Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Two Year Kindergarten Program Revived in California after 80 Years

The California Legislature recently passed Senate Bill 1381 instating a kindergarten transition program for all 4 year-olds who turn 5 between September and December and who would miss kindergarten entry. Children who are not eligible for kindergarten wait a year to begin school, unless they are fortunate enough to attend private preschool or a community funded program. This transitional program will help bridge the gap for poor students and English language learners, giving them a jump-start on their education. Currently many of these students enter school with thousands of words less vocabulary than their wealthier and English language speaking counterparts, as well as limited social skills, making them way behind before they even begin.

A two-year kindergarten program had existed in California from 1891 until the Great Depression with the goal of equalizing the opportunity for young children to learn reading, writing, arithmetic, and social skills. Many children at that time, as is true today, could not afford preschool and could not be prepared by their uneducated parents.

As a former kindergarten teacher, I applaud this new program, which will be phased in over the next three years, for several reasons. First, low income students and those with English as a second language start school way behind others in language development, which is the foundation for everything else. Also, younger children range wildly in their developmental readiness for learning in formal educational environments, so this program will allow those 'younger' 4 and 5 year olds to comfortably transition in. Finally, with all of the rigor in our schools today, this gives them one more year to just be 'kids' - letting them learn in ways that are more natural and with less pressure. Sitting out a year is not a good alternative either for anyone.

My son attended junior kindergarten at a private school even though his birthday is in July. He was quite eligible for regular kindergarten but his preschool teachers and I agreed that he was just not ready. That decision impacted his entire elementary and high school career and enabled him to be quite successful and confident where he might have found himself always trying to pay attention and 'keep up.' As a kindergarten teacher I did hold kids back who were really not ready for the rigor of sitting in desks and paying attention to a teacher at the front with 25-30 other students. I provided those students with more advanced kindergarten work their second year and all went on to succeed with confidence in ensuing grades.

There is only one additional policy change that I would like to see implemented with the transition program: test children for their readiness is a variety areas (academic and social) and let them fluidly move - regardless of their age - into the learning groups that best match their ability. In other words, don't simply use age for determining placement, but look at the whole child. Many enlightened districts do this already with a student-centered learning approach and non-graded early childhood experiences.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Digital Resources vs. Textbooks - With Adoption of the Common Core It's Getting Easier!

Forty-eight states are adopting the new Common Core education standards and educators will need to find curriculum resources to implement them. With so many states focused on the same standards, common curriculum is being developed across the country. Several California bills are being passed to keep the implementation process moving, according to John Festerwald of the Silicon Valley Education Foundation. The development of 21st century assessments is underway by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium and they will be released in the 2014-15 school year, a year earlier than the curriculum frameworks and state sponsored textbook selection.

While full implementation of the standards is a few years out, many California districts are adopting the standards and developing curriculum already, preparing for pilot implementation in the 2013-2014 school year. This is a good thing. So do we still need a textbook adoption process?

In Seattle, there is a revolt against textbooks, led by state representative Reuven Carlyle, because of the immense amount of money ($64 million per year) spent on new texts, while still leaving many outdated versions in students' hands or in warehouses, still shrink-wrapped. He proposes that educators move to digital learning resources, which are more current, engaging, and very often, free! But many oppose this approach, preferring to continue the tradition of loading student backpacks with heavy textbooks - where the content is more tangible.

Implementing digital learning requires a fundamental shift in belief for traditional-thinking teachers, administrators, school boards, and politicians. As Geoff Fletcher describes in his article, ""Driving Digital Change." Sometimes, change is accelerated by conditions and forces making it urgent. In this case, according to Fletcher, the move to digital learning is being driven by a sharp decrease in available funds, a need for efficiency in making content available to students, and thirdly, an opportunity to leverage the wide availability of engaging technology.

