We can do better

“Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.”

– Franklin D. Roosevelt

Such a timely quote by Franklin D. Roosevelt.  As educators, school leaders, parents, and involved citizens, we must remember our role in preparing students to choose wisely.  Education will always be important to the success of democracy.  As we end one year and enter a new, we should reflect on how we are raising and educating our children.

What will the world be like for the next generation?  What skills will our children need?  How will they gain these skills?  Who will influence our children the most?  As the world becomes more diverse, how will society change and how will our students respond to that change?  These are deeply philosophical questions, but they are at the root of democracy.  Looking at the roots of American democracy may help us in answering these questions.

“Educate and inform the whole mass of the people…they are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.”

-Thomas Jefferson

The question is, where will our students get educated and where will their information come from?  How will they become informed citizens?  We all have a duty to make sure that our children are critical thinkers.  While protecting them from our personal biases, we should encourage them to look at a variety of sources before drawing conclusions.  Original thinkers built our country.  We need more.

“Real liberty is neither found in despotism or the extremes of democracy, but in moderate governments.”

-Alexander Hamilton

Modern politics is a mess.  It’s hard for me to believe that we have become a nation of extremism.  If you disagree, just start a conversation with a neighbor you don’t know well.  You’ll likely find that you have far more in common than not.  We can do a better job of making sure that our children respect the views of others, especially when those views are counter to ours.  You can find a middle ground with almost any fundamental belief.  Finding it is always worth the struggle.

“Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it.”

-Thomas Paine

We all want life, liberty, and the freedom to pursue our happiness.  They are such fundamental cornerstones of democracy.  The Declaration of Independence speaks to all of us, not a select few.  Our children need us to remind them that our country was founded on principles that apply to everyone.  More importantly, action is required by all of us to ensure those freedoms.  Democracies require participation.  We must be tireless in pushing our children to become active, contributing members of society, not sideline observers.

No matter your political beliefs, it should be obvious that our country can be and do better.  Other nations look to us.  We stand as an example to the world.  We stand as example to our children.  What kind of an example is the question?  We can do and be better.  We must.

Pulling the Goat

After graduating from college in 1987, I served in the Peace Corps for two years.  I was assigned to the tiny island nation of St. Kitts/Nevis in the West Indies.  The islands in the Caribbean are beautiful, but the economies struggle due the challenges of maintaining industry and tourism structures.

The people in the West Indies were very accepting of Americans, although many of them thought that we were all just like the people on the TV show Dallas.  It was a life-changing experience for me.  In many ways it put me on a path that has taken me to where I am today.

When I arrived on the island, I immediately began doing the things people associate with the romantic vision of Peace Corps service.  I bought two chickens so that I would have eggs.  Neither bird ever laid an egg.  I eventually ate them both.  I also bought a goat with idea that it would keep the grass around my house trimmed.  Of course, it didn’t like the grass in my yard, so I had to walk it a half mile down the road every morning to a nice patch of grass that it preferred.

Walking the goat every morning taught me some important lessons.  I don’t know if every goat is the same, but mine didn’t like to be led or pulled.  He wanted to go in front and resisted every effort to be pulled in a direction that I wanted to go.  I eventually relented and usually got where I wanted to go a little faster with the goat leading.

That lesson has stayed with me for a long time and is a fitting analogy for the state of education today.  National and state initiatives treat educators much like I treated the goat.  Federal and state officials want to be out in front pulling the obstinate education reform goat along their own preferred path.  What they don’t seem to understand is that the goat has its own idea of where it should go.

Everyone outside the walls of the American schoolhouse seems to have a million ideas on how to improve education.  Everyone is an expert because they have all been to school. What would happen if state, federal, and district officials allowed teachers and principals to lead the school reform efforts in America?  What would happen if they let the goat lead?

I imagine if teachers and principals were allowed more autonomy they would be able to address the specific needs of their students without the burden of implementing one-size-fits-all curricula and programs.  There would be less testing and more relationship building.  Teachers would spend more time teaching and using formative data to revise their instruction.  Instructional changes would happen in a timely manner and students would make greater progress.

The ESSA signed in December is a start in the right direction.  It gives states back more control over reform efforts, although the carrot and stick funding formulas still exist.  Maybe states will begin asking for the opinions of teachers and school leaders.  Maybe local districts will consider letting the goat lead.  That wouldn’t be a baaaaad thing, would it?

Turning a Cruise Ship

President Barack Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) on December 10, 2015.  According to the government’s webpage, the reauthorization of NCLB represents “good news for our nation’s schools.”

