Friday, January 29, 2010

The Physics of Recharging

Every once in awhile you get a day that re-energizes. 

Much of the work I do involves emails and writing and research and keeping up with journals and planning and delivering professional development. There is a fair bit of sitting at a desk typing into a computer.  The field work can vary.  There are really positive days when a school staff is all on board and I am helping them make their school better for kids and really draining days when it's a rainy three hour drive out and back to a school that still has a lot of resistance to this, that, or the other aspect of our work. If you are an educator you must have your own version of a typical week.

Yesterday I was at one of our Demonstration Sites for a "Heroes Day." Heroes is one of the 8 Conditions.  A few weeks ago, all the students in this school selected an everyday Hero and, depending on grade level, wrote an essay or drew a picture about why he or she selected this person as a Hero.  Invitations were sent out to all the Heroes to attend the event yesterday.  Some were able to come, some couldn't. The Heroes included many parents, but also brothers and sisters, teachers, grandparents, other students, police and fire fighters. Even the principal was selected by 2 students.

The event itself involved a visit by the Hero (scheduled throughout the day in 30 minute blocks), some refreshments, and then the student reading the essay to his or her Hero. There were people in and out, the principal serving cookies, a patient administrative assistant crossing names off a list and handing out certificates. One grandfather-Hero checked his grandson out of school 45 minutes before the end of the day and wrote in the sign-out book in the Reason column (where most had written sick earlier in the day): personal.  I said, "No wonder you're his Hero!"

I also attended the Hero ceremony of a Kindergarten teacher who had all her students' Heroes come at the same time.  In turns, Hero and student sat side by side at the front of the room, the student shared why this person was a Hero, a photo was taken, the student walked down an aisle to collect a certificate to hand to his or her Hero, and a hug was given. The whole thing from snapshots to cake took thirty minutes.

No doubt the day was disruptive in many ways. Nor do I think grandparents should be pulling their grandkids out of school early. Some parents who felt an obligation to be there may have had to miss an hour or two of work. Yet, despite these short term inconveniences, I could not help glimpsing the long term impact an experience like this can have.  It's easy to forget that every single little thing any one of us does makes a contribution to some kid noting on a Thursday afternoon that there is a person in her life who really cares about her and her success in school. 

We receive many requests to explain how we measure the impact of our work and much of our work is measurable. But some of the work of educators is flat out impossible to measure because it starts with a hug in a kindergarten classroom and turns into a full scholarship to Harvard 12 years later.  For my part, I am grateful for the physics that allows a battery to last a long long time after only a thirty-minute recharge.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

State of the Union's Education

Of course I am biased.  In last night's State of the Union address, I was hoping for more than a paragraph on education:

Now, this year, we've broken through the stalemate between left and right by launching a national competition to improve our schools. And the idea here is simple: Instead of rewarding failure, we only reward success. Instead of funding the status quo, we only invest in reform -- reform that raises student achievement; inspires students to excel in math and science; and turns around failing schools that steal the future of too many young Americans, from rural communities to the inner city. In the 21st century, the best anti-poverty program around is a world-class education. And in this country, the success of our children cannot depend more on where they live than on their potential. When we renew the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, we will work with Congress to expand these reforms to all 50 states.

That paragraph was followed by one about the importance of college, and then one on the cost of college, providing a rapid transition to home-ownership. So basically the State of K-12 Education is Race to the Top.

In fairness to the President, the State of the Union is not the place for a detailed explanation of his administration's educational policies. For that we should look to Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. Yesterday afternoon, before the SOTU, Secretary Duncan said, “We are building bipartisan and grass-roots support for reauthorizing the federal education law to boost standards, promote a well-rounded education, foster competition, and give states and district as much flexibility as possible.  As I often say, our role is to provide a common definition of success, not a prescription for success,”

This last line is something I appreciate and an approach friendly to the one we take at QISA. In practice there is a challenge in that approach.  On the one hand, those working in schools are educational professionals.  Expert practitioners of teaching their students and administering their buildings. Most, indeed, need no new prescriptions to swallow.  On the other hand, we have noticed that many schools and districts have become addicted to the prescriptive approach.  School change expert, Michael Fullan refers to this as "projectitis" (The New Meaning of Educational Change, p. 21).  In a sense, schools, having been force-fed a steady diet of program binders by states and central offices for the past 20 years, have become hooked on them. We have found success in providing schools with a framework for success that allows them to use their expertise to diagnose their issues and then write their own script for improvement.

