It was an interesting -- albeit hectic -- week in Radical Nation, y'all. You see, Dell Computers paid my way to MIT to participate in a Social Think Tank event focused on Innovation in Education.
Not only was I rolling like a big-shot on a college campus that I could only DREAM about attending, I was hanging out with some pretty bright minds including Michael Horn, co-author of Disrupting Class – a book that changed the way that I think about the role that technology will play in school reform.
The conversation was pretty darn engaging from start to finish -- and as a guy who really digs engaging conversations, that turned the event into a much-needed intellectual pick-me-up for a professionally exhausted full-time classroom teacher.
What I loved the most about the event was seeing first-hand the level of consensus that exists around the changes that have to happen to move our schools forward.
EVERYONE sitting at the table -- representatives from businesses, central office and higher education staffers, community leaders from organizations like the PTA and the Boys and Girls Clubs, student leaders -- knew that our buildings needed to move towards places where students learned to experiment and imagine INSTEAD of remaining places where students spend their days listening and memorizing.
And EVERYONE sitting at the table knew that doing so would require the efforts of broad groups of committed stakeholders working together.
Each panelist listened with the intent of finding ways that the groups THEY represented could affect change INSTEAD of with the intent of finding ways that they could point the finger at other groups that were dropping the ball.
That's reason for celebration, y'all. It's a tangible reminder of the fact that we DO know a thing or two about what needs to change in our schools -- and we DO have partners willing to do some of the heavy lifting with us.
But all-in-all, I left the conversation with reasons to be pessimistic, too.
While I can't find an article to support the assertion, I heard an interesting statistic on ESPN's Mike and Mike Show this week: Of the 18 quarterbacks taken with the first pick in the NFL draft, NONE -- including legends like Terry Bradshaw and Peyton Manning -- have led their new teams to a winning season in year one.
In fact, the BEST performance turned in by a quarterback taken with the first pick was a seven-win season.
That doesn't bode well for Andrew Luck, does it?
The Colts won TWO games last year, y'all. Then, they lost -- or cut, or waived away -- a TON of the name-brand talent to free-agency. To make matters worse, Indianapolis enters this season with a first-time General Manager AND a first-time head coach calling the shots.While excitement in Indy may be higher than ever, expectations -- of fans, of the organization, of the national sports media -- are justifiably tempered.
No one is going to be screaming for Luck to get canned when the Colts finish yet another disappointing season this year. Instead, we'll recognize the situation for what it is: Luck -- like most football players taken with the first pick -- is a talented player on a REALLY crappy team.
What's more, EVERYONE who cares about the Colts will hold Indianapolis management accountable for making things BETTER for Luck in the next few years.
The expectation will be that Colt's owner Jim Irsay will pony up serious cash to build Luck's offensive line and to surround him with a set of stars at talent positions like running back and wide receiver. Investments will be made in the starting defense in an effort to keep games close and to give Luck more chances with the football.
Long story short: People will expect great things from Luck, but they'll also understand that great things don't happen in a vacuum.
If Luck struggles in an underfunded, dysfunctional system that needs to be rebuilt from the bottom up, it'll be the system -- not the star who is struggling alone against impossible circumstances -- that bears the brunt of the blame.
That's a lesson that I wish #edpolicy wonks would learn when whipping up new plans to hold teachers accountable for their performance.
The uncomfortable truth for education's most vocal critics is that teachers struggle in the same kinds of underfunded, dysfunctional systems that Andrew Luck will face this year all of the time -- and in the face of a sluggish economy, those systems are MORE underfunded and dysfunctional than ever.
We face ever-growing class sizes as districts freeze hiring in response to budget cuts. Those classes have more students with special learning needs than at any point in the history of the public school system, yet there are fewer special programs teachers to provide ongoing support to students in the regular education classroom.
Professional development dollars are limited at best, leaving few opportunities for teachers to acquire the kinds of new skills necessary to adapt to ever-changing school populations. Supplies that we once took for granted -- simple things like computers, copy paper, and colored pencils -- are few and far between.
