Thinking About More Relevant Schools and Classrooms…(Part Two)

(Disclaimer – The concerns I have are not just about the school system where I work or the one where my students attend, they are systemic issues that everyone of us who is impacted by the education of our youth should consider.  Oh yeah, we are all impacted by the education of our youth!)

The headline of an article by from Business News Daily caught my attention recently. The article, Creativity and Connectivity In The Workplace by Kevin Kuske, got me thinking about the field of education and what we can do to foster more creativity and connectivity in our students. While I am confident that there are pockets of very creative things happening, I wonder sometimes if we are lacking in our collective ability to connect these creative undertakings in ways that would allow them to have a more significant impact on our students. 

This deficiency is certainly not caused by disinterest on the part of educators, it is due to outdated structures and the lack of experience that educators have had with meaningful connectivity that we have their own learning. Let’s face it, the daily experience for many/most teachers is still to plan the lesson independently, teach the lesson independently, and then to plan and administer assessments independently. 

So the fact that “Co-creation is ascending as the new dominant model of innovation, creativity and differentiation” puts a major wrinkle into the previous perception of our role whether we are an administrator, a classroom teacher, or support staff.  This next part is equally problematic for most of us in public schools:

“Creativity, innovation and a strong sense of culture all build off of connections and trust.’

Identity Theft
  Reducing students and staff to a test score is problematic. Flickr photo via Lyn Hilt

Unfortunately, the model that our nation is following for education reform is one that seems is overly focused on linking teacher performance to a a few days of standardized testing. This model, which was not co-created by educators,  will not do much to build a culture of trust. So while I agree strongly that the “coming together in a shared space is still one of the best ways to build these ties” that will allow us to help out students create and innovate, I wonder how we can ensure the following “effective and desirable” qualities are fostered in staff and students as we also try to meet the prescriptive mandates being thrown at us by education policy makers:

  • Their personality comes through.
  • They have the freedom to be themselves.
  • There is passion for their craft.
  • A sense of community makes them part of something bigger.
  • They have meaningful fun.
  • They have a choice on how and where they want to work.
  • They take time to connect.

I’ll take a stab at it in Part Three…

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Some Thoughts On Ed. Reform…

One of the best pieces I have read on the education reform agenda in our country appeared in The Atlantic a couple weeks ago.  The article, titled The Coming Revolution in Public Education, was written by John Tierney, a former professor and independent school teacher.  

As a father of three chidlren in the K-12 public school system, I wonder how others feel about the direction of our country’s education reform efforts.  It is understandable that a reform agenda that capitalizes on  a scoreboard that tells us which schools (and teachers) are “winning” and “losing,” would be appealing due to its simplicity. Unfortunately, there is no simple solution to the current issues that our nation’s schools face and any effort to make it seem otherwise are misguided.

Here are a few excerpts from Tierney’s piece that should cause us all to reflect a bit on the current education agenda:

  • Policies that aim to reduce variability by reducing teacher discretion not only preclude learning from situational adaptation to policy goals, they also can impede effective teaching.”
  • As The Nation magazine reported in 2011: “The research consensus has been clear and unchanging for more than a decade: at most, teaching accounts for about 15 percent of student achievement outcomes, while socioeconomic factors account for about 60 percent.”
  • …these companies (driving ed. reform efforts) are enriching themselves and their executives from taxpayers’ dollars – Pearson’s pre-tax profits soaring by 72 percent in 2011. 
  • If you want to read a detailed and damning appraisal of the secretive and error-ridden testing business, read this 2003 report by Kathleen Rhoades and George Madaus of Boston College’s Lynch School of Education. 
  • David Sirota has reported, “The reason America’s overall scores on such tests are far lower is because high poverty schools produce far worse results — and as the most economically unequal society in the industrialized world, we have far more poverty than our competitors, bringing down our overall scores accordingly.” Addressing poverty and inequality are the keys to serving America’s educational needs. 
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Testing, Testing, 1,2,3…

Think outside the bubble
 (Photo credit: MrSchuReads)

As I read through Marion Brady’s great article in The Answer Sheet titled A REAL Paradigm Shift, I can’t help thinking about how difficult it is to create an educational experience for our students that is vastly different than the one we experienced ourselves.  When we talk about redesigning our curriculum, we have to first consider origin of the word curriculum. 

Curriculum came from the Latin word ‘Currere’ which means race course/ to run/ run way, referring to the course of deeds and experiences through which children grow to become mature adults (via Wikipedia).

This is where we hit our biggest obstacle in changing the way we do school in our country.  The folks leading the way, the educators, have a tremendous hurdle to overcome in the fact that for most of us the “deeds and experiences” we have had do not mirror the experiences that we need to lead our current crop of students through.  As I make a disclaimer that I am one of those educators trying to unlearn my own formal education, I am not saying that this is an impossible task.

