Maybe We Should Teach

If I were to contemplate, like so many other bloggers seem to do today, the failings of today’s education system, all of my thoughts could redirect to on word – small-mindedness (I hyphenated it so it might be two words but not the point).

Friends, Teachers, Pundits! Lend me your ears! I come to bury education not to fix it!

I don’t mean that literally. I mean it is time for sweeping change. For goodness sake we need to move on or be left behind. And when I say “we” I mean the education establishment. It’s time to quit looking over our shoulders and trying to stay one step ahead of Big Brother. Or more precisely Big, Rich Brother. We are the people who know children. We are the one’s who can change the system. And we will change the system for one reason: It’s what’s best for kids. 

I remember my parents telling me when I was in college that “sometimes you have to play the game.” Agreed. Sometimes. But not when the game hurts students, when the game keeps us mired in the past, when the game is designed to favor the rich, when the game puts more money in the pockets of millionaires and billionaires, when the game widens the opportunity gap, its time to take our ball and go home (figuratively!).

It is time for us to open up our minds. It is time for us to realize our power. It is time for us to look into the future and see what our students will see. Then we must ready ourselves to prepare them for it. It will not be easy; it will be disruptive. There probably won’t be a canned formula for any student’s success. We will have to be creative. We will have to allow our students to be creative. We will be nurturers and facilitators and cautious bystanders. Dr. Watson to our students’ Sherlock and Mr. Watson to our student Alexander Graham Bell. Charlie to President Bartlett?

Its not for the weak of heart or the small of mind. But do you want to look back and see that you didn’t prepare students for their futures because of someone’s political aspirations? Someone’s padded back account? Because of fear of falling behind internationally? Because of Big, Rich Brother? I think not!

Google “21st Century Skills.” Go ahead, I’ll wait. What did you find? Did it say anything about how standardized testing will prepare children for the future? Where there any sites that said that improving standards would improve student success in the future? Anywhere did it say that the best thing we could do for students is narrow the curriculum even more? 

I didn’t think so.

What it says is we need to teach students to think. We need to teach them to create. We need them to be able to draw a map not follow a map and we need them to tap into their own unique genius. Students will have to navigate devices that haven;t even been invented yet. They will have to collaborate – try to test that! Communication – aside on communication great TED talk on texting as new language – in languages that we aren’t teaching. Communicating in ways that we never thought of (John McWhorter talk above).

My biggest fear in education is that while we fight about what is best for kids, the 21st century is coming and we can’t stop it as hard as we might try. My biggest fear is that while we wait to be told what to do our students are falling further behind. It’s time to stand up, grow a backbone and do what we know is right. 

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Trust Me ;)

“Integrity has no need for rules.” -Albert Camus

This week the graduate program led us to the topic of trust in the workplace. In my estimation there probably couldn’t be a timelier subject for educators. Not sure that it is the same everywhere but trust is no where to be found in the Pennsylvania Department of Education. I had an unfortunate conversation last week with a teacher in our building. Noticing that the implementation of the PA Common Core Standards had been pushed back a year, he wondered if it was due to the new teacher evaluation and PDE thinking it may not be fair to evaluate teachers on an assessment that contained new content. I laughed out loud. I wish I would have held on to some of that naivete that allowed me to think that PDE had the best interest of teachers and schools at heart. I say it was unfortunate because I probably should have held back but I didn’t. I assured him that if PCC was pushed back it had nothing to do with teachers, it probably had to do with money. I had lost my trust in my “employer.” Not that I work directly for the PDE but don’t all of us answer to their mandates?

I don’t believe my distrust is misplaced. Recently the Bureau of Assessment  the long arm of the PSSA, determined that beginning this year, all teachers who administer or proctor the standardized assessment will be trained by a computer module that will be completed online. This job was previously completed by the building principal or school assessment coordinator. Apparently there is no trust in the way that was being completed. (Read: we are all cheaters or at best half-assed at our jobs). In addition we received a communique from PDE telling us exactly how we must discipline our students if they are caught with cell phones during the PSSA or the Keystone Exams. You know, because if they don’t tell us, we don’t have the capacity to use our common sense. They don’t trust the administrators who are responsible for the results.

One more, just for good measure. Currently in New York and California administrators must undergo “calibration” training sessions in order to assure that there is interrater reliability when using the Framework for Teachers. Oh, how I wish I was kidding. It’s coming to Pennsylvania too if it is not already here. You should read the article in the link. I don’t think I can explain it any better.

I know what you’re thinking: “What’s so bad about making sure that everyone is seeing the same thing?” Well, the problem is that we do this everyday. We have a vision for our school and believe it or not we work hard to make sure that we have the best schools that we can have. We definitely don’t need a non educator telling us how it should be. Bill Gates is an extremely intelligent guy but he never spent a day with 30 teacher and 500 kids. He is the hero of calibration. And we feel like the trust is gone. 

I could go on. Tom Corbett’s assault on PSERS not to mention education funding in general. Michelle Rhee’s, another non educator, report card for public schools. Jeb Bush’s Cheifs for Change, Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top and his RESPECT Project. Corbett is the only teacher in the group and the knew pretty early that he couldn’t do the job. There’s not even any indication on the PDE website indicating that Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis ever taught. But why does that matter, Arne Duncan never taught.

