Category Archives: Education Reform

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.

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.

Another Nail in the Career Teacher Path

Once again the political and uniformed parties hammer is out to drive another nail in the coffin of career teachers in an attack on teacher tenure using scare tactics and misinformation.  A New York lawsuit against teacher tenure is fast becoming a popular step in the building of presidential platforms calling for educational reform.  Everyone wants a scalpel in the operation of dissecting education but nobody seems to have an idea of what they’re looking for.  As it is the prospect of becoming a teacher is a difficult process even for the most qualified, but the job comes with an automatic caveat.  You might get hired but not into a career path but rather a 9 to 10 month temp position.

The idea of a career is one where after years of study or experience or both, you achieve a position with a company you would  like to work for and stay with as you learn and grow.  Once hired in most career path positions, the expectation is that you will continue to work there until you fail to meet expectations or you decide to move on to another company or position.  Most would balk at the idea of being hired into a position where the job is essentially for a 10 month period with no guarantee of continued employment.  In fact many schools do not make the decision to continue a teacher until the last monthUnknown of the school year when they are either notified by the principal they are no longer need or (gasp) nobody says anything to you and that lets you know that you are safe for another year!  Teachers whisper to each other behind their closed doors asking if anyone been called to the principal’s office! Ludicrous, unprofessional, juvenile behavior  that is prevalent in many schools’ systems.  Tenure gave teachers a goal to shoot for;  survive three years of this type of behavior and you’ll be rewarded with a system of tenure.

Tenure was never developed to provide perverts, ineffective slackers, uneducated dolts a place to hide.  The legal system did that.  The legal system so tangled the arms of the educational system, already a joke of a “system” that individuals who managed to survive three years and achieve tenure and then took advantage of an ineffective management system managed to hide in plain sight.  Quite frankly most educational systems can’t manage a school’s schedule no less the personnel who educate your kids.  In most county central school offices there are people who really operate around the teachers: They run in fear of the parents and public at large and often operate as if the main reason they exist and the central office is even there is for its own survival, not to assist the teachers in the education of the students.  Laughably, the one section of the central office established to help teachers, be their advisor, assist them in improving their teaching skills is the least effective.  In one school district I worked each year the center point of our summer professional development was the same professional development we had received the year before, and the year before that!  They never paid attention to the fact that the training and trainer they were using were the same we had the previous year, until by the third year even the person hired commented that it was really odd to come back and do the same thing three years in a row.

Tenure has been abused.  County educational systems are often incapable of behaving professionally (check and see how many relatives are working together in the school system) because many of them have not been in a school since escaping school to work at the central office.  So if we want to really work at helping students, improving student scores, encouraging children to do and give their best we need to have professional management and leadership in county central offices, or get rid of them.  Start with mandating that office staff are qualified for the position and not somebody’s sister.  Public revelation of the central office’s distribution of funds; not allowing special friends,  relatives/favorite principals, or alma-mater schools receiving a disproportional amount of the annual budget.  Implement a standard employment practice contract statewide ensuring all teachers are protected from unscrupulous hiring practices; enhance the professionalism of the system by treating teachers with mature, responsible and professional behavior that starts at the top and is reflected in the behavior of the central office.  Don’t believe me?  Try a completely anonymous and independent survey of teachers and ask them about how they are treated, how the central office treats them, about professional behavior.  Then let’s have a mature discussion about tenure and teacher career paths.

“I Told You So!”

When my son was in high school in Europe in DoDDS, I had the pleasure of sitting on the school board as an American advisor from time to time and throughly enjoyed the process. The search for academically rich content, hiring of educators well versed in their field, the expansion of operating hours for students and parents to use the school facility in the evenings. All wonderful and enjoyable meetings and professional staff members.

