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.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Managing From Up Close

I believe the current conventional wisdom about school district leadership is flawed. Many of the current ‘reformers’ are betting on what I would call ‘management from afar’. It goes like this—find an executive from an area other than education, train them in the business of schools, and turn them loose to cut budgets and drive up test scores. Oh, and keep the old model of district leadership with orders coming from ‘downtown’ and the district leadership knowing little, if anything, about the real life of classrooms.

That may work in some places, and fail in others. (If it does work then we need some similar approaches to the leadership of our medical system, Congress, and the home mortgage and banking industries.) But I am willing to bet that the impact will be limited.

As an alternative, I believe that administrators who are still involved in the day-to-day lives of teachers, students, staff, and families would better serve districts. That leadership should not be ‘downtown’ but should be down the hall; that administrators should have to experience the consequences of their decisions made; and that easy access to district administrators is owed to the public that pays them.

So, with that in mind, this year I am taking on the dual role of superintendent and secondary school principal in our school district. We will see if this model, one that keeps the superintendent in daily touch with everything from announcements to pep rallies, can be effective.

There are three pieces of this leadership model that are crucial; shared leadership, staying connected with the school and community, and understanding that the only job of central administration is to support teachers in helping children learn.

A few notes on each.

First, shared leadership. Of course I cannot do everything a superintendent and a principal can and should do. Even in our small district that would not be possible. But what we have done is taken what we would have spent on a full time superintendent and used those funds to make sure each of our schools had a full time leader. In addition to their building duties they also have some central office functions. So one elementary principal handles federal and state reporting, the other directs curriculum and staff development, and an associate principal at the secondary school also directs the extracurricular program.

This team approach goes all the way to day-to-day building management. When one of us is out of his/her building, the fourth administrator heads to that building for the day and works from there. So some days my office (basically my computer) may be at an elementary school. The point is that we all share responsibility for the education of every child and the support of every teacher.

Second, staying connected. Nothing epitomizes the distance of district leadership from the real work of the schools than the expression, ‘it came from downtown.’ Far removed from the real lives of kids and teachers, bureaucrats make decisions, issue pronouncements, and try to micro manage the work of the classroom—all the time with little or no contact with real kids and real classrooms. Even more notable is the central office isolation from the families that the schools are to serve.

My dual role means I am still involved in curriculum, working with teachers on instruction, meeting with families about kids. In fact, in the past few weeks I have been cornered in the grocery store by a woman wanting to know why we did not hire a family member, talked with a laid off staff member about how to manage the new fiscal realities that family faces, and written two letters of recommendation for members of the class of 2011. This contact reminds me that every decision I make has real consequences for people who are my neighbors, and for kids and staff that depend upon us to provide them with the learning environment they deserve.

Third, supporting teachers. I believe that the only reason you have a central office is to support the work of teachers in educating our children. When you are removed from the school, when your degree is in management and not education, you may forget that. The job is not to manage instruction and learning, it is to support instruction for learning. And if you have not experienced the actual life of a school it is nearly impossible to support what you do not know.

I do not believe this will be easy, or that I will always do it well. But I do believe the models of managing schools from afar are seriously flawed and are hurting our schools. We will try managing from up close. I will keep you informed as to how it goes.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A Voice of Hope Rises Above the Din

The school year ended a couple of weeks ago here. The halls are empty, we are cleaning up last year’s records, building next year’s schedule student by student.

What goes on now is the work behind the scenes; work done without fanfare or hype, by teachers and staff whose work right now makes next year’s successes possible.

Things are a bit slower, however, and it allows me to catch up on things sent my way that were set aside in the rush to graduation this spring. In that collection of articles, books, and notes was one piece that caught my eye and gave me hope in spite of the ongoing and oft misguided debates about our schools. You can find it here, and I believe you will find this parent’s plea for school reformers to get serious about what really matters in schools inspiring.

I do not know the author personally, though I think I would like Helen Gym. She is the driving force behind something called Parents United for Public Education, good people who work for reforms like free busing for kids to school, smaller class sizes, healthy fresh food in cafeterias—you know, simple stuff that does not make headlines but really makes a difference.

