Friday, November 30, 2012

A good day

In the midst of struggle it is sometimes difficult to find happiness. Those of us who are fortunate enough to be in education, to work with children every day sometimes get caught up in what is left undone.

Students could learn more.

Politicians could try and understand schools more.

We could find better strategies that would help us reach more children.

But every now and then we need to pause and reflect on what we do have.

This video captures what I am trying to say better than I can say it.

Enjoy and find happiness today.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Even blind dogs can lead: That doesn't mean they know where they are going!

I have a dog. Her name is Kaya. She is wonderful. Here she is waiting for me to fill up the gas tank so we can go for a walk.

I walk Kaya every chance I get. In November we have walked almost 52 miles. In October we walked almost 65 miles.

The interesting thing about Kaya is that she is blind. Earlier this year we discovered she had glaucoma. We had to remove her right eye. The left eye needs drops everyday to keep the swelling down. She cannot see out of that eye either. We are hopeful that she can keep the eye but we are not sure.

When we walk Kaya is on her leash. She is very confident and often takes the lead as we move down the sidewalk. Most people would not be able to tell that she was blind.

However, if I took her off the leash she would not be able to navigate at all. In our house, while she manages quite well, she will run into walls and misses doorways with regularity.

As I walked with Kaya last night I thought of the changes our state legislature and Governor are proposing. The legislature and Governor remind me of Kaya. They are like blind dogs. They can look like they know where they are going but the truth is they really don't. They have no evidence that the changes they are proposing will work. In fact, many of the changes will fundamentally change the landscape of public education in Michigan.


These bills will create a state Educational Achievement Authority that would be responsible for the lowest performing schools in the state, but that would also be able to operate "new forms" of schools. The EAA would be a state run school district.

The EAA schools would be exempt from state testing. Public schools are forced to give state tests but somehow and for some unknown reason these EAA schools would not have to test.

School districts would be forced to sell unused school buildings to the EAA. The EAA could then use those buildings to bring "new forms" of schools to a community.

The EAA operates outside the Michigan Department of Education and answers to the Governor. Are we confident that the Governor is the one who should be managing schools?

The legislative process is a process that depends on citizen input. I would urge citizens to learn what they can about HB 6004 and SB 1358. Then contact your state representative and state senator to voice your opinion.

Don't let blind dogs lead us.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Can you love students and hate the schools they attend?

The Michigan legislature and Governor Snyder are pushing education reforms. Their latest proposals (HB 6004 and SB 1358) would create a state-wide school district - the Educational Achievement Authority - that would have no local oversight. These bills would allow state takeover of local unused school buildings. These bills would politicize the process of educational reform and create additional government bureaucracy. The Michigan Department of Education would have no authority in this process. Local school districts would have no voice in trying to help students in their own district.

In addition the EAA would be exempt from state testing that every other public school in Michigan is required to participate in.

Governor Snyder and certain legislators argue that this has to be because they care about students more than "government" schools, bureaucracy, and teacher unions. The Governor and certain legislators would argue that they are truly for the students while public schools care only about the institution and protecting their self-interests.

That is hogwash! 

The Governor was not on a bus two weeks ago that was returning from an 8th grade trip to Washington DC. Students had contracted the flu and were sick. Yet who was there caring for those students. Teachers! Without complaint and without an expectation that anyone would notice these teachers took care of students.

The Governor is not at any high school in the state before dawn to see teachers coming in early to work with students. 

The Governor does not see teachers give up their time on weekends to grade papers, plan lessons, and spend time preparing classroom experiences that will shape and change students lives.

I know that public education can improve. The state legislature has passed and the Governor has signed many new laws in the past year designed to improve public education. Yet the Governor and legislators refuse to allow these efforts to bear fruit.

The Governor and legislators would counter that there is no time to wait.

I would argue that knee-jerk, untried, unproven, and ill-conceived reform efforts are worse than allowing time to implement changes correctly.

Why does our Governor and certain legislators insist that untried, unproven reform efforts will work? Why does our Governor and certain legislators insist that a new state bureaucracy is needed?  

I do not have the answer. What I do know is that the Governor is trying to suggest that he loves students but hates their schools. What the Governor should be doing is loving both the students and the schools they attend.

I also know that the citizens of Michigan should not let the Governor and the certain legislators ram legislation down our throats because they claim they know best.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Why do Governor Snyder and certain legislators hate public schools

The legislature, following the lead of Governor Snyder, has introduced two bills - one in the House (HB 6004) and one in the Sentate (SB 1358) - that would codify into state law and expand greatly the powers of the Educational Achievement Authority (EAA).

The original intent of the EAA was to allow the Michigan Department of Education through its State School Reform Officer to take control of schools that had been on the persistently low achieving schools list for three straight years. The persistently low achieving schools are those schools that are ranked in the bottom 5% of all schools in Michigan based on the Top-to-Bottom rankings. These persistently low achieving schools had demonstrated that they needed a change in focus because what they were doing was obviously not working.

