Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Sacred work

During this holiday season I have begun to wonder if the the work of educators - teachers, administrators, school secretaries, school bus drivers, preschool teachers, school food service employees, the tech staff  - is sacred?

Sacred not in the religious sense obviously. But sacred in the sense that the work is highly valued and worthy of respect.

I would say that the work is sacred.

Those that choose to work in schools have chosen to a life that will influence children and young adults. In a school, the job does not matter. Students look at all the adults in the building to pick up cues on how to live their life, how to treat other people, and, most importantly, the value that education plays in their still developing world.

Schools are more than just places that children and young adults go to be safe for seven hours a day. Schools are more than just places that children and young adults go to be with their friends so that their parents can be about the important work of the world.

Schools are communities. As in any community, children and young adults learn the values of that community. Values such as the importance of hard work and working with and for others. Values such as not giving up and finding different ways to solve problems. Values such as supporting each other and not walking away when someone struggles.

Within the school community students learn the values associated with learning. These are the values that help students find their passion, develop their sense of their place in the world, and understand that they have something to contribute.

Everyone in a school helps students learn these valuable lessons.

It could be the bus driver who, as the first person most students see from the school each day, communicates, through their words and deeds, the importance of each student. The drivers recognize their responsibility to keep students safe but also their responsibility to help students learn to navigate life on a school bus.

One might say that the school bus driver is just a school bus driver. But, to me, that is not the case. School bus drivers understand that the twenty or thirty minutes a student spends on the bus can impact that student's day. The school bus is not just a mode of transportation. It is also, or it should also be, a place where students apply lessons they are learning about being proactive, solving problems, resolving differences, and looking out for each other.

It could be the food service worker - the lunch "lady" - who sees that a student is not eating and inquires why. Food service workers are busy, yet many take time to notice students, say hello, ask about brothers and sisters. These school employees are not just serving food, they are part of the culture that schools build that communicates to the students that they matter and that there are adults who will mentor and model how to navigate the world.

The secretaries often see and hear students at their most vulnerable - when they are sick or when they are hurt. The way the secretary treats those students in those times of stress teaches those students lessons that they will not forget.

The work that occurs in schools is more than just important. It is a sacred trust between parents, the community, and the school. The community and parents agree to support schools with the understanding that those who work in schools will honor the children who attend. Those that work in schools understand that we must help students learn the knowledge and skills that they will need to live in a world that we will not. The future that our children live into will be lived without us.

So the job that those of us who work in schools accept is the job of preparation. We know that our job is to prepare our students with knowledge, skills, and attitudes that will help them continue to improve the world.

While those of us who work in schools know that the future does not depend on us, it does anticipate that we will not fail. Parents, the community, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and friends all play a huge part in the development of our students. But the work that goes on in schools is essential.

Those that work in schools understand that we cannot afford to let down those who come through our doors every day.

Does that make our work sacred?

I believe that it does!

Friday, December 13, 2013

Exurberant Skipping: Managing my own happiness

I walk my dog Kaya several times a week. Most of the time my wife and I walk together.

Last Sunday, however, I walked Kaya by myself. As I walked along I suddenly had a irresistible urge to skip. So I did.

Now before you laugh skipping has a rich history as a great exercise. It benefits your heart, your brain, and battles osteoporosis. (Granted most of the benefits of skipping talk about skipping rope and not just skipping but I digress.)

So last Sunday I occasionally skipped as I walked Kaya. Now I am not saying that people were surprised, but even Kaya, our blind dog, wondered what I was doing.

Photo: Walked this morning with Kaya. I added random exuberant skipping to my walk. I'm not saying I looked funny but even our blind dog Kaya stopped and stared. But I did learn two things. It's harder than it looks. And you have to smile when you skip.

So I asked myself, "What am I doing?"

After considering this for a few moments I decided I was trying to combat negativity.

Let me explain. As I have reviewed some of my recent entries here I noticed a pattern. It seemed like I was starting to become a complainer, a whiner, a "negative Nellie" if you will.

Not that there isn't a lot to complain about. Our state legislature has been debating legislation that would require 3rd graders to be retained if they failed the state reading assessment. They were also debating a new school accountability system that would force 5% of the schools in the state to be failed - regardless of performance.

In the spring the legislature passed legislation that allowed any student in grades 5-12 to take two online courses a year - paid for by the local school district. No evidence was presented that this was a good idea but still it is state law. We have to publish the new online catalog starting January 2014.

Then last week the new PISA results were released. The United States education system took another pounding.

So overall the last couple of weeks have given me plenty of reasons to look at the world through dark lenses instead of rose colored lenses.

