Who really benefits from Standardized Testing?

SILENCE …. That is what you hear if you say “I really don’t think we need all this student testing — I really not sure how it benefits students or schools?”   Just the notion that maybe we should simply STOP abruptly all the student standardized testing is like suggesting to a group of hunters to stop hunting.  Especially if you say this in front of the business community or even school administrators.

But once you blurt this out and they realize your serious the barrage of questions start.  They cock their heads to the side and begin quizzing you as if you lost your mind.  How would be compare schools? How would we compare kids?  How would we compare teachers?  We could never get teachers to work with each other without testing what would motivate them?  How would parents know how well the school is doing?  What about the report card?  You know there has to be measurements of progress right? Your not serious right?

And this is only some of the questions — because we have built and entire system on results of test and testing.  It permeates almost everything we do, every decision, every purchase, every strategic plan, almost everything.  We justify all of this on the loose notion that all of this testing improves outcomes for kids.  The focus should be on the education of the youth no doubt — but the idea that standardized test will help them is almost ridiculous.  It goes counter to learning theories.  It is not the most efficient or effective way to identify gaps in instruction.  Often the results for individual students are ignored because we focus on the aggregate. More often than not the results of the standardized test come so late that those kids have new teachers.  It does not improve understanding.  It is simply a measure for something else.

I have come to the conclusion that standardized testing has nothing to do with kids whatsoever!  I know shocking!  It has everything to do with adults,  multi-million dollar testing companies and quite frankly protecting the status quo.  Study after study has determined that standardized test really measure socioeconomic status not intelligence, not potential, not teacher effectiveness, not our rank in the world, not the school and certainly not the effectiveness of administrators.  Yet we insist on using these measures to create commentary on all of those things standardized test don’t measure well if at all.

We are subjected to yearly to the “box score” ranking and sorting of districts in every state of the union with those scoring well hanging banners while those that did poorly promise to change something to try and get better on a measure they have little or no impact upon.  Countless people are in jobs with titles like “director of school improvement” or “regional SIP coaches.” Then we have committees devoted to improving those scores — teacher level teams, building level teams, central office teams and more and more and more time, energy and money devoted to testing.  We buy supplemental materials, new textbooks, practice test, computer software to track kids, software to crunch data and of course we hire additional people to work with those not doing well on standardized test.  We hire experts to teach teachers what they can do to raise scores, teach kids how to take test, and how to gain some advantage to improve scores.

We spend a ton of money — 1.7 Billion — on preparing  kids for testing that is completely outside the fundamental mission of why we send kids to school in the first place.

I like many other parents simply want what’s best for my children.  All parents want the same thing. They want the school to help their child reach there highest potential intellectually.  Give them a well-rounded education that prepares them for the world we live in today.  Prepare them for life that is full of challenges and adversity and finally help them become economically independent.  If these are the goals all parents hope for their children, I am hard pressed to understand how standardized test help advance these basic goals of school or schooling?

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Education Zombies!

 

I am a huge fan of The Walking Dead. and for those that watch the show you know at any moment a bloodthirsty Zombie can come out of nowhere to devour a human.  A colleague and regular reader of this blog shared an article from the Harvard Business Review that discussed Zombie projects in business.  The Zombie Projects as defined by author Scott Anthony are:

nefarious enemies of well-intentioned innovation efforts around the globe. Zombies are projects that, for any number of reasons, fail to fulfill their promise and yet keep shuffling along, sucking up resources without any real hope of having a meaningful impact on the company’s strategy or revenue prospects.”


Source:https://hbr.org/2015/03/zombie-projects-how-to-find-them-and-kill-them


After reading the article, I could not help to think about all the educational zombies that suck up time, energy, resources, clog pipelines and prevent innovation.  They are lurking just about everywhere in the educational setting.   Many of them are leftovers from a different time that people still cling too despite the fact they add little or no value to our current educational landscape.