While some of us considered this an intrusion into the responsibility of local school districts it was hard not to argue that something new needed to be done. These schools that were designated were failing and had shown no ability to move ahead. 

So although many of us were not sure this was the best remedy we could support it because it was under the control of the State Department of Education. 

But now these new bills expand the EAA to operate "new forms" of schools outside the "persistently low achieving" school category. It would create a de facto state school district controlled by a person appointed by the governor and not by the State Superintendent of Instruction. 

Additionally, this legislation would allow the state to take control of local school buildings that were paid for by local tax dollars. The legislation would require that all school districts notify the Michigan Department of Education if a school building is closed, unused, or unoccupied. The MDE would compile a list of unused school buildings. The local district could not dispose of the building for four years and would have to maintain the building at a "classroom ready" status. 

The EAA would be able to allow an eligible school (EAA or charter) to occupy the unused building and the local school district would be required to sell or lease the school building to the eligible school for fair market value. Who would occupy the building? Probably a for-profit educational company!

Another sticking point is that the EAA would be given additional flexibility by providing an exemption from statewide testing requirements and excused from some certified teacher requirements.

Read the House and the Senate bills. There is much more in them that will make you wonder about the Governor's and certain legislator's commitment to public education.

These bills, which the Governor supports, give me the impression that the Governor is willing to undermine local school districts. The question is why?

The Governor talks about "best practice" but there is nothing in these bills that has been tried at this scale anywhere in the United States. He and the legislators that support these bills cannot point to an example of how this will improve education in Michigan. 

I would agree that in certain schools something new needs to be done. I would even agree that more can be done in every district. But what is proposed in these two bills goes way beyond any rational remedy.

What is proposed in HB 6004 and SB 1358 is outrageous!

Public education in Michigan is successful. Can we do more? Certainly!

But these proposals are not the answer. They point to a different agenda. They point to politicians who want public money to go to private hands and private companies. 

These bills are not the answer and the citizens of Michigan need to let their State Representatives and State Senators know of their opposition to these bills. 

Monday, November 19, 2012

School funding: When politics intrudes needlessly

The state of Michigan is about to enter into a predictably unnecessary debate about how to fund K-12 education.

In the end it is all about politics and power. The debate will have little to do with student learning.

Take Richard McLellan's memo of November 5, 2012, that provides an update on the public education finance project. In this memo he states,

"Given the Governor’s focus on performance and choice, we want the education financing
law to focus on funding things that work (and stopping things that don’t work) rather than
the present focus on funding schools regardless of performance."

Yet what McLellan is proposing has never been tried any where in the United States. There is no evidence that what he is proposing will work at all.

Yet, if you listen to McLellan, you would think that his proposal is guaranteed to succeed. The only problem is that he cannot make that guarantee at all.

It leads one to wonder why McLellan would be proposing such a radical shift in the way we fund public schools. While those who wish to redefine how we finance public education will state that it is about ensuring that all students have access to "anytime, any place, and any pace" educational options, what they are really interested in is transferring public funds to private corporations without any evidence that this will work.

Cabrera - MVP; Students - More than numbers

Detroit Tiger fans rejoiced last week when Miguel Cabrera won the American League MVP. In the end, the vote was not even close.

What is remarkable is that there were some who argued that another player, Mike Trout of Anaheim, should have won the award.

After all, Trout was a stat lovers dream. Mitch Albom summarizes the debate well when he says:

"We need to slow down the shoveling of raw data into the "what can we come up with next?" machine. It is actually creating a divide between those who like to watch the game of baseball and those who want to reduce it to binary code."

This conversation made me think of what we are doing in schools today. We are developing more and more stats to determine if students are learning and if teachers are teaching and if schools are efficient and if administrators are focused and on and on.

I admit I am a proponent of measuring our impact. If a student is in my school then I should be able to demonstrate that what we are doing is making a difference.

But we cannot focus on stats alone. All the stats in the world cannot tell me if a student is developing a love for learning.

We have to find a way to look at the intangibles.

Are we developing students who like to read?

Are we helping students who can think?

Are the students in our care learning how to reflect on their learning?

Cabrera is the American League MVP because he had the numbers. But with Cabrera you could also see things that cannot be measured by a statistician's spreadsheet.

When we think of schools we need to make sure that our schools have the numbers, but we also need to make sure that we can see things that cannot be measured by numbers.

Students are more than numbers. We need to remember that as we work to make schools good places for kids.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Does the knuckleball give perspective to 21st century learning

RA Dickey of the New York Mets won the National League Cy Young Award yesterday. The award yearly recognizes the best pitcher in baseball.

Dickey winning the award is a triumph for the knuckleball. For you see never before has a pitcher who relies extensively on the knuckleball as his primary pitch won the Cy Young Award.