So Sunday I decided to fight back. Step one - skipping.

Happiness is a choice. No matter how bad the world gets I still have the choice. I can choose to be happy or not.

Sunday I decided that I wanted to be happy. Skipping seemed like a good way to start.

Happiness, for me, is a hot topic. What has been most appealing to me in these discussions about happiness is the idea that I can control my own happiness.

As an example, having a purpose in life tends to make your happier. The greater the sense of purpose, the happier we feel. The belief that I need to reserve my energy for me instead of reaching out to others will probably work to reduce my happiness. The thing that is most likely to help increase my happiness is reaching out.

So Sunday I decided, as I was skipping, that I would become more intentional about focusing on my purpose in life and less focused on the things that work against me.

And I'll skip occasionally.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Apple Newton, Nehru Suits, and Online Learning

Not to sound like a curmudgeon but what is the fascination with the new?

Before this discussion begins I must confess that I drive a Saturn Ion, a car that is not even made any more. It is 9 years old and has 213,498 miles on it. So it may be possible that I am not the best person to be speaking about the concept of new.

However, to certify my "new" chops, so to speak, and to demonstrate that I am not necessarily anti-new, I am also the person who has owned an Apple Newton (the first PDA that had limited success), a Palm PDA, and a Palm Pilot phone. I am on my third iPhone.

I download books using the Kindle app on my iPad. I'm an Amazon Prime member.

Once upon time in the 1970's I tried to talk my parents into buying me a Nehru suit (James Bond had one - come on).

I got my hair permed once or twice.

So I am not necessarily anti-new.

Still, in the grand scheme of things, it seems that something new is typically valued and the "old," the "reliable," the "tired and true," or the "traditional" is not valued.

This seems to be especially true with public school. There has been a rush of late to suggest that the "traditional" public school is an anachronism - outdated, a relic, fit for another time and place.

What we need, we are told, is something new. Virtual schools are the new thing. Learn online.

The state of Michigan has been on this bandwagon for some time. In 2006 the then new Michigan Merit Curriculum required on online learning experience. While somewhat ground breaking at the time, it seems relatively tame today.

To be clear, I am not opposed to expectations that students can and should be expected to learn online. In fact, much of the learning that I do is done using online materials.

However, the state legislature pushed the requirement for online forward with section 21f of the FY2013 School Aid Act (see page 2 number 2 - Online learning). As a follow-up, on August 1, 2013, each school Superintendent in Michigan received a letter informing them that the state legislature in the State School Aid Act 2013 approved a provision that would allow "any pupil in grades 5 to 12 to enroll in up to two online courses during an academic term, semester, or trimester." Schools are required to publicize the online offerings beginning January 1, 2014.

Again, I am not opposed to new. I am just wondering why.

Opening this up creates a whole series of additional questions. Now that 25% of each teacher's evaluation is comprised of student data, what happens to the data for an online student? If a student takes a math class online, the student growth math data for that student should be assigned to the online company - but will it? The MEAP/MME test scores for a student who receives their content online should have to be eliminated from a school's or a teacher's evaluation - but will it?.

If a student wants to take an online class during the school day, who monitors that student? If  the student is assigned to the computer lab is the school required to staff the lab?

Will students in my district have an online experience? I believe that they will. But I believe it makes more sense to let the district and the school figure out how to implement it rather than mandating it from the state.

It seems to me that passing legislation like this is akin to mandating that everyone must wear a Nehru jacket.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Forcing failure: Why stacked rankings are absolutely the worst way to evaluate schools

"Stacked rankings" are the business equivalent of education's bell curve for grades. A few "A's" and "F's" and a whole lot of "C's".

Microsoft has used stack rankings. Some argue that it led to Microsoft's "lost decade"; a loss of collaboration and creativity. 

Every current and former Microsoft employee I interviewed—every one—cited stack ranking as the most destructive process inside of Microsoft.
Kurt Eichenwald
Vanity Fair, August 2012

HB 5112 (page 14), recently introduced in the Michigan state legislature, requires the following:

  1. No more than 10% of public schools are assigned a grade of A
  2. Approximately 28% of public schools are assigned a grade of B
  3. Approximately 31% of public schools are assigned a grade of C
  4. Approximately 28% of public schools are assigned a grade of D
  5. and at least 5% of public schools are assigned a grade of F

Stacked ranking - enshrined in state law.

Microsoft thinks so much of it that they have abandoned it. Brustein says that "corporate America has largely lost confidence in management programs that jam employees onto bell curves."

Yet, HB 5112 requires failure.


The cynical side of me is inclined to believe that it is because those opposed to public schools want to ensure that there will be failures. 