The bipartisan law proclaims to:

  • Advance equity by upholding critical protections for disadvantaged and high-need students.
  • Require—for the first time—that all students in America be taught to high academic standards that will prepare them to succeed in college and careers.
  • Ensure that vital information is provided to educators, families, students, and communities through annual statewide assessments that measure students’ progress toward those high standards.
  • Help support and grow local innovations—including evidence-based and place-based interventions developed by local leaders and educators.
  • Sustain and expand historic investments in increasing access to high-quality preschool.
  • Maintain accountability and action to effect positive change in our lowest-performing schools.

Edweek recently noted that ESSA will continue to hold states accountable to the Education Department.  States will have to submit accountability plans starting in the 2017-18 school year.  States will be allowed to pick their own accountability goals, both long-term goals and smaller, interim goals. These goals must address proficiency on tests, English-language proficiency, and graduation rates.  Interestingly, states will no longer have to do teacher evaluation through student outcomes as they did under NCLB waivers.

What does all of this mean for teachers and school administrators?  It means that they go to work tomorrow and the next day knowing that change is coming, but also knowing that the implications of ESSA will take a while to be seen.  Fortunately, most of us won’t be sitting around waiting for direction.  We will continue to work passionately and persistently for all students.

Watching education reform lead to measurable change is like watching a cruise ship turn.  The average cruise ship speeds across the ocean at around 27 miles per hour.  At an average weight of over 150,000 gross tons, it can take a long time to turn one around.  It’s a maneuver that requires the collaboration and teamwork of many people.  From the captain on the bridge to the mechanics in the engine room, everyone needs to do their job.

ESSA holds the promise of great things for our children.  Much like ESEA in 1965, NCLB in 2002, and Obama’s Race to the Top initiatives, ESSA has the potential to make a difference for American students.  Whether that potential is realized depends on a “crew” of politicians and education officials working together to turn the education reform ship in the right direction.  As 2016 begins, let’s watch and remain hopeful that the journey and destination will be worth the wait.

Standing at the Back of the Elephant

The headline of Lyndsey Layton’s Washington Post article yesterday reads, “Most states lack expertise to improve worst schools.”  Layton notes in her article that the government’s 3 billion dollar investment hasn’t led to improved performance in our most challenged schools.  Apparently, the states “did not have the staff, technology and expertise to pull those schools out of the bottom rankings.”

The schools that were targeted for improvement had to choose one of four school reform strategies:  replace the principal and at least 50 percent of the staff; close the school and enroll students in another, better-performing school; close the school and reopen it as a charter school; or transform the school through new instructional strategies and other techniques.

So, billions of dollars and several years after school districts received funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, we are left wondering how to help our neediest schools.  Replacing the principal and staff doesn’t work.  Closing the school and enrolling students in a “better performing school” doesn’t work.  Reopening a school as a charter school doesn’t work.  Transforming a school through new instructional strategies doesn’t work, as if anyone really knows what that means.  Not only did these strategies not work, one third of the schools that received federal funds ended up with declining test scores.

The most we have learned from the federal government’s attempt at school reform is that they are no better than the states are at raising student achievement.  Let’s think of this enigma using a vivid analogy.  Student achievement in our most challenging public schools is the veritable “elephant in the room.”  For the past 20 years, or more, state and federal education officials have waited at the back of the elephant studiously examining what comes out.  Meanwhile, no one has bothered to think about what goes in the front.

How about if we spend the next twenty years focusing on what goes into the elephant?  Let’s start with well-trained, well-paid, teachers and administrators who are supported with resources and time for planning.  Maybe we can staff schools with so many teachers, teaching assistants, and support personnel that no child ever falls through the cracks.  It’s that simple.

American schools have tremendous potential when they are given the resources they need.  If we are not willing to put money and resources into our schools, then stop bothering to study what comes out of the backside of the elephant.  All you will get is…well, you know.

Maryland Governor Seeking Charter School Revisions

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan is proposing significant changes to state charter school laws.  Yesterday, a hearing on House Bill 486 was held in Annapolis.  While the political rhetoric associated with the charter school movement is complex, it should be clear that conservatives and liberals stand on both sides of the issue.  Charter schools are supported by both Democrats and Republicans.

In general, advocates of charter schools want to encourage innovative teaching and creative approaches to reaching underserved students.  That is a laudable goal and one that is certainly shared by teachers, school leaders, and communities across America.  The only problem with that logic is that charter schools are not outperforming their counterparts.  A 2010 report by the Education Law Center notes that:

“Research on charter schools paints a mixed picture.  A number of recent national studies have reached the same conclusion:  charter schools do not, on average, show greater levels of student achievement, typically measured by standardized test scores, than public schools, and may even perform worse.”

