NOT an asset.
  • The ability to prioritize and juggle multiple projects and tasks—There were always multiple jobs that needed to be done, and I had to find a way to do them. During my time in the military, I learned to manage the workload, whatever it might be.
  • To be decisive and take action – Believe me, trying to direct multiple types of aircraft to the same runway is an excellent teacher of the need to make a decision and act on that decision. Mixing Cessna 150’s with fighter aircraft and tankers is a challenge!
  • The ability to get along with all types of people—Few places have such a mixed group of people as the military. Living and working in close quarters with many types of people helps highlight the similarities more than the differences. As our schools become more and more diverse, the ability to get along with various people is a real advantage.
  • Leadership and organizational skills – As I progressed in rank, the responsibilities increased. I became a shift leader then a supervisor. I was assigned scheduling and training responsibilities. Through those experiences, working with people above and below me, I learned to “sell” my ideas instead of demand my way. It is a skill I carried into my career in education, always trying to make the “why” clear with every task.
  • A foreign language—What a useful gift for working with our school populations. Learning a foreign language taught me empathy for others who must learn a new language and live in an unfamiliar culture.
  • Rules can be waived – There is always someone higher up who can waive a rule. Frequently, one just needs to ask.
  • Discipline, respect, effort, flexibility, patience…Well, you get the point.

Although I appreciate the warm comments from family, friends, and strangers, thanking me for my service, I want to say “thank you” to Uncle Sam for providing me the opportunity to serve. Yes, I served my country. But my country served me as well.

A Little Less Conversation . . .

August 13, 2009

Recently, there seems to be an increase in education power-brokers (i.e., state and local superintendents) calling for teachers to tap into the power of Web 2.0 with their students and “engage” them in their learning. They talk a lot about the students of today being “different” than students of the past, that student process information differently and are very comfortable with digital tools. Considering the people I’ve heard espousing this notion typically work in states or districts where I KNOW most Web 2.0 tools are not accessible in schools, that poses an interesting conundrum. It brings to mind some song lyrics from the King that I wish they would embrace–“a little less conversation, a little more action, please.” [By the way, for you folks under forty, “the King” means Elvis Presley.]

The other day, I read Jeff Utecht’s blog entry about evaluating use of technology in the classroom using an adaptation of Prensky’s typical process of technology adoption. Upon reading both pieces and reflecting on what I see in practice in many schools, I believe most (and please note I said “most,” not all) people making these calls to use technology in schools really mean they want teachers to use all that expensive equipment their systems have invested in to do “school” things — the things Prensky refers to as doing “old things in old ways.” They want “cheeks in the seats” of those expensive labs. They wants (carefully screened ) video streaming through those services they subscribe to. They want distance learning labs used (many they want a classroom teaching doing the same old things to be visible and accessible to remote locations). The real problem, then, rests on what they want students to be doing with those resources.

Prensky refers to doing the same of tasks with the same old materials just using a different medium. He talks about putting data and assessments online; it’s still the same information we had in paper copies, just online. He talks about students writing papers but submitting them electronically; they are still the same kinds of papers in the same formats, just typed with a different tool. Prensky says these are examples of “using computers to collect old stuff (such as data or lesson plans) in old ways (by filing).”

I followed with interest today via Twitter (thanks, @JennyKBell), as @bltg told teachers in her school system that, “Kids enter a classroom each morning that is based in 1985 … then don’t enter back into the 21st century until they leave the building at 3.”  I followed her inspiring comments via Twitter posts from @JennyKBell . She further commented, “Are we really preparing them for OUR idea of a future or THEIRS?” I sincerely believe she is talking about using Web 2.0 tools, not just typing papers, making PowerPoints and doing research online. Proud principal, @JennyKBell also tweeted about her teachers setting up blogs to use with students, so they seem to be leading the way in loosening the filters to allow real access for students to move into the next stages of Prensky’s adoption model — “doing old things in new ways” and “new things in new ways.” Later in the day, @bltg relayed that more blogs are accessible at school and that teachers can access Twitter and Skype. She commented that they are “slowly wearing them down and more is becoming available.” I hope more of the “talkers” begin to be “walkers” on this transformational path.

So, as the rhetoric of many high-profile people exhorts teachers to use Web 2.0 tools, we will continue to fight the fight to loosen the filter that block soooo many sites and tools from use in schools. In spite of the talk, many systems have the equivalent of an expensive, technologically advanced aircraft parked inside a hanger; it’s not flying anywhere until the doors open so it can taxi out of the building.

