Friday, October 30, 2009

A Mother's Influence

My mother asked me yesterday why I hadn't done my homework.  Actually she asked why I hadn't written a blog in over a week.  I had hopes of being able to post every day, but the travel has been  intense lately.  My last blog from Kentucky was followed by a trip to Washington, DC which in turn was followed by a trip to Albion, NY.  The trip to Washington was for a national commission sponsored by the CCSSO called EdSteps.  We are studying Creativity in schools and how best to foster it in young people. Still in the early days, it is an incredibly exciting experience full of practical promise for improving education.  More on that in future blogs.

Note that my mother prompted me yesterday and here is my blog today.  It brings up a critical, and at times controversial, issue in education: the role of parents.  Some say schools should assume that parents are not going to be in the picture and if they are it is a bonus.  Others say schools must work hard to communicate with parents and get them involved as much as possible if they want students to be successful.  The issue of parental involvement is tangled up with class, race, and economic issues.  I see this in the schools I visit across the country from Somerville, MA to Perry County, AL to Albion, NY.

I am currently reading the book Outliers and the influence on future success attributed to parents along class lines is enormous. Drawing on the work of sociologist, Annette Lareau, Gladwell's findings point to the need for schools to learn students' talents and skills and cultivate them in a way that supports their emerging dreams and goals. Such an agenda would level the playing field, as Lareau's research shows that this is what middle and upper class parents do for their children.  Additionally, schools must encourage students to voice their opinions and ideas, another finding about the difference between family's that have and those who have not.  There is a great affinity between these ideas and Aspirations work.  While schools may never be able to stand in for the profound affect of parents in their children's lives, they can do everything they can to help students dream and set goals for the future while inspiring them in the present to reach those goals--whether those goals are long-term, as with a career, or short-term, as when being inspired to do your homework.  Thanks, Mom.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


Yesterday Dr. Quaglia and I spent the day with educators in Louisville, Kentucky at the invitation of the Kentucky Association of School Administrators.  The day long session was sponsored by Pearson Assessment.  No matter where we go throughout the country, we hear the same thing about Aspirations work and the 8 Conditions:  "This makes so much sense."  "This is what we got into education for in the first place."  "Student Voice must be a part of reform efforts at our school."

Every time we ask educators to share their core beliefs, every time we put up a school's mission statement, we note some version of our Guiding Principles:  To develop in students a fundamental belief in their abilities (Self-Worth); to foster student participation in their learning so that they become lifelong learners (Active Engagement); to help students discover and work towards their goals (Purpose).  This is what educators in Kentucky and across the country espouse and it is the mission they proclaim they are pursuing on their web-sites and written documents.

Yet the two topics in the education news in Kentucky yesterday were that Governor Beshear had formed a task force to improve education in the state and that the explanation for the state's AYP  results dropping from 72.9% last year to 60.2% this year could be that the goals for reading and math had been set higher.  No doubt both the higher standards and the Governor's initiative are well intentioned. After spending time with those working in schools in Kentucky, I found myself wishing two things for their leadership at the state level:  First, that the AYP target stop moving.  Second, that the Governor invite some students to be on his task force.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Doing the Math on Tests

Many high-stakes tests that are given in the Fall to test the previous year's teaching and learning do not get reported on until January or, even February of that school year.  In many schools and districts, Professional Development for teachers may already be set.  Even if it is not, the effect on classroom teaching (if that's what standardized tests are meant to effect) is not likely to come until February or March, and then in some more or less forced and improvised form in order to improve next year's results.

Let's say a school does not want to teach to the test in that way, but wants to take deficiencies uncovered in it's results seriously.  The teaching and learning that happened in 08-09 is being assessed on tests being given now in October of 09-10.  Results come back in January of this year and teachers, administrators, and curriculum coordinators meet over the remainder of the year to discuss systemic improvements to the curriculum, which they implement for the 10-11 school year.  The effects of those improvements on students will not show up on the test until students are tested in the 11-12 school year with the results coming back in January of 2012.  The students whose test scores  triggered the curriculum revisions will be four grades further along than they were in the year of the teaching and learning being assessed.  For example, 5th graders in 08-09 whose learning is being assessed and reported on as new 6th graders in 09-10 initiating a change to the curriculum when they will be 7th graders in 10-11, will be in the 8th grade in 11-12 when their learning from 10-11 will be assessed and reported on.

Complicate this further in an urban district with a transient student population.  Or a rural district that has a migrant population.  Or in a district that has two or three K-5 schools, a middle school, and a high school that may have to align its curriculum as part of the solution and you get a picture of what this kind of testing is doing to the sleep habits of principals and superintendents as the short term impact of the stakes moves faster than the long term impact of the solutions.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Testing Testing

This year is the first year schools in Maine are using the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP).  In order to fulfill requirements of No Child Left Behind, NECAPs test students in grades three through eight in reading and math and are administered in the Fall to assess the previous year's teaching and learning.