But it was Ms. Gym’s piece on what parents really want when it comes to schools that caught my eye. Here is the short list, but I encourage you to follow the link to her entire piece:
  • Programs rich in the arts, sciences, and history that are about more than test scores;
  • Critical thinking;
  • Small classes;
  • An experienced, stable, and professional teaching force.

And what she points out is that while this is what parents want, these simple steps are ignored by politicians who contract out teaching, spend fortunes on tests and pre-packaged curricula, and continue to dumb down our schools with a focus on one-size-fits-all standardization.

Now that I am superintendent of schools in my little district, I can lead on some of these things in spite of state budget cuts and the focus on testing here. As Ms. Gym suggests, we are going to keep our early childhood programs in the face of reduced funds—and we are going to see how to make them more developmentally appropriate. We are going to squeeze just a bit harder to reduce class sizes in our middle school. We are going to continue to offer our staff the best support we can to bring on line a curriculum rich in critical literacy skills. And we are going to create a better website and re-launch our district newsletter to try and do a better job connecting with parents.

And I think I am going to send all of our staff—from teachers to custodians, aides to principals, a copy of Helen Gym’s fine piece of writing.

I have no idea how this will turn out for us, or for Ms. Gym and her allies in Philadelphia. But I do know that on this Saturday morning, in spite of the rain, things seem a bit brighter just knowing she and her friends are on my side.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Triple Crown

It’s spring, and time for the Triple Crown. But I do not mean in horse racing.

Rather, at Federal Hocking Secondary School it is time for the academic Triple Crown for our seniors.

The first of the three, our Graduation Portfolio presentation, took place last Friday, the day before the Kentucky Derby. Each senior stood before a panel of faculty and defended the portfolio that they had assembled demonstrating their readiness to graduate.

The first section of the portfolio was their plan for after high school, complete with college or job acceptance letters, resumes, letters of reference and their own agenda for life after high school.

Section two demonstrated, through course work or work outside of high school, their competence in math, science, humanities, and at least one elective area. And the third section presented their competence as a citizen, documented through work at school, in their community, and in the society writ large.

All day the staff listened to personal stories of challenge and achievement as our students stood and delivered their best for our appraisal.

Next will be the Senior Project presentations. For the past year every potential graduate has been charged with designing and carrying out an individual project where they learn something new of their choosing.

With the help of an outside learning resource that each student has to identify, they have had to learn a new skill and then present a product that demonstrates that achievement. On Project Showcase night this year our halls will be filled with artifacts ranging from a 1940s restored car to a biodiesel refinery, rehabilitated horses to gourmet desserts, computer programs to gun cabinets, and hand-tied trout flies to gluten-free cookbooks.

Each of these projects has challenged our students to learn on their own, to find a passion and pursue it, and to find someone to teach them something new outside of the school walls. These are skills that will last them a lifetime.

Finally, on the two days prior to graduation, our seniors will take their final performance assessments. I have written about these previously, but in case you missed it, we do not believe the traditional ‘final exam’ best demonstrates what students have learned.

Thus, we schedule half-day performances that range from researching a position paper, writing it and defending it in a seminar, to carrying out a new lab investigation in the chemistry class. It is a moment when our students prove to us that they can use what they have learned in a new context independent of our help. So much more valuable than one more multiple-choice test.

Many people have pointed out that for too many youngsters the senior year of high school is a waste. Having finished all the requirements for college by December, they coast through a spring featuring nothing but proms and pranks. I would agree—but not here. While some schools see the senior year as a victory lap, we see it as the final lap in the one-mile race, a sprint to the finish.

Do we get push back? You bet: Why do we have to do what no other school around is doing? This is too much pressure on my child in the final year. How can I fail to graduate if I have all my credits but did not do my project?

Of course, with many adolescents, push back is the name of the game. But in the end our goal is not to make school easy—it is to make it meaningful. As my colleague Nancy Sizer pointed out in her important book Crossing the Stage the senior year can be a vital capstone to an educational experience, but only if we make it so.

Yes, we push hard down the stretch. But why not? We want our graduates to know that you put in your best effort at any task all the way to the end, not just through the first three-fourths of the task. And given that for many young people high school will be the end of their formal education, it is our responsibility to make sure they are well-prepared in the areas of careers, intellect, and citizenship when they cross our stage later this month.

