Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Six Impossible Things

The other day I saw the movie Alice in Wonderland and came upon a terrific line spoken by Alice about her father, an innovative capitalist: "Why, everyday I've thought of six impossible things before breakfast!" Near the end of the movie Alice realizes that six things she thought were impossible had all happened! I'm beginning to feel the same way about our national educational landscape. Impossible, or at least, unlikely things are happening that may shape - in a positive way - the re-authorization of the ESEA, also known as the "No Child Left Behind" act as well as The Race To The Top competition. There are obvious political reasons for some of these events and controversy as well, but I think they are signs of a major disruption in the attempt of the federal government, specifically the DOE, to exert more control over local issues.
  1. Governor Crist vetoes Florida's bill to tie teacher evaluation to test scores and eliminate tenure. While it is unclear whether the huge opposition to the bill by teachers, students, parents, teachers, and community leaders swayed him, it is clear that grassroots efforts are gaining momentum.
  2. Kansas, Vermont, Indiana, Texas, and others have pulled out of Race to the Top for a variety of reasons, but in essence they are refusing to adhere to the Feds' control of local issues by attaching strings to the money.
  3. Diane Ravitch, a staunch supporter of charter schools, standards, and accountability using standardized testing, has reversed her point of view based on data showing that these 'innovations' aren't working. Her new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System is now number 17 on the NYT bestseller list after a little over a month. Her Facebook fan base is growing fast!
  4. Diane is being listened to as she makes her way across the country and it is the grassroots - teachers, administrators, parents - who are coming to hear her. They finally have someone on their side.
  5. Arne Duncan is doing a series of town hall meetings on CNN. He's saying all the right things and admitting that there are serious flaws in NCLB. Could it be he's floating trial balloons for big changes or is this just another politician telling us what we want to hear with no plans to "walk the talk"?
  6. The DOE is funding consortia across several states to create more balanced assessments ($350 million). Hopefully they will look at more than just test scores. The largest consortia has Linda Darling Hammond as their chief advisor. That is reassuring. As Obama's chief education advisor during his campaign, she was the logical choice for Secretary of Education but was pushed out. Maybe now she can have some influence.
In some ways none of these events are impossible...but they may represent a groundswell back to sanity in education policy decision-making...letting the professionals in the field start making some headway in fixing so much of what is wrong.

    Tuesday, April 6, 2010

    Give Kids Technology and Let Them Go - They Will Show You Amazing Things!

    I recently attended an exciting technology open house at my local K-8 school district. The combination of a visionary principal, hard-working staff, committed parents, and a persistent fundraiser brought a one-to-one laptop solution to the schools in only one year.

    Looking in on our well-to-do community, one might not be surprised that we were able to do this from a financial perspective. But that is not what is important here. Many communities, wealthy and poor, are finding ways to make computers accessible to every student. What is impressive here is that in less than one year, all teachers and students are using these computers throughout the curriculum, throughout every day.

    This isn't because the teachers are forcing their use, but because the kids are being allowed to use computers as a work tool - something quite natural for them. For this to happen, teachers need confidence that they can ease their need for control and let learning occur. To help with this they visited other successful 1:1 schools, attended many hours of professional development, and were coached and encouraged by hard-working educational technology specialists. Teachers are comfortable letting the kids take out the computers whenever they need to. What resulted was not the typical "once a year major multimedia project" as one teacher told me, but "quality, everyday learning products."

    Many districts buy the technology but forget that it is hard work for teachers and staff to weave technology into their daily learning environments.

    The open house was amazingly student-centered and reflected this philosophy of computer as learning tool. Throughout the evening students from kindergarten to eighth grade presented their digital products (500+), reflecting the use of technology in every subject. There were no teacher presentations. The products revealed the willingness of teachers to encourage students to display their learning in their own ways. There was much evidence of independent learning, and the sophistication of much of the work shows how far kids can go when you have high expectations while letting them be creative, which is quite natural for them.

    As a kindergarten teacher who encouraged students' natural creativity, I used to say, "If they can do these things at 5 years old, imagine, if we let them go, what they'll be doing when they're 16!" We are still learning this lesson and technology is making it easier.

    Thursday, April 1, 2010

    Bullying Is Beyond Teacher and Administration Control - My Personal Experience

    A recent rash of bullying by teens that has resulted in deaths and suicides appears to be something new and disturbing, inflamed by the Internet.  Everyone is trying to find someone to blame - teachers, administrators, the victim, but I feel strongly that the greatest responsibility lies with the teens who did the bullying and their parents.  And this is nothing new, although the Internet can add to the frequency and intensity of the bullying.

    In 1968, I was bullied for reasons apparently similar to the girl in South Hadley, MA., who had recently moved from Ireland. At the beginning of my senior year of high school my family moved from Southern California to a small town in New England, a culture shock for sure (think Doors-West Coast v. Young Rascals-East Coast, mini-skirts v. Villager print dresses to the knees, and on and on). My new experience was a weird mix of boys immediately being interested in taking the new California girl to the movies (read that "parking and drinking beer and...") and girls refusing to let me join their clubs, groups, and parties. I had come to the school as a student body officer, cheerleader, and student play director - confident and happy, and because of heartless humiliation and backstabbing (what did I do? I wouldn't go "parking" - what a snob!) by January I had lost all of my confidence, was miserable, and actually started stuttering for the first time in my life!

    Who was at fault? While I didn't have thoughts of suicide, I had certainly backtracked and was very sad. 40 years ago I blamed my fellow students, maybe their parents, but certainly not the teachers and administrators - they had little idea about the intensity of my problem. Did I tell my parents? No. I was a typical teen protecting my privacy, blaming myself, confused. Luckily for me I found a group of great kids who were also 'different' and found my way. Peers were the problem and the solution!

    35 years later, my introvert son went through a very similar experience at his large high school. After 8 wonderful years at a small private school, my son, a little geeky, a little shy, found life challenging at a large upper middle class public high school. He didn't fit in and was bullied terribly, became very depressed, and desperately needed help. Yet, even though I was aware of his state of mind and got him help (outside of school) I had no idea until he matured and told me the stories, just how horrible his daily life at school was.

    We have to stop blaming teachers and administrators for everything that happens to kids just because those kids spend several hours each day in their care (6 hours out of 24!). Instead we - as a society -  should be looking at what is causing the irresponsible behavior of mean kids - what makes them so unhappy, insecure, and aggressive? Why doesn't the silent majority of kids help those being attacked? Are they modeling their parents' behavior?

    The key is human behavior and social behavior are complex, and simply blaming the teachers is a cop-out, when even parents don't know what is going on with their children, both the bullies and the victims. Let's start a dialogue about compassion and taking responsibility for each other -  at home, in schools, and in communities. And it wouldn't hurt to have a zero tolerance policy for disrespect in schools either (among students, teachers, and administrators), it just can't be the only solution.