Another RESET idea for public education

Those of you who reside in the Nashville area and have school age children are being asked to once again help the city reset its outlook on education.  Project RESET is another attempt by the leaders of education in Nashville to reinvigorate the community toward involvement in the educational system.  There is a survey they would like you to take about the state of the educational system in Nashville.  Tennessee has a 20.8 percent graduation rate for those who go on to college after high school making us a dismal number 39th in the ranking of states.  Now I’ve no problem with new initiatives, I’ve a problem with abandoning the past initiative, always changing course, never quite making up our minds to just do it!

We need to accept the fact that our students need to embrace the tougher standards, K through 12, not abandon them based on political winds.  Teachers are not only exhausted by these changes they are permanently confused, befuddled.  Yes change must happen; but why not stay the course using the advanced standards they were already preparing for?  Then convene a panel of teachers from all districts to review the status of education, and then slowly make changes everyone can agree on to raise that academic achievement percentage for our students and take control of these and all future changes out of the hands of politicians and political influence.

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Negative impact of “Snow Days”

It is past time to develop an alternative strategy for those school days lost due to weather or health issues. Schools already have many internal classroom interruptions, school-wide assemblies, and testing days ( see my blog on effective school days – https://clanofcavedwellers.wordpress.com/2013/01/26/total-effective-school-days/ ) these added disruptions just increase the likelihood of student failure.  To “reschedule” these lost days is absurd.  Students and more importantly families, are not going to give up their vacation/Saturdays to make sure their student makes up time.  Everyone’s main complaint is that teacher’s don’t have enough time to “make-up” educational exercises, and rural schools complain many of their students do not have computer access in their home.

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Both are not excuses anymore.  With the swell of on-line lessons, videoed classes, for all grades even through advanced degree levels, it is inexcusable for any educator to be unable to put together lessons for these rainy days.  In fact it is best to incorporate into the curriculum a percentage of curriculum based lessons at the beginning of the school year.  In a perfect year with no lost school days, with teacher perfect attendance, without assemblies for the entire school disrupting the educational flow, these prepared lessons would be absorbed into the normal curriculum because it is a part of the normal curriculum.

Extraneous lessons would damage the process.  Having students read a novel they would otherwise not read as a part of normal class, would not work.  It must be an integral part of the curricula process.  With just a little professional development geared toward developing this T-school (Tech-school) lesson plans, educators will be able to compose plans for the 1 day loss but also the 10 day loss.  It is a process of learning to incorporate the weekly lesson plan and the T-school lesson plans into one.  One seamless process where students can and must follow along at home if they are sick, snowed in, whatever the case with what would have been the normal school schedule.  Integral to this is the linking of the teacher with the students allowing for interaction, questions, directions on an as needed basis.  The number of “chalkboard” type web sites available to allow interactive teacher-student-parent discussions in just off the chart.  Everyone wants a chunk of the educational business.

OK how about the excuse that students do not have connectivity at home.  The interesting part of my  research on effective school days was to the very last student I interviewed about the impact on their education with the loss of school days, everyone had a smart phone.  When asked about posting to Facebook and other social media if they do not have access at home, they go to a friends house.  Not a one could not get on the internet.  So for that one child that cannot get on the internet there are before school and after school activities that would allow them access to the school’s technology.  Where’s there’s a will, there’s a way.

Like I said this is just past due.  I’m currently watching a local school district as it struggles to figure out how to “make-up” 8 lost school days; some of which they are taking out of spring break.  It is just not possible.  The few students that attend school on the make-up days will not engage in effective learning because the teacher does not want to get ahead of the majority of the absent class member because they would just have to repeat it.  If the teacher is there at all.  As an educator I can relate: I’ve covered many absent teachers classrooms on make-up days.

So if you’re an involved parent, a pro-active educator, fix this issue in your district.  It is a problem with a solution.

