Monthly Archives: April 2012

Fishing In The Small School Ponds

Fishing in the small pond
Just the other day I attended a presentation by a company that promises the delivery of an educational product that will just blow the socks off of student test scores. The product they are selling is a packaged version with a pretty ribbon on top, of information, data, testing research available freely on the web. The problem is time; time that administrators and staff members believe they are saving the cave dwellers from expending by purchasing this “classroom in a box” idea. This company is just one of many fishing in the small district education office pond for the big catch. The idea is a simple one. They can provide a site license to the district so all their teachers can drink the same Kool-Aid and achieve greatness. Like thousands of other educational ideas before, as many are successful as not. The data they provide as documentation, as proof, is data from the state/district/schools themselves showing their “need” for this product. They have no solid data showing their success rate because this is a moving and fluid target.
The “cookie-cutter” classrooms these companies use as a model does not mirror the 60% and above free and reduced lunch population schools, or the rural schools without internet access, the urban school with locked restroom doors and metal detectors at their entrance doors.
I am not against these companies and their ideas, not by a long shot. I fear however, undereducated school boards, enamored by the presentation of academic salvation without the proof of success, purchase these products and then blame the educators for their failure. If you want to step back and see what needs to be done in the classroom, the basic unit of life in education, you’ve got to ask the teachers in those classrooms. Teachers need to be involved in these choices if, as I’ve said before, you are looking for a professional faculty then you have to treat them professionally.
The companies fishing for sales, again the bottom line here is these companies for profit or not, are not in schools pitching their product because they love you or the children. They are not there because of that — they are there because you represent money to them. Income. A vacation. A promotion. A new car/boat/plane. With that in mind, closer examination of the product is in order. A few suggestions to any board reviewing these type of ideas would be:
1.) Involve teachers in the process
2.) Ask for a demonstration time period. A good example is http://www.pd360.com offers a potential client a free month use to determine if their product fits their needs.
3.) Seek out other school districts who are using or have used products from this company and ask for a review.
4.) As the ACT asks students — compare and contrast companies.

Technology in Education

Technology.

I’m sitting in my “office” in a high school in Tennessee. The scene is virtually the same in many counties across the state and perhaps across the country. I am trying to access a public web site, TED (www.TED.com), to share a wonderful algebra teaching video with the schools I work with. Blocked. Earlier I was sitting in an English class where the teacher was trying to access a web site that discussed several of Shakespeare’s works. Blocked. Teachers in another county used to be able to communicate intra-school using the built-in messaging system. Blocked. While conducting research for a science project in the library, the entire class wasted over half the class period trying to find web sites that would allow them access a few medical sites. Blocked.
Now I know, having had several running battles with technology in other districts, that the solution to the problem is almost as easy as flipping a switch. Flipping a switch. But if you examine the individuals who are the technology representatives in schools you’ll find mostly non-educator, hardware technologists, with little or no vested interest in advancing the educational needs of the system. Their job is to block access to the system. They are the off switch in the portal to accessing the system. I’m an advocate for removing these technologists either completely or reducing their status in the system to a staff member working for an educator with a vested interest in the system.
To do less is to treat the educators in your system as juveniles equal in status to their students. The “switch” in the system needs to be the responsible educator in the classroom.
Technologists are necessary in a system when changing systems, revamping existing systems, installing new systems, as a technical advisor only. No authority to stop or block educational needs. A new high school built in middle Tennessee recently had the internet and overhead projector access in a part of the class rooms not useable by the teachers. Nobody asked the educators in the rooms where to position the desks; a technologist determined where. Reminds me of the illustration I saw years ago of an automobile designed by three different people: A mom with kids, an automotive engineer, and an automobile mechanic. The mom’s vehicle had a couch, places for drinks, garbage can, but try to find the engine! The engineer’s car was low and smooth, with great lines but how do you get into it? The mechanic’s car had the engine exposed with access to all the necessary parts and two lawn chairs thrown on the back for the driver and a passenger.
In today’s digital educational society the usefulness of the technologist has run its course. They are still needed to resolve point of service issues, install a printer, replace a monitor, etc., but their input into the how and why the system should run needs to be reversed. The reason we find ourselves in this position is most of the superintendents and school boards are littered with old fogies. I’m no spring chicken, but I can spot technical incompetence when I see it. I’ll never forget not too many years ago at a school board meeting, a young lady in the audience was taking notes on her laptop when one of the school board members asked her if she could make a copy of a document he had in his hand on her “electronic thing!” What a moron! Go to your next school board meeting and look at the people making the timely and necessary decisions about education in your county and you’ll see part if not most of the reason why education struggles in our country.

Leader Mentor

Leadership
Jim Moore, a dad, a husband, alumni of South Pittsburg High School came back to school today. He will be the guest speaker at this year’s commencement in May. His life’s journey through family, music, the written word, has brought him back home. He has accepted the mantle of responsibility of age and wisdom that brings him home. Home to talk with a little more than 60 high school seniors today. Home to share a part of his life. Home to share with a small group of young men and women something that for all the ages men and women have tried to share in every form or fashion. Wisdom.