Dickey acknowledged this in his comments after winning the award. He said,

We live in a culture now that's got a very progressive mentality, which is fantastic as far as the association of the knuckleball goes. And that's a compliment to the vision and the imagination of the writers who voted. They didn't see the knuckleball as a trick pitch. They didn't see it as some kind of illegitimate weapon that you can use that isn't worthy. They saw it as a legitimate weapon. 

So how does Dickey winning the Cy Young Award influence my perception of education?

Perhaps, and this is just a hunch on my part, we are turning a corner. Perhaps, we are beginning to see that it is the outcome that is most important and not the means.

The outcome in education is student achievement. Learning! We should use any means available to us to help students learn.

In the past we have viewed learning as "legitimate" only if it was teacher directed. But that is not how students learn anymore.

Students are more independent. Student have access to information through the internet that they did not have access to before. Students create learning communities through Facebook Twitter, and other social media sites where they control learning.

Now we cannot say that the only legitimate learning that occurs is in the classroom between the hours of 8:00 and 4:00.

Learning occurs throughout the day, throughout the night, throughout the year.

The definition of legitimate learning has to expand. Students have access to too much information.

The question is do we as teachers realize and accept this?

The baseball writers accept that the knuckleball is now a "legitimate" pitch.

Can we as educators accept that student learning is different now than it has been in the past? And if we can accept that, how does it change how we do business? 

Friday, November 9, 2012

School districts - good or bad for students?

The Oxford Foundation has been charged by Governor Snyder to examine school funding inn Michigan. They present an interesting point of view in a piece entitled "Who is entitled to a free public education." This paper lays the foundation for the Oxford Foundation, and possibly Governor Snyder, to argue that the Michigan Constitutional requirement that the "legislature shall maintain and support a system of free public elementary and secondary schools as defined by law" means that a student should be able to attend any school anywhere in the state. 

Read this paper. It presents a fascinating glimpse into what may be proposed for school funding in the very near future.

However, while I am certainly not a constitutional expert, the Michigan Constitution also says "Every school district shall provide for the education of its pupils."

While the Oxford Foundation can make its case that the Michigan Constitution does state that a system of "free public elementary and secondary schools" should be created and supported, it appears to me that the state has for many years abdicated this responsibility to school districts. As a result school districts have provided the leadership and the stability for providing this system.

What has resulted is a system of widely disparate school funding. The state has allowed this difference in funding for many years without concern.

Why would the state now begin to suggest that school districts are almost obsolete? Is it because they have suddenly developed a deep concern for students? Or is it because they have a political agenda to send public funds to private schools and educational entrepreneurs?

I would urge anyone interested in educational funding in Michigan to read information from the Oxford Foundation. I would also urge people to talk to their state legislators about school funding.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Will math ever be a sport?

In this intriguing video, people reflect on what the future of education may look like.

My job is to make sure that the students in my district are prepared for the future. Every generation faces battles. My job is to make sure that my students are prepared to fight the battles that they will face. 

Friday, November 2, 2012

Can we accurately evaluate the quality of a teacher?

I believe that teachers make a difference for students. I believe that an effective teacher can have a tremendously positive impact on student achievement in general and the achievement of individual students in particular.

Part of this is born from my own experience. I can reflect on the teachers that I had in my life and, anecdotally at least, identify the teachers who made a difference.

Part of this conviction that teachers make a difference is born out of the research. John Hattie in his book Visible Learning gives a nuanced and credible explanation of the potential contributions that teachers can have on student learning and achievement.

Having said that I am also aware that a student is only in a classroom for approximately 1098 hours a year. That is not a lot of time over the course of a year.

On any given day - in the approximately 180 days of a school calendar - a student may be in a classroom and in front of  teachers for approximately seven of their twenty-four hour day.

Yet even in the course of that day a student is in front of multiple teachers. At the elementary level a student in the course of one day may see their homeroom teacher and a PE, music, art, or media specialist during the day. At the middle and high school a student may see five to seven teachers during the course of their seven hour school day.

In addition, a student's day is cut up with lunch, recess, passing time, and the like.

Additionally, some, but not all, students have access to additional resources outside of school. The most important of those additional resources is a stable, compassionate, and loving home that encourages creative thinking, values independence, and is language rich. Those resources may also include trips to libraries and museums, access to computers, access to magazines and newspapers, and meaningful conversations with  interested adults. Clearly, access to those and other additional resources will influence how much and how easily a student learns.

So how can I determine the value added by a teacher to a classroom of students and to an individual student when a teacher's interaction is limited to no more than seven hours a day for 180 school days?

Yet I am responsible for evaluating teachers. I feel a great deal of responsibility to create a system that is fair and just to teachers. I also feel a great deal of responsibility to create a system that is fair to the students, and also to their parents, to ensure that the time students' spend in school is not wasted.

The question is how do I create a system that accurately evaluates the impact a teacher while recognizing the complexity of the task?