Inverted EducationPyramid

The pyramid shape of business and government organizations does not bode well for education Top-Down-Leaders-Pyramidsystems.  Not that there should be a hundred school superintendents to one teacher, but rather that the level of importance, of strength, educational prowess and excellence, not only should but must be found in the classroom not the principal/superintendent’s office(s).  Successful and powerful educational organizations be they primary, secondary, or higher educational systems are marked by successful and powerful teachers.

As an educational consultant I’ve been in many schools and undeniably the schools with best attendance, test scores, least discipline problems, and greatest graduation rates had the best teachers.  In fact these schools most often had invisible administrators. I would venture to say that these schools could easily have functioned without a “principal” (administrator) utilizing an administrative staff to communicate with local and state authorities about policy and procedures.  I remember one high school where the principal for health reasons was more often than not, not present during the school days with little or no impact to the faculty and no impact on the students.

The administrative function in educations needs revisiting.  The term “principal” used to mean “lead  teacher”  meaning the principal lead the school using his/her teaching skills as the main teacher in the building; not the person who signs travel requisitions. We need all our efforts focused on securing the best teachers and (here’s a sore spot) pay them accordingly.  We need to remove the “principals” from their offices, send them back to the classrooms, and reorganize the “administrative” functions of schools and of county/district offices.  It is that superior academic program, lead by those excellent teachers, that identifies outstanding schools.

Is there an alternative to testing?

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We’ve beat this to death I think, not the question necessarily but testing itself.  We’ve flattened it, blamed it, stretched it, bolstered it and torn it down.  What we’ve not done is eliminated it.  First of all, why do we have state mandated end of course testing?  The only logical conclusion is — we do not have teachers we can trust. Otherwise why the redundancy?  Why test students on subjects the teachers obviously tested them on already?  What’s the point?  I am probably stating the obvious but the difference is, I’m laying it all out here — the wounds of the system; we do not trust teachers.

iuTesting is very expensive, state wide standardized testing.  Let’s eliminate the standardized testing in K-12.  There’s already a good national testing for admission to college in the ACT/SAT system, paid for by the students.  The only other system of testing that could be administered statewide, is a graduation required senior final exam.  That would eliminate the sciuhool “x”is easier than school “y” so let’s move our kids there mentality.
This is after all, about money.  I don’t care how much the school/principal/teacher says they love the school/students they would not be there if it were not for money.  So with that as the basis, how much would a school system save if it did not have to test so often?  The state pays for the testing but the reality is, they pay for testing out of money that could go to schools if schools/principals/teachers were trusted.  So if on an average testing day, a state pays half a million to test all the states students in a particular grade on a particular subject, what could individual school districts be able to do with the money instead?  School infrastructure?  Teacher raises?

So how would a school insure students received satisfactory instruction?  Teacher testing.  Test for retention, test for promotion, and hire only qualified teachers for open positions not family and friends as is a common practice in rural schools. Testing to hire, retention, and promotion is used in many professional occupations from the USAF to lawyers. Trust the school districts.  Empower them by giving them funds that otherwise would have been spent on the numerous tests.  The saving in teachable hours not spent on testing preparation, testing days, and testing recovery alone is worth it.

Common Core & Al Gore!

