This week in many schools most students will sit in two or three or maybe even five social studies classes. What will they be studying? U.S. History? Ancient civilizations? The Western World?
Last week the entire world witnessed history unfold in real time as the thirty-year "emergency" rule of Hosni Mubarak came to an end in Egypt. Those seeking reform were unswayed by promises of accommodations and concessions. They wanted democracy starting now and, although the Egyptian people have a long way to go, they are on a path toward greater freedom and liberty.
The question is whether Egypt will be studied this week for any other reason than a coincidence of current events with a chapter on the Pyramids? What a crime it would be if students in the United States were robbed of the opportunity to learn from living history because it is not in the book or because it won't be on the test. The tyranny of an increasingly standardized curriculum, in part, is causing a lack of relevance in our school systems. When teachers are not free to seize a "teachable moment" of this magnitude and relevance, the system proves as stubborn as Mr. Mubarak did last week. Our students are already using social networks to rebel. What will you teach this week?
You may recall that during his State of the Union address, President Obama lauded the efforts of Bruce Randolph School in Denver, Colorado. He said, "Three years ago, it was rated one of the worst schools in Colorado; located on turf between two rival gangs. But last May, 97% of the seniors received their diploma. Most will be the first in their family to go to college.” He was holding this school up as an example of how "reform isn’t just a top-down mandate, but the work of local teachers and principals; school boards and communities."
Why is this blog-worthy on Research Thursday? First, you didn't get all the facts if you left the SOTU simply being impressed by a school that somehow went from worst to first from the grass roots up. There is value in digging deeper. Second, many researchers are telling us that good teaching makes an enormous difference. Malcom Gladwell goes so far as to say that if you were forced to put your child in an excellent school with a bad teacher or a bad school with an excellent teacher, choose the latter. We call them Heroes. Lastly, the Department of Education will soon release an interim report on schools that selected the Turnaround option. Following that they will conduct case studies in 60 schools. Here's the interesting part, according the the article: "Researchers will not collect testing data, but will look at leading indicators such as changes in school climate and principal leadership strategies that could signal a successful turnaround." I find the idea that a school's success can be measured in ways other than achievement data a turnaround worth celebrating.
If you're wondering, I have been avoiding comment on the whole debate emanating from Wisconsin and not limited to that state's borders. In part because the media is rife with both sides. This video defending teachers is making the rounds: The Truth About Teachers. And so are stories like the one in last week's New York Post.
I have met a lot of teachers and been in a lot of schools all across the country. I believe that the vast majority of teachers are like those in the video and that a handful (less than 5%?) are like those in the Post article. I think from the lay point of view (and that includes the student point of view), what is confusing is why the effective teachers put up with and even defend the ineffective teachers.
A friend of mine sent me this email from his son's teacher:
Our state standardized testing week is fast approaching.
Beginning the first week of March, I will be offering a "Test Prep" session after school on Thursdays from 3:00-4:00. This will last 5 weeks and end just before testing week. We will work on test-taking tricks, reducing anxiety, and time management strategies.
I will only be able to take 6 students. The cost is $50. This can be paid each week or all at once.
Please email your confirmation at your earliest convenience if you are interested in this for your son or daughter. Thank you!
My friend commented in the email: "Excuse me??? Why isn't Timmy's teacher covering this stuff as part of her regular teaching responsibilities? Wouldn't this be like me charging my boss overtime for something I should have gotten done during regular working hours? If I don't give in to the extortion, does my kid do less well on the test? It's one thing for a teacher to tutor on the side....other kids! from other grades!! or other schools!!! Isn't there a conflict of interests here that someone should be paying attention to??" Besides his venting to me, he said he was going to write a letter to the school board.
This would not be an issue if the administrator of Timmy's school or the other educators there made the thought of sending out such an email completely unthinkable.
I have thought for a long time that politics and education were uneasy allies at best and unhealthy partners at worst. One way to put this is that education is on a long cycle--it takes years and years to build a foundation, see growth, weather backslides, deal with the fits and starts that are a natural part of learning--whereas, politics is on a short cycle--politicians need to get elected every two years or four or, at most, six. And because the short cycle provides the motive power (money) for the long cycle, the effect can be a lot like riding a bike in the wrong gear where the chain keeps popping and slipping.
Nowhere is this gearing issue more evidently problematic than in the relationship between a superintendent and a school board. In Wayne Township, Indiana it has surfaced that a retiring superintendent had, four years ago, pedaled quite the sunset ride for himself to his school board. According to the article, Dr. Terry Thompson was an effective, well respected administrator who just last year was named Indiana Superintendent of the Year by his peers. Now he is collecting his $225k a year base pay, a $200K "emeritus" payout for 150 days of transition work, and a $15K "retirement planning" stipend. Total payout: $1M+.
Leaving aside the ethical, but personal, issue of a school superintendent weaving a golden parachute for himself at a time when his district was making cutbacks and freezing administrators pay, what I want to highlight is the political issue of an inept school board now back pedaling on a contract they previously approved. One of the structural problems with our educational system is that school boards composed of mostly well-meaning, but lay members of the community are incapable of effectively governing our schools. Five of the current seven Wayne Township County School Board members were on the board in 2007 when Dr. Thompson's contract was okay-ed. What else are school boards not reading, or reading and not understanding, and approving?
Let's mix together three Conditions today--Belonging, Sense of Accomplishment, and Fun & Excitement. One of the 21st Century Skills that schools are asked to work on is Collaboration. This is very Aspirations-friendly as working together towards a common goal creates Belonging and many students say it injects Fun & Excitement into learning. When done correctly collaboration can create a wonderful group Sense of Accomplishment.
Asking students to collaborate is not new. I have decades' old memories of group projects--working with another student or two to produce some history presentation or science project. One of the "good" students, I recall being frustrated that we were graded in a clump and not everyone was doing their share. Most of this team work was in elementary school; I recall going it alone for much of my early late 70's high school experience.
But I am not talking about collaboration, I am talking about Collaboration. Working together as a skill, not just as a way of varying the pedagogy. How do you effectively communicate your ideas? How do you listen attentively? How do you respect and accept others' ideas even when you do not fully agree? How do you create consensus? How do you rebuild trust when someone has broken trust? Some of this can be learned in the school of hard knocks, but in the 21st Century something more intentional is expected. Collaboration can and should be deliberately taught. And there are plenty of resources for doing just that.
A friend of mine mentioned that his somewhat shy fifth grade daughter was asked to work on an assignment with a boy in her class. My friend had no problem with this as he thinks she could use some work on the social skills a partnered project would teach her. The problem was that no such skills were actually taught. The teacher, if she made a conscious decision at all, went for "figure it out yourselves." The young boy his daughter was assigned had no interest in working with her or seemingly on the project itself. She wound up doing all the work with her Dad's help, disliking group work more, and being told, by her father (regrettably, he says), "To just get through it." Nor was there any assessment of the collaboration itself, only the end product.
My friend asked, "You're an educator, right? Are you getting this? Collaboration is a skill they are supposed to be teaching in schools. We got a handout about it. But no Collaboration skills were taught. And Collaboration was not graded. What was the point?" My friend was as frustrated as I was in 1975. So in the end, no Belonging, no Sense of Accomplishment, and instead of Fun & Excitement, Anxiety & Frustration. Is your school teaching Collaboration?
The Quaglia Institute for Student Aspirations is an independent, nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting and putting into practice the conditions that foster student aspirations in schools and learning communities around the world. Please visit us on the web at www.qisa.org.
The views represented in this blog are my own and do not represent QISA's stance on any of the issues discussed.