Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Almost Another NCLB Victim

"Dr. Wood, I need your help on this one." My assistant is one of the most competent people I know, so when she asks for help I figure it is pretty important.

"While you were out yesterday a young woman came in to enroll. She is eighteen, has missed almost 14 days of school this year, and still has several graduation tests to pass. She says she is living with a boyfriend in our district - so?"

If you don’t deal with the demands put on schools by No Child Left Behind and state accountability models you might not know what the question was. Let me make it simple for you: Do we take this girl--who we do not have to take, who has aged out of public schooling, who is not an ‘official’ district resident--and risk damaging our school report card?

It works this way. Clearly this young woman is at risk of dropping out. She is several credits short of graduating this year even if she passes all the classes she is taking. She has an attendance problem, does not have a stable family getting her to school every day, and, according to her prior school, has failed an early childhood course because she refused to get the required physical that would have cleared her to work with children. Additionally, she has failed repeatedly several of the state-mandated tests required for graduation.

If we enroll her and she drops out, or does not graduate because of credits or tests, our school will take the blame for her as a dropout even though she will only be with us for six months. She will be reflected in our graduation rate, and given that we are a small school - this year’s graduating class is 87 students - if she drops out she will lower our rate by 1.1%. The graduation rate is used by the state to rate our school and determine whether we need state intervention, need to spend money on transferring students, or resort to some other brilliant turnaround strategy like firing staff.

By allowing her to enroll, even though we do not have to, we put the entire school at risk.

I should not be thinking this way.

Instead, I should see this young woman as part of our mission, as someone we can help, as someone worthy of yet another chance. It should not matter whether or not we predict she can graduate. We should work to help her graduate.

And we will; we enrolled her the very next day. (My assistant knew we would, I think she was just testing me.)

But here’s the deal. Rather than punishing us for taking a chance, how about using an accountability system that gives us credit for putting ourselves on the line. We believe that in just six months we can get her to finish school, something neither her parents (who are nowhere in the picture) nor the other school she is leaving believes. We need a system that says if you take at-risk kids, if you open your doors to them--regardless of the conditions they are fleeing or have created--we will give you credit for that. In fact, we might even give you the extra funding you need to track these kids, offer them after-school help, and make sure they have the supports they need just to get in the door every day.

I know that is really too much to hope for.

But I am asking anyway.

And if the answer is no, how about simply adjusting the way you compute graduation rates so it makes it easier for us to say yes to kids like this?

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Add This to Your Reform Wish List

On a recent fall Wednesday morning I found myself on the deck of an almost completed cabin overlooking the mist coming off the Hocking River. Two teachers, three fathers, sixteen students, and I had gathered for the once-weekly ‘show and tell’ session in our junior/senior Advisories -- this time at the cabin three seniors had designed and built for their senior project.

The cabin is ‘off the grid’. It has solar power, a composting toilet, water caught from the roof, and a wood burning stove. It is, in the best sense, sustainable. The three seniors had done all the research on the building techniques, worked with local carpenters and solar installers to learn what they needed to know, and had built the cabin from the ground up.

This morning we had gathered to hear about their work. We also sat in a circle to listen to one student play Wildwood Flower, on the banjo, see the sketches for another’s ceramic project, and go over the fitness plans another was designing for four participants in an experiment in weight loss and exercise.

What a complete joy.

Here were young people being given the freedom to manage their own learning, challenged to find someone who could guide or mentor them in that effort, and presenting a finished product to their peers and community. School, at its finest. And if I only had a picture of the pride on the parents’ faces as they watched their boys present their work!

I used to be puzzled by why more schools do not have a senior project or similar requirement. Given that when these same young people graduate in just 7 months they will never again experience anything like ‘school’, it would only make sense to do things to prepare them for the world after school.

Think about it. Never again will they find themselves in the cocoon of the school. Where someone makes sure they are fed, decides what they are to learn and how fast, where if they do not show up for class someone goes looking for them, and makes sure they have a ride to school and a meal at lunch time. I guess the military is the closest thing to school that I can think of, and even that experience, as it tries to take away individuality, runs counter to the school’s dual charge of developing individual talents while simultaneously inducting newcomers into a culture.

