Tag Archives: Education

Inspiration from the Feed

I am inspired by Austin Kleon on a daily basis and eagerly awaiting my copy of his new book. The first chapter grew from this post about doing the work every day even if it is small steps.

So, today, instead of starting with Twitter, I started with Feedly, and the writers and thinkers I have assembled to challenge me with their ideas. Here’s my brief reaction to two items in this morning’s feed. I would encourage you to explore both these writers in more depth.

Jose Vilson, in his piece Writing as Threat, points to the challenges faced by writers of color who must operate in space controlled predominantly by white people and cheers those who are meeting that challenge:

My favorite writing happens when the margins throw pinchos at the hot-air balloon that is the zeitgeist

But, his description of the insecurity of writing is universal. Jose and I share a love of language and reverence for the writers who can wield words like swords or solace. It makes us hesitate to call ourselves writers but, I agree with Jose, his own words have called him out. He is a writer.

Tim Stahmer, in his post No, They Are Not Skills?, reflects on a question I used to ask during leadership workshops: can we teach creativity? We would do a needs assessment around those “soft” skills like creativity and curiosity and then ponder how we get them into an already packed curriculum. Often, the participants came to a similar conclusion as Tim: creativity is a mindset rather than a skill and one that needs space and time to develop, something that may simply not be possible to do in our current iteration of “school.” At some point in the workshop, someone might ask how we define creativity, and that is a whole other discussion but just consider your answer to this: am I “creative” when I build a Lego model from the directions provided?

What Are Our Values?

This is the question asked by Marian Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund at the end of a powerful essay that describes the deep cuts being made in education programs.  Education has not been a big part of  the Republican debates unless they are talking about reducing the federal government’s role.  And, indeed, the track record has not been good for the feds as they have led to a national obsession with test scores and now with teacher evaluation.

The government hasn’t always been such a detriment to education.  The response to Sputnik spurred new interest in science and federal money helped fund summer programs and teacher development.

Unfortunately, helping poor kids succeed doesn’t seem to compare to concern about the Soviets as a national crisis, and yet we know that those in poverty are more likely to drop out, which leads to a whole host of issues from higher incarceration rates to lower employment earning.  But there seems to be a desire on the side of conservatives to blame the poor for their lot, suggesting it is easy to escape the cycle.  Most of these suggestions, of course, are made by people who have never had to worry about paying the rent or feeding themselves.

So, while we say we value education, we have all sorts of excuses for why we don’t show those values in both access and funding.  It’s a simple, but powerful question: what are our values?

Education Nation?

I realize it’s been a long time since I posted but here we go…I’ve been dropping in and out of NBC’s Education Nation coverage this week, mostly because when I listen for too long, I find myself frustrated and lecturing my non-educator husband on how they are simplifying an incredibly complex issue and also dancing around the real issues. So, take this for what it is: a rant.

If one more NBC personality says how proud they are that they are sponsoring this earth changing event, I am going to cancel my cable. Are you kidding? Somehow, with your sound bites and your condescension, you are going to do what educators have been struggling with for decades? Get over yourself. The “debates” you are holding are so rhetorically empty with little or no practical guidance for the real educators, the ones who day after day face classrooms of kids with varying levels of preparation, family support, and personal motivation. The ones who must often beg to get resources for their kids by signing up for charity sites or shopping at yard sales and thrift shops. The ones who would love to have the luxury of lots of time for reflective practice but without any real planning time built into the schedule. The ones who supposedly enjoy the summer off and yet often teach summer school or hold down other jobs to supplement their salaries and who often cannot afford to live in the districts in which they teach.

Are teachers under attack? That was the question at the teacher town hall. Yes, they are, and by the very people who should be supporting them. Why do we have failing teachers? Could it possibly be because no one in authority provided them with the kind of mentoring and support that would have made them better? So, what’s the answer? Fire them. Great…because from what I hear, there’s a long line of people waiting to go into the teaching profession. (Sarcasm intended.) What about the superintendents who allowed their school district to become failing? What about the school board members who came on board to push their own agendas, which often focus on cutting costs and running schools more like businesses? (Just to be clear, which business is that: Lehman Brothers or GM?) What about the principals who spend time fine tuning the budget don’t know much about instruction or are themselves so overburdened with paperwork and meetings that they simply can’t do more than a quick observation or hallway conversation? What about the parents who never come to PTA meetings or Back to School Night but show up the minute little Johnny is disciplined for an infraction, ready to sue everyone in sight? This is a SYSTEM with systemic problems and just holding teachers more accountable is not going to fix anything but probably end up driving good people away. Oh, wait, from what I hear, that’s already happening with a frighteningly high teacher attrition rate. Each semester, I get a new crop of fresh-faced eager students at William and Mary and I wonder how many of them will stick with it in the face of all the negatives.

