Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Who Would Your Rather Have Teach Your Child; A Highly Qualified Educator or a Great Teacher?  Are They The Same Thing?

As a parent or administrator who would you rather have teaching your child, a highly qualified educator or a great teacher?  If you believe the two are interchangeable then the question is irrelevant.  Though they can be one and the same I don't believe they always are.
How so?
A highly qualified teacher has evidence to professional growth and development that tells us they are in fact "highly qualified".  These artifacts can come in the form of license and certifications earned throughout the professional development process.  Schools need to give evidence that their students have highly qualified teachers and this is a good thing.  But a license or certification doesn't correlate to greatness.
Greatness is born in the extraordinary application of the ordinary.  
Have you ever had a physician or surgeon whose diagnosis left you searching for another opinion or another doctor altogether?  Even though the physician you left had similar licenses and medical degrees you still left her or him, for another doctor.  The reality of the situation is a great physician is defined in their ability to cure rather than where they went to medical school.
I was inspired to write this as greatness often arises the most unsuspecting moment.  It happens when a student stops working in class and the teacher intuitively knows the child is distressed.  It happens when that teacher makes several inquiries and learns the student misses a parent who has moved from the family and into to another community.  Greatness happens when the teacher seizes the moment and has the entire class perform a writing assignment where all the students write a brief note or letter to someone they love or miss in their lives.  Because this one act addresses the child's emotional needs, it allows for academic achievement to excel as well.  Not just for the one child, but in this case the entire class.
Classroom moments such as this one cannot be quantified and it's exact measurements are unknown.
Even though this "moment" is not assessed, I assure you what the teacher has done transcends from being "highly qualified" into "greatness".
I fear that at times our quest to identify and qualify "Highly Effective Educators" diminishes greatness while aiming to address the needs of the lowest common denominator in our ranks.
This I'm sure is not a popular suggestion, but one worthy of reflecting upon.

Monday, November 25, 2013

When Did Common Core Become a Dirty Word?

When Did "Common Core" Become Dirty Words?

Twenty years ago I took my first of many graduate courses. This would eventually lead to two degrees and an educational journey that I'm still traveling on today. My first class was on curriculum and the first assignment was to review and evaluate a course curriculum I taught at the time.
Review the curriculum?  First I had to find it! I had taught World History for three years and until this point, had never once read or reviewed the curriculum.  By today's standard this would be considered incompetent, a dereliction and neglect of my professional responsibilities.  But in 1994 by most accounts this was more standard operating procedures than anything else.
In these adolescent years of education the greatest concern by my administrators was classroom management.  In short, if parents weren't complaining and students weren't being sent to the office I was doing my job.  Some may see this as an oversimplification, but nonetheless is the truth.
So my quest for a curriculum was at hand and I was intrigued as well as a bit ashamed that I hadn't made the effort to seek out what exactly I was to teach sooner.  But again, this was not something discussed during the Social Studies Department meetings (held 1-2 times a year during an inservice) nor was it something the administration made a priority or discussed.  
After inquiries with my Department Chair, and Curriculum Director, I found that no one knew where the course curriculum's were kept.  It wasn't until I was directed by my principal to look into a closet of one of our meeting rooms, that I may find the binder for my World History Curriculum. When I opened the door I found a large number of black binders on several shelves...there it was...I saw it, similar to the elusive Big Foot, or mythical Mermaid, until this point I began to believe this "curriculum" was more imaginary than real.  Like Indiana Jones I reached up for the dust covered binder labeled "World History" and to some extent expected a large boulder to begin rolling down a tract at me. I was excited and intrigued as to what information the binder had and determined that I would re-craft every lesson plan to meet the demands of the district approved curriculum.  That in essence I would no longer use my textbook as the only resource for classroom information and content resource.  Because with that binder I now had the curriculum I was suppose to teach.  A curriculum that was created by people much smarter and more versed in education than I.  So I opened the binder (imagine a choir of angels singing) and there it World History curriculum.......
WHAT?  WHAT?  Noooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!
Before me in that binder was a meticulous outline of my current textbook (that was  five years old at the time).  Almost 400 pages of an outline that someone within the district had typed by hand.  Remember this is 1994, before the deluge of technology, hardware and software in our schools.  
I felt betrayed and realized for the first time how deeply broken our system was.
So what is my point?
The current climate regarding the curriculum in our nations schools has digressed from an educational discussion to an agenda driven political debate.  Since this watershed moment in my professional growth I quickly navigated toward and agreed with educational professionals such as E.D. Hirsch Jr. that in terms of curriculum our nation's students deserved a much better product.
The Common Core State Standards give us just that.  I will not compromise here nor should anyone else. When compared to the history of curriculum in our nations schools,  the CCSS has the expectation for high performance and outcome from every child .  Compared to the deeply flawed previous paradigm in public education the CCSS gives  a national structure and common language while allowing for regional and local influence and considerations.  For the thousands of students who move from one section to another in a school, or from district to district, or state to state the benefits to a common curriculum cannot be understated.
Those who've dragged the Common Core into the political spotlight need to reconsider their reasons and motives for doing so.  It's unfortunate that today we have such a backlash to something that has such great potential for our children.
To the critiques and and opponents of the CCSS I have one question; Where have you been for the past 40 years?  Where was the public outcry for greater accountability for the curriculum presented to students in our nation's public schools over the past four decades?
Please note, I'm not sharing that I believe the CCSS to be a magic wand that will transform our schools into an educational Utopia.  I am sharing that it is the most in depth framework for performance standards that we've developed perhaps in the history of public school education.  Before this initiative is condemned as a failure, there needs to be several years of implementation in order to observe, measure and assess it's value.
The state of Wisconsin is currently re-examining it’s commitment to the Common Core.  A bipartisan committee has been assembled to hear testimony regarding the CCSS.
If you’re interested in reading my testimony to the committee please Click Here
Thank you for reading....