It is a shame that policy makers do not get the importance of standards such as the ones we use at Federal Hocking. In fact, in Ohio the current administration is heading towards ending the Senior Project requirement, put in just two years ago by then-Gov. Ted Strickland. This while they will keep the five-part multiple-guess graduation test that students take in tenth grade.

No matter, it is springtime here in Southeastern Ohio and the bugle has blown calling our candidates for graduation to the starting line. The race for their own personal Triple Crown is underway; and I am proud of their ability to take up and master this challenge.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

March Madness

I used to love March.

I attended the University of North Carolina as an undergraduate and March meant madness of the best kind. There was the ACC Basketball Tourney and then the NCAA playoffs—and of course, March meant spring break as well.

Now, I hate it. Forget the fact that there is so much more to love as I have grown older. Sure, there is still the basketball—and for all you doubters my Tar Heels have returned! But with March my farm comes alive starting with the spring peepers calling from the creeks, the first bass from the ponds, and wildflowers in fields and the smell in the woods telling me spring is here.

While it should be one of my favorite months all of this is overshadowed by the most important part of March for the kids and schools in Ohio--the annual madness called the Ohio Graduation Tests.

For five days during either the second or third week of March (it depends upon when your spring break falls) tenth grade students across Ohio sit for five days for tests that will decide whether or not they will graduate from school two years later. Those same tests also determine the school’s ranking with the state and whether it will fall prey to the Annual Yearly Progress measures that determine its fate with the state and federal government.

For five days students sit for two and one half hours taking tests in Reading, Math, Writing, Science and Social Studies. During these five days students face a barrage of questions covering the Boxer Rebellion to quadratic equations, possessive plurals to theocracies, Punnett squares to the meaning of a poem. Questions that I doubt any adult in Ohio not currently in high school could answer. It is like nothing they have done before and nothing they will ever do again. And yet it is one of the most important measures of their success in school.

We have been giving some version of these tests for nearly 20 years now—and I keep wondering why.

Someone once said (it is attributed to Einstein, but no one is really sure) that the definition of madness is continuing to do the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Our own March madness is exactly this. We continue to give standardized tests as if giving them will in some way improve schools. Sure enough, each year states enter into the test score sweepstakes (led by Education Week magazine among others) to see whose scores are the highest. So what?

There is no study that links the scores on these exams with success in life, college, the military, or the workplace. There is no study that says these tests have led to a richer or more challenging curriculum, or more engaging teaching practices, or more welcoming schools (in fact, the evidence seems to suggest just the opposite). There is no study that says that the money we are spending on these things is a good investment, with more of a payoff than, say, more teachers, books, supplies, or extracurricular activities. There is simply no evidence that doing more of the same will get us different results.

But when you are suffering from madness, reason does not matter.

Which is probably why I have the Tar Heels winning the national championship in my local pool.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Something Else I Don't Get ...

In an earlier post I shared my confusion about who gets to speak for public education. I am confused again.

Maybe I am missing something but aside from ideology, what is really behind the work in several states to end collective bargaining rights for teachers’ unions?

I’ve been a school principal for 19 years, two of which I spent away from my beloved secondary school in Ohio to start an independent school in Los Angeles. The school in Ohio has a negotiated agreement and a teachers’ union; the one in LA did not. I prefer the union and the contract.

Before I tell you why, let’s be clear about the bigger picture that is going on right now. While teacher unions seem to be taking the blame for whatever is wrong with public schools (and it is not as much as you think but we will leave that for now), there isn’t much evidence that this is the case. In fact, it seems that students in states with unions do better on tests and graduation rates than states without. (The best and most balanced summary of the evidence I have found is here.)

Additionally, while teachers (and all public employees for that matter) seem to be taking it on the chin as states cut their budgets, it is certainly unclear as to whether they are to blame for the current recession. If you want to punish someone for the current economic crisis we would do better to tax bankers, mortgage lenders, credit default swappers. Or better yet, as Ezra Klein in the Washington Post points out, blame the politicians themselves who cut taxes for the rich and other connected friends—tax cuts that did little to create jobs and directly led to the current meltdown.