Trust? Trust who? It does make sense to rebuild education from the outside. I would want a lawyer telling my doctor how to improve my health and the doctor would be a great help in expanding the mechanical capacity of my mechanic. I think the dentist should critique the local cop during a ride along or may he can go with the fire company. 

Like my grandfather used to say, “You can trust a dog to watch your house but you can’t trust him to watch your sandwich.”

Anchored to the Core

The Common Core Standards, as I have said before, whether here or elsewhere, most definitely will increase the rigor of education throughout the United States.  I have no doubt about that.  They will push academic expectations possibly passed what is developmentally appropriate.

But that standard of achievement has been broken for decades.  When I was in kindergarten 40 years ago I recall only a handful of students who could read by the end of the year.  Now the expectation is that students will be reading at least a few words when they enter K.  If they can’t they are already behind.  Who determined the developmental appropriateness of that giant leap?  I don’t know but kindergarten parents have risen to that challenge.

Or have they?  In 1972 and for at least a couple decades after that, the starting age for beginners was five by the end of January.  Wow!  You could still be four in many places until after Christmas and still be in school.  Now the standard in most states is September 1 or the first day of school. That’s up to five months difference.  In addition, and possibly thanks to Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliersparents of means very well may keep there children out of school for a year if they are born in the spring or summer months.  Read Gladwell for an explanation.  I reiterate, people of means.  People on the other end of the spectrum of affluence may not have the luxury of keeping there children at home for another year.  Child care is expensive.  That puts our poor students that I spoke of last week at an even bigger disadvantage of possibly 16 months.

Now back to the point.  When the common core is fully in place the expectations of proficiency in kindergarten will be heightened once again.  Without regards to where you came from, what you already know, how many words you have heard in your short life, what experiences you carry into the classroom, or the education level of your mother. And every year we will be pushing further and further past the current expectations.   Again without regard to any of the above plus identified learning disabilities, capacity for learning, or mental health issues.

If all of that isn’t enough.  We are going to do it all SIMULTANEOUSLY! By that I mean it won’t be scaffolded through the grades from K-6 with a possibility of seven years to advance through the levels. Every grade will be responsible for meeting proficiency on grade level Common Core standards in 2014.

Its hard for me to give an example based on the standards because you would have to be familiar with both the Common Core Standards and the Pennsylvania Academics Standards to know exactly where the gaps are.  I can give you an analogy though:

Your school district is required to write a novel by the end of the year.  Your school district will be evaluated on the quality of the writing in your district’s novel.  Every grade level starting in kindergarten will be responsible for one chapter.  Every school district in the state will have a thirteen chapter book.  Sounds like an awesome project!  Problem is, everyone has to write at the same time.  Oh, yeah, we’ll give you some context.  Let’s say the story is about Little Red Riding Hood.  That’s fair.  Now write.  No, sixth grade, you can’t know where fifth grade left off!  Fifth grade didn’t know the content that fourth grade produced.  And only the student and teacher’s in the kindergarten classes know where the story began.

But the Core has become the Anchor

The Low Hanging Fruit of Education

This year the elementary school that I lead made adequate yearly progress in every category. I’m not bragging; just stating a fact. In fact, our school has made adequate yearly progress every year. That sounds like great news, headline grabbing stuff in a small town. Unfortunately, the way the system works, that is not necessarily great news.

Next year we will have to be 89% proficient in Math and 91% proficient in Reading. We are a very small school. In the grade span that we are responsible for, 3-5, we will test approximately 180 students. That means that no more than 18 students can be basic or below basic in Math and 16 in Reading (The state doesn’t round up)

Unfortunately the low hanging fruit has been picked. All of those things that don’t cost money but suck all of the knowledge out of students. You know them because your school has done them: increase instructional time, align to standards, eliminate the “unnecessary” subjects, teach to the test. Done!

In order to harvest the higher fruit everyone needs more resources. Even a picker needs a ladder. To really get to those five or six students that are on the fringe we need to extend the day, offer after school resources to the economically disadvantaged, and engage more parents in the educational lives of their children. Luckily we’re tall and we probably only need a step stool. But even a step stool costs money. If you read the papers you know there ain’t none of that.

Throw in a complete retooling of the standards that will be instituted next testing cycle; which by the way have not been approved by PA yet; and you have an equation that can’t possibly balance. Keep in mind that while the common core standards are indeed a step in the right direction, somehow it will be necessary to increase the rigor in third grade to the extent that one year can replace the change in rigor designed to be achieved in four years. Never mind the impact on the sixth grade curriculum that needs to make up for 7 years of changes in rigor in less than 180 days.

The projections are that over 80% of the schools in Pennsylvania will not make adequate yearly progress in 2013. Those were the projections before schools lost funding and the final transition to common core was approved. If the projection for 2013 is 80% the projection for 2014 must be close to 90%.

Let me run this idea past you. In Pennsylvania is education the low hanging fruit of the commonwealth? Is it just simple to set up schools to fail under the guise of keeping taxes low? Is their a benefit to the citizenry in the privatization of K-12 schools? No ladder needed! Just hanging out there like Tom Corbett’s personal piñata.

But, that’s another blog post all together. Just let me say this though, those guys from Commonwealth Connections Academy with their matching backpacks and polo shirts (paid for with your tax dollars) seemed to be sleeping significantly better than most administrators that I know!