Wednesday, September 25, 2013


Last week Ray McNulty helped QISA inaugurate a series of ACTION Center webinars, which we will be hosting about once a month on a wide range of educational topics. In his presentation, "The New Normal in Education: Vision for a New Learner" (which you can view by clicking on the link), he made many excellent points. However, one thing Ray said really stuck with me, perhaps because I was fresh from example of it.

He said, "Are you going to be the disruptor, or are you going to be the disrupted?" He went on to talk about how many people working in schools today feel disrupted - by the common core, by the standards movement, by new teacher evaluation systems, by state mandates, the list goes on. Rather than that, he encouraged, we should be the disruptors. His point was that we can't wait around for policies to change, but rather that we must change our practice. When that changed practice is followed by positive results, ultimately policy will change in response. He called this "Disruptive Innovation."

I had just come from a meeting with a principal in one of our schools who had twice tried to bring students to a School Improvement Plan meeting, only to be rebuffed by central office personnel indicating, "We're not ready for that." This is a central office that wants us to be there, wants us to raise the level of student voice, has given My Voice surveys for several years and has had us conduct My Voice focus groups in four of its high schools. Yet despite this, they seem unprepared for the disruption of students sitting at the table where meaningful decisions are made. But isn't that the point?

Would your school be ready for student voice to break into all the meaningful conversations?

Wednesday, September 18, 2013


A colleague and I were getting lunch in a middle school recently. It happens. The options were soupy shepherd's pie or a cheeseburger, both with sides. Sliced fruit dripping in syrup, iceberg lettuce leaves, and a broccoli salad with raisins swimming in a creamy dressing (actually pretty tasty). The cheeseburger itself, generously smothered in cheese, sat on an oversized bun. At the end of the line was a box of condiments: mustard and mayonnaise. Maybe the students used up all the ketchup. So I asked the lunch guy (yes, guy, not lady!) what I thought was a reasonable question:

"Can I get some ketchup?"
"Oh. You're out of ketchup?"
"No. I can't give you any. It would put you over the calorie count."
"According to the rules we have to follow, the ketchup would put the meal over the calorie count. Sorry."

He said it with a smile... actually it was a sheepish it-doesn't-make-sense-to-me-either grin.

I resisted: If I put back one grape in the syrupy fruit salad... If I gut the bun... Scrape off half the cheese... If I pick out the raisins... can I get some ketchup? because he was just following the rules. Seriously?

It's a metaphor, right? I don't know how it got this way in schools. I don't know if the U.S. Department of Education makes these decisions or the state Department of Education or the district Department of School Lunches (or Curriculum or Assessment or Professional Development).

There are far too many reasonable decisions that have been taken out of the hands of the people who are actually in schools - students and teachers and principals - and made by policy-makers at various levels above them. It frequently amounts to a limited set of options that make very little sense.

I can forgo the ketchup, and probably should keep a better eye on my calorie count. What I cannot forgo is the professional judgement of those who work most closely with students, in favor of some data-driven policy set by someone who hasn't set foot in a school cafeteria in years.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

When News is News

A consistent theme we hear from students in focus groups is that the things they learn in school are not at all connected to their everyday lives. In fact, the National My Voice Student Report (Grades 6-12) 2012 reports that just 45% of students agreed that "My classes help me understand what is happening in my everyday life."

Two years ago, for example, when the Middle East was first erupting in revolution, I conducted an informal survey of what high school students were learning in their social studies classes. The closest I came to revolution was the 1800's in the United States and France. The closest I came to Egypt was pyramids.

It was heartening to learn that in Maine, at least, college professors are proving more responsive to the current situation in Syria and the United States' role in what is unfolding. Indeed, to learn to read and analyze the signs of our times, rather than the words in a textbook about times past, is exactly the kind of education called for in a Google-able world. What is disheartening is that making learning relevant in this way - in political science classes, no less! - is considered newsworthy.

If this is news on college campuses, I can only guess what press it would generate if it was happening in middle and high schools. Imagine math classes that did statistics using the sports and financial pages. Suppose language arts deconstructed advertising pitches, political commentary, and celebrity magazines. What if science classes experimented the stuff that grows in teenagers' bedrooms when they don't put their clothes in the hamper! I wonder, would that make it into the newspapers?

Photo Credit: Hossam el-Hamalawy حسام الحملاوي via Compfight cc