The rub here is that while I believe in teachers and know that they would be up to the challenge of creating a new reality in our schools, we cannot begin to tackle this work in places where our present and future judges educators, students, schools, and communities on their latest round of standardized test scores.   For educators, this is a never-ending rat race that typically evolves into an environment of “test prep” that is equally unfulfilling for them and their students.  As our state begins a redesigned teacher evaluation process that links teachers to the test scores of their students, I can’t help thinking we are headed towards an infinite loop…    

As Brady points out, as long as education reform efforts in our country continue to define accountability so narrowly, we are perpetuating a myth that there is something significant is happening or will happen.

“Standardized tests are to accountability what a finger in the wind is to a weather station. What they measure — information stored in memory — is useful, but for kids facing an unknown future, that’s not nearly enough. They need to know how to create new knowledge. That knowledge will be original, and standardized tests can’t evaluate original, non-standard thought.”

In this model, we may be able to ensure that certain things are being taught, but even this will not guarantee that significant learning is taking place.

Anyone disagree?

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The End of Standardized Testing? Hey, A Guy Can Dream…

No one I know takes standardize tests for a living
 (Photo credit: Ken Whytock)
As many of us in education dream about a public education system that is not predicated on standardized test scores, there is actually movement in some places to put an end (or at least a pause) to the ridiculous rat race of “high-stakes testing” we have been involved in.  Sam Chaltain recently posted Has Testing Reached A Tipping Point  on his blog and it is a must read for those interested in this topic.  

In the short video below, Chaltain describes schools in other nations where a student’s teachers “the ones who know a student best” design the most meaningful tests a student will take.  He advocates for school communities to answer the following questions:

What are our measures of success for our students? How do we know we are being successful?
While many are skeptical that anything dramatic will take place to change our nation’s plans to test students more often than any other country in the world, Chaltain notes some blips on the radar screen that he hopes will lead to more action for this important cause.

“Consider three separate data points as evidence: Maryland, where the superintendent of the state’s largest district of schools has called for a three-year moratorium on standardized tests; Washington, where one school’s decision to boycott its state tests has spread to other schools and communities; and Texas, where a proposed Senate bill would significantly reduce the number of state standardized tests students must pass to graduate.”

It would be interesting to see how a moratorium on testing would impact our students. I will continue to pray that we have an opportunity to see the day it happens!

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Amanda Ripley’s Intriguing Talk On Education Reform

I came across the video above from Amanda Ripley’s talk at Pop Tech 2012 on Scott McLeod’s Blog.  It really is something that I would recommend for anyone who is concerned about the state of our schools.

Ripley who is well known for her first book, The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes — and Why, is working on a book due out this summer titled The Smartest Kids In The World. In writing this book, Ripley took a unique path to investigating how the countries ranked ahead of the United States on the PISA test educate their students. She interviewed some top American students who spent time as exchange students in some of these countries and asked them to compare their experiences abroad with their experiences back here stateside in American classrooms.

The video concludes with the following three takeaways from these conversations:

  1. In the top performing countries in the world school is harder.  
  2. No country is like the US with its obsession of playing sports. 
  3. Kids (in schools in these other countries) believe there’s something in it for them. 
  4. Kids believe that what they are doing in school impacts their futures.

Ripley ends with these words , “If we want to know how to raise resilient kids, there are lots of ways to find out. One of the ways to do this is to ask kids because kids can tell you things that no one else can.”

I am excited for the book! In the meantime, I’ve added Amanda’s blog to my RSS feed.

Breaking News! No More Homework! (In France)

image via

In case you missed it French President Francois Hollande has vowed to eliminate homework for student in France as part of some sweeping education reforms he is proposing to lift France from its poor education ranking among countries in Europe.  President Hollande was quoted as follows on his desire to eliminate homework in the New York Daily News:

“An education program is, by definition, a societal program. Work should be done at school, rather than at home.”  

It will be interesting to see if the elimination of homework in France happens and how it impacts student learning.  I cannot help wondering what would be lost if we eliminated homework across the board in American schools. I think Ryan Bretag’s great post, Two Questions about Homework, gets right to the heart of this issue.

 Here are the two questions Ryan asks:

  1. As a whole, would “achievement” drop if homework didn’t exist?
  2. As a whole, would the joy of learning, living, & schooling increase if homework didn’t exist?

While the answer to the second question seems obvious, I would encourage classroom practitioners to give number one a try and find out for themselves.

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Do Schools And Educators Take Too Much Blame For Failed Reform Efforts?