It is no wonder that so many kids drop out of college or find themselves adrift in the job market after school. More importantly, how few of them engage themselves in the civic life of our neighborhoods or communities. They just are not ready for it.

For all the yammering on about schools helping kids be ‘college and career ready’ not a single reform plan put out by any legislator or foundation addresses this issue in an honest way. Come on, be real, what gets us ready for life after school is not calculus or the intricacies of the War of 1812. That may help. But what really matters is the ability to be resilient, to find one’s own way to learn, to be able to take on individual and group challenges, and to know how to learn.

Of course, you are not going to find that in the new revisions of ESEA or in the current mantra of tying teacher evaluations to test scores. And, I am afraid, when we hit the next decade and I am retired we will still be reading stories about the need for change in our schools.

But if we want to make a difference in the lives of our children, it is time to stop tinkering around the edges. We just keep on demanding another test, or more content, or new teacher evaluations when the answer is not there.

Instead, we could, right now, just change what it means to be a school graduate. We could ask each school, in its own way, to demonstrate that all of their graduates are proficient in the ability to learn, that they can manage their lives, that they are engaged in their communities. In fact, many vocational schools, like ACE in Albuquerque, NM, do that now. And so do many of the schools, such as The Met in Providence, RI, and the many schools associated with the Coalition of Essential Schools founded by the late Ted Sizer and which meets this week in its annual Fall Forum.

I would not have every school require a Senior Project like we do at Federal Hocking. But I would provide every school with the options and supports to build a program that faces the future rather than our past.

In the meantime, I am still savoring the mellow banjo notes floating over the smells of bacon, eggs, and coffee and the smiles on the faces of young people celebrating the accomplishments of their peers.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

More Reasons for Hope

In a recent post I found a few things to be optimistic about in terms of educational policy in the states. Now, more hopeful signs: the results ihttp://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gifn the Wake County, NC school board elections, an Oregon school district’s refusalhttp://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gif to take the bribe to institute teacher assessments linked to standardized test scores, and the pressures of No Child Left Behind landing on the doorstep of an innovative school.

In 1976 the school board in Wake County, lead by one of the more courageous superintendents in the nation, began the process of desegregating its schools by socioeconomic status. The logic was simple: if you wanted to ensure equal access to an education, you needed to make sure that schools were not segregated by the incomes of students’ families. When you group all the middle class students in one school and all the poor students in another, you simply exacerbate the effects of poverty and all but ensure one school will succeed while the other will struggle.

Unfortunately, when the well-to-do in Wake County found that they had to share access to public schools, those who have struck out at those who do not. The school board election in 2009 brought to power a group of citizens determined to overturn the equity agenda. Public battles became the rule of the day at the Wake County Board meetings.

But, and here is the hopeful moment, elections in October brought back a school board committed to the equity agenda. This happened in spite of the funding provided by anti-public school folks such as Art Pope, the Koch brothers, and the interestingly named Americans for Prosperity. The 2009 election was a sleeper, with the anti-equity candidates running a well-financed stealth operation. But when the questions were out in the public, when the issues of equity were front and center, a coalition of progressive groups held the day.

Here is more. It seems that a $2.45 million dollar bribe could not convince the Oregon City School District to walk off the plank of so-called teacher performance pay. Let’s be honest, teacher performance pay is just a nice moniker for paying teachers for higher test scores, because that is the only ‘data’ that matters in these schemes. The research on this is clear; it does not work, but, as we all know, what drives educational policy is not research but ideology.

And one more, an article in the New York Times points out that the Oyster River Middle School, in Durham, N.H., is failing under NCLB. Yep, a school known for creative teaching in a district with an average home value of around $350,000, where around 5% of the kids qualify for free or reduced lunches, with 70% of the kids going on to college while averaging an SAT score of 1674 (the national average is 1509) is failing.