I finally watched the 2014 television special on my DVR ( Ann Curry Reports) reporting on the what is now generally accepted truth; that the earth’s climate is changing and it is our own fault. As I watched the show I was thinking of Al Gore and all the flack he took about his predictions. UnknownWho’s laughing now? I’m not sure we “get it” as a people. Despite the evidence in front of us, smacking us in the face, we often times just ignore it because we “can’t handle the truth.” It is not in our culture, we’re not made that way.
Common Core State Standards (CCSS) is not the government taking over (always a good line to get people upset and revolt against anything the government does as they stand in line for food stamps) it is not a move to fire all teachers and it is not an effort to remove the power from local systems. Local systems and teachers still control much of what is presented and the how it is presented. Common Core is a tough educational statement. Who doesn’t want that? Who would rather send their children to the “easy” school?
I followed the blog of a group of homeschooled parent/teachers out of Michigan I believe, and read several of their blog comments about the subject matter they were presenting and how they went about it; the museum visits, visits to businesses, etc. I read how their children use the internet for research, watch educational videos, and interact with a text they were using that had all sorts of interesting links that kept the students engaged. As I read the blog I noticed that often their goals and projects mirrored Common Core objectives and in several cases went far beyond. Perhaps we need proof of life? Perhaps we need a county in each state to adopt CCSS and follow it and the use tests for a few years to demonstrate?
Al Gore was correct, just premature. We needed Camille to destroy New Orleans and Sandy to smack New York. We needed snowstorms of record amounts, forest fires that were out of control and floods that swept away our cars in order to listen and understand. Is Common Core premature? Are we needing further proof, further failure of the system before we accept the need for change? Are you willing to roll the dice on you children’s future because the tests are tough?

Fracking Education

Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP) scores were released in Tennessee recently and combined with the state’s ACT performance, progress has eluded many of the state’s school systems.  Tennessee is not alone.  Across the country many are struggling and the discontent with more school change is rising. Schools exist on this pendulum swinging between getting a satisfactory rating for a few years, to an unsatisfactory rating for another few years.  Money is thrown at different programs that often wither on the vine after the money is gone.  Educators however, continue to plod away at the problem, turning the wheel of time using the same standards they’ve used before; the tried and true lesson that served them in the past sometimes unaware of all the changes in the world and society going on around them.  

In an article by Henry Di Sio ( Why Our Old Lens On Learning Will Fail A New Generation ) a former deputy assistant to President Obama, he illustrates the fact that education has not changed.  We are going nowhere while the world around us continues to change at an alarming rate.  What is the problem with education inertia?  Why can we not make the leap?  All around us the old structure of education is crumbling.  Charter schools, special school districts, on-line schools, home schools are all examples of the blood leaking out of the educational body as the system collapses on itself.  Our education system in many rural communities is much like the movie “The Money Pit” where despite their best efforts and throwing good money after bad, the house they were trying to save collapses on itself.  It’s a dream, an illusion.  We cannot fix education with money.  We can only fix something by first acknowledging what is broken and then agreeing on how to improve education.

So what is broken?  What exactly is the problem?  I have personal experience as a student, parent, and teacher in both the American education system and European system.  I know one thing about those two systems and that is in spite the fact they are both educational systems, we cannot compare one with the other.  In Amanda Ripley’s “the smartest kids in the world” a must read for every parent and educator, the answer is Finland’s students are the smartest.   The fact of the matter is we cannot compare our system to anyone else.  You can’t stay as slim as the French and eat eclairs all day and keep your lifestyle.  If you want what others have you have to act, follow, adapt their lifestyle.  We are not going to do that.  One thing that we’ve demonstrated better than anything else is that we are great at digging in, resisting change, living in the past. So what is broken/what is the problem?  For a complete revolutionary change this is a short list of what’s broken, the problems, and can it be fixed.

▪Basic Education System: Everyone takes a shot at this massive topic, everyone has another, a better idea, but this is the engine that runs the whole process.  We keep adding on and adapting, modifying, adjusting, and then going back to the old standards, so much so  that to define the educational system is like trying to tack jello to the wall.  Common Core State Standards (CCSS), the first major overhaul of the system in many years with great intentions, has tripped and fallen because of the failure of the leaders implementing CCSS, they neglected school’s adult social inertia (number 2 below, School Daze). In an earlier article I published about rural schools, I made the statement that school “is the music of our youth, the foundation of our religion, the beginning of our family, the origin of our job.” I believe CCSS is a great attempt at achieving systemic reform; using it as a big stick to force change is a grave error.