Clearly, the budget problems could be solved without the union/teacher-bashing--if the politicians wanted that to happen. In my state of Ohio the $8 billion dollar budget hole could be plugged up to the tune of $7 billion just by reducing tax expenditures that cover tax breaks for everything from utilities installing already required environmental equipment to brewers paying their taxes two weeks early (the piece by economist Mark Cassell pointing this out was published in the Columbus Dispatch, offices across the street from the legislature—I wonder if any of them read it).

But on the micro level, as a school administrator I prefer working with, rather than against, the local union for several reasons.

First, coming together to talk about contracts helps us all see where we can work together for our kids. It is tough for a teacher, whose pay depends upon the benevolence of a school head, to speak up when something needs to be done about a lack of resources, too many kids in the class, or coordinating planning times.

Second, I have yet to see any fairer way to determine salary and working conditions than through a negotiated agreement. Without a negotiated agreement I have seen first hand how favored teachers get easier loads and higher pay, while the ones willing to raise questions never seem to reap the fruits of their labor.

Third, contracts set expectations -- clear expectations -- for teachers, too.

Fourth, contracts make clear the process of teacher evaluation. I hear a lot these days about “poor” teachers in schools and how hard it is to get rid of them. Well, I have let several teachers go (I am not proud of that—it just means I could not figure out how to help them improve) and know it can be done. And remember, every teacher in every school has been assessed by a principal or supervisor, and has been recommended for a contract renewal. If you want to find the source of bad teachers in schools, I suggest you start with administrators who are not doing their jobs.

Finally, as a school principal, my job is to work with teachers on improving instruction, not debating how much they get paid or how many hours or days they work. That agreement is between the board and the teachers; my work is about teaching and learning.

I know there are contracts that some administrators loathe…but here’s the deal; two parties agreed to those. That is why they call it negotiation. Are there some things in our contract I don’t like? There might be. But the contract carries the signatures of our publicly elected board of education. If people do not like it, they should elect someone else.

And if statehouse politicians do not like unions, they should just say so. They shouldn’t use the current budget crisis they created as a smoke screen for an agenda they could not force through otherwise.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

More of the Same

A while ago I wrote that I was disappointed that no one in Washington was interested in the wisdom to be found in our successful public schools. I put it this way, “But would somebody please explain to me how the success of my staff, and the staffs of many schools just like ours, is no longer of value to a nation that seems to still want a good public education system?”

Today it feels like déjà vu all over again.

I received, from the esteemed U. S. House of Representatives, news that the first hearing to deal with education policy has been scheduled! In the new era of small government, of listening to the people, of getting Washington out of the way of real reform, I was hoping the hearings this time around would be different. No more would policy wonks who have never dared put a foot in a classroom be ushering in school reforms that were unproven at best, damaging at worst.

No, now we would hear from, as Carl Sandburg said, ‘the people, yes, the people.’

Imagine a room full of teachers who were making a difference in the lives of children—teachers who actually taught a child to read, who helped a student discover the love of science, or who knew how to manage a classroom of 28 adolescents when they first dissected a worm—talking to our esteemed members of Congress on what they needed to keep up the good work! Stunning!

The preliminary word was that this hearing, scheduled for later this week, would consider how “many states and local school districts have adopted innovative solutions to improve academic performance, enhance accountability, and involve parents in their child’s education. Federal policy should not undermine important efforts underway at the local level to advance student achievement.

Members of the committee will hear testimony that describes the challenges and opportunities that states and local school districts face in preparing students for success, and examine the current federal role in the nation’s education system.”

Hot damn!

But then I went to the witness list. Four witnesses, with a combined classroom experience of (at least to what they will admit on their official biographies) nine years. Apparently most of that was nearly a quarter of a century ago.

No worries. Maybe they know something about public education and how to make it better.

Well, only if you think the best way to go is to end public education, give parents vouchers, and hope everything turns out all right. The members of Congress will hear from the leader of an Arizona school choice organization whose web site streams cute videos of kids but runs banners about how to gut public schools. And then there is the fellow from the Cato Institute who would be happy if every public school in the country closed tomorrow.