Here is my short list of Educational ZOMBIES:


1. Spelling bee’s —  It takes time, effort, energy and usually a couple of days to complete a spelling bee– add on a day for the school assembly for the finalist, trophies, medals, judges, list of words, this takes a ton of classroom time! Spelling — as we all know is less important in today’s digital world, in fact let’s be real, when is the last time you saw an job advertisement for someone who is in desperate need of a “good speller.”  Every device I own spells every word correctly…..Maybe in some other time we needed good spellers.  I am not suggesting that context and usage are not important, but the act of simply being able to spell words flawlessly from memory is useless. We all know plenty of brilliant people who are poor spellers —  Yet we still hold spelling bee’s morizing words like “align, Wednesday, or logorrhea.”  What is even worse than a yearly spelling bee is classroom teachers who still give out weekly spelling list and actually grade them …. ZOMBIES!


2. Cursive writing —I have noticed that my handwriting has deteriorated from horrible to atrocious. When I do have to write something, I need to concentrate so it’s legible.  Because of computers and other devices, I never write anything anymore….not even checks since it’s all done online or via a debit card — I wonder who physically writes on paper anymore?   In another time legible clear handwriting was important,  — but in today’s digital world this is simply not something we should waste valuable instruction time teaching kids.  Yep—-it’s a Zombie!

3. Teachers meetings — The mandatory monthly or bi-weekly get together of all teachers in the building so the Principal can drone on and on about insignificant problems like who is or who is not using proper procedure for hall passes, or the ever so riveting discussion around who is or who is not considered tardy.  I could never understand why my Principal never bothered to look at the room of assembled teachers, many of whom are grading papers, drawing plays, reading the newspaper, checking their phones…..at what point do you say “this is a colossal waste of time.”  Rarely do these meetings discuss substantive issues and they normally discuss nuts and bolts kinds of information that could be shared in a multitude of other more efficient ways…but we have them despite the ineffectiveness.  I declare teacher meetings such as these — Zombies!


4. Making kids memorize anything….all I can say is “really.” Not only is that not in Ohio’s Academic Content Standards but have you heard of Google?  In the BG (before Google) era it might have been perfectly appropriate to memorize the fifty state capitals or the periodic table of elements but very few times do kids need to memorize much in the world in which they live.  Yet we still have teachers who make kids memorize all kinds of things that they quickly forget because it is only there for a short time.  Deep learning is not accomplished via memorization yet we have all kinds of 

examples in school where this happens frequently. Memorizing = Zombie!


5.  Insurmountable paperwork — Teachers will rightfully complain at the overabundance of paperwork…reporting….more reporting…reporting on what you just reported and more reporting. This paperwork does not include individual student reports to parents or other teachers, nor the new Student Learning Objectives, data charts, etc…. Teachers do a ton of paperwork without any help from support professionals.  Unlike many other professional jobs — the mundane paperwork is done by teachers not support staff like that Doctors or Lawyers have at their disposal.  All this paperwork and our refusal to lighten the load makes teaching one of the more paperwork intensive jobs.  This paperwork is the ZOMBIE and it takes valuable time away from teachers.  I want creative, innovative teachers — not efficient shufflers of paper. 


4. Unreasonable parent (s) — Nothing can waste time, effort or energy like an unreasonable or uncooperative parent(s).  Whether your a teacher or administrator these Zombies are adept at becoming the center of attention with lots of meetings, reports, and discussion.  For those of us in education you are naming them by name as you read this… they take up so much time and resources via phone calls, emails, endless meetings and our vain attempts to appease them it’s truly mind boggling.  The more time you give them the more they take. These kinds of parents often are well meaning nice people who simply have no idea how much energy and resources they are sucking up on a regular basis.  Zombies for sure!  


This is my short list of Zombies in Education.  I am curious if you can add more to my list.  We do need a better job of finding and snuffing out these Zombies to free up needed resources, time, and energy to make the needed innovations and changes that will serve our students.  But just as in the series the Walking Dead just because you rid yourself of one Zombie there are plenty more lurking ready to  pounce if you let your guard down.  You have to remain vigilante at removing Zombies if you want true innovation in education.

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Is teaching a dead end job?

Education was a priority in my family.  I really did not have much of a choice and if I heard once — I heard at least a thousand times that you need do well in school — go to college and get a good paying job to support your family.  I did just that and pursued my passion — teaching.  I have to admit I loved the classroom — never a dull moment and always challenging.  I never once considered during my undergraduate education that once a teacher with a family of four I would qualify for free and reduced lunch — this is hard to believe but it was true.