As someone who is passionate about school improvement, I was very interested in a post this morning by Valerie Strauss in her Washington Post column (The Answer Sheet).  The post, titled Why almost all school reform efforts have failed, highlights the findings of David C. Berliner of Arizona State University in a new essay entitled Effects of Inequality and Poverty vs. Teachers and Schooling on America’s Youth just published in the Teachers College Record at Columbia University.

The basic premise of the essay is that the problems in our nation’s schools are due more to economic and social policy than to education policy.  Having said this, there are clear examples of a shortsighted education agenda as well, but it is clear that many of our education outcomes are a result of the impoverished conditions impacting many students. Despite the fact that we have tremendous work to do in improving the our educational system nationally, we need to stop targeting poor teaching and inadequate schools as the primary issue that will resolve our country’s poor ranking on global measures such as The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).  

While I encourage those interested in schools and school reform to read the entire essay, I have taken the liberty of citing (in italics) some of the excerpts that I found most interesting below.  

This paper arises out of frustration with the results of school reforms carried out over the past few decades. These efforts have failed. They need to be abandoned. In their place must come recognition that income inequality causes many social problems, including problems associated with education. Sadly, compared to all other wealthy nations, the USA has the largest income gap between its wealthy and its poor citizens.

Thus it is argued that the design of better economic and social policies can do more to improve our schools than continued work on educational policy independent of such concerns.

A question we all need to ask! 

The research question asked is why so many school reform efforts have produced so little improvement in American schools.

 The problem with blaming teachers and schools for all of our country’s ills… 

What does it take to get politicians and the general public to abandon misleading ideas, such as,“Anyone who tries can pull themselves up by the bootstraps,” or that “Teachers are the most important factor in determining the achievement of our youth”?

But the general case is that poor people stay poor and that teachers and schools serving impoverished youth do not often succeed in changing the life chances for their students. 

America’s dirty little secret is that a large majority of poor kids attending schools that serve the poor are not going to have successful lives

Most children born into the lower social classes will not make it out of that class, even when exposed to heroic educatorsA simple statistic illustrates this point: In an age where college degrees are important for determining success in life, only 9% of low-income children will obtain those degrees (Bailey & Dynarski, 2011).

Because of our tendency to expect individuals to overcome their own handicaps, and teachers to save the poor from stressful lives, we design social policies that are sure to fail since they are not based on reality.  

The problems with our national Education Reform efforts 

It may well be that the gains now seen are less than those occurring before the NCLB act was put into place. In fact, the prestigious and non-political National Research Council (2011) says clearly that the NCLB policy is a failure, and all the authors of chapters in a recently edited book offering alternative policies to NCLB reached the same conclusion (Timar and Maxwell-Jolly, 2012). Moreover, a plethora of negative side effects associated with high-stakes testing are now well documented (Nichols and Berliner, 2007; Ravitch, 2010).

Nations with high-stakes testing have generally gone down in scores from 2000 to 2003, and then again by 2006. Finland, on the other hand, which has no high-stakes testing, and an accountability system that relies on teacher judgment and school level professionalism much more than tests, has shown growth over these three PISA administrations (Sahlberg, 2011).

Still, most state legislatures, departments of education, and the federal congress cling to the belief that if only we can get the assessment program right, we will fix what ails America’s schools. They will not give up their belief in what is now acknowledged by the vast majority of educators and parents to be a failed policy. 

The Finland Phenomenon is also more about social policy than education policy 

Although we are constantly benchmarking American school performance against the Finns, we might be better served by benchmarking our school policies and social programs against theirs. For example, Finland’s social policies result in a rate of children in poverty (those living in families whose income is less than 50% of median income in the nation) that is estimated at well under 5%. In the USA that rate is estimated at well over 20%!

Virtually every scholar of teaching and schooling knows that when the variance in student scores on achievement tests is examined along with the many potential factors that may have contributed to those test scores, school effects account for about 20% of the variation in achievement test scores, and teachers are only a part of that constellation of variables associated with “school.”

On the other hand, out-of-school variables account for about 60% of the variance that can be accounted for in student achievement. 

What is it that keeps politicians and others now castigating teachers and public schools from acknowledging this simple social science fact, a fact that is not in dispute: Outside-of-school factors are three times more powerful in affecting student achievement than are the inside-the-school factors (Berliner, 2009)?

Berliner goes on to cite a number of possible policy changes that we could implement to do change the course of our failed education reform efforts. Again, I encourage you to read the entire essay.

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Why School? Will Richardson Leads Us Towards Answers To This Critical Question

Why School? How Education Must Change When Learning and Information are Everywhere is mandatory reading for anyone who cares about the education of their children. It is the perfect jumping off point for anyone interested in beginning or continuing a conversation on the long overdue changes that our schools need to undergo in order to provide a relevant learning experience for our students. Will Richardson speaks as a parent, a teacher, and a learner regarding the fundamental changes taking place outside the walls of our schools and he makes a compelling case as to what we need to do inside of our school walls to adjust to what he describes as “a shift in the way we define and acquire an “education.’”