What a shame, and what another lost opportunity. Once again the voices of those closest to kids, of those willing to forgo the law school option at the end of the two year TFA foreign service stint, of those who, like my wife, are spending another night planning for instruction using materials they bought with their own money, will not be heard.

Imagine if we did this to doctors, the military, or business leaders. If we simply held hearings in DC where the most adamant critics of their work were given free rein to call for the socialization of medicine, the elimination of the Department of Defense, or the firing of the most senior CEOs. Too hard to think about? Well, it’s what is happening to our teachers as their voices are silenced and their experience devalued.

Tomorrow, bright and early, I will head to school. I’ll be in the company of expert craft persons who have devoted their lives to teaching kids in one of the poorest areas of our state. They are teachers who make a difference in those students’ lives every day -- from preparing them for college and teaching them how to write for publication to preparing them to be a citizen in our democracy.

Lucky me. And too bad for an America that will continue to be subject to policies from Washington that are more about ideology than ideas.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Putting the "F" Word Back in Education

Smokey Daniels, a well-known literacy guru, was talking about schools at a meeting my staff and I were attending. He stood up and said, “I think we need to put the “F” word back in schools. I mean we need “F” (pause for effect), “U” (another pause), “N” (relieved laughter and clapping).

He’s right, of course. Kids and teachers could use a little more of the “F” word.

When second semester began at my school my school this year you couldn’t find a student in math, science, social studies or English classes.

Instead, the kids were concocting “healthy” cookies in the food lab, banging out ironworks with a blacksmith from England or arguing the finer points of law in mock trial teams.

Me? I was teaching the finer points of fly tying and casting.

It was all part of our annual “intersession” program, a time between the first and second semesters where teachers offer courses based on their expertise outside the academic areas they usually teach and where students learn new skills and activities.

Most of all, it is fun. In this era of high- stakes testing and “accountability,” I have been dismayed by how fun has been taken out of school like air from a balloon. More and more we’ve heard about kindergartners losing recess or play time to test preparation or field trips to cultural sites being scrapped in favor of drill-and-kill drudgery. Time-on-task is measured in minutes, and it squeezes out the occasional classroom diversion or story book read out loud. It’s all in the name of keeping up with some illusive ratings game involving international comparisons of our kids.

Here’s the funny thing: most of those international hot-shot countries aren’t as obsessed with test scores, time-on-task, and all the other stuff we here hold up as the only way to improve schools. Instead, those countries spend time and money on the front end providing for the health and welfare of kids, preparing a strong teaching force and funding their schools in an adequate and sensible way. Then, they stand back and watch all the good stuff happen — probably with a few “intersession” programs like our school uses.

Yes, it’s true that test scores are up in China. Yet employers there say they cannot find employees who can solve problems and come up with creative and innovative solutions. Some of that country’s well-off parents seek to export their children to America for school. Look, China does a great job with cheap, exploited labor producing mass quantities of look-alike goods. Good for them. But that’s not a future I want for my kids.

Historically, it was not kids who had been in school the longest and taken the most tests that led and changed America. Rather, it was the farm boys and girls who knew how to fix tanks with bailing twine and set bones with torn shirts who won World War II. And it was backyard tinkerers like Homer Hickam who launched rockets and created computers. They went to school and took tests, of course. But they also were allowed time to work with their hands and their imaginations.

I am not calling for a return to the “good old days,” a time when some children were consigned to less-demanding classes and other children were not even allowed through the school house door. But I do think we have lost something in our unending quest for lofty standards, more rigor and higher test scores.

That something is the joyfulness of play, and the creativeness of curiosity. We have separated our children from the very world that sustains them. They will be poorer intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually for it.

People smarter than me have pointed this out. Deborah Meier has written how physical and imaginative play is the important work of childhood. Richard Louv has warned us of a “nature deficit disorder. " Sustainability educators have pointed out how children have been disconnected from the physical world which makes their lives possible.

All of these folks are on to the same thing—the best way to engage our children in school is to make sure schooling includes the “F” word.

Our intersession week is one way to do that. And we hold on to it in spite of pressure to cover more content and take more tests. (A confession: tenth-graders spend part of intersession learning “test-taking” skills as a way of making sure they can tackle the state exams. After all, we do live in the real world!)