Heck, the budget is so tight in my district that janitorial services have been cut to the quick -- which means that if I want the tile floor in my science lab to be cleaned, I've got to go find a mop and a bucket and do it myself.
Can you even IMAGINE the Colts cutting their custodial services and instead asking Andrew Luck to pick up a mop a few times a week?
I guess what I'm trying to say is that teachers are FINE with being held accountable for our performance when we know that we are working in systems that give us a fighting chance to succeed.
But it's unrealistic -- not to mention unhealthy and unfair -- to point the finger at classroom teachers for the struggles of the system while simultaneously refusing to surround them with the tools that they need in order to succeed.
Related Radical Reads:
“What kinds of patterns can we find in the wrong answers that students gave on the end of grade exams?” we ask at the beginning of every school year.
“Are certain groups and/or grade levels better at answering certain types of questions? How should we change the way that we deliver information to ensure that more kids get more answers right on next year’s exams?”
We dissect individual test items, looking for vocabulary words that might have tripped students up; we try to spot teachers that seem to have discovered the best practices for helping kids to master required content; and we worry about what standardized testing results would say to our community about our accomplishments.
And that bugs me. When the schooling becomes a single-minded grind to find “the right answers,” powerful questions are pushed aside.
At the community level that means no one ever digs deep enough to figure out just what we want our kids to learn while they’re in school.
We haven’t collectively clarified the kinds of educational outcomes that we care about.Instead, we blindly accept the arguments of policymakers that schools are failing and more accountability (read: public ridicule based on rankings released after once-a-year multiple choice tests are administered) is the only answer.
At the district level that means no one ever pushes back against practices that few educators believe in.
“Are we REALLY convinced that standardization – of content, of delivery, of assessments – is making our schools stronger?” is a question that no one seems willing to ask.Instead, we accept the status quo and do the best we can to work within a system that we KNOW is broken.
At the school level that means no one ever questions the value of the content that we’re required to teach.
“What do we want students to know and be able to do?” isn’t worth talking about; it’s a question that has already been answered in daily pacing guides designed to ensure that anything that MIGHT be on the end of grade exams is covered before June 1st.
And at the classroom level, that means no one ever dares to imagine.
Phrases like “what would happen if” and “why should we believe in” that play a regular role in the language of innovators and entrepreneurs are replaced with phrases like “do you know how to” and “what do you remember about” which do nothing more than emphasize the skills required to find the right answers to someone else’s questions.
The simple truth is that reform just isn’t possible in organizations who have forgotten how to ask their own questions – and sadly, that’s what education has become.
This post originally appeared over at the Smartblogs Education site.
As I was cleaning out my school mailbox today, I stumbled across the following mailer from Scholastic -- the ever-popular book and magazine company that serves a bajillion schools and students a year:
(click to enlarge)
Does that bother anyone besides me?
I guess whenever I see the word "IMPORTANT" followed by a bulleted list that STARTS with "Raise Test Scores" and ENDS with "Improve Understanding of Science Concepts," I see ANOTHER reminder of our nation's skewed #edpolicy priorities.
What's frightening is that I'm SURE that Scholastic has done enough research to KNOW that putting "Raise Test Scores" first in their bulleted list is going to result in more opened envelopes that putting "Improve Understanding of Science Concepts" first.
Companies of all kinds respond to their markets, y'all -- and Scholastic's figured out that educators care first-and-foremost about raising test scores.
That should leave us feeling more than a little convicted.
Related Radical Reads:
On the tread mill the other day reading Born to Run – a New York Times Bestseller about an underground ultra-marathon that took place in the Copper Canyons of Mexico – I came across a truth that few weekend warriors probably realize: Running shoes are actually HORRIBLE for you.
“Putting your feet in shoes is similar to putting them in a plaster cast,” explains Dr. Gerard Hartmann, a noted physical therapist cited time and again in Born to Run.
“If I put your leg in plaster, we’ll find forty to sixty percent atrophy of the musculature within six weeks. Something similar happens to your feet when they are encased in shoes” (p. 177).