And those negatives…so far I haven’t seen anyone question standardized testing as either a quality measure of student achievement or teacher performance. So far, I haven’t seen anyone suggest that if we could decrease the poverty and unemployment rates in cities like DC and Detroit, the schools might also improve. So far, I haven’t heard that the horribly unequal funding of schools through taxes might be an issue. Every time I turn it on the problem seems focused almost solely on teachers and what needs to be done to make them better or get rid of them.

As for charter schools, I’m here to tell you that the jury is still out. In fact, I just heard a superintendent speak about his school district last week and after instituting some very specific reforms, he showed us the achievement picture. Of the ten or so schools in his district, nine had moved into the highest level of achievement defined by the state. The tenth? Oh, it was doing OK but it wasn’t exemplary like the others, and he offhandedly mentioned that it was the charter school.

And, finally, a word of caution to the perky girl who decided that unions and tenure were the problem. She wanted to hold Saturday study sessions with her kids but the union wouldn’t let her. The pundits suggested that this new crop of teachers just didn’t get the unions or tenure because they perceived that they were standing in the way of good education. I’ve dabbled with the unions over my tenure in education, participating in a strike in Pennsylvania and then heading the teacher association in Virginia. (I won’t call it a union since there’s no collective bargaining.) It’s all well and good to criticize the unions because there are times when they seem to be in support of bad teachers and bad policies. But now, they seem to be on the side of those who are attacking the teachers…it’s all about better evaluation, according to Randi Weingartner. But if you get rid of the unions, then to whom will teachers turn when the option of holding Saturday sessions becomes a mandate with no additional compensation and you would prefer to spend the day with your own kids? When, as happened in a division in which I worked, the school administration lengthens the school day by 45 minutes, not to provide time for more instruction but to accommodate a new bus schedule and you have to be there even though it doesn’t give you any more time with kids? When, in order to meet the crippling budget cuts, the school must take away the already pathetically short planning time so you can cover lunch duty? But, since this is television, no one ever had the chance to ask those questions. Tenure can be your friend in a profession in which you are being painted as the bad guy and in which false accusations can ruin your career in a heart beat.

Finally, no one seems to want to challenge the 800-pound gorilla in the room: standardized testing. I have yet to hear details about what a humane teacher evaluation system would look like. But I think the Salt Lake Tribune is at least recognizing the problems with evaluating teachers based on test scores and suggesting the “student achievement” and “teacher accountability” may be terms that need teased out a bit more:

We have supported merit pay for Utah teachers as a way to reward teaching excellence and to boost student achievement. But we agree with teachers’ union leaders who say relying on test scores to determine how well students are learning is unfair and shallow. Test scores are influenced by many factors that are largely outside a teacher’s control, such as a child’s home environment, his attendance, learning disabilities and ability to communicate in English.

Aah, someone who is at least hinting at the complexities of this system. Yes, folks, there are bad teachers out there, just like there are bad lawyers and accountants and bankers and doctors. Do some need to be fired? Sure. But do more of them simply need support in terms of resources, ongoing education, and time for planning and learning? Absolutely.

I could, clearly, go on and on here…like about China, whose teachers have about half the number of classes and students during the day as their American counterparts, freeing them to do in depth planning, preparation and professional development.

Blessedly, if you’ve been reading this far, I have to get started on my real work. But if anyone from NBC is out there listening, how about some real talk about real issues? How about putting Michelle Rhee and some of her teachers in the same room? How about finding some Chicago folks who don’t think Arne Duncan represents a true progressive view of education? Here’s just one more article that illustrates the complexities of the system, something for you to chew over as you go about your day.

Ed Tech Themes and Issues in a Nutshell

I’m teaching an online course this summer for budding school administrators. They’ve been discussing issues related to using “Web 2.0” kinds of technologies for the past two weeks and this week, I took a moment to summarize some of the themes and issues that emerged. I thought it might be of interest to a wider audience, so here’s the posting with some changes to protect the innocent.