My starting salary was $21,456.00 — which was pretty decent for a teacher in 1991.  However, I found myself struggling to make ends meet.  I worked full-time as a teacher, coached three sports, and during the summer acted as a laborer/gopher for my brother-in-laws plumbing company.  I worked far harder than some of my counterparts who decided to go into different fields.  I was grading papers and preparing lessons on Saturday’s and Sunday’s and over the summer I was teaching, coaching and acting like a plumber.  Doing all of this and I still had trouble making ends meet on my meager salary. This does not mention the loans that I would need to take out to pursue my Masters Degree in order to make more money on the salary schedule.  The $1,500 I received when I got my Masters Degree paled in comparison to my capital outlay of over $10,000.

Yes — I was fully aware that going into teaching did not equal millionaire status.  But I did expect to be able to pay my bills and feed my family without my wife working full-time when our children were babies.

NO I am not complaining — please do read into this that I regret my decision to enter into education!

Teaching is an amazing profession and believe it or not I would do it all over again given the choice.

BUT — I left the classroom to become an administrator.  Not because I had a desire to be an administrator —  it simply pays better — and is really the only career advancement available to teachers.  

Teaching is a dead end job of sorts.  Teachers are not afforded any economic mobility — once you are teaching in a school district for 8-10 years you will either leave the classroom to become an administrator, leave education, or retire from that very school district.  Ohio, like most states mandate by law that teachers have to be granted at least five years of service — anything beyond five years is the school districts discretion.  So moving to a different school district often results in a huge pay cut.

For those who may be unfamiliar with a salary schedule, it works like this — you start low and each year of experience is a “step” and that step is a modest raise.  Many of these salary schedules have up to 35 steps!   So to get to the top salary — you have to be in the district for 35 years!.

You literally have a situation whereby everyone is doing the same job (teaching kids) — but getting paid all different salaries.  I was in a department of seven teachers — each of them had been in the district a very long time — they all made $40,000 plus more than I did doing the same job — the only difference was I was young — they were old!  I have to admit, I never understood this system that pays teachers at drastically different rates.  I can understand that experience and additional education matter — but it seems almost silly that because Teacher A has been teaching for 27 years and Teacher B has been teaching 10 years that the salaries would be drastically far apart.

There has been a dizzying amount of discussion on how to retain, recruit and avoid teacher burnout. Nationally we see a decrease in the numbers of kids in college that want to become teachers.  We are in the midst of a teacher shortage as our baby boomers retire and icing on this cake,  once they are teaching they don’t last very long — they leave leave the profession within the first five years.

Money is a contributing factor — along with —  the stress of the classroom — the difficulty with kids and parents — the lack of autonomy — failure to be taken seriously as a professional — no career advancement — ultimately these factors drive them out of the profession.

Maybe we need to consider a different model — it starts with compensation — and ends with new ways to use teachers in other important roles in the district.   If we paid teachers more like other beginning college graduates more kids might be attracted to the job.  With that model we would use shorter time frames to get to the top — no more 35 years.

The most important change would be how we see and use teachers.  We need to become more flexible with days kids are in school and the roles we assign teachers.  Teachers need to take starring roles in the administration of the district.  As an administrator, I wanted to teach ONE course and was prevented from doing so because of my status as an administrator!  We need to give teachers more diverse roles that contribute to the functioning of the building or district.

Imagine if the principal was a collective — and the curriculum experts actually had teaching assignments and all of the professionals in the building served in capacities that valued them as professionals but also advanced their careers.

I really would have never left the classroom if I had that kind of flexibility, paid a wage comparable to other college graduates and experience in different roles throughout the year or day.  I suspect that if we re-design the teachers role and function — coupled with competitive salaries — we would stem the tide of exodus out of the profession.  Just some food for thought!

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Zip Code = Test Results AGAIN!

As an undergraduate student at Youngstown State University (YSU) I was an active member of the Model United Nations Team.  For those not familiar with Model U.N. it is a competitive simulation of the the United Nations.   It is an amazing experience that blends public speaking, debate, research, critical thinking, parliamentary procedure, awareness of global issues etc….. We competed all over the United States and Canada.

One particular conference, left a lasting impression on me not only as a student — but as an educator. It was held in Washington D.C.,  and it was a huge conference with Universities from around the world, including several ivy league schools — I had two ivy league students in my session and at first they were given  immediate unconditional credibility when they spoke—they are of course from elite schools.  However, I noticed that at least one of them was woefully under prepared and was ignoring or unaware of his countries foreign policy.