I encourage school communities to read this book together as a tool for creating a new vision about why our kids go to school.   At just $2.99 a copy, you will not find a more cost effective resource. 

Will presents straightforward questions that we can present to parents and other stakeholders to help us make this much needed shift.  We need to help parents and community members engage in a narrative that will help them see clearly that the test scores that our country’s education reform movement are focused upon “tell us little if anything about our children’s chances for future success.”

Will also provides concrete examples of how and where there are schools that are starting to make this shift.  These schools have stepped away from the teacher-centered mentality that dominates most classrooms and moved to a learner-centered approach where students and teachers learn together about our rapidly changing world.  

The moral imperative for those passionate about the education of our children and their children is clear. He leaves us with this final thought:

“Just imagine the learners they could become if we made that the focus of our work, if instead of passing the test, we made those ever-more important skills of networking, inquiry, creation, sharing, unlearning and relearning the answer to “Why School?”

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Education Leadership: Will Richardson’s TEDX Talk

Originally posted on the Connected Principals Blog

I am always looking for entry points for our school community to engage in a meaningful discussion of our vision for students.  Will Richardson’s TEDx Talk from Melbourne, Australia (below) provides a clear description of where we need to be headed.

All schools need to answer the following question asked by Richardson:

What is the value of school when you don’t really need school to do school if we define school in the traditional sense?

Here are two key points from Richardson’s talk that get to the heart of this question:

  1. Learning is what our kids need to be doing in the classroom, not getting ready for assessment that were built for another time.
  2. (via Justin Reich) We pay so much attention to the measurable part of education that we miss the immeasurable part.creativity, perseverance, problem-solving are what are children need.

I would love to hear your thoughts after watching the video!

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Leadership Day 2012 – Reevaluating The Plan…

A look back to look ahead…

As I gather my thoughts for this year’s Leadership Day blog contribution, I thought I would take a look back at my posts from the past two years to evaluate my efforts. Back in 2010, my post Leadership Day 2010 – Two Of My Goals For This Year focused on connecting with my my administrative colleagues in Massachusetts and getting out and showing them the ways in which digital tools could help them to connect and collaborate within their schools, their communities, and beyond.

In last year’s post, Leadership Day 2011 – A Few Thoughts,  I focused on the following quote from Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From:

“Some environments squelch new ideas; some environments seem to breed them effortlessly. The city and the Web have been such engines of innovation because, for complicated historical reasons, they are both environments that are powerfully suited for the creation, diffusion, and adoption of good ideas.” 

The main point again was that school leaders need to take the lead due to the fact that public schools tend to stifle new ideas.  I concluded with the following words:

Of course order to do this we need to get more school leaders on board using them.  As has always been the case, our schools need to teach literacy, citizenship, and responsibility.  However, the playing field has changed and we now need to embrace the digital realm as well.  If we do not accept this, we will shortchange both our students and ourselves.

As I think about my focus on school leaders and teachers over the past two years, I feel fortunate to have made so many connections with passionate educators who have started to embrace the power of digital resources to engage students in meaningful ways.  However, I also have been frustrated at the limited movement I have seen among educators in adopting resources which I see as beneficial in the creation of more relevant learning environments for students.

This year, I propose a change in focus, or better yet, an additional focal point in the effort to create learning environments that will better prepare our students for the growingly complex world that they will enter when they complete their formal education. It is time to go all-in with that group of people that many educators tend to avoid…the parents.  We need to engage the people that care most about our students and engage them in a meaningful dialogue about the schools their students need.

Parents play a key role in our move to create more engaging classrooms.

We need to have real discussions about the fact that the classrooms that our students enter are amazingly similar to the ones that their parents and grandparents entered decades earlier despite the fact that the world outside of those classrooms is in many ways unrecognizable from the world   of school children at those times.

There is no group that cares more deeply about the education of our students than their parents. However, it is up to us to show parents some of the new resources that were not available when they were in school. Even more important is that we show parents how to use these tools that are sometimes perceived negatively by those who have never seen them used constructively. 
For quite some time schools have lamented the fact that parents do not physically show up at school for these types of conversations, but fortunately time and place is no longer a hinderance with the plethora of digital tools we can draw from to get more people engaged in te dialogue. We  (school leaders) are the only ones holding us back from this endeavor at this time.  
The tools are there to connect and there is plenty to discuss, so let’s have it! I look forward to sharing our movement in Burlington with anyone interested.

Here are a couple of reference points that will help us lead this conversation:

What Qualities Do “Bold Schools” Share? – from Will Richardson

 Race To Nowhere resources

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