Aug 09

Maybe We Could Just Get Better

With the start of the new school, educators around the country – especially those in schools and districts that have been labeled as failing – are learning about the new initiatives that their schools will be undertaking this school year. Many of these initiatives will be mandated – top-down – from an administrator at the school, district or state level. And many of these initiatives will be a sharp turn away from the practices of the past year.

And these new initiatives will be enacted in the name of closing the achievement gap, addressing some data-driven problem that has been identified, or somehow finding some magic bullet to raise test scores.

And many teachers go through this process year after year after year.

And it makes me ask a simple question – what if some of the problems of our school is that we never let people get good at any one thing?

This is not to say that schools should look at challenges and problems they face and address them.

This is not to say that educators should not strive to learn new ideas and new practices.

But when do we let teachers get good at stuff too?

Schools need to grow along healthy pathways. So do the teachers and students than inhabit them. When we commit to a pedagogical plan or a new structure or system, and we say, “Barring epic failure, we’re going to work on this strategy for a few years,” we honor the fact that people can learn and get better at their craft.

There are many pedagogical approaches to education. I have a favorite that I am passionate about – inquiry-based education. I have been lucky enough to work with a group of teachers and students who have dedicated themselves to getting better at that craft. And as a community, we very much have gotten better. I am also lucky enough to have been afforded the space and time to get better. I remember the first year SLA took the PSSAs and our math scores were lower than we expected them to be. I was terrified that my regional superintendent, Marilyn Perez, was going to tell me that we had to abandon our inquiry-driven math plan. I called her with the scores – we had done the calculations by hand from state score sheets, so we had the data before the district had calculated the school-wide results – and she said to me, “Now you have your baseline, and knowing SLA, you and your teachers are already thinking about how to get better at what you do.”

She held us accountable for our performance and listened to our plan on how we were going to get better at what we did… not change pedagogy or approach, but evolve and get better. To this day, if Marilyn were to call and say, “I need a favor…” the answer would be unequivocally yes, because she was willing to work with SLA to give us time to grow along a healthy path that allowed us to evolve, rather than shift gears.

We need to create more spaces for schools to define school-wide structural and pedagogical approaches to education, and then we need to give schools time and space to grow and get better at their craft as a community. In too many schools and districts, September represents a time where teachers and students have to throw out last year’s “Best Practice” in favor of the latest and greatest idea to come out of a policy office somewhere.

Perhaps we are a time where we can admit that our best practices are the ones that we actually get the time to practice.

Dec 10

NY Times Room for Debate: Federal Standards and Federal Funding

The New York Times Room For Debate asked me if I would weigh in on the following question:

The Common Core State Standards, adopted by 48 states and supported by the Obama administration, have worried liberals who question their quality and conservatives who fear they erode states’ traditional responsibility for education. At the same time, the budget pressure of the impending “fiscal cliff” could reduce federal support for education, which would add to the state and local responsibility.

As these trends collide, Americans can take a step back and ask: Should education standards and funding vary by state?

This gave me the opportunity to talk about an issue that too often goes un-talked about in the current education debate – inequitable education funding. Little did I know I would be debating the question online with folks like Pedro Noguero, Jeb Bush and Rick Hess. Here was the start of my response:

The Common Core standards are the latest federal educational initiative, making the argument that creating national standards will somehow raise achievement nationwide while ignoring what is a far more important state-to-state and district-to-district variability: funding.

Disparate funding levels in the United States are the single most anti-democratic policy in our society. Where children live should not have bearing on how much money is spent on their education. And the variability in funding levels is deep and profound.

The rest is over at The New York Times, please go give it a read. (And wow… the New York Times. I’m kind of really excited. Really, really excited.)

Nov 25

They Don’t Hate Our Kids

Recently, I was at a edu-labor event, listening to some folks who I genuinely respect talk about the battle right now in public education. At the event, one of the speakers was talking about the corporate ed-reform  movement and said, “They don’t care about our kids.”

I get it. It is easy to think that the folks who are in the process of demonizing public education and the educators who have worked hard for the kids in those schools don’t care about kids. So much of the rhetoric they espouse is so counter to the way educators think.

But the thing is – whether it is Michelle Rhee or Rahm Emmanuel or <Insert Corporate Ed-Reformer Here>, they don’t hate the kids. There is, fundamentally, a battle between competing visions of the world. And that’s really important for those of us who are on the other side of the equation to understand.

Those folks who believe it is o.k. to pay education CEOs $500,000 / year or who believe that it is o.k. to create for-profit companies that can be contracted to run schools believe in the power of the market to create solutions that are better than public schools. It is not that they don’t care about kids, it is that they believe the market can better provide for kids and create wealth for investors. And, perhaps frighteningly to me, for most of those folks, this is not a cynical thought, but a deeply held belief.