20140115-095400.jpg
When I retired and accepted the challenge of teaching in an American high school system I was faced with a puzzling dilemma. First off I wanted to join the school board and was told teachers were not allowed to be members (where do they get their inside expertise?) I was fortunate to teach in the same high school my daughters attended; perhaps fortunate is not the best choice of words. My daughter’s Algebra teacher sat behind his desk reading the sports pages while students flipped overhead slides, worked the problems, turned in the work sheets, then slept. He was a football coach. The “current events” class teacher was the lead basketball coach. They received the daily newspaper and read the sports pages diligently. The head of the English department, with woefully old textbooks, students seating in ill repair, was the head football coach. The football field was beautiful. I struggled for the first two years doing the very best I could as professionally as possible all the while screaming inside about the futility of the school system. Why doesn’t somebody stop the music! All the principals in the county and all the assistant principals were coaches, present and past.
I recently read a book by Amanday Riply titled “The Smartest Kids in The World” and I watched a video of her in a debate with others about why sports ought to be eliminated from high schools, a mantra I’ve cried for years. Speaking against this notion was a former director of athletics from Alexandria Vergina, and also he happened to be the former mayor of Alexandria, Verginia. As he spoke he outlined almost perfectly (and of course inadvertently) the case against school sports: He spoke of saving ones and twos. When Amanda spoke it was of thousands. While in the Washington Post an amazing lament by a wonderful teacher who could no longer take the frustration of the educational system.
Amanda Ripley’s debate as informative as it was is not the fodder for a similar discussion about any rural school in the south — no siree buddy! It is football that is king. It is football on the signs leading into the town, on the water tower, all over the side of parents’ cars and the high school itself looks more like an athletic club than anything remotely academic. Even their school colors/theme/jackets/yearbook everything about the school from an outside point of view screams this is an athletic facility first and foremost. As I debate this issue internally, and as a retired teacher and now an education connsultant, I realize that this issue is much bigger than high school, this is all about big business and big money. And on that note I’lll have to turn away from this issue for the moment because quite frankly, I don’t think there is a workable solution, not at this time.

20140115-094025.jpg
Of course the “End Is (not) Near”! I believe as Amanda Ripley states so well in her book “The Smartest Kids In The World” that as Finland went in the early 70s, so goes the United States today. I do believe we are at a pivitol point; the point where the control over classrooms and their content changes from individual teachers to national directives. Where everyone will be sooner or later singing the same song from the same book at virtually the same time from Alaska to Florida. Where for the foreseeable future teachers will become classroom managers and facilitators until this country makes to next step in improving the quality of educators in this country. There is a difference between teachers and educators and I think the time is fast approaching us as a country and as individual educational systems/counties to support the re imagination of the professional educator testing and licensing program and give the control of educating our children back to the classroom professional. The only way therefore to fix the system, is to fix the teacher certification and training system. To make becoming a teacher a professional educator, a master in their field, a current researcher and contributor, a professor by all accounts.

Rural Towns, School Sports, Pride

The police had the sidewalks cordoned off just a few days ago, the firetrucks were in the lead, and the street was lined with parents and supporters of the team as they departed school at 10:30 in the morning, the week prior to testing, for the teams’ match. Most stores in town were offering some special sale pricing this week as the team had been departing at different times over the past two weeks depending on the game’s location. The town council met and decided to ask the various city shops, especially in the historic district of town, to remain open and perhaps place displays outside their shops because the TV crews would certainly be in town if the town turned on their charm.
The TV crews did show and the town appeared twice on the major channels and on a few of the smaller ones in the closest major city news station. The TV showed the town all decorated, the charted busses for the team right behind the firetrucks leading the parade, followed by the band and others in the older school busses and parent vehicles.

In this town, the priority list was Sports, Jesus, Walmart, Family, and way down the line after any number of other items, education.

20131211-115702.jpg

The High School’s test results the following week were particularly dismal. On reflection months later, the committee assigned to review the data along with the administration, agreed that for the most part the school needs to focus more on reading. Target those teachers with the most amount of students that failed to demonstrate progress and get them help. Hire a consultant to tackle the difficult math scores and improve their numbers. They also felt a disconnect with the community; parental involvement in high school was just poor and that was, as far as the committee was concerned and the administration, the central problem. Add to that the need for additional teachers (despite the four coaches on staff filling teaching positions as ISS teachers, study hall, weight training, current events, etc., etc., all with 4th block as their planning/take care of the field time.)
As I sat in these meetings, later watching the evening news and seeing the various school parades, reviewing the test data, I most often times had to bite my tongue, to keep from screaming, what I believe to be, the obvious. We cannot effectively change high school educational success without changing high school — period.