Finally, my hope is that the "common definition of success" put forward includes students' own aspirations.  My fear is that the common definition will be a metric, or be reduced to one.  Some standard number on an achievement yardstick that loses sight of the living, growing, dreaming, striving student we are supposed to be measuring with that yard stick.  Let's work not to be distracted by the measuring instrument and to keep our eyes on the target: the student.

Monday, January 25, 2010

On Your Mark, Get Set...

Last week, President Obama announced that he would expand the amount of money available for Race to the Top. As you know, Race to the Top is one of the more significant financial investments in education in our country's history. Though there is some debate about this, there is no question that this administration is working hard to take money off the table as an excuse for not being able to improve schools. Appropriately there are strings attached that include setting rigorous standards, attracting and retaining outstanding teachers, establishing data-driven decision-making, and innovating to turn around struggling schools.

The administration has increased funding because, as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in the press release, “This competition has generated an overwhelming response from over 30 states in just the first round of funding." That the promise of pumping millions of dollars into states with budget issues has created "an overwhelming response" is an understatement.  The other day I heard someone who moves in those circles say, "This isn't 'Race to the Top' it's 'Sprint to the Money'."

As long as the mad dash has provisions for following the money to the finish line (it is the students' success, isn't it?), I am all for it.  If it is used to prop up local budgets so they can continue the industrial school on the agricultural calendar, I am not so sure.  We need a new way of being schools in this country.  A way that sees students as vocal partners not as silent spectators.  A way that includes attention to learning environment as well as learning material.  A way that values creativity and curiosity as much as the ability to accurately bubble in scannable tests. Finally, we need a way of being school that sees "the Top" to which we are striving as each and every students' dream for his or her life.  That race is a marathon, not a sprint.

Monday, January 11, 2010


Carolyn Bucior's NY Times Op-Ed "The Replacements" has been making the rounds on the web since its original January 2nd publication date.  Among the (unreferenced) statistics she sites are:   
  • 77 percent of American school districts give substitute teachers no training 
  • 56 percent of districts hire subs without conducting face-to-face interviews 
  • In 28 states, a principal can hire as a sub anyone with a high-school diploma or a general-equivalency diploma
  • Not a single state requires that substitutes hold a teaching degree.
  • In some places, a substitute teacher’s daily pay is less than the school janitor’s
  • Nationwide, 5.2 percent of teachers are absent on any given day, a rate three times as high as that of professionals outside teaching and more than one and a half times as high as that of teachers in Britain
  • Taxpayers spend $4 billion a year for subs
The sum total is "that children have substitute teachers for nearly a year of their kindergarten-through-12th-grade education."

I started my teaching career as a substitute teacher in an inner city school system in late May and early Junes while I was in college.  I had an insider in central office (my mother) and while I was not spared some of the tougher assignments--high school classes with students a foot taller than me and in some cases the same age as me--I did draw a 5th grade maternity leave one year.  As a result I crossed "Teaching 5th Grade" off my list.  As Ms. Bucior points out it is a difficult job with a tremendous amount of variation in nearly every aspect.

Inevitably when I am visiting a school there is a substitute or two.  I have observed the full spectrum: from someone with no control over a class and screaming at the students to very competent teachers running lesson plans who I only knew were subs because they told me.  Can we agree on this:  A district has a responsibility to train subs and to certify them as competent to be in the classroom with children?  If nothing else, student safety is at stake.  Beyond that, in these days of compressed learning and standards based testing (and so teaching), literally every day counts.  Not that I am advocating a pedagogical pace that accounts for covering material without attention to learning.  What I am advocating is that students not miss portions of their education because a teacher has the flu.  I will leave off commenting on teachers being absent for reasons other than illness for another blog.