Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Truth that School Reformers Don't Want You to Know

Sometimes when you tell the truth, it sounds like an excuse. People outside of education have a lot of advice on how to solve the problems with public education. They come from very well meaning places, but sometimes they might not even understand the problem they are trying to solve.

An easy sound bite is that every student should graduate or No Child Left Behind or every student succeeds. People then point at public schools as failing because it seems reasonable that every student should graduate from high school. After all, they say, if your goal isn't 100% graduation, then which kid are you OK with not graduating? That is a tough spin. It also puts educators in a bad position. Do you say it's not realistic, giving the appearance you don't believe all kids can succeed?  Do you set a goal that you know is impossible to reach and just let it sit there with every educator knowing it is unrealistic?  When the nation's schools inevitably fail at this goal, any reason for failure is looked at as an excuse.

Every student can learn. This sound bite is true. However, the pace for every student isn't the same. The style of learning isn't the same. Life factors matter. Some will achieve amazing things in music but not science, others might be great in welding, but not English class. Schools meet many different needs, but it isn't fair to say all kids will graduate or achieve at a high level in all subjects.

If we view truth as an excuse, our solutions are different. If we look at  teachers as if they are the problem, then our solution might be to get rid of tenure or pensions.  If we just got rid of tenure, the argument goes, we could fire the bottom percentage of teachers. If we got rid of these pensions, teachers wouldn't be so complacent and lazy. Maybe we can just bring in merit pay. That will motivate teachers to perform at a higher level. 

There are many problems with these solutions. For one, the problem isn't the motivation of teachers. The solution of getting rid of tenure and loss of pensions just exacerbates the situation. People are already not lining up for certain teaching jobs. Secondly, merit pay never works. It is too subjective and if you make it objective, it means using test scores which is an  inaccurate way to assess teaching. Assessments are designed to assess learning, not teaching. It also narrows focus to that which can be tested.

So what are some truths.

Truth: a child is taken from his home after his father attempts to commit suicide and mom gets sent to jail on the same night for drug use. When the police arrive, the children are sent to another community to be placed in foster care.

Another truth: a mom is shot and killed while daughter is in the house. Daughter arrives at new school after moving in with family members.

Another truth: a mother is released from prison. The school gets a call that the mother isn't to show up at school as she no longer has parental rights.

Another truth: a mom shows up to eat lunch with her kids. Later that day she leaves town running from the police. She is later caught and sent to prison. The school finds out the reason she came to lunch is because she knew it might be her last chance to see her kids.

So, back to 100% graduation.

People want to make it out that American public schools are failing. Only 78% graduate from high school in America. But look into those numbers. That is a 4 year graduation rate. "It is also accurate to say that 90% of those between the ages of 18-24 have a high school diploma." It is also accurate to say "On average, 3.4% of students who were enrolled in public or private high schools in October of 2008 left school before October of 2009 without completing a high school program" (Ravitch, 2013). How can all 3 of these be accurate?  Numbers are can be presented for a specific purpose. If I want you to know how bad schools are, I will leave you with impression that a quarter of our kids don't graduate. If I want you to understand reality, I'll let you know that while some students didn't graduate in time, they still graduated.

Facts are important. Truth matters. Faulty rationale can be used to solve a problem that might not even exist, at least to the extent to which people might want you to believe.

Nearly all kids graduate. Kids achieve at the highest level in human history. That is in spite of the truths of some children's lives. Maybe you think the above stories are exaggerated to prove a point. I want to be very clear with this. Every story above is true, every story above is from this school year, and every story above is from one grade level.  These are not from a scary urban school district.  These are the stories that can be told in many public schools.

So maybe the problem isn't lazy, unmotivated teachers or a failing public school system. Maybe the problem is more societal than an educational problem.  If that's the case, then the solution isn't getting rid of tenure, pensions, or privatizing education. Instead we should look to our public schools as a beacon of hope. Maybe we should look at teachers as the heroes that they are and realize that lazy doesn't describe this profession. Passion, dedication, and tireless commitment are much better descriptions of those in the teaching profession.

Truth matters. Public schools succeed. Teachers change lives.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Complicated Success of American Education

Why are 77% of Americans happy with their local public school and yet only 19% of people rate the overall public school system with high marks (Gallup poll, 2012)?  Why have public schools been blamed for any number of shortfallings such as USSR's launch of Sputnik in the 50's, the failure of the auto industry in the 80's, or the proclaimed idea that we are putting our nation in a national security issue in the present time?  How are our scores so consistently low on international tests and yet we still have the strongest economy in the world?

We are so regularly told how bad our schools are that we don't believe our own eyes.  We look at our local schools and say, "If only the rest of America could do it like we do."  At the same time, across the country, others are saying the exact same thing about their schools. The Huffington Post recently had a blog by Steven Singer that pointed out that Napoleon's short stature is a commonly accepted fact. Unless you look at actual facts. The problem is, Napoleon was taller than the average man during his life. So why do we believe that he was short?  When something is repeated often enough, it becomes our perceived truth. Remember the "Summer of the Shark?" In 2001, I heard so many reports of shark attacks that I began to get scared to get in the water and I live in Nebraska. Shark attacks were reported daily. The only problem, shark attacks were actually lower during the summer of 2001 than they were during 2000.