Amidst all the talk about No Child Left Behind re-authorization, national standards, new tests and budget shortfalls, I suggest those of us who are in the front lines of education – those of us who are actually in the schools -- keep asking the same question: Where can we sneak in a little of the “F” word?

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Meet the New Test -- Same as the Old Test

In a recent Washington Post piece, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan repeated a refrain we have heard far too often about the subject of testing.

In a nutshell, Duncan admits that No Child Left Behind and its reliance on standardized, fill-in-the-bubble, multiple guess tests both dumbs-down and narrows instruction. Surprise, surprise.

The Secretary goes on to promise that new consortiums working on assessments will produce “a new test” he claims will “measure what children know across the full range of college and career-ready standards, and measures other skills, such as critical-thinking ability.”

Allow me to express a bit of doubt. For starters, I hope he doesn’t define “new test” as “one test” because that will never accomplish what he claims he wants: an assessment that measures a broad spectrum of student abilities. Further, unless these new tests are uncoupled from the high stakes they currently invoke—such as punishments for schools and teachers—they will be just another standardized, easily scored exam that tell us little about what is really going on in our classrooms.

I am thinking about all of this today because it is the first of two days of our semester performance assessments at our school. At the end of each semester, teachers engage students in extensive, half-day performances of what they have learned. The idea is to have them show what they know through performance rather than filling in bubbles or choosing the right answer from a list of choices.

Here are several examples:

We give our American Government students two opinion pieces that take opposing view points on the recently passed health-care legislation. They are first asked to read the pieces using a literacy strategy called text-marking, and they are assessed on how well they have read. Then, using resources they accessed in class and information they glean from work in the media center, they are asked to draft their own position paper and submit it as an opinion piece for the local newspaper. Finally, they will engage in a Socratic Seminar discussing both the pieces they read and their own writing. A team of teachers using the rubrics students have used all semester long will evaluate each piece of the work.

Chemistry students begin class with a paper-and-pencil activity in which they balance chemical equations and solve for missing quantities. They then move to the lab where they will find a station with the requisite materials to conduct an experiment. The task: complete the experiment and produce a full lab report that includes the hypothesis tested, the results gained, and implications for further research.

And in physical education our students spend the first part of the period using a web site to determine their metabolic levels and basic data. Then they select a candy bar from their teacher’s desk. Now, the kicker: they are asked to design and then perform a 60-minute exercise program based on what they have learned this semester that will work off those calories!

I could go on, but you get the drift.

We are not perfect at this work. That’s why we take time after the assessment days are over to review how the assessments went and, most important, what we learned about our students’ abilities. What we find impacts our teaching next time around.

Compare this kind of assessment to our students’ experience with the Ohio Graduation Test, which is used for both state and federal accountability reporting. Each test -- reading, math, writing, science and social studies -- takes the same amount of time. But rather than ask students to do something with what they know, these tests ask them to regurgitate what they have heard. In fairness, there is some writing on the tests, but most of it still involves selecting the right answer from a list of givens.

Add to this shallowness the fact that our faculty never gets to see full student results or the writing samples and how they were graded. It does little to inform teaching except to let teachers know they should spend more time on The Boxer Rebellion, photosynthesis, or two-step equations, or similar inferences based on aggregate scores of the entire class.

Duncan applauds NCLB for disaggregating data—but bad data disaggregated is still bad data. And let’s be honest. All this so-called “data-driven decision-making” talk should really be called what it is: test-driven decision making. Ohio’s school report cards consist of 26 “data” points, and 24 of them—92%--are test scores.

By the end of this week we will have mountains of information on our students, their achievement, and our teaching. All schools could have the same information. The New York Performance Assessment Consortium has demonstrated time and time again that performance assessments, teacher-designed and evaluated, have led to higher rates of student success both in and after school.

I wish I could believe that the new Congress, in some yet to be found bi-partisan spirit, would end the reliance on standardized tests—much like the higher- achieving nations we point to with admiration. But when Duncan continues to talk about one standardized, high-stakes evaluation, I have more than a few doubts.

In the meantime, our school will continue to use what we learn about our kids through performance assessments to improve instruction and prepare them for the years after high school -- years where what you can do will count for a lot more than what you can memorize.