Monday, September 16, 2013

21st Century Red Flags

In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, the United States and United Kingdom passed what became known as "Red Flag Laws".  Red Flag Laws required motorists to perform certain tasks when travelling down the dusty trails and country roads of each perspective nation.  In Illinois, an automobilist had to follow these procedures:

 "Upon approaching a corner where he cannot command a view of the road ahead, an automobilist must stop not less than one-hundred yards from the turn, toot his horn, fire his revolver...."(1).

 In Vermont, an automobile on a road had to have a person walk one-eighth of a mile ahead of the "horseless carriage" carrying a red flag or lantern to warn other travelers.  Tennessee required motorists to give a one week advance notice stating the day and time he intended to drive the road.  Other states implemented laws that went so far as to have motorists dissasemble their automobile upon sight of another traveler whose transportation was the traditional horse-drawn carriage, buggy or saddled rider (1).

The automobile and its use was highly regulated, but certainly not for the same reasons that evolved throughout the next one hundred years.  These Red Flag Laws give evidence to exaggerated reactions to new technology and their infringement upon the profits of other industries.  Most notable in the late 1800's and early 1900's, the automobile proved to be an ecomomic threat to the the railroad and horse industries. 

It's hard to imagine that changes in technology could produce such excessive reactions, but last week an article entitled "Laptop Losers: Tech Actually Hindering Kids in Classrooms" Click here to read the entire article, found it's way into my email box.  (Irony?)  As it's title suggests, this would not be a ringing endorsement for 21st Century resources, technology and it's application in our classrooms.  The article shared insight regarding the misuse of laptops in schools and the detrimental effects on both the student with the laptop and even his or her classmates sitting nearby.  The article claims to derive its information from a research study conducted at McMaster University in Toronto, Canada.  The data from this study, led by Faria Sana, suggests that students who multitask on laptops during class experience a loss in learning.  

That would make sense, wouldn't it?  Students multitasking, meaning updating Facebook, emailing friends, doing work for other classes, and even watching movies, would retain less than his or her peers.  Absolutely.  But nowhere in the study does it suggest that laptops themselves hinder retention or negatively effect student achievement; it is simply multitasking that would obviously hinder student learning. Click here to read the entire study.  In fact, the research team gave these insights and recommendations as part of their conclusion:
  • A ban on laptops is extreme and unwarranted.  That laptops foster positive learning outcomes when used appropriately.
  • Teachers need to discuss the consequences of laptop use with their students at the outset of a course.
  • Restrict the use of the laptop to course related materials.
  • Provide educators with resources to help them create enriching, and informative classes.  This would include incorporating the laptop into real-time classroom exercises.  
Like the transition from horse to automobile, the conversion to digital devices from traditional classroom resources has been significant, if not historic.  At times the discourse regarding these technological advances will be muddied and made more operose to decipher as information and data from irresponsible media and government sources are presented in a disorted manner.  Our role as educators, parents, and citizens demands a sagacious and holistic approach to the application of laptops and digital devices in our classrooms.  An accession not to be encumbered with minimilist thought or study.

(1)The Automobile and American Morality

Monday, August 12, 2013

Poverty in our Nation and Schools...

Several years ago while filing yearly state and federal reports a new subgroup was defined; homeless students.  For years schools have recognized low-income students and households by using "free and reduced lunch" as the definition of families at or around the poverty level.  Wisconsin's free and reduced lunch students now comprise over 42% of the total student population.  Colleagues of mine have shared their own district counts are at 75% - 95%.  Public schools have the responsibility to provide a high quality education to every child in attendance.  Public school is free and by law, the only persons or group within a school that has the legal right to be there are.....the students.  Research tells us the brain needs proper nourishment to be at optimum performance.  To ensure students are well nourished school districts provide, breakfast, lunch, and now in some districts, supper.
My one thought is....Really?  In these United States of America, the most powerful nation in the world has poverty levels that ranks second to only Romania in "relative child poverty".**  Let's recognize that statistics can be manipulated, as both Mark Twain and Benjamin Disraeli have been attributed to saying, "There are three kinds of lies; lies, damned lies, and statistics".  That being said, we have a problem with poverty here in America, and our children are suffering for it.
As stated previously, public schools by law are given the ownership of ensuring a high quality education for all children.  Forget for a moment "subgroups", but all students, no matter their families income, or individual race, gender, orientation, and so on.
As educational leaders we strive and fight everyday to meet the challenge of providing the finest education for all children in our nations schools.  While recognizing the need for accountability in schools, we need to have greater leadership at the state and federal levels to meet the basic needs of citizens in order to ensure the greatest republic remains just that, the "greatest" republic.