In an elementary school I was in last week, a teacher administering the math test to her third graders noted that one student was tracing her hand on the test paper.  Concerned that the girl was creating an early holiday picture she asked what she was doing.  The girl replied that she had to explain how she had gotten her answer. "I counted on my fingers," she said.  Fair enough.  In response to the same instruction, another student wrote to the eventual evaluator: "Sorry.  I don't know."  The NECAP reading test has section laid out in columns.  In this particular school, the reading curriculum did not teach students to read in columns until the third grade.  Think about that from the student's point of view.  If you have never seen columns before, it looks strange, but everything you know tells you to just keep reading across from left to right.  Under the pressure of your first standardized test, think of the confusion that must set in, and even panic.

As long as we have standardized test we are never going to get away from the fact that at least some of what they measure is a student's ability to take standardized tests.  Knowing how to bubble efficiently, how to eliminate answers quickly in a  multiple choice, how to preview questions when reading for comprehension are just some of the skills that can make for a better score.  This is at least one reason such testing always needs to be put in perspective.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Looking at Things Another Way

One of the driving forces of QISA's work is that very positive things happen in schools that take seriously the point of view of their students.  This is another video that may already be viral, but if you haven't seen it makes a similar point about looking at the same thing from another angle.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Zero Tolerance

If you follow education news you no doubt have heard about the first grader who was suspended for 45 days for bringing a camping tool to school.  He was going to eat his lunch with it.  The school board has since reconsidered the zero tolerance policy which lead to this decision, but the event has stirred up the usual debate about "zero tolerance."

One of the short comings of a "zero tolerance" policy is that it limits a school's options for disciplining students.  It assumes there is a one size fits all approach to certain student behaviors and takes decision-making out of the hands of the living experience of teachers, administrators, and parents.  A zero tolerance approach all but explicitly states that the way to handle certain infractions is best decided by a group of adults sitting around a table removed from the actual realities on which they are passing judgment.  While I understand the message a zero tolerance policy is meant to send to students, it also communicates a lack of trust in the educational professionals dealing with realities on the ground and in real time.

"Zero tolerance" is to discipline codes what standardized teaching is to pedagogy.  There are actually philosophies of education and curricula that try to make education "teacher proof."  Regulation, overwrought supervision, holding teachers accountable to standards they didn't help create are all part of the same mechanistic mindset that tries to eliminate variables (specifically the very variable variable known as a human being) from the equation.  Both "zero tolerance" and "teacher proof" curricula assume IF X, THEN Y in every case, in all circumstances, no matter who is involved, or why.  Tolerance is reduced to zero by reducing to zero the input of those who would tolerate a first grader eating his lunch with a cool gadget, politely collect it from him when he was done, and return it to his parents with the instruction that the school has a policy about not bringing any kind of knife into school.  What they have realized in Delaware is that student discipline is not rocket science, it's much more complicated than that.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Evaulation Variables

In addition to expanding the number of charter schools, another way Race to the Top funding is influencing state legislation has to do with whether or not student progress is a factor in teacher evaluations.  Currently, many states prohibit this by law, in part as a response to teachers’ unions lobbying against it. The argument is that student progress is based on many variables which are outside of a teacher's control--parents, previous teachers, and student ability to name just a few of the more significant factors.

This is true and it betrays two underlying assumptions about school that are part of the problem.  First, when we assess teachers as if they were disconnected from other parts of a system that includes parents, other teachers, and the students themselves, we really do not create and accurate picture of reality.  This does not make for a case against including student progress as a part of teacher evaluation.  On the contrary, it means teacher evaluation should include student progress and parental involvement and the fact that these students came from another teacher previously and any other factors that create an realistic account of whether a teacher has helped each student advance academically.  A teacher should be expected to make the same kind of progress with a student whose parents seem unavailable as he does with someone whose parents are involved, but he should be expected to make progress never the less.

Second, part of a teacher's responsibility is to factor in the myriad variables that help or hinder student progress and to apply her professional, lived wisdom as an educator to adapt and adjust.  Lawyers adjust to an unexpected answer from a witness or they lose cases, doctor's adjust to changes in a person's health or they lose patients, and as educators we must adjust to the variables affecting our students' learning.  It seems reasonable to hold professionals accountable, at least for the variables they are aware of, and for knowing that their will be variables.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Charter Schools

Of all the proposals put forth by the new administration, the commitment to increase the number of charter schools perhaps rankles the rank and file in the public education system the most.  Many states are actually passing legislation to change caps on the number of charter schools allowed in order to be in competition for federal Race to the Top money.  While few can deny the results that many charter schools achieve – several of those with the most difficult students – some argue that charter schools are bound by a different set of rules and so comparisons are unfair.

When one studies the success of charter schools, one sees a significant parallel with Student Aspirations and the 8 Conditions.  Charter schools thrive by creating an environment in which all participants feel valued, where all members of the learning community are actively engaged, and where learning is focused on purposeful action and future success.  In many ways, when successful, charter schools are models of the very definition of Aspirations – providing students with the ability to dream and set goals for the future, while being inspired in the present to reach those dreams. 