I’ve detailed why I think the idea of for-profit schooling is fundamentally flawed, so where I stand on this argument is clear, but I also don’t think it helps to demonize or strawman the other side of the argument. We have to understand, what is going on in educational policy today isn’t about who loves the kids more. It is actually far, far more scary an argument than that.

What we are engaged in is no less than a debate over the intersection of the two dominant schools of thought in American society – are our children best served when the dominant ethos of schooling is based on the communitarian ideals of a democratic government or on the competitive ethos of a market system?

This is a real debate. This is the debate we need to have.

And no one wins when either side accuses the other of not loving the kids.

Nov 23

The Beatings Will Continue Until Morale Improves

In today’s Philly Inquirer, there was the following editorial: Inquirer Editorial: School days are too short.

The editorial is framed around how Cherry Hill, New Jersey teachers agreed to extend their days by 30 minutes, and how, if you do the math, that adds up to 14 extra days of instructional time over the course of a year, etc… How could anyone be against that, right?

Here’s the thing: Too many kids already hate school. Why do we want to make them do more of it?

More of something that is already flawed and broken isn’t a good thing.

And moreover, when are we going to realize that kids lead pretty busy lives?

According to a 2011 National Federation of State High School Assocations study, 55% of high school students participate in athletics. And while I couldn’t find a recent study on total participation in after-school activities, it seems that number tips somewhere around the 70% – 80% mark. And the Child Trends DataBank study of youth employment in 2010-2011 shows that 17% of high school students have after-school jobs. That probably doesn’t take into account all the kids who have to help with after-school care of younger siblings, etc…

Just saying, “More school for kids,” while appealing to policy-makers for any number of reasons and appealing to the “teachers don’t work hard enough” tropesters out there, is a bad idea. The problem is that contracts and legislation are the policy tools that boards of education and legislators have, and they are more often than not bad tools.

Just making the day longer solves little to nothing, and it creates as many problems – if not more – than it solves.

I’m not against having kids and teachers in schools longer – SLA is proof of that, as teachers and students tends to spend a ridiculous number of hours there. But let’s figure out how to use the policy tools at our disposal to make the time more meaningful, if we are going to do it.

Want kids in school longer? O.k. – figure out how to create study teams of teachers and kids so that we don’t send them home to do more homework in less time without support. Or figure out how to create 80% / 20% time so that every kid has time every day to pursue their best ideas.

Better yet – before we think that just making kids be in our buildings longer, let’s take a hard look at the time we already spend there, and figure out how to make 8:00 – 3:00 more empowering, more authentic and more useful to everyone.

Oct 31

Sucking the Joy

I don’t remember the twitter name of the Wisconsin principal who tweeted out that his elementary school had to “field test” some new state test today. On Halloween. But it was pretty clearly communicated in his 140 characters that he was pretty furious about.

I don’t blame him.

Who thought that was a good idea? Who thought that Halloween is a day to sit kids in silence to take a standardized test? I suppose when you believe in continuous testing (h/t Gary Stager for the term) then one day is like any other – a good day for testing. But for those of us who believe that school is not just about the tests kids take, this is a horrible idea.

It’s not that kids can’t learn on Halloween just because they are in (or thinking about) costumes – they can and they do. It’s that especially on a day like Halloween, schools should give time to learn with joy, celebrate the community, and make sure that every person in the community has a chance to smile. Personally, I think that’s a pretty good agenda for every day, but Halloween is even more special.

SLA spent today doing really interesting work in classes while also dressed as Dr. Who characters and Catwoman and Hunter S. Thompson and Waldo and a host of other costumes. I walked around the building, guitar in hand, dressed in black as Johnny Cash. Kids smiled and every classroom was able to take a moment and guess who I was, and I think I serenaded every class with the chorus of “Ring of Fire.” And at the end of the day, we had a costume fashion show that was fun and joyful and awesome.

But also, work was really done. It was a presentation day in 10th grade BioChemistry, I listened in on some amazing conservations in Mr. Kay’s English class, Mr. Block was helping kids dissect a complicated reading in a lovely housedress and Ms. Garvey’s class was working through equations even as Ms. Garvey was dressed up as a basketball ref. Kids smiled and laughed maybe a little more than a normal day and snapped a lot more photos than usual, but they also were fully engaged in the work of the day.

Some days lend themselves better than other to teaching the idea that we can teach and learn and laugh together in powerful ways. Some days are made to celebrate the idea that we can celebrate our individuality and our community. Halloween is one of those days. But somewhere in Wisconsin, some bureaucrat didn’t care about all that and told a principal that “field testing” some shiny new test was more important. So the kids in that school sat in silence, desks in rows, and took someone else’s test.

What a powerful mistake. What a way to suck the joy from what is supposed to be a joyful day. What a way to send a message to kids that joy and fun and laughter have little to no place in school.

What a powerful example of all the way our education policy in so many states and as a nation is just flat out getting it wrong.