▪School Daze: School is, for the older generation (anyone over 30 who votes and has children), an integral part of their society.  It is the source from which many of their future husbands/wives/employment/voting attitude develops.  Our country’s school framework is not going to change that easily; you can’t force change as with CCSS, it must come as a revelation, a revolution.  I read some of my former students posting on Facebook, how their children are doing in elementary schools and found interesting and revealing that their comments and actions mimic those of school age parents and children of the 50’s.  Those same school social expectations.  The same attitude toward the educational system.  Their same reaction to teachers, administrators, and the school system in general.  CCSS appears to the uniformed as a threat to the comfortable school system and that fear of a great societal change for their children is too frightening, unacceptable; not the way things are “supposed to be.”  Progressive parents, seeing the problems with their schools, the poor scores, the in-fighting, the failure of schools to produce responsible and educated students, opt for other “outside the box” solutions often with great success.  Changing this is monumental: Change will happen.  Changes to societal attitude toward school and education will occur, brought on by the forces of technology, our economy, and social trends.  This change will happen, and the sooner society realizes that the educational system must fold the way it currently operates and open with a new organizational system, the better.

▪School Administrative Systems: Time’s up for the old school administrative system.  There are 13,588 public school districts in our country.  That means there are 13,588 interpretations of school curriculum, school schedules, teacher evaluations, student achievement.  An impossible mix of opinions, social standards, religious beliefs, community expectations.  Not manageable at any level, at least not manageable effectively.  It is time to reinvent school districts.  School support systems must reflect the latest change in education and in every school system you can find waste, duplication of effort, nepotism, and unqualified personnel making economic, technological, and policy decisions that are simply against the educational grain.  A business model, more like they way most companies operate today, is necessary.  It’s time to do away with the focus on weekly football pep rallies, candy sales for trips, and trying to maintain a low profile in the community and begin the work of education.

If you want a successful school system, equal across every state and college, then CCSS and national standards need to be adopted.  Schools need to be organized and run by a managing board of educators and community members answering to a regional office.  That regional office is staffed with education professionals and business leaders invested in the educational system.  The state providing oversight, funding, and management of resources.  Cut out the cutie fluff.  The goal, the focus of the school, is the education of the student and the enrichment of the schools community. To waste time on anything else is to lose focus on the reason the school exists.  Perhaps then we can recapture lost “effective” school days and get our education system back to where it should be; back in the primary business of educating students.

Classroom Technology Choices

God knows there is more advice on the web and educational servers about great things to use in the classroom or things to stay away from and I am certainly not here to advise either way.  I believe, as most experienced educators would agree, that the most important tool in the classroom is the teacher and his/her relationship with their students.  Technology cannot fix a broken or ineffective teacher. A recent blog discussing Learning Management Systems does a good job of reviewing some of the choices available, and he is an advocate of Google app systems that have been recently released titled Google Apps for Education.  

Most technology sections in county central offices are staffed with either a part time individual stuck with the job, to a moderate section with several staffers often with little training.  The main function of the technology section is often to block progress rather than work with teachers to improve educational technology.  Their first (and often the only one needed) wall of opposition is that of inappropriate use of technology.  Always crying wolf and it rings a bell in the ears of the older less technologically informed county leaders, they often are successful at arguing against any new advancement/app/program leading teachers to use older technology or hiding their use of technology from supervisors.  I visited a county recently where they were still debating letting teachers message each other!  As I introduced several apps, websites, programs that they could use to enhance lessons, encourage more dialogue with students, they admitted they use some of them but they do not tell anyone because they “county administration would have their jobs.”

I’ve been on my soapbox recently about educating administrative leadership at the county/main office level, but technology is an area that ignoring the possibilities offered through the use of technology, often for absolutely no money ( ScribusGimpLibreoffice ) is the opposite direction we need to be going in education.  Perhaps it’s the perceived threat to technological advisors that they either refuse to allow new technology into schools, or the fear that their ignorance of new and developing educational programs will be revealed.  I’m not sure but I do know one thing: Students already use the technology and are looking for educational leadership to help them make informed decisions.

Until we catch up in education with the technology used by our students and we can provide solid educational guidance on technological programs and equipment, we are failing our students.