They accomplish this by being free of more traditional norms and ways of doing things.  Unfettered by convention and working toward a common vision, each charter school community is free to create the policies, schedules, curricula, and professional development that will lead to the most positive results.  In addition, charter schools seem more adept at using formative assessments, as well as summative evaluations of students.  Perhaps their governing structures make them more agile and able to respond to uncovered needs.  As the number of charter schools increases, we will have to be alert to the way they influence more traditional forms of schooling.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Inspecting Inspections

Here is one other interesting difference in the way we do things on one side of the Pond or the other.  In the U.S. schools are accredited by various independent accrediting agencies. (There are six major ones and the relationship between their standards and the work we do at QISA can be found on our web-site.)  Typically a school will spend the entire year before it is up for accreditation or re-accreditation in a required self-study.  There will be surveys, analyses, committees, vision statement revisions, new program implementation, etc., etc., etc.  I have seen schools consumed by the process and chief administrators working on almost nothing else as a priority.  In the accreditation year, a team of inspectors roles in, clip boards in hand, and takes the school through a process of observations, interviews, and standards review over the course of several days.  That committee will in the end issue a report recommending re-accreditation or some other level of status if "measures" need to be taken for the school to be up to the standards of the agency.

In the UK, the accrediting agency is known as the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) and conducts all inspections.  A school typically gets a day or two notice that an inspection team is coming.  There is no extended self-study other than one that is meant to be ongoing and on file.  Inspections are a surprise.  The administrators and teachers get a little notice to shape up the paper-work, the inspection team comes in and conducts their observations and interviews, and three weeks later the school receives a report.  The most effective schools are always on their toes for an Ofsted inspection.

The comparison is an interesting twist on classroom observations.  Typically, when there is a planned observation, teachers are able to put their best lesson forward.  On the other hand, if observations are unexpected, they may capture a more accurate picture of a teacher's preparation and performance.  Both methods for teachers and for schools have their pros and cons.  However, if what we are after is a true picture of a teacher or school's abilities, then the element of surprise may be a better approach.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Decoding Dress

Day Two from London.  Another interesting difference between our two public education systems is that many of the schools in England require students to wear uniforms.  At the secondary level, this is usually khakis and a polo shirt. Some schools go a little further and require blazers and dressier pants. Since many of the schools here are organized by “houses," each house might have a particular article of clothing in common.  For example, if all students are required to wear ties (boys and girls), each house might have a different tie.  In more casual schools, each house might have a different color polo shirt, but all with the same school emblem. 

I know the uniform issue gets debated a lot in the US, with pros and cons on both sides.  What I notice here is that it does create a sense of pride and Belonging.  The outward and obvious association with the school and within the school, a house, helps students feel like they are part of something bigger than themselves.  There really isn’t that “But they can’t express their individuality” that some wring their hands over.  The students' individuality is evident in who they are and how they act.

Nor does wearing a uniform remove the adolescent need to push back in the way they dress.  I have been tying and wearing a tie myself since I was 13, but have rarely seen such an amazing variety of knots and tie lengths--all designed to stay within the dress code while testing its boundaries. Shoes, socks, jewelry, rolled sleeves, shirts tucked in or out, all come creatively into play in eternal struggle between adults and young people to follow the rules.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Head Teachers

Today I am submitting my blog from the United Kingdom. We have worked in a number of schools over here for the last several years and I find the compare and contrast an illuminating exercise. One of the more significant difference I have noticed is that the administration in UK schools, actually called "senior management" (George Bernard Shaw was correct when he said that we are two countries separated by a common language), almost all teach. The principals are called "head teachers" and their assistants are referred to as "deputy heads." More than just semantics this is a fundamental difference between our school management systems.

For one thing, senior managers remain grounded in the day in and day out grind of those they manage. They have to get to know students, deliver curriculum, grade papers, and in general, interact very differently with staff. A second difference is that even in modestly sized schools there are several deputy heads. This has the affect of flattening the leadership structure and puts more oars in the water when driving new initiatives.

Given my experience with the hectic work life of principals in the US, the UK's shared leadership system results in more widely shared decision-making, responsibility, and accountability.  Some things we may want to consider on the other side of the Pond.  More tomorrow.  Cheers!

Friday, October 2, 2009

A Music Lesson

I thought it being Friday we would watch a video. Enjoy.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Timing is Everything

While we are on the topic of things-we-still-do-even-tough-we-know-it's-wrong having to do with schools and time:  In almost every district we visit, the high school starts around 7:30 am and the elementary schools start around 8:30 am.  Numerous studies argue that the biology that takes hold in adolescence points to the need for a later start time for the adolescents taking Biology.  And yet the buses drop-off still dropping off teen-agers at school before picking up the up-for-hours younger students.

The science here is the science.  The case is closed on that.  What seems alarming to me is that we make decisions in our educational institutions, important decisions, based on considerations having nothing to do with education.  We had one district that tried to take on this issue.  The list of reasons why they could not rearrange the schedule included: the bus schedule, the sports schedule, parents needing an older kid off the bus at home before a younger kid arrived, students needing to get to work, and teacher contracts.  All of these concerns should be part of the conversation.  I'm just not sure they should have the most say.