That’s interesting stuff, isn’t it?
Here we are THINKING that we’re helping every time we roll out to the Nike store to drop a few bills on the latest and greatest gadgets to keep our creaky feet happy while we’re hobbling through our workouts when we’re REALLY just making matters worse by weakening the very muscles that man has relied on for millions of years.
Sit back and stew in that for a minute, though, and it makes perfect sense.
Our barefoot predecessors literally relied on their feet for survival. They ran from threats. They ran for food. They ran more miles in a month than most of us will run in our lifetimes – and they did it without ANY help from Dr. Scholl’s or the foot-care “specialists” encamped in Beaverton, Oregon.
Compare that to our new-and-improved world where arch support and custom orthotics are slid inside every shoe and there should be no surprise that our feet have grown lazy.
THEY don’t have to work hard anymore because WE are convinced that we can engineer our way out of any physical challenge.
Long story short: We’ve gone soft, y’all.
I wonder if the same atrophy happens to teachers when we force them to follow the scripted curricula that have become so common in today’s “results-driven” schools.
Seen initially as crucial supports designed to structure the work of struggling teachers, day-by-day pacing guides – like running shoes – have become the norm rather than the exception in education.
As a result, we’ve become an “injury-prone” profession because we’ve forgotten to rely on our greatest strength: The minds of our classroom teachers.
Think about it: There’s no need to flex your intellectual muscles when you’re ONLY being held accountable for delivering predetermined lessons on predetermined days.
Just like natural movements are impossible for feet strapped inside of plaster casts, innovation is impossible for practitioners bound by rigid guidelines. As a result, skills that we once took for granted waste away and are forgotten.
Frightening analogy, isn’t it?
(This bit is cross-posted on the Smartblogs Education page. You can find it here.)
Poking around my feed reader on Thursday, I found a great bit on Scott McLeod's blog spotlighting two interesting quotes about value-added measures of teacher quality.
My favorite quote makes a simple argument: Organizations who argue that value-added measures of teacher quality -- which have been proven time-and-again to be flawed on a good day -- should play SOME role in teacher evaluation are doing nothing more than asking people to eat crap:
Now don't get me wrong: Even I think that teacher evaluation practices are fatally flawed.
Check out this bit I wrote almost two years ago arguing that my own evaluations have done little to help me to improve as an educator.
But that doesn't mean I'm ready to accept high-stakes test-driven evaluation models that do little to encourage collaboration between teachers and that force teachers to focus on the kinds of simplistic skills that we can actually test instead of the kinds of essential skills our kids will actually need to survive and thrive in tomorrow's world.
Related Radical Reads:
In yet another example of economists churning out crappy research that will have a negative impact on #edupolicy, Harvard professor Roland Fryer and Freakonomics co-author and University of Chicago professor Steven Levitt recently released a study touting the #edupower of "loss aversion" merit pay programs.
So what exactly do "loss aversion" merit pay programs look like in action?
Essentially, participating teachers are given a bonus at the BEGINNING of a school year -- in Fryer and Levitt's study, $4,000 -- and then told that they'll have to GIVE BACK monies if their students don't meet and/or exceed expectations on standardized tests given at the end of the school year.
Now THAT is nothing short of pure #edubrilliance, isn't it?
Hit 'em with a little carrot and a little stick and maybe those lazy teachers will pick up the slack and finally start performing. The same approach was VERY successful, Fryer and Levitt point out, at improving the productivity of CHINESE FACTORY WORKERS in the ONLY other setting where the benefits of loss-aversion merit pay programs were studied.
Outside of the obvious methodological flaws in this heaping pile of #edutrash -- the authors themselves admit that unravelling the impact different members of teaching teams have on the performance of the individual students that they share was impossible -- Fryer and Levitt fail to understand a simple #edutruth about teachers:
External incentives -- no matter WHEN they are awarded -- are ineffective in education because we're ALREADY working as hard as we can to do right by our kids.
As my good friend Rick DuFour likes to say, NO ONE in this profession wakes up in the morning thinking, "I'm going to do a half-assed job this morning because I'm just not being paid enough to work any harder than that."