I hope we begin to see more success in accessing tools during the school day because, as the King says, “All this aggravation ain’t satisfactioning me.”

What about you? What tools are available for use in your schools during the school day? What tools do you want to use that are still blocked? Let’s keep the conversation going in hopes of moving more systems to action.

Discovering a Personal Learning Network

July 21, 2009

I’ve always been just a little techy and was an early advocate of infusing technology into learning. When working with teachers, I usually stress the connection between integration of technology and increases in student engagement. I talk about thinking, reasoning, creating, and collaborating and the many ways that use of technology can enhance those skills. No matter what the topic of the professional development might be, I would find ways to discuss with teachers how use of technology supports learning and engagement. Discuss — not model.

In the February 2o09 issue of Educational Leadership, Bill Ferriter wrote the article, “Learning with Blogs and Wiki.” After reading the article, I was inspired to “do” instead of just “talk.” With no training or previous experience, I set up a wiki to use with a group of principals I work with and began to more overtly preach the message that we (my colleagues) cannot continue to urge schools to adopt Web 2.0 tools as part of instruction if we do not begin to use those tools ourselves as part of our work with school improvement. The modeling paid off; little by little, other consultants began to set up wikis to use with their school groups. It was a beginning.

In an effort to walk the walk and not just talk the talk, I began to explore other tools mentioned in the article then expanded to a general exploration of Web 2.0 tools I saw or heard mentioned as I delved more deeply into edtech. One thing led to another, and I quickly discovered Twitter. Oh my. What a discovery. Without a doubt, Twitter has transformed my learning. I coerced a couple of colleagues into signing up then went on a search for other people to follow. First one person and then another. I explored the “following” lists of the few people I was following and searched key words in my areas of interest. Each day I found more people tweeting about topics I care about or posting resources I would never have discovered on my own. Thus, a PLN was born.

Since I wasn’t getting through to people about the power of Twitter, I started a small e-mail group of colleagues and began sharing links to resources that would support our work with schools, always pointing out that I discovered the resource via my Twitter PLN. It’s slow going, but I’m making progress.  A few more of my colleagues have joined Twitter and begun to build their own PLN’s; still more have expressed interest in joining but haven’t yet taken the step. My hope is to convert our organization into a culture of active learning that takes advantage of the technological tools that support learning — both our own learning and the learning opportunities provided in our schools. I continue to grow my own PLN and need to explore more Twitter apps to help me manage the flow of information. It continues to amaze me, though, how people I wouldn’t recognize in person are so important to my learning and have begun to feel like friends.

Through this blog, I’ve taken another step on my ongoing quest. One more tool has been added to my toolkit. I’m still on the learning curve and need to figure out the bells and whistles of Eventually, I’ll figure out how to add links and pictures and make it pretty. For now, it’s enough that I’m participating in the online community.

In the beginning . . .

July 21, 2009

I’ve been a lurker long enough. It’s time to actively participate in the worldwide conversations that flow through the internet. Although I read voraciously and follow a lively group of professionals via Twitter, thus far, my online experiences have primarily been passive; I read and read then think and think, but I haven’t engaged in the discourse that abounds. Today is the day. Today is the day I vow to step out into the online community.

As a school improvement consultant, I visit classrooms all across the United States. I’ve seen remarkable examples of teaching and learning, but I’ve also sat through some mind-numbing instruction that sucks the last tiny particle of joy out of learning. Together, we can acknowledge and reinforce the positive practices and seek solutions to the joy-sucking issue.

Education is a complex system I liken to pieces of string tangled into a bundled mess. Each string represents some element of education: instruction, engagement, safety, discipline, accountability, etc. When one string is pulled, another string is affected. Sometimes it pulls free from the tangle, but other times it pulls other strings into a knot, complicating whatever comes next.  Every decision we make or action we take on any element of education has the potential for unintended consequences. Together, we may be able to think through some of these knotty issues and anticipate the outcome.

Through this blog, I will reflect, muse, question, and explore issues related to education. The blog will express my opinions shaped by my experiences in schools and share tips, ideas, and resources I discover along the way. I hope to engage in thoughtful conversation with other people interested in education. Please join me on my ongoing quest to learn and grow through participation in this amazing online community of teachers and learners.