I started to call attention to his inaccurate positions and slowly was embarrassing him and his counterpart from the ivy league school which I shall not name.  Finally, after a few hours of simply beating him up he pulled me aside in a caucus session and said simply “dude, give me a break — my professor is in the back of the room and I am getting a grade for this and your killing me.”   I looked back and sure enough his professor was in the back taking copious notes.  Part of me did feel sorry for him– but — I was a lowly student from YSU and simply went for the kill in spite of his pleas for mercy.  Shortly after the conference he came up to me and we chatted and I learned that his father was an ambassador and his mother was an accomplished musician.

As I think about that experience today as an educator —  I cannot help but think about how his privilege determined his path and likely not his intellect.  Not to say that he was not smart — but he was just like the rest of us attending a university the only difference was his social class.  The university he was attending was at least 40 times more expensive than my public university. His private prep school that allowed him to get accepted into that Ivy League institution was at least 30 times what my public high school was able to spend on my education.

Pundits and policymakers either ignore or avoid discussion on this topic.  Public Education is the “tide that will raise all boats” if that public education is at least on par with a private school education.  But the reality many of our public schools are underfunded and understaffed in comparison to the private counterparts.  That underfunded and understaffed public school simply cannot offer near the number of Advanced Placement Courses, dual credit courses, global travel, foreign languages, the arts, the personal advisers, counselors and tutors that elite private schools are able to offer and provide to insure success of students.  If education was a race, those in elite private school have a healthy head start.

We have seen– at least in Ohio — a slow but often painful decline in public school funding.  It is increasingly being diverted to for-profit charter schools or subsidizing in subtle ways private schools. As public school dollars dwindle those public schools only have two choices — reduce programs and staff or ask the already tapped out community for more financial support.   It is not rocket science that those communities who have the lowest incomes are least likely to be able to support that public school via increased tax dollars.  Those more affluent communities are better able to increase the funding to stave off cuts in programs.  But they all feel the pinch of decreased funding that equates to reduced opportunities for kids.

The income gap and achievement gap are aligned — yes — let that sink in a little — yet we make no mention of this when discussing education or formulating education policy.  Your income nowadays has more to do with your educational attainment than any other single factor.  It trumps race — social class matters — but we fail to discuss this in any serious way — we instead focus on labeling schools as failures using measurement tools that are really measuring income levels of communities and not student ability, potential, knowledge or skill.

We have a serious opportunity gap in this country coupled with an income gap which was only exacerbated in the last recession.  I have heard Secretary of Education Arne Duncan talk extensively about the achievement gap, but I have never once heard him or any other policy maker for that matter discuss the opportunity gap as it relates to education.  I have never heard any of them discuss the income gap and how that impacts education…..it is simply not discussed.  I am not diminishing the achievement gap — but our singular focus on just the achievement gap is like my doctor treating my sore knee with an arm sling.

Public education is still our best path to social mobility, but for kids who are born into impoverished circumstances they will attend public schools that will not have a 1/2 of the opportunities provided in the more affluent counterparts and nothing near what elite private school kids will receive.

What we need to remind ourselves that all kids have potential — ALL — and even kids who are born into privilege struggle with math or science.  The difference is we expect them to succeed and place all kinds of supports to insure they will succeed. Those kids of privilege are given every available opportunity and resource.  The only way we erase gaps whether it’s the achievement, income, or opportunity is to reinvigorate and reinvest in public education and discard the erroneous thinking that kids fail when in reality we are failing kids.

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Did Arne Duncan have a GRINCH moment?

I do love this time of year, nothing can warm the heart more than the holiday season –we reminisce of holidays past, always excited to see our children, grandchildren and loved ones.  We remember those we have lost and how much we wish they were with us.  It is a truly a magical time. 


One of my favorite holiday stories is Dr. Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”  I at times have channeled my inner Grinch with my kids and now my grand-kids! He is an iconic character during the holiday season. The Grinch is our modern day Scrooge who despite his tiny heart “two sizes two small” just wants some peace and quiet from all the noise in Whoville.   The Grinch has a magical change that allows his heart to swell “three sizes larger!” The Grinch sees the error in his ways and saves the day, joining those in Whoville in a wonderful holiday celebration. Much like our beloved Mr. Scrooge who after seeing his own actions as damaging to not only himself but others has a change of heart. What these characters demonstrate is that it’s never too late to see the error in your ways.  But would you consider these two characters heroic?  