So why is that a hopeful sign? Well, I have always thought that once schools that are serving the most powerful of families are under pressure from NCLB then, and only then, would legislators understand how poorly this law works. More than anything else, money talks in DC and state capitals. And when the schools that educate the children of the well off start to feel the pain of having all kids proficient by 2012 then, and only then, will pressure be on to change the law. Looks like that moment is finally arriving.

If you think about it, all three of these stories from around the nation speak to what the federal government should be doing when it comes to educational policy. As The Forum for Education and Democracy put in its report on the changes needed to ESEA, "we must restore an appropriate balance of authority, with the federal government taking a more pro-active role in ensuring equitable educational opportunity, and a less heavy-handed, more productive role in helping states and localities to focus on improving the quality of teaching and learning. This agenda would reclaim and extend the historic federal role in public education: first, by acknowledging education as a civil right that should be made available to all on equal terms, and second, by taking on the critical tasks that demand a strong central role in building the capacity of schools to offer high-quality opportunities responsive to our fast changing world."

Policy makers could learn from Wake County, Oregon City, and Oyster River. They could learn that their most important job when crafting federal policy is to focus on equity and teacher supply. That would indeed leave no child behind.

Misreading History

I don’t own a television, but I do watch the box when I find myself in a hotel room. Just small doses of it remind me why we turned ours off some 30 years ago.

Take, for example, the incessant worship of Steve Jobs. Sorry to rain on the parade, but you cannot turn on the television without yet another story about the Apple leader. Just this morning it was an interview on "Good Morning America" with his biographer.

Yes, I know he single-handedly invented personal computing--sort of like how some would have us believe that Henry Ford invented the automobile and built all of them himself. And where would we be without phones so smart we can use them while driving down busy highways or spoil a dinner out with friends while we check the latest sports scores or new hot music video?

But besides television’s penchant for not telling the entire story or reducing it to the simplest line, it also chooses what history really matters--and usually makes the wrong choice.

Case in point: while the commentators were fawning over Jobs, they mostly missed the passing of another great American on the same day -- Fred Shuttlesworth.

If you don’t know who Fred Shuttlesworth is it is probably not your fault. You may not know that in 1963 he lead the folks standing up to the dogs and fire hoses in taking on Sherriff Bull Conner in Birmingham, Ala. You may not know that he prodded the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. into taking a stand in that town that would begin to turn the tide in the civil rights movement. And you may not know that his church was bombed three times, he was arrested 30 times, and more than once was nearly beaten to death as he stood for the rights of Americans to do simple things like vote, drink from a water fountain, or go to the beach. (Start your primer on Shuttlesworth here.)

Of course our schools--mine included--share the blame for allowing Shuttlesworth to disappear from history while making Jobs and others our new heroes. But this also points out how hard it is for our schools to combat the incessant drumbeat of the media. (Try this, Google Steve Jobs’ death and you get 260,000,000 hits, Shuttlesworth gets a 1000th of that.)

When I was in college I used to joke that I wanted to belong to a "countercultural institution." Being a public school educator fits that bill.

The Jobs/Shuttlesworth comparison points out how mainstream culture goes for the easy story, the story with a simple line. Iphone is an easy sell. The civil rights movement? Way more difficult. We also know the media loves to go with the "one great man" approach. The civil rights movement cannot be reduced to just one person or one moment.

Finally, let us not forget that mainstream culture, as defined by the media, is product- and consumer-driven. The Jobs story is one that resonates right through the computer on which I am typing. You can’t sell civil rights or make a profit on it, so does it really matter?

What Fred Shuttlesworth did to change the lives of millions of Americans was way more important than creating the ability to see your favorite team’s touchdown on your mobile device. Unfortunately, that’s not the message our kids get from the television.

It is up to our schools to change that message and to counter the drumbeat of prevailing culture.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Yet Another Commission

In yet another signal that the one-size-fits-all approach of NCLB is not working (as if we need one), policy makers in Ohio are pointing to an ever-growing number of college students needing remedial work. Of course, every such problem provides a chance to convene yet another ‘commission’; this one is called the "Regional Consortia for P-20 Alignment."