Other countries study our public schools system. They note the independence, innovation, adaptability, and creativity of our students. While others are studying our schools, our federal government was putting out a report called "Nation at Risk" in 1983. This claimed that we were at danger because of our poor performing public schools. Yet, here we are 34 years later with the strongest economy in the world. Why? How can this be?  The product of our education system is the students who graduate and become adults in our nation. Public schools do an outstanding job of preparing an educated society.  As Yong Zhao writes, "Innovative people cannot come from schools that force students to memorize correct answers on standardized tests or reward students who excel at regurgitating spoon-fed knowledge."

There is plenty to be concerned about with public education. Continuing to focus on improvement is completely appropriate and needed. The measures we choose must be carefully selected. Standardized assessments have a place but do not tell the full story. Creativity and adaptability are not easily assessed in standardized assessments. These tests can help us find our shortcomings and strengths and can be useful for discussions of next steps for our children inspecific academic content areas. However, single data points are rarely good ways to make decisions. A school system that promotes equity of opportunities, creativity and innovation along with high academic standards will produce greater long term results than the short term wins of rote memorization for the purpose of high test scores. If you look solely at the results of standardized assessments, you will come up with very different solutions than you will if you find a way to place value on creativity.

Friday, February 10, 2017

The Path to Privatization

Imagine if in 2001, police were given a mandate that by 2014, every neighborhood would be crime free. If they were not crime free, police officers would be fired and police stations would be shut down and privatized.

Which neighborhoods do you think would be furthest from this goal, rich or poor neighborhoods?

Which police stations, given the goal of 100% crime free would reach that goal?

Which police departments would be considered failures?

If given a completely unattainable goal, would we all just say "I guess public police departments no longer work. We need to defund them by siphoning money to private security firms."

Siphoning funding from a public institution for a problem that is overstated and misdirected is not wise. No more can police fix all of society's ills than can public schools. Defunding through splitting of money to more entities is less efficient and effective. Holding public schools accountable while deregulating the private sector and holding no accountability measures seems illogical.

Many factors came together in 2001 when this very thing happened to public schools. One factor was that some wanted the privatization of schools and they saw these unreasonable goals as a way to get there.  The punitive nature of the legislation led to blaming rather than fixing, which for some proponents of NCLB, this is exactly what they wanted. This blame put teacher's unions in the position of  being seen as self serving and people in favor of privatization began a campaign to blame things like tenure (poor teachers can be removed, regardless of years of service) and pensions as the reason for the failure of our schools.

Simply calling schools failures doesn't make it true. An apples to apples comparison with other countiries does not exist. The first major report on education "A Nation at Risk" was published in 1983. The fear that our system was a failure has been around for 34 years. If our education system was as bad as the 1983 report indicated, shouldn't we have seen the results. Students who graduated in 1983 are closer to retirement than they are to their 20th reunion.

We can't allow false narratives to drive us to unsustainable answers that will not work for all children. Democracy requires an educated citizenry.  Private industry succeed where there is a profit motive. Public systems fill the needs that don't provide a profit motive but are essential to our democracy,  economy, and general welfare.

Kids not Test Scores

It would be interesting to see what we could accomplish if we stopped focusing on competition and began focusing on process.

Policy makers too often see kids as numbers. They pit schools against each other putting poorer neighborhoods in the position of appearing to fail. If we stopped thinking of kids as test scores and started looking at them as kids, I believe our focus would shift. Education isn't a competition, it is a collaborative effort for the collective good.

At an individual school level, we can set different types of goals. One would be a proficiency goal. However, AS ALL EDUCATORS KNOW, proficiency goals focus on a small number of students. This type of goal requires you to have laser like focus on students on the bubble. You don't worry, for the sake of the goal, on the very bottom students as they will not be proficient no matter what. You don't focus on the top because they will always be proficient. So the bubbles kids get the focus.

If you focus on a growth goal, you focus on all students. Every student should grow at least one year of growth. Any goal that has "every" in it sets you up for failure, however, you can see where growth goal can focus our attention on all students.

Both of these goals miss the mark. I think you can establish a growth goal but the focus must be on process. Why? You can control the process and thereby help kids.

  • Use research based promising practices that increase student learning. 
  • Don't obsess about student results. 
  • Let results occur because you put into place the best possible practices. 
  • Ensure a feedback rich classroom. 
  • Establish clear learning goals. 
  • Establish expected teaching practices such as Gradual Release.
  • Focus on giving students many opportunities to respond to both engage students and to give specific feedback. 
  • Determine what students need to know and create questions that get students to the goal. 
  • Establish levels of questions and the create question sequences that maximize your student engagement and depth of knowledge. 
  • Create grading practices that provide information about next steps for students.
  • Set up time to allow teachers to collaborate and focus on student learning of essential learning goals. 
  • Establish quality assessments to determine student depth of knowledge. 

When process becomes the focus, results follow. When we look at 8 year old children as kids and not as test scores, we can make a difference.