Not likely — in fact — both the Grinch and Mr. Scrooge are characters that invoke more pity than anything else.  You feel sorry for them because they fail to see what everyone else sees — in fact even once they are converted you only feel relief for all the people who had to endure the old Grinch or Scrooge.  Not exactly heroic, in fact they are the cause of this heartache and misfortune.  You cannot be heroic if you are the architect of the problem!

So when I heard the news earlier this month that The United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan pulled a GRINCH — I was flabbergasted!  He has had a change of heart. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan acknowledged serious flaws in the standardized tests that currently drive American schools — the tests are an inadequate gauge of student and teacher performance.  


WOW — That should have been big news.  I am not sure what caused the change of heart.  Maybe all those who opted out of testing last year…or maybe the push back over Common Core.  Whatever the reason it was a breath of fresh air and I applaud Arne on this first step to reversing course on Standardized testing misuse and abuse.  

This Grinch moment was met with some fanfare in the media.  Teachers and Administrators muttered under their breath — “it’s about time.”  But unlike the Grinch or Mr. Scrooge this standardized testing movie does not end with the epiphany.  Arne and whomever takes the post after him will not reverse this trend overnight. Standardized testing is like a big cruise ship — it will take time to reverse course. This current course was set in 1983 with the publication of “A Nation at Risk” and it took 32 years to get to this place.  I can only hope it does not take another 32 years to reverse course. We need more and more of those who are in place to make policy changes have a Grinch or Scrooge moment before its too late!

 

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It’s the system that prevents innovation!

I was in my 6th year and really coming into my own as a teacher.  I was teaching two Advanced Placement (AP) courses and several electives that I had personally created.  I was the unofficial head of the department and enjoyed a very solid reputation as a high quality teacher.  I had gotten into the habit of creating my own materials.  I would cobble together all kinds of snippets from multiple sources –the internet was in its infancy — so this was a ton of work at the time — and prepare handouts instead of relying on a single textbook.  I really liked to get viewpoints from all sides of an issue and give multiple perspectives and voice to what I was teaching.  This little bit of effort really made the kids think … it was not a dry boring and often confusing textbook and after 6 years, I had all kinds of what you would call HOMEMADE materials.

Late that spring my principal stopped me in the hall and asked if I would head-up the textbook committee to select a new United States Government Textbook for the whole department and without thinking I said “yes.”

What a mistake that was — we assembled all the teachers who taught at least one section of Government — ordered all kinds of sample textbooks with materials. The instructions were simple –select one textbook.  After two months of deliberations we were at impasse — mostly because of me. I despised the top selection from the group.  It was jingoistic — patronizing — and dreadfully boring. I actually used a section of this exact textbook to teach about Jingoism!  Yet my older — and more entrenched colleagues really liked the test generator and all the fluff materials it came with like worksheets!  I just cringed and finally simply refused to make a selection.  I became the hold-out — and told my principal that they can select whatever they want, I will simply not use the textbook.

That is when I felt the weight of the system come down on me — at first it was a plea from my principal —  we just passed a tax levy that promised parents that we would purchase new updated materials including textbooks.  My principal looked at me as said “you will cause me grief if you do not pass out and use that new textbook.”  Grief — from the superintendent, board members and community members who now have an expectation that students will have shiny new textbooks regardless of quality.

That was not the only pressure the system decided to bear down on me — the next weight added was a subtle insinuation that kids who got my HOMEMADE materials may not fair as well on the State Test.  Of course, you know the textbook is aligned to Ohio Standards and your HOMEMADE materials might be missing some key standards.  Despite my 100% passage on the Advanced Placement exam, it was suggested that my failure to use the textbook could become a data point used in my evaluation.

Oh —  but that’s not all the firepower the system had — the next weight added was the hint that maybe I could get reassigned to Freshman level courses, since apparently I do not play well in the sandbox.  This suggestion made me recoil in horror!  I loved teaching United States Government and the AP class was mine alone.  But my principal made it clear my failure to relent has consequences.