This model refuses to accept that all schools could be doing well. 

Why not create a real system that honestly evaluates what is occurring without mandating that there be failure? 

Public schools are doing good work. Instead of mandating failure let's create a system that honors the hard work and the success is occurring in public schools. 

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Forced retention in 3rd grade: Bad practice, bad policy

As a former reading teacher I understand the value and importance of reading. Readers who struggle early will have an increasingly difficult time as they progress through school.

The Michigan state legislature has proposed legislation that would force retention of 3rd grade students based on their performance on the state assessments. 

However, retaining students based on their performance on just one state assessment in 3rd grade is bad policy and bad practice.

In Novi we have four different assessments of third grade students.

The MEAP test, given in October of the third grade year, provides an initial assessment of his/her achievement as a student enters 3rd grade. Given proper instruction this performance is likely to improve over the course of third grade. There are still 8 months of instruction left before the student is ready to leave third grade. Basing their retention on this metric alone is inappropriate.

We also give the NWEA – a nationally normed assessment – in September and May for students in grades K-10. This assessment provides a growth measure which gives us a tool to identify if a student is making growth over the course of the year.

For third grade students this provides us with a tool to see if they are growing and if they would be ready to continue moving ahead.

What if a student is showing growth on the NWEA by the end of 3rd grade but was not proficient on the MEAP at the beginning of third grade? Is it appropriate to retain them even though they were showing growth?

Also, consider the scenario where a student is not proficient on the MEAP but is proficient and at grade level on the NWEA. How would we explain to a parent that their student is being retained even though a nationally normed assessment indicates that they are on grade level?

We also use a literacy based assessment called Fountas and Pinnell. With this assessment students actually read to their teachers and teachers can identify if students are where they need to be or not. Additionally it is a measure that is used multiple times throughout the year.

Again, a student could not be proficient on the MEAP but is at level using the Fountas and Pinnell. How do we explain to a parent that the state is requiring us to retain their student?

Finally, our fourth assessment, is the ongoing work that teachers do with students throughout the year. Good teachers do not need a test to know if a student is performing at grade level or not. Assessments help confirm what good teachers see every day. If there is a discrepancy between performance and assessment the teachers judgement needs to be part of the discussion. 

What is proposed is bad legislation.

If legislators feel the need to do something, I would suggest that an alternative would be to state the following:

“Students must be assessed in a variety of manners to determine their achievement and growth. The state will allow districts to determine these multiple measures. The multiple measures must be communicated clearly to parents. If a student is not proficient on multiple measures school personnel, parents, and the students must work together to identify appropriate intervention strategies.”

This alternative probably won't be adopted because it honors the judgement of professional educators.

However, simply retaining students based on their performance on one assessment is not good practice or good policy.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Let's focus on students not the noise

The world is a noisy place. But it's not the noise from cars, trains, airplanes, construction sites, buses, cellphones, air horns, or traffic that concerns me the most.

No, the noise that concerns me the most is the noise from critics of public education.

The latest noise comes from those who suggest that we are failures!

The latest PISA results - the international test of  15 year-olds  - confirms that we are failures.

It says so here - US teens lag behind - and here - American schools: Expensive, unequal, bad at math - and here - PISA tests results are sobering.

Yet, this morning in Novi Middle School I sat with students who students who were talking about math in ways that I never talked about math. Mrs. Grant's 8th grade Algebra I students seemed to understand more about the topic of solving equations and inequalities than I did. Mrs. Brown students were discussing exponential functions. And Mrs. Deroo's students were explaining and exploring graphs.

These were 14 year-old students who sooner than they realize will be compared to other students from around the world. How will they stack up?

If I listen to the noise I might begin to believe that they will not stack up well.

But my job is not to listen to the noise. My job is to focus on the students who actually sit in the seats in the classrooms in my district. When I focus on the students in my district I understand that my responsibility is to prepare them to be successful.

That means I must have a school system that will provide them with academic skills. They need to learn. Content is important.

But I also must help them develop tenacity, grit, and determination. I must have a system that helps them learn to be empathetic, learning to listen to and care for others. I must encourage the development of creativity and problem solving.

Does the PISA, the TIMMS, or any international assessment test for those skills?

The "noise" focuses on the relative performance of our students when compared to students from around the world on a narrow bandwidth of skills. The "noise" does not trumpet the limitations of its assessment. International assessments have been around for a long time and their track record of identifying who is better than students in the US in the long run is not stellar. The countries with the highest test scores in the 1960's, for example, had the lowest scores on national success decades later. I don't hear much noise about that.

So what does this all mean?

It means that I need to focus on the students in my schools not the noise.