** Among those countries, the United States ranks second on the scale of what economists call "relative child poverty" -- above Latvia, Bulgaria, Spain, Greece, and 29 others. Only Romania ranks higher, with 25.5 percent of its children living in poverty, compared with 23.1 percent in the U.S. (UNICEF, Innocenti Research Centre, Report Card 10) 

Saturday, May 25, 2013

A Ride On a Fire Truck

Yesterday while "surfing" a variety of newspapers I came across an article about a school district coordinating with the local fire fighting company rides on fire engines for elementary children. At first glance this seemed like a "feel good" story that connected schools and children to a local community hero, fire fighters.  But as I read the article I felt a sense of dread as it told a story of how children who met a designated reading goal would be given a tour of the fire house and eventually given a ride to school on the fire truck.  This means students who didn't meet the reading goal would not be given that experience.  At face value it's hard to be critical of such arrangements, but it's educational incentives like this that do more harm than good.  In this case students who logged "X" number of hours of reading at school and home were rewarded with a ride on the fire truck.  Let's put on the lens of an elementary child for a moment.  The fire truck is an indelible image burned into a child's mind whose adult comparable is nothing short of front row seats on the fifty yard line at the Super Bowl. For an elementary age child this isn't just a ride on fire truck....IT'S A RIDE ON THE GREATEST MACHINE EVER BUILT!  A GIGANTIC, GINOURMOUS, ENORMOUS, GLORIOUS FIRE TRUCK!   Excuse the over use of the caps lock key, but in truth that description hardly scrapes the surface as to how a child views that fire truck.  Here's where and why practices such as this are harmful to the learning environment and all children.
We compromise the integrity of the classroom by creating incentives that for some children are impossible to reach.  The classroom where the center of learning is created is corrupted by such practices.  First, it's an inequitable arena.  In a class of twenty first graders, some children will come from homes where parents will ensure every reading hour is logged to the second.  This means once the goal is attained there is no more incentive to continue.  The child has met the standard and may or may not read more.  Because the system created has a minimum standard then that standard is only what is necessary for the child to attain.  We've created the "hoop"and the child has jumped through it and no more is required.  Through this we've actually developed a minimalist structure.  There is no reason for the child to read any more, the task has been completed.  Not only has that model stifled the child's innate curiosity of self exploration, but little is known of how much he or she has comprehended so far.  At the other end of the spectrum is the child whose parents choose not to make reading outside the school day a priority.  For a myriad of reasons the child does not have the support systems that ensure he or she meet the necessary requirements of hours that will lead to the ride on the fire truck.  For the child who fails to meet those hour logs, the pain and destruction will have consequences for the rest or his learning career.  In this scenario very child's individual learning needs has been ignored to meet this standard of reading where neither learning or achievement can be accounted.  It sounds good, feels good, but does so much harm.
The elementary school which my sons attended had an aggressive Accelerated Reading program, where student progress was tracked on the wall of the commons.  The commons, where students ate lunch and any community member or parent could walk past and see who was doing well and who wasn't.  My wife and I both addressed the practice of public display of student reading hours, that were broadly displayed in the commons as unacceptable and it needed to be removed.  The principal listened, and then informed us it was a district approved practice. That we didn't take that further to the district level is my shame.
Confirming this, my youngest son recently shared an account from his second grade year that left me numb.  Prior to an AR (Accelerated Reading) Test, his teacher informed him that if he didn't do well he would not be able to go on the class trip to the hospital the next day.  In reflection, I remember this trip and the days before and how much my son eagerly talked about it with both myself and my wife.  He was thrilled at the idea of going to the hospital with his class.  But the day of the trip he was sick and missed the hospital tour.  At the time both his mother and I didn't think much about it, he liked school and rarely missed, so that day we believed he was to ill to go to school.  How wrong we were.  He wasn't sick, but knew from seeing this happen to his classmates there was a real chance he would go to school and not be able to go to the hospital because of a low score on his AR test.  He would not only face the disappointment of not going on the tour, but also be labeled as a "dummy" to his classmates.
Schools delusion themselves to believe incentives motivate children to read and learn.  But these practices undermine the very essence of education for all children.  Schools cannot be a place of winners and losers, haves and have nots. By doing so we corrupt the inspiration of learning and exploration.  In this paradigm learning is dominated by an external locus of control that inhibits creativity.  It corrupts critical thought because hospitals, and big red fire engines to an eight year child is more important than any of that.