This persisted until June of that year.  It was then the deadline from the textbook company loomed — if you did not order before July the company could not guarantee delivery of said textbooks.  Then the final weight from the system was placed on my back — I received a personal phone call from the Superintendent who essentially asked me to relent — order the textbook — use it sparingly and continue to do what I am doing.

I relented — I buckled — I caved — despite knowing that was a horrible choice — kids despised that textbook and my colleagues used the FLUFF materials and the test generator to further deskill our profession,

The system itself prevented innovation and good teaching.  We all know the best teachers use multiple sources for information and in today’s digital age if you only used the textbook you would be a dinosaur of sorts.  But this is how we keep the status qou — how we fail to innovate — it is part of the reason why school looks and operates essentially the same way for 50 plus years!

All of the players in this illustration fed the system including me– which only makes the system stronger and further prevents simple innovations.  We have all kinds of examples of the system itself preventing simple — common sense — innovation.  From how the buses run, to how we award credits, to who gets to take what classes, to how we group kids by age instead of ability and the list is endless.

It is the monstrous often hidden system that prevents even basic innnovation.  Yet all the reformers talk the talk of reform — yet despite decades of “change” we look, operate and essentially teach the same way.  Very little change if any — its gives credence and voice to those teachers who will utter “this too shall pass” as each reform movement expects something different.

I really feel for those teachers and administrators who labor in such a system that not only discourages innovation and creativity — but will squash it at all cost.

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Time is elusive for teachers — How do we get more of it?

The one consistent complaint almost every teacher will share is the lack of time.  Time is the most elusive and precious resource for teachers.  They complain bitterly that they lack the time needed to do what is asked of them on a daily basis. The documentation, reporting, and paperwork has grown exponentially with no end in sight as the appetite for increased accountability grows.

I heard this often from veteran teachers who sincerely told me that the new demands we are placing on teachers is overwhelming. I can remember being a teacher and spending a better part of my evenings, Saturdays and Sundays grading papers and preparing lessons.  —- I was not — however expected to have a data sheet on each student, keep track of behaviors with special education students, do federal reporting, write student learning objectives, analyze data charts, sit on 4-5 committees, reflect –in writing –on each lesson, keep track of my goals for evaluation purposes, grade daily or weekly assessments in preparation for “the battery of test,” etc.…and that is a huge ETC…..the list is enormous and growing.  I will sheepishly admit, I thought my paperwork load in 1993 was heavy but compared to today…..I had it easy.

We have engulfed and weighed down the profession with a mountain of reporting.   The amount of forms and reports is mind-blowing for those outside the profession.  Teachers are very efficient at shuffling paper but at what cost?  What suffers?  All of this takes away from a teachers central focus….the kids in front of them daily.  Tangentially this paperwork is needed according to the federal government, the state, or central office to help kids — but if it devours teachers time — it takes away from a teachers ability to create and deliver the lessons with high quality that all kids need to succeed.

If we don’t take a step back and truly look at how much time is spent essentially filling out forms for accountability we will never be able to give teachers the time needed to effective in the classroom. Why should we care that teachers are overwhelmed with reporting, accountability, testing and documentation?  Don’t other professions have paperwork to deal with?  I would argue yes…but handled very very differently.

Let’s take a trip to the Doctor’s office.  We know they handle lots and lots of paperwork.  In some ways they are like schools — records, data, accountability, and reporting is vital.  But think about the teacher in comparison to the doctor who has many many people assisting them in collecting, analyzing, and reporting that data.  At least in my doctors office, when I arrive the three receptionists are responsible for some of that reporting, then once in the room I am often visited by a nurse who gets a preliminary discussion of my issues, takes my blood pressure, temperature etc….and logs all that data for the doctor who is the last person I see. When they come into the room, they have all the data in front of them in my chart and he has time to process that data and focuses his attention on me. Once I leave, that data is once again logged by others as the doctor moves on to the next patient.

Schools are not afforded this luxury.  Teachers do not have an army of people assisting them with reporting and data collection.  They don’t get to simply focus on one student at a time nor do they have staff that can organize and keep track of all that data.  They are expected to do this all themselves. I have heard more than once from people who have gone into education after spending some time in another profession complain at the amount of paperwork they do in comparison to their previous professional jobs.

We keep talking about reform in education.  Maybe we need to reform this simple yet unnoticed reality for classroom teachers — reduce the amount of paperwork to allow teachers to focus on teaching.  Simple, apolitical, and something everyone could actually agree upon…..a concerted and real effort to reduce the paperwork of a classroom teacher.  Kids deserve teachers who have time to focus on the art and craft of teaching.