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Jim’s message today was about “change.” The change you can make with others in your life if you accept that responsibility to care. The enormous impact one person can have on another’s life in just a momentary exchange of love, respect, and appreciation of their value as another human. He passed out envelopes, addressed to each senior and inside included a dollar bill. The idea, the concept, is to do as they wished with the dollar but if they chose to share their wealth with others it would multiply over and over again. Pay it forward.
What Jim may not have realized is that the talk he shared, the money he spent, the music and video he showed them matter less than his presence in front of them. He demonstrated to them that he cared about them. He showed them through his leadership that there are those individuals in the world that often pass as a blur to young eyes, people who care about them and their problems. That type of parental and educator leadership is the key to school improvement.
Now don’t get your panties in a wad and start bellyaching about all you do, time you spend, blather, blather, blather … it is not a criticisms of you and your performance. It is simply a statement about easily observed behavioral change. Look at the article about this visiting basketball star and his influence on kids in middle city and how he motivates them. Read up of the now famous Hawthorne Effect.
A true leader is a person who when absent, their leadership effects are still in place and practiced by the remaining subordinates. A leader is a person others emulate: All parents should be leaders.

Cave Dwellers See the Sun!

Cave Dwellers See Sun! Professional Development

Several Cave Dwellers came out of their caves yesterday and in a “Professional Rounds” atmosphere went back to elementary school, all the way to First Grade! As they sat (uncomfortably in tiny chairs) and watched the students interact in groups, and how the teachers collaborate as subjects and topics changed, several began to see the benefit and blessings of sharing their crayons.
One group sat in amazement as first graders went up to the Promethium Board, turned it on and set-up the day’s lesson. Amazed because more than a few of these cave dwellers have the same boards in their classrooms that they are using as projection screens because they do not know how to use them.
Unfortunately the above is not a work of fiction. I don’t know where the inherent dislike of technological change comes from in many teachers but it is sort of like the fear of losing one’s job. The idea that technology might replace them, is the same fear that ran through the educational world years ago like montezuma’s revenge when the VHS player was first introduced. God help us, all kids will have to do is turn on a video and learn everything! Duh!
After returning from some professional development a few years ago two colleagues of mine were anxious to share with the faculty several new approaches to a particular teaching methodology they were sure everyone would want to employ in their classrooms. They had attended this training over spring break so the faculty meeting they were to present their findings to (the reason these two were chosen for the school district to send them to this training was their promise to return and to teach the masses) was the faculty meeting right after the break. Of course due to spring sports the coaches and assistant coaches could not attend faculty meetings and the time allotted for their presentation had to be reduced because of all the information about Prom and Graduation, and cleaning out classrooms that had to be discussed, so their time was reduced to 10 minutes. 10 minutes. The district might as well have taken the $1500 they invested in this “Professional Development” and thrown it out the window.
These cave dwellers who watched in amazement as first graders did what they could not do on those electronic boards, had received a 2 hour professional development class on the Promethium Boards the summer before they were purchased. Again the district might as well have thrown that money out the window for all the good it did. Professional Development/Training does not work unless there is a hands-on application that is relevant to that teacher. Don’t make me attend PD on Promethium Boards if I am not getting one. Don’t send teachers to PD somewhere with the hope that they will spread the “good news” and convert everyone when they return. Does not work. In those places and in those schools that this has worked I applaud you — and I’d like proof because I hesitate to believe that sending one member or two from a faculty with the hopes that they will return and give birth to all they learned and present it to the faculty in the same measure is hard to believe. It is just a cost cutting, self serving, method of “checking off” that block of required training at the district level.
To get the job done right you’ve got to do it yourself — right? Same thing applies to PD: To assure PD works and is done right you’ve got to do the PD yourself. There has to be a transition from the PD into the classroom.

Parents

I was reading an article today from the NY Times partially about the influence that parents have on their children’s success. The story relates that it is to be expected that the parents of the kids doing poorly, students who are in some sort of reform school, etc., who do not show up for the kids games or to conferences with teachers, are bad parents. I too felt that way for many years while teaching, that the only parents I saw, as a general rule, (and teachers out there correct me if I’m wrong) were the parents of students I did not need to see. They were the parents of the successful, happy, well adjusted children. I needed to see the parents of the struggling, the tardy, the absent students who were in trouble with me and in danger of failure. I rarely saw those parents. It is easy to blame the parents of those students. I no longer do. Perhaps it is age, the advisory job I now do for the state, or reflections on my own life, I find that the reasons for these problems are increasingly more difficult to pinpoint.
There are wonderful students of terrible parents. There are terrible students of wonderful parents. While I do not remember exactly, I can only remember two occasions my parents were ever called to school on my behalf. Both times were of course, something I did that was wrong or inappropriate and those of you who know me perhaps are shocked at that being such a low number of parent meetings but things were different then. I’d get picked up for truancy by our Assistant Principal Boris Spivack (exactly) routinely but my folks were never notified because he took care of the situation. There was no need for additional punishment. I understood my offense. I understood my responsibility. Today everyone is notified, tracked, observed, a file kept on them for fear that if it is not done, something will happen and the school/church/whatever will be sued by the parent/student. We’ve gotten ourselves so bogged down with all the monitoring and reporting that the real care giving is lost.
The interesting thing about this article is that this young girl’s lack of attention mirrors that of many of our “regular school” students today from their own parents/guardians/teachers/administrators.
I don’t know the answers. These societal problems will continue to grow in our schools unless we begin to look at the bigger issues. I’m sure poverty and ignorance have been around, fretted over, and political action taken on the issue since the beginning of time. Nobody has ever solved poverty nor will they. But poor parents (financially) or rich I think it is time to lay off parents, not entirely now but to the extent society blames them, we need to take a step back and see what is it we are missing in our approach to education and socialization of todays’ youth. What worked in the past we perhaps need to resurrect? Suggestions?