Their task is "to bring high school standards in line with the realities of higher education," according to our state superintendent. With 41% of college students taking remedial course in mathematics or English something must be done.


After thirty years in this world, spanning both K-12 teaching and district administration, serving as an elected school board member and as a tenured professor, I know not to trust what the experts say. So before the State holds hearings complete with gnashing of teeth over the sorry state of public education, I have a few questions for them to consider.

One, how do we know these college students actually need remediation? Just because a college says they need it, what is the evidence? I am sure more than one parent has been shocked by tuition billings for these courses and has wondered if they are getting their money’s worth.

Further, given that graduate students teach most introductory math and English courses on our state college campuses, maybe the problem is with the teacher and not the learner. My experience a the collegiate level was that very little time is spent with faculty helping them learn how to teach; they were mostly just lecturers. Oh, but surely the problem is with the kids - it always has been, as we have heard the ‘they need remediation’ complaint for as long as I can remember.

Second, haven’t we been testing the pants off our kids for the past two decades and they still can’t do math or write. Hmmmm, wonder what the lesson is here? OK, sorry, just had to ask.

Third, what counts as evidence of what would improve the college readiness of our students? My guess is that the consortia will come up with a bunch of stuff around higher standards, a few more tests, and more curriculum guides written by college professors and state staffers who have no idea how to teach this stuff to real live kids.

In the meantime nearly 60% of the kids are, apparently, ready for college. Is anyone looking at what these kids did on the way to college to be so well prepared? Aside from my guess that most of them are middle class or affluent, had homes where they were well fed, and had health insurance, etc., I would love to know about the school environments that prepared them.

Here is a novel idea - rather than gripe and moan about what some schools are not doing, let’s look at what many schools are doing well, and actually learn from them. The national Coalition of Essential Schools (CES) conducted just such a study (disclaimer, our high school was one such school studied) and when they looked at college transcripts they found that kids from schools that followed a CES model were doing quite well in college and on track to graduate on time.

These are schools that built strong personal relationships with students, had a focused curriculum, believed in assessment by exhibition, and engaged students in meaningful work. No matter, no one in any state has followed up on this study.

Why bother? We have named another commission.

Often I have complained that educational policy-making is an ‘evidence free zone.’ Once again I am afraid we are about to see another demonstration of this as the sages of Ohio’s educational bureaucracy will mandate yet another new curricular model, and more tests, and, well, just more of the same.

Our kids deserve better.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Glimmers of Hope

OK, I’m a ‘glass half full’ kind of guy. And to start this week, what I read in the press gives me just a little hope that thinking about our schools, at least at the state levels, might be a little clearer.

First there was Governor Jerry Brown’s veto of the education bill in California. In his letter, the governor chided the legislature for continuing to rely upon standardized testing as the only ‘data’ that counts when measuring schools success. In his own words: Finally, while SB547 attempts to improve the API, it relies on the same quantitative and standardized paradigm at the heart of the current system. The criticism of the API is that it has led schools to focus too narrowly on tested subjects and ignore other subjects and matters that are vital to a well-rounded education. SB547 certainly would add more things to measure, but it is doubtful that it would actually improve our schools. Adding more speedometers to a broken car won’t turn it into a high-performance machine.

And then, my favorite quote from his veto message: SB547 nowhere mentions good character or love of learning. It does allude to student excitement and creativity, but does not take these qualities seriously because they can’t be placed in a data stream. Lost in the bill’s turgid mandates is any recognition that quality is fundamentally different from quantity. There are other ways to improve our schools to indeed focus on quality. What about a system that relies on locally convened panels to visit schools, observe teachers, interview students, and examine student work? Such a system wouldn’t produce an API number, but it could improve the quality of our schools.