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Is character still important?

Earlier this week a colleague of mine shared with me a treasure he found in his office.  It was a publication to the community dated December 1927.   This was not a small publication it contained 40 plus pages of information about the Local County Schools.  It even included advertisements from local vendors of which my favorite has the headline “BE MODERN” and it says “if you don’t have a bank account you are still in the horse and buggy age.” Love it!

I was transfixed with this publication partly because of how different it is as compared to what we send parents and community members today.  How it lacked all the things we think communities care about.  The Mahoning Messenger from 1927 does not even remotely mention school finances and that particular topic dominates nearly all publications I see today going to community members today.  Not one mention of TESTING or Report Card Results!  Very insignificant discussion around sports—other than to highlight what is available for kids to participate at school.  No sense that the school and community are separate….it is one in the same in 1927.

In 1927, faculty accomplishments were featured along with student accomplishments.  Both were important and clearly the faculty were involved in the creation of the publications as partners with the students. Working alongside them and with them to create the features in the publication.  In fact, the cover is hand drawn by one of the building level administrators.  We cannot underestimate the message this sends to a larger community about the respect and confidence they have in the 1927 teachers and administrators.

In 1927, it is clear from the publication the focus is on intellectual and character development. You clearly get the feel from reading the features that what schools do is build character and enrich them intellectually. Course offerings and pathways are discussed along with some focused discussion on attitude and environment and how each student plays a role in the success or failure of the school. The idea of citizenship is strong within the publication.  Being a good citizen and how you contribute to the well-being of not only this school but the larger community and society.

I found this incredibly fascinating, we seem to have lost this idea in the modern era of schooling. Not very often do I hear teachers, principals, superintendents or parents discuss with their child how they contribute to the well-being of the whole school environment.  How they are perceived by their peers and whether or not they have contributed positively to the school.  How the student contributed to the schools overall reputation and how they contributed to it’s success.

School in the modern era are very individualistic in nature.  Disconnected from the larger community and at time at odds with that larger community.  Almost all the school related violence that has happened in American Public Schools was done by students who all felt small, disconnected and isolated at school.  I doubt in 1927 that was possible given the flavor of the articles and the obvious attention paid to school climate, attitude and how you as the student fit into the larger school milieu.

The Mahoning Messenger from 87 years ago sends a clear message about the school’s role in this larger community, how it serves students and builds citizens.  When I look at what we send home to the community in 2014 it is dominated with messages about scores on achievement test, ranking, finances and some mentioning of student achievement.  Today’s publications lack the sense that the school and community are one in the same.  They lack the mission to create good citizens. I wonder if we recaptured some of those strong themes present in 1927 that we would have an easier time passing tax levies and fewer kids would feel isolated and disconnected at school.  Maybe we are focused too much on testing, finances and sports.  Maybe what parents and community members really care about is intellectual development and character of the next generation of students?

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SNOW DAYS!

It is the best feeling in the world as a kid to wake-up to lots of snow on the ground and find out that school has been cancelled.  It rivals your birthday, Christmas morning and the tooth fairy.  It is magical and something all kids look forward too …. Kids even have all sorts of superstitions to make  a snow day happen like throwing ice cubes out your window or wearing your pajamas inside out.  Whatever it takes kids will say…whatever it takes to get a snow day!

The mark of a good or bad superintendent is often gauged on whether or not they call off school.  As a former superintendent, I would often get the question “So how do you decide snow days?”

Kids and parents listen up — despite what you may have heard Superintendents are human and the decision to call off school is a decision they can never win.

When they decide to call off school kids are elated.  However not everyone is happy especially the segment of the population that is retired and have nothing better to do but complain.  I call them the “old farts” and they begin every story with the line “when I was a kid” and proceed to tell everyone how tough they are for going to school in sub-zero temperatures in blizzard like conditions and how they walked to school uphill both ways.  This of course pre-dates the invention of the school bus. They all think kids are too soft and need to toughen up a bit and sending them to school in any kind of weather is the elixir for this affliction.