Common Core State Standards

I belong to a number of “teacher” “educational” “leadership” web sites, list servers, and the like and there is most all the time, one of two continuing themes that pervades these posts. The post most often discusses teacher problems like respect, professional development, pay, attitudes, etc., or it is about educational reform. While Cave Dwellers are not particularly enamored with change and reform — it is not an item they relish. Sitting next to a Cave Dwelling football coach who was also the freshman English teacher in a mandatory beating session with the administration, he said what was on the minds of most of the dwellers that day sitting and listening to the principal berate the faculty, “Like other bozos before this guy, I’ll just wait him out. He’ll be gone in less than two school years.” That is the same attitude toward change and reform most dwellers have and realistically they are correct. How many PD — Professional Disillusionment — training sessions have they sat through that either did not apply to them, or were something they could use but simply did not have the time to try? Not too long ago I sat in one of the PD sessions and as I sat there it became increasing clear to me and the rest of the dwellers, that the training we were receiving was EXACTLY the same as the year before and the year before that! Ironically it was about brain research in education and how to improve students understanding, but the bigger message was that the district office staff, who planned and approved these PD sessions did not have a clue. They did not understand teacher needs, did not plan for effective training, did not care except to insure they filled all the time blocks for training they were required to fill. Senior leadership approved it all and gave the introduction to the year’s PD with great enthusiasm about the quality of this years PD! Horse Hockey!
Common Core State Standards will do more to improve education and the plight of teachers and students especially in failing schools, because it establishes a bar set higher than ever before for many school districts and mandates that everyone must meet those standards. Training in every district has now turned to a specific goal they all must shoot for, not some PD they assembled at the last minute, some sort of a vague guesstimate at teacher needs, but a solid goal. The overall effect on student achievement, teacher satisfaction, and school improvement is yet to be determined but this new nationwide standard, something that should have been implemented years ago, is the best solid Professional Development initiative that has happened to education in years. No more of the “my course offering is better than yours” buffoonery, now with everyone rowing toward the same objective, perhaps not in the same direction but with the same goal in mind, secondary school education cannot help but improve across the board. Will this help, improve, the attitude the public has of educators?

Vocations

On NPR this morning the story in the news segment was about the growth in manufacturing jobs and how it had slowed during this time of recovery, in part because of the lack of skill technicians. VW in Chattanooga announced yesterday it may open its next plant in Mexico. VW also went worldwide in a job search for skilled technicians. On CBS News This Morning, (April 12, 2012) they reported on a VISA scam, not Visa the card but VISA the immigration program, where a company (one of many) is bringing in people from India to work in their company, their factory, their stores, because of the lack of skilled labor here. Anybody see the message?
Across the United States if you visited most any local high school and walked into their “Vocational Training” section, you would perhaps see young men and women engaged in skilled training. But not as many as you used to see.
In Tennessee the Vocational Classes and the clubs that support this skilled training was known for years as VICA (Vocational Industrial Clubs of America) they changed their names over the past ten years to try and morph themselves into a more professional sounding organization. The classes/courses are now called CTE (Career Technical Education) and the clubs are called SKILLS USA. All of this to make the whole training of the uncleaned masses more palatable to those in higher education who look down their extremely long noses at the idea of technical/vocational education.
Since the 60’s and 70’s the primary idea in education, the goal of American Mom’s and Dad’s everywhere, was that little Johnny must go to college and be the ruler of the world. College was the only path to success. As a parent I am measured by how intelligent (means how much college and what degree obtained) are my children.

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While visiting an English classroom at a local rural school recently, the lesson was centered around a discussion about the novel Treasure Island and all the intricate meaning the author hid in the pages of this great story. While the majority of the students seemed engaged, partially due to the attractiveness of the teacher, the fact that I was observing the classroom, and the story itself, there were more than a few off in dreamland. As I followed these students over the next few days, the classes they were the most engaged in were CTE classes. Nursing, agricultural classes, construction type classes, all where they were engaged and were reading technical manuals. But these students and these type classes are fast becoming orphan courses. We as Americans have such an inflated sense about ourselves that we look down on the daily technicians as lower class people. That is just fact and no amount of sugar coating it by changing the terminology will change that perspective. The business mantra of the educational complex is — To be successful you must be a college graduate. No — to be successful you must be a good person, respectful of others and a contributing member of an ordered society. When did we change our educational philosophy and why?