OK, I know, its California. But how about Iowa? Governor Terry Branstad has released a educational change platform there and while the devil is no doubt in the details, there is much here to like. Such as increasing teacher pay and training, providing mentor teachers and career ladders, freeing up principals to lead schools, and a new way to think about accountability that include, from the document, taking into account that healthy and successful children and more than just test scores making sure teachers and other educators have the supports they need to succeed measures parent satisfaction. In my mind all of this is a step well beyond what we have been hearing lately about NCLB.

Of course, I could be fooled again (with a nod to The Who). There are probably plenty of internal politics behind both of these agendas of which I am not aware. But I must say it was nice to start the week hearing Governors of two very different states share a common message it is time to see kids as more than a test score and schools as more than just test preparation mills.

All politics are, in the end, local. That may be what is really behind my ‘half full’ feeling this week. On Monday the staff of our school district gathered for a full day to share our practices and improve our craft. For several years we have been building a reading and writing across the curriculum agenda. We have invested in our teachers’ expertise, and have tried to build an approach from the ground up that invests in teachers, trusts them to do the right thing, and provides ways for them to share successful practices with students.

Monday was a testament to this work.

For a full day teachers shared with one another how they have been implementing the literacy agenda. They modeled what they have done in their classrooms, engaged colleagues in mock-lessons, and planned together where they will go from here with this work. (We also enjoyed a great meal prepared by our cooks with some local produce.)

This is what could happen if Governors Brown and Branstad really mean what they say. We could invest in the expertise of our teachers, find ways to assess the quality of our schools based on the quality of instruction and student engagement, and give schools the latitude to meet the needs of their students in ways that are context specific.

It is hard to imagine that the folks in Washington, guilty as they are for first passing NCLB and now refusing to amend/improve/abandon it, will see the error of their ways. But they could start by taking a look at what a couple of Governors are trying to do, and what one small school district does every day.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

One Superintendent's Thoughts on Opening Day: "Keep Paddling through Rough Waters"

It is a tradition in our district to bring together the entire staff--teachers, aides, bus drivers, custodians, cooks, and secretaries--for an opening day meeting. Part of that morning is an address from the superintendent, and this year I gave my first such speech. There was much to say that was specific to our district, but in closing I had some things to say about the overall state of public education. Here are those comments:

The last decade has not been kind to us, or public schooling in general. While the needs of our kids have increased, our resources have decreased. At a time when the country needs a well-educated public, our schools—you and I—are seen as something to blame for our problems rather than the solution to them. When doubt in our public institutions increases, the media focuses on the occasional cheating scandal rather than upon the thousands of schools and hundreds of thousands of teachers, custodians, secretaries, aides, cooks and bus drivers who do their job well, day in and day out, with little or no attention.

I was thinking about this while listening to my son John describe his work this year. He is, in a credit to many of you, doing quite well as an instructor for Outward Bound. He specializes in teaching whitewater canoeing and kayaking and I overheard him telling a neighbor that he felt like he spent a lot of the summer telling students to ‘keep paddling.’

I asked him what he meant by that and he said that all too often, when faced with a new situation or with failure, his students would simply stop doing what they knew they should do.

They had the expertise, but they doubted their ability.

After several days of instruction, his students faced a new challenge. They were sent down the river through a rather tricky series of rapids that was preceded by a short waterfall, something they had not seen before. My son stationed himself at the top of the rapids, lining up each canoe and cheering his students on.

With every group the same thing happened.

Some students took what they knew, executed the right paddle strokes, and flew through the rapids. But others panicked, and in almost every case, just lifted their paddles into the air and screamed. The result was always the same, a flipped canoe and two students flailing away through the rocks.

I think that it is this way for us right now. We know what to do to help kids learn. We feed them good meals and get them to and from school safely. Certainly we will make mistakes, but overall, we know what to do, despite what the media or politicians might say. The millions of young people who have gone through the public school system--one free to all comers and open to every child-- and have gone on to hold jobs, vote, and build decent communities are a testament to that.

The temptation is to quit paddling, to believe the critics, to panic in the face of the unending drumbeat of criticism.

My message to you about this year is simply this—you know what to do, you know you are making a difference in the lives of our kids, so just keep paddling, and let me know if I can make the water any smoother.