If you look at the changes facing education these days, top to bottom, you’d see that the target for these changes, the focal point, the one with the most institutional resistance, and the one with the greatest inbred social dichotomy to face, are high schools. High school teachers must completely transform their teaching methodology. Elementary teachers are still seen by their students as the font of all knowledge (cue soft music, crayons, butterflies); high school teachers without an iPad or Google Glasses are seen as disconnected, clumsy, uneducated(cue acid rock, dirty chalk boards, old school teacher’s lounge). Established, understood, comfortable, high school curriculum is thrown out the window and completely revised. High School educational time in-the-seat is now too valuable to waste on pep rallies, bus send off’s, study halls, and anything other than instructional time.

20131211-120558.jpg

How do we do this? As an institution high school is what we talk about. It is THE reunion. It is the most influential social morphing 4 years of most everyone’s life! Movies are made about it: I did not say the singular movie but the plural movies and many of them blockbusters. It is the music of our youth, the foundation of our religion, the beginning of our family, the origin of our job. Many a “clumsy” high school teacher helped us through this minefield of life our parents knew nothing about.

So what is it going to be America? If you want high school the way it used to be, then you’ll need to back off the national standards and accept the fact that in today’s world your kids will be unable to compete on the same level as those from most other states and countries. If you want your high school to accept the challenge of today’s employment and higher educational needs then you’ll have to help out. Remember — that’s your kid in the first place, not the school’s, so these kids are your responsibility to get them off to work or higher education. To do that you need to realize that high school is about education, not pompoms. Sports are great don’t get me wrong. So are many other worthwhile school and community based organizations (KEY Club comes to mind) that operate outside regular school hours and their teacher/sponsor work after school with no pay to support. No time off for any sport or activity; no 4th block “special” classes for athletes that many school boards shamefully allow student athletes to take every year and receive a full credit for attending the class (weight lifting comes to mind), no coaches hired for those “make-up” classes; instead, teachers hired who, after school, also can coach a sport. And all this is going to cost you some time. I don’t know if you’ve ever taken a close look at your school board, but if I were a betting man I’d bet that for the most part they are old white men. And probably (but this has been changing recently) your high school principal/assistant principals are former coaches. Now right off the bat I’d like to say (like Seinfeld) “… there’s nothing wrong with that!” and there is not — as long as the person who is the administrator is trained in the latest in educational methodology, understands teachers needs and the proper and fair evaluation process, is comfortable with students, understands their needs, works with student council, meets and encourages parental participation in school. Sound like your administrator or school board member? No? Then get rid of them.

20131211-121205.jpg

That’s really the choice. There is no compromise. You cannot have your cake and eat it too! There will be many who will try and sell you a proposal that can modify your schedule to allow for both but I promise you, if you subtract from academics to add to anything else you lose; most schools have already subtracted so much from their academics that over the past eight years at various high schools I have asked teachers to tell me how many truly effective days they had to teach each year. Cutting out the pep rally, the assemblies, the class rings, the games, etc., etc., what was the bottom line. The numbers were interesting because I failed to consider not only the time of the year you ask the question, but what period of the day do we take an average from? If it’s last class period then the total effective school day numbers will be horrible. Parents pull kids out early, sports leave early, assemblies, fire drills, early release weather days, all impact last period more than any other. If you ask the question during the rocking chair time period between Thanksgiving and Christmas then teachers remember all the incidental times kids miss their class for some holiday event or special, than if you ask them just before end of course testing in the spring, when things are hectic and the holidays are a distant memory. The average number of effective high school days turned out to be151 as an average out of 180. The lower end numbers hovered around 130, the upper end around 170 (interestingly those teachers submitting the higher numbers were those with AP type classes.) So the number 151 converts to an effective teaching year percentage of 84% — a “B” in anyone’s grade-book and a low “B” at that. So to start off with, as a professional educator you’re going into a new school year already facing an institutional challenge of failed promise on the part of the school system to provide you with enough days to effectively “teach” a student when you only get them for approximately 84% of the time. By the way, this count does not include those days I like to call “bruised” days. Teachers know, those “hangover” days from the game, big vacation weekend, school scandal, or the day before the main event — anything but the task at hand gets covered on those days.