After reading your blog entries and Web 2.0 papers and listening to your elevator speeches, I was struck by several ideas that seemed to cut across all the conversations we had last week. The three themes are lack of time for learning and implementing technology; inadequate, unequal funding for education; and a disconnect between educational goals and assessment. I think the first two are perennial problems in education while the third is a contemporary issue.

There is never enough time in school and yet every year more stuff gets added and nothing gets taken away. Is it any wonder that teachers seem reluctant to add yet more things to their classrooms? Especially when adding technology can bring additional challenges in terms of classroom management and technical glitches. Whenever I hear someone talking about how China or Japan has yet again “beaten” our kids on some international test, I always take a moment to remind them that teachers in those countries only teach half the day with the other half reserved for planning and professional development. Can you imagine? It would seem like a paradise to US teachers who have just grown used to the idea that they do that kind of work outside of the school day, often for no additional pay. So much about school needs to be rethought but the agrarian calendar under which we now labor is looking more and more outdated when web-based resources offer opportunities for teaching and learning all the time.

Inadequate, unequal funding has always been a problem. Most of you seemed to think that your school district was doing better in this area in terms of commitment to technology funding. But as someone pointed out, supporting technology funding in a time when teachers are losing their jobs gets difficult especially since there seems to be a shared sense that many teachers aren’t using the available technology to its maximum capabilities (or even at all!). In your elevator speeches, several of you questioned how the state can help with this…certainly, Virginia’s online testing initiative has been one way to get hardware into schools that might not otherwise be able to afford it. Virginia has been at the forefront of educational technology planning, something I wrote about in the VSTE Journal several years ago. I analyzed the trends seen in the planning since it began in the 1980s.

Finally, many of you pointed out the disconnect between notions of 21st century skills and our state assessment program. In a comment to one of your papers, I traced the development of content-based assessment to A Nation At Risk, the landmark report that came out in 1982. The report was mostly concerned with what kids didn’t KNOW, and now 30 years later, we have based our system on teaching and testing content. Yet, business and educational leaders are suggesting that process skills are lacking. Yes, students might know facts, but they seem unable to problem solve or think creatively and in a world in which assembly line jobs are getting scarce, being able to think on your feet is essential. Our students are leaving the classroom for a world that is much different in terms of working. Since this is getting long, I’ll end with a video clip…this is from True Stories, David Byrne’s film about a fictional Texas town. About two minutes into the clip, the owner of the town’s big business explains his vision of the future. He ends with a pretty profound comment about the nature of work and play in the future. It makes me think…am I working or playing right now?

Surrounded by Community

I spent most of yesterday online with educators, exploring the meaning of community.  Several hours were spent in Elluminate as part of Powerful Learning Practice‘s ongoing professional development program.  From there, I moved to Second Life for VSTE’s weekly meeting where we explored educational groups.  We ended the evening with a snowball fight and, as you can see from the picture below, I dressed for the occasion.  (Always wanted to have wings!)

Snapshot_002

I just felt energized the whole day, having access to all these fellow travelers without having to leave my house!  We shared both professional and personally; we learned; we had fun. It was the kind of experience I would wish for learners of all ages.

Besides being reminded of the power of online community, I learned some specific content.  I was introduced to Google notebook, a tool I had not explored before.  I installed it and was eager to try it out this morning.  So, I logged into Twitter, knowing that someone would have a link to a good article to read.  Twitter has increasingly become a big part of my virtual learning community in a way that I could not have imagined when I first joined.  I was not disappointed this morning as Will Richardson had posted a link to a New Yorker article on teacher quality from Malcolm Gladwell.   My primary job right now is working with pre-service teachers and identifying good teachers is always a concern.

I read the article and, as Will suggested, skimmed the football stuff.  When I got to the first paragraph that was really about education, I discovered that it had already been highlighted by someone else, using Diigo.  I moused over to read the comment and discovered it had been made by Michael Scott, who I had just seen last week in Roanoke and who is a member of the VSTE Ning.  I took a break from reading to add Michael as a friend in Diigo.  The next highlight and comment came from Clay Burrell, a fellow Twitterer whose blog, Beyond School, is always thought provoking.  All I could think of is what a small world it was since, according to the Internet World Stats, there are nearly 1.5 billion people online these days.

I think the lesson here is that online is a real community, as real as the face to face community I enjoyed at last week’s conference in Roanoke.  It’s something my non-networked friends just don’t understand.  And it isn’t something that happened overnight either.  But it is part of my life now, and as I sit at my desk working alone from home on a rainy day, I feel the presence of that community.  Thanks to you all!