BUT…WAIT ….when you don’t call off school……

Mama bears get angry.  They call and ask you — “How can you send my babies in this weather, what is wrong with you — do you not care about the safety of my children?  Did you drive these roads?  I would like to see you stand out there and wait for that bus in this weather!”  And let’s be honest some of them are not nice when they call and many of them are downright rude and offensive.

Nobody is happy regardless of the decision you make.

Early in my career, I did take all the phone calls good and bad and debated with them about my decision to stay open or close.  I told them how I woke-up at 3:00 AM and drove the roads, and talked to the road crews, and watched the radar like a seasoned meteorologist.  But after a few years, I realized that this exercise was pointless and the conversations only raised my blood pressure.  So I started to agree with every caller….yes Mrs so and so I should have cancelled…and yes Sir we should have gone today…kids these days are just too soft.  Agreeing with them was by far the most effective way to make the conversations short and the callers all felt better having told me off!

No — there is no science in calling off school.  No — there is no below zero temperature it needs to be to cancel. Yes — we truly care about kids safety.  It is a gut feeling and one that is made in the interest of kids safety.

The kids likely have it right…..it is a crap shoot so you might as well wear those pajamas inside out, throw some ice cubes out the window because it might actually work and every kid should have a snow day to sled ride, build snowman, have a snowball fight and enjoy what makes it great about being a kid!

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Shed your technology at the school house doors?

I sometimes forget just how dependent we are on technology.  Can you remember the days with your nose in a map trying to get somewhere?  What about looking up numbers in a telephone book?  Or my favorite — if you wanted to know something you went to the library — no asking GOOGLE!

Technology has changed our lives and I have to admit I can be annoyed with people who have their noses in their phones 24/7, text while they drive, have headphones in public places, and seem like whatever is dinging or buzzing on their phone is more important than human civility.A huge pet peeve of mine is when you have to repeat yourself because the person you are talking too is wrapped up in their phone and not really listening.

HOWEVER

As much as I might complain about technology — none of us, including me–would give-up that technology. Just as none of us would forego electricity or cars.   For all the warts technology has —  it has amazing benefits and capabilities.  I can look up anything…it reminds me to do things…is my alarm…music machine…camera…GPS…communication tool…wrapped into one device.  It is hard to imagine functioning without our technology.  I have literally seen people in panic mode when they lose their phone.  It is as essential to us as clothes for the body.

YET — today — in many public school settings we strip kids of their phones and all technology upon entering the school house doors.  In today’s technology rich world having your device(s) is a basic right as a student.   We can no longer attempt to stop kids from using technology we should instead embrace it in the classroom.  We should teach them how to use it appropriately in social settings.

We live and work in the information age with 24-hour connectivity — and to deny kids the internet is like imprisonment.  Schools have a responsibility to educate and prepare kids for the world we live in and they need the skills and knowledge to succeed.  We all use technology — we need it in almost every job.  We can no longer accept schools creating a technology desert in schools.

What should we see in schools today?

Here is my short list:

1.  Mobile-online courses — that kids can access anywhere at anytime.  They need the ability to work at their own pace.  These courses should be short — with regular feedback loops and discussion boards. They should be topical and entwine several subjects into one mini-course enhancing a supplementing what happens in the classroom.

2.  Gamefication of courses — the more the content is like a game the more kids will be engaged in the learning process.  Plain and simple — kids love games — adults love games — want kids to learn and be engaged — make it a game!

3.. E-books — I am tired of seeing kids with 45 pound backpacks that look like they are being deployed to some foreign country. Some of those kids look so weighed down I wonder how they can walk?  Tablets — laptops — phones shed all that weight.  All kids material should be electronic.

4.  Online collaborative learning — Collaborative environments whereby kids learn from each other and create new and exciting things.  So much of the internet is collaborative — so much of real life work is collaborative — why do we insist in schools kids be isolated?

5.  Usage of social media for learning — We can no longer ignore the power of social media.  Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, etc…. it is a powerful force and we need to use it to our advantage in the classroom.  Kids use and like social media for communication — if I was in the classroom teaching today how can you not take advantage of this awesome tool to keep kids and parents informed.

Our kids need practice with and exposure to technology to function in this ever-changing technology rich world.  Schools need to embrace the power of technology to enhance learning environments and prepare them for the future.  We have a moral obligation as educator to do this for kids.  Don’t let our old, worn-out rules prevent us from taking advantage all that technology has to offer.

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