Sounds like too much can’t do and not enough can-do! Well like I used to “coach” my students before approaching my coach principal; have the answer/solution before asking the question/permission. The tough part is the recognition of what type of school are we? Walk through the hallways, walk out front, look in the newspapers, and review the yearbook. If there’s more about some inflated object that people pass, punt, kick, hit with a club than there is about the school’s success taking the ACT test or end of course testing, then you need to change. Evaluate “who” is on your faculty starting at the top. The “Good-ole-boy” system is not getting students scholarships and jobs, it’s keeping good-ole-boys and their families employed! Get rid of them. “Teachers” filling positions of no significance because of their familial relationship to some bozo in the central office or the school board but occupying a valuable spot that could otherwise be used to hire a “real” teacher for AP math or history, make the change. Sit down with the entire faculty, all at once or in chunks, and look at the calendar for the year. With the exception of the weather and natural disasters the school controls the daily activity. You have 180 days to produce a successful student, not a day more so use every day. Eliminate any event that would otherwise interrupt academic time plain and simple. Enlist and support parental involvement; if they’ll come out in the cold and pouring rain to watch a bus with darkened out windows blowing diesel smoke pass them by early in the morning in numbers equal to or greater than the total school population, then possibly there’s a vibrant PTO just waiting to be asked inside.

20131211-121517.jpg

“College and Career Ready”

I’m really struggling with this phrase College and Career Ready used so frequently and easily throughtout the state of Tennessee especially in light of the attack on “career” type CTE classes — many of these classes being eliminated/reduced across the state. Some view and define the phrase as a charge to make sure that students are ready first for college and then after college ready for their career. Other educators (and here’s where I fit in!) see the phrase with two distinct charges; the preparation of students to be College Ready and preparing students to be Career Ready
College preparation is both the function of using CCSS to help students gain and understand subject knowledge in preparation for college level work, but also the task of understanding the “how” college functions. The fact that most classes do not meet everyday, that one class may be on the other side of the campus, what a “lab” class is, dorm room living, and the list goes on. How well do we prepare our students for college? How much do they understand about the process, the link between a future career and the degree required for that career? Using the Counseling and Postsecondary School Culture barometer from NYC schools, it is very interesting to see how infrequently we as professional educators “counsel” our own students in college expectations. The belief is that this counseling must be done somewhere along the line, someone other than me is responsible, the guidance office must take care of all of that. However, as this pulse of the school sampling often reveals, is that no-one is guiding our students on their future path when it is everyone’s responsibility not just the guidance office.
Career preparation on the other hand is two-fold: Those on the college path must understand the requirements for their chosen future career and those who elect to go into the existing workforce need to understand the how-to of interviews, professional dress, and resumes to mention a few skills. Realistically step back and look at the graduating class and estimate how many will go to and complete college, and how many will either drop out, enter the work-force directly, work and go to a tech school, enter the military, and then ask yourself how are we preparing the students for this “career” path? Are our students really “Career Ready?”
I’m worried about Tennessee. I’m concerned that we are focusing too much light on the college path that we are neglecting the path that many of our students will take. In so doing we are slowly eliminating those “career enhancing” classes like cosmetology, carpentry, plumbing, auto work, electronics, that we are pulling the “career” rug out from underneath a large population of students and forcing them into college level classes where they will not be successful.
If anything we need as much focus if not more on the Career Ready part of the phrase than ever before. We need technical school information, we need hands on CTE classes to teach the reality of math and business classes to demonstrate the requirement to be able to read and understand non-fiction because life is non-fiction. These needs are required life skills, not optional and “Career Ready” classes need as much focus as “College Ready” classes. Come-on Tennessee, let’s take back the lead in school-to-work education.