In California, Governor Schwarzenegger implemented the Digital Textbook Initiative to allow online Open Education Resources (OER) to be used to teach secondary science. The initiative has now expanded to include math, history, language arts, and even physical education. The California Learning Resource Network is a rich marketplace for teachers and curriculum planners to locate California Department of Education approved content, including digital textbooks, online courses, videos, and assessments.

Smart districts already have teams of teachers developing digital 21st century curriculum materials based on the Common Core and combining them with powerful learning approaches such as interdisciplinary studies and project-based learning. The students in these districts should do very well on the new assessments when they are launched. But more importantly they will be college and career ready for the 21st century, possessing skills and knowledge that go way beyond what a standardized test can measure!

Friday, August 12, 2011

Principals Are Game Changers: For Better or Worse

"It happened to them"... (not to us)! What a great statement by a sage teacher who was tired of hearing the staff complain about the kids in their school...This article, Haunting Words to Inspire Every Teacher, reminded me of my early days as a kindergarten teacher, when many of my peers loved to share stories about how badly their day had gone because of 'those kids.' 

"It happened to them, not to you. You tell the stories like it's some kind of entertainment, but it happened to them—the kids. They are the ones who 30 years from now will remember these stories with tears in their eyes."

I hated going to the break room and hearing the upper grade teachers complain about the students I had so lovingly taught a few years earlier - helping them develop independence and nurturing their natural curiosity and desire to learn, helping them to be successful in school. But what some teachers wanted kids to do was sit in their seats, be quiet, and repeat mindless rote information. No wonder the kids pushed back, acted up, or checked out, creating a vicious cycle of bad behaviors and teachers complaining.

What was most devastating to me was that the principal would come in the room and jump right into the fray, contributing his own stories, usually about 'those kids' parents, and enthusiastically encouraging this destructive behavior.

Then I moved into a new job, helping teachers in three districts with their disengaged, under-achieving gifted students. With the new job, I moved around to various teacher break rooms and could see the difference a principal makes. Where the principals spoke respectfully of students and their parents, where they modeled empathy and concern for kids who struggled, where they encouraged and coached teachers to solve problems rather than simply complain, the whole school atmosphere and culture was palpably different.

Principals can be game changers in positive and negative ways. They set the tone for their schools, even if they have no articulated philosophy, through their words and actions. Outstanding leaders attract the best and brightest teachers who crave to work in warm, compassionate, and challenging educational environments, and lousy leaders get the rest, because the good ones leave. I believe strongly, and research proves this, that the most important role in the journey toward overall student success is the school site leader - the principal.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Craziness of Testing - Driving Educators to Crazy Behavior

The scale of the testing scandal in Atlanta and other places is shocking to some, but not to me. The NCLB has put such fear into the hearts and minds of administrators that they are doing things that don't make sense for public school educators, who in their hearts should care about their children in the long run - really care for their learning - not for the short term survival of the schools. In the long run, this really hurts kids, who aren't getting the remediation they need.

Nonetheless, this reveals systemic problems with our American education system.  I agree with David Brooks when he points out that testing in itself isn't the main problem - it's the lack of a broader vision and strategy for the districts and its schools that is causing the focus on testing alone. Inner city schools that have been successful - in spite of having to administer high stakes tests - have a broader sense of purpose, a defined philosophy and approach, a rich curriculum, and caring environment. This full-range curriculum can co-exist with testing. In fact, we know that a focus on rote, mechanical test-prep does not improve test aren't learning.

While leading Cisco's 21st Century Schools Initiative in the Gulf Coast, I found that the districts who worked with us to create a clear vision and strategy and then ensured that all funding, activity, and accountability aligned with that philosophy, were much more successful in spending Cisco's money for impact and results on a broad range of measures. Some chose to follow Phil Schlechty's approach and others created their own based on clearly articulated research and best practice. Watch Phil's video for inspiration.

Systemic change means just that - change the entire system of leading, learning, and measuring if you expect transformation!

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

School Boards: Friend of Foe of Education?

