Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Gap Gap

The devil, as they say, is in the details. It follows that the recently released Blueprint for Reform: The Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act has not much devil in it. That is not to say that those who have one agenda aren't finding fiendish elements to dislike about the bill, even as those with another agenda are singing its praises. The Blueprint, true to its metaphor, embodies Arne Duncan's "tight goals, loose steps" approach. The federal government is telling states they all must build college/career bound schools, but apparently the locals are going to get to pick out the cabinets and curtains.  There may be more to blog on about as devils emerge, but for now let's mind the gap.

The proposal uses the term "achievement gap" as in "closing the..." 9 times. Closing the achievement gap is clearly a worthwhile effort.  More than that, as the president states in his cover letter, having a more equitable education system, that is to say, one without gaps, is a "moral imperative."  My concern is that focusing on the achievement gap with little to no reference to the school conditions that cause gaps in achievement feels like putting on the roof before you've framed the walls. And that's just more of the same.

The achievement gap is not just a function of funding as the proposal sometimes hints and at other times overtly states.  If I take a great blueprint and a lot of money and build a school on sand...you get the idea.  Lack of money is one of a number issues, but not the most fundamental. The varying levels of achievement in our schools are as much about students not believing they can learn, not being actively engaged in their learning, and not finding a purpose in learning as they are about a shortfall of resources. These are concrete concerns. A foundation must be laid in supportive relationships, meaningful participation, and high expectations for all kinds of success (not just academic). If we don't mind those gaps in the building blocks for learning, cracks will continue to appear in student achievement.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Snow Day

Given the scope of the change we are inviting schools to--systemic change using the 8 Conditions as a framework and giving students a seat at the table where meaningful decision are made--the work can be a bit of a slog. An optimist by nature, I believe schools can get there if they relentlessly keep after it.  But the amount of resistance we sometimes encounter in the form of schedules, programitis, and we've-never-done-it-this-way-before-ism can be daunting. No one resists the 8 Conditions. That is to say, no one argues against Belonging, or the need to have Heroes, or the desire to have students take on greater Leadership & Responsibility. But sometimes a high school's having silo-ed departments "argues" against implementing a multidisciplinary approach. Sometimes a middle's school's Advisory-decayed-into-study-period "argues" against a reboot as a real Advisory. Inevitably scheduling time to meet "argues" the loudest after the initial enthusiasm wears off and we get down to really trying to push the system around. I am no where near being fatally discouraged, but it would be dishonest to pretend that a whiff of cynicism doesn't occasionally set in.

Last week I was scheduled to visit one of our schools with a colleague. This school does some of its professional development on Saturdays. The visit was scheduled to be Friday with various teams in the three schools--elementary, middle, and high school--and Saturday everyone working together for 5 hours. Friday, school was canceled because of snow.  It happens. You roll with it. On Saturday morning as much if not more snow had fallen and the roads were in worse shape than the day before for it being a weekend. The combined district team numbers 45. My colleague set the over/under at 24. I took the under (note the whiff of cynicism).

Can you blame me?  Year two of the work. A Saturday. After a snow day. Poor driving conditions.

43 people showed up. All on time. 2 called in legitimately sick expressing their disappointment at not being able to make it. It was invigorating. When you get a group of people who care this much and get them focused on improving things for their students and themselves amazing things happen. I am not so naive to think that teachers don't sometimes pray for snow days, too. I did let my mild snow-induced cynicism blind me to how this particular group of teachers would respond to resistance in the form of snow on a Saturday following a day off.  They just plowed ahead.