Teachers are driven by the desire to see our students succeed -- and while our practices may need polishing, to assume that a few thousand bucks might FINALLY force us to give our all is nothing short of #eduignorance.
Seriously. Let's think about this for a minute: Are we REALLY convinced that folks who have willingly chosen a career in the classroom are holding something back out of spite over their salaries knowing full-well that holding back has life-altering consequences for kids?
The problem in education isn't long lines of pathetic teachers who need a good kick in the pants, y'all. The problem in education is long lines of teachers who are working in dysfunctional, underfunded systems that incentivize irresponsible practices.
And to put it bluntly, we're just plain #eduscrewed as long as we are willing to allow the narrow, pessimistic view of human behavior held by economists to drive the most important choices that we make about what happens in our classrooms.
Really Long List of Related Radical Reads Which I Invite Economists to Peruse Before Wasting Anymore Time Studying Merit Pay Programs:
I was feeling a bit creative tonight, so I whipped up a slide from a Robert Sternberg quote that I found in Tony Wagner's new book Creating Innovators.
Hope you dig it:
How good is YOUR school at encouraging creativity?
(Tough question, huh?)
Related Radical Reads:
Original Image Credit: But 2007 by Christopher Dombres
Licensed Creative Commons Attribution on July 5, 2012
Blogger's Note: I'm in a bad mood this morning. I apologize in advance for the crankiness, but I won't apologize for speaking the truth about the increasingly crappy #edpolicy decisions being made here in North Carolina.
In just another example of the illogical destruction of a once celebrated K-12 school system, the North Carolina legislature -- led by conservative wing-nut Senate leader Phil Berger -- pushed through a new budget last week that requires schools to be rated on A-F scales, reintroduces rigid promotion gateways that will lead to more student retentions, AND insists that local districts implement performance pay for teachers.
This all sounds great in theory, right?
"It's about damn time," the argument goes, "that we start holding schools -- AND those fat lazy teachers -- accountable for something!"
And it fits right in with the "declaring war on teachers and breaking public education to pieces" approach to school reform (see here and here) being modeled in educational wastelands places like Florida and Tennessee -- which rank 30th and 44th in a 2011 study of the states doing the best job educating their kids.
But here's the hitch, Phil: North Carolina ranks 45th in per pupil spending -- ponying up an average of $8,409 per pupil, $2,200 LESS than the national AVERAGE of $10,615.
That means theoretically that a large school like mine (which serves nearly 1,200 students) has $2.6 MILLION less to spend PER YEAR than schools of similar sizes in states that spend the national average on education -- and $8.2 MILLION less to spend PER YEAR than schools of similar sizes in states like Vermont, which regularly stand atop the "best educated" lists generated by the folks over at Statemaster.com
Shocker, huh? Kind of hard to believe that individual schools -- or districts or states -- with MILLIONS and MILLIONS more to spend EVERY YEAR on schools, staffers and/or supplies actually outperform those of us who haven't got two nickels to rub together.
Thom Tillis -- the North Carolina House's very own penny-pinching, tea-drinking, underinformed dribble spouting conservative superhero -- recently said:
“We are open to ideas that promote public education and produce positive outcomes for students and teachers."
Glad to hear it,Thom. Here's mine: Either start providing our schools with the resources that they need to do the job by getting our per pupil spending up to the national AVERAGE or quit pretending to be shocked by the mediocre results that we're able to produce when you systematically tie our financial hands squarely behind our backs.
The moral of the story isn't all that hard to understand: Positive outcomes for students and teachers start and end with actually HAVING the resources to do the job that you're asking us to do.
(As an interesting aside for my local readers: Circumstances are even worse in Wake County, where we only spend $7,700 per pupil -- almost $3,000 less than the national average. The way I see it, we're doing pretty well considering what we've been given.)
Related Radical Reads:
Bill Ferriter teaches 6th grade language arts in North Carolina, where he was named a Regional Teacher of the Year for 2005-2006.