Recently I've been attending school board meetings around the Bay Area as I consider seeking a job in public education. I have been to a few board meetings in the past and viewed them as a bit boring but necessary. During these incredibly trying times for public education, especially in California, as I've attended school board meetings in the Bay Area, I have to say my view of these volunteers has sharpened in their favor.

School board members are elected officials who have a variety of reasons for entering this office, but most of them really care about education and the kids they serve. Most boards meet once or twice a month, often for 3-5 hours, and attend several committee meetings, travel to Sacramento for budget and legislative updates, and visit schools. All of this is volunteer time and for some, it means missing work or doing the board work after a long day at the office.

School board meetings are open to the public and several of the meetings I've attended have been heart-wrenching as school children, their parents, and teachers plead with the board to maintain music, special education, and library programs. There is talk of reducing the school year through furlough days (end school in April?) and increasing class size. The California legislature has loosened up requirements so almost anything can be considered to cut costs.  What they should be doing is making decisions about increasing revenue to support education.

School boards do important work that goes unappreciated by most. The members I've observed are trying to make compassionate and wise decisions in the best interest of students. It's not an easy job and if they aren't committed to doing the right thing, supporting the superintendent and the staff, they don''t last long. If you know a school board member and you think he or she is doing a good job, be sure to say "thanks"!

Friday, February 18, 2011

Visionary Leadership, Focus on Success for All Students, and a Dash of Humility

Yesterday the AASA named Marc Johnson of Sanger, California the National Superintendent of the Year. I happened to meet Marc a few weeks ago at a superintendents' conference and was very impressed with him. He is passionate, wise, and committed to kids -- and very modest about his accomplishments -- he was able to turn around a failing district in just a few years - and not with millions in federal funding. Read here to learn more.

What Marc did was focus on a limited set of critical results for student achievement and then depend on teacher collaboration to develop solutions. Good teachers want to improve the learning environment for students and they generally know how to do it. Marc Johnson knew this and initiated professional learning communities in Sanger, and then got out of the way.

Teachers collaborated to develop, implement and measure strategies to make every student successful. Now the district is no longer in school improvement and most of the schools are achieving at high levels. The results are magnificent!

What did the teachers do? They identified minimum standards for students to achieve at every grade level and then committed to help every single child achieve those objectives (rather than pushing them to the next grade unprepared).  Through the PLCs they shared best practices and coached each other. They always focused on the kids - not politics - and the school leadership ensured that everything that worked was measured and replicated.

It's not that complicated, but in most districts, there are too many distractions on 'new programs' to perform miracles rather than focusing on the processes that work.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Productivity Study - On the Right Track, Almost

As reported in EdWeek recently, the Center for American Progress has released their report on the productivity of thousands of school districts across the country.  The study compares district spending per student to achievement on standardized tests. They found that "after adjusting for inflation, education spending per student has nearly tripled over the past four decades. But while some states and districts have spent their additional dollars wisely—and thus shown significant increases in student outcomes—overall student achievement has largely remained flat."

Some of their conclusions are fascinating but not surprising - there were mixed results. For example, some of the higher performing districts spent much less than others, low performing urban school districts spent more than higher-performing similar districts in many cases, and suburban districts with almost identical demographics spent widely ranging amounts. The study did not uncover clear reasons for these differences and similarities - that will be the next study I imagine.

What's lacking in this study, as with many other recent reports on district productivity (the new buzz word), is solid recommendations for what to do to make school districts more efficient. What's missing is the focus on PROCESS improvement.

All work is a process and all processes cost money. Districts lose money every day on disorganized and complicated processes, many driven by outdated or unrealistic policies and assumptions. Until district leadership gathers their cross-functional teams to analyze what they are doing and why they are doing it, productivity will not go up. Using an organized approach with process improvement tools will enable teams to identify wasted time and effort. It will also uncover the sacred cows and the elephants in the corner that must be dealt with and eliminated.

Only by focusing on process redesign can district leaders give more time and money back to student programs that really work and where funding really belongs.