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.