For additional information from the report, see:

http://www.educationjustice.org/newsletters/nlej_iss21_art5_detail_CharterSchoolAchievement.htm

Maryland House Bill 486 includes language that illustrates the problematic thinking connected with those who favor charter schools.  The proposal provides for a lottery system that gives preference to students living in poverty, in need of special education services, with limited English proficiency, and those who are homeless.  At first glance, that sounds like a great way to improve learning opportunities for our students who are most in need.  However, the bill provides charter schools with the freedom to circumvent state teacher certification requirements, which ensures that the students who need the most qualified teachers won’t get them.  Lotteries are also inherently corruptible and many districts across the country have questioned whether they are being monitored and administered ethically.

Maryland’s bill also provides public construction money to charter schools.  This will create competition within school districts that, in some cases, could mean choosing charter school capital improvements over public school needs, a veritable “Sophie’s Choice” for local school boards.  Public construction money is just one of the complications that charter schools bring to local boards.  Charter schools create the need for additional district personnel and time to oversee them and check for compliance.  That takes time and money away from an already shallow pool of funds

The irony of the current charter bill proposal in Maryland is that it ignores how underfunded schools already are.  If Maryland’s public schools were funded at anything near the appropriate level, then maybe exploring charter schools would be worthwhile.  The backlog of capital improvement projects in Maryland’s school districts and the per-pupil spending inequities across the state suggest that the time for charter schools is yet to come.

To learn more about House Bill 486, visit the link below:

http://mgaleg.maryland.gov/webmga/frmMain.aspx?pid=billpage&stab=01&id=hb0486&tab=subject3&ys=2015RS

An edited version of this post appeared in the Baltimore Sun’s Readers Respond section on March 3, 2015, all rights reserved.

http://bsun.md/1ARjPNl

An ineffective way to look at teachers

Liz Bowie’s recent reporting on Maryland’s teacher evaluation system (Where ineffective teachers are found, November 2, 2014) raises many questions.  Bowie’s investigative report contains several quotes from Sandi Jacobs, the vice president of the National Council on Teacher Quality.  The NCTQ is a Washington think tank with a clear political agenda that is anti-teacher and highly critical of teacher education programs across the United States.  Their advisory committee includes Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee, two former school system czars who share a dislike for teachers, principals, and their unions.

Jacobs questions the expertise of school leaders by suggesting that they are unwilling to have “difficult conversations” with ineffective teachers.  She implies that school leaders have not been trained to assess teachers and are not asked to be instructional leaders.  Bowie’s report ends by stating that economists believe that the percentage of ineffective teachers should be somewhere between 15–20 percent.

Liz Bowie’s article leaves the reader believing that Maryland’s teacher rating system is insufficient and that there are many ineffective teachers out there who are being rated higher than they deserve.  The article also suggests that Maryland principals are to blame.  While few educators or administrators believe that the current teacher evaluation system is perfect, many believe in the need for accountability.  Teachers and principals understand the focus on student performance and its connection to evaluation.

Several states have struggled to develop fair, value-added measures to quantify a profession that is part art and part science.  Maryland will continue to refine its teacher evaluation model and its school districts will adjust accordingly.  Hopefully, Maryland’s education system will never be run by economists.  I would be uneasy working in a state or school district that considers 15-20 percent an acceptable number for ineffective teachers.

Economists and meteorologists have similar records of success when it comes to forecasting. School leaders cannot afford to use guesswork when developing highly effective teachers.  They do not think about percentages, they think about people.  Great principals support and develop great teachers.  They also spend time counseling ineffective teachers out of the profession.  That alone accounts for the low percentage of ineffective teachers in the profession.

What percentage of ineffective teachers is acceptable?  The answer has to be zero.  Try the same question with other professions.  Air traffic controllers?  Physicians?  News reporters? Politicians? Police officers?  Rather than questioning whether three percent is too low, we should be working to make sure that no ineffective teacher ever stands in front of our children.

An edited version of this post appeared in the Baltimore Sun’s Readers Respond section on November 5, 2014, all rights reserved.

http://bsun.md/189vtrN

Top Five Reasons to Attend an Edcamp

Edcamp Baltimore will be held at Johns Hopkins University-Bloomberg Center for Physics and Astronomy on Saturday, September 27th.  Edcamps are cropping up all over the United States as viable alternatives to traditional education conferences.

What is an edcamp?  While you can find many answers with a quick internet search, you have to attend one to truly understand their value.  Here are my top five reasons for attending an edcamp.  Are there any that you would add?

1.     For Educators, By Educators

Edcamps are conferences developed by educators for educators.  Have you ever attended a conference and found that the content was lacking?  Edcamps reduce the chances of that happening.  Edcamp attendees tend to have common interests around the best teaching and learning practices.  You’ll get tips that you can use immediately back at your school.

2.     Agenda Created by the Attendees

The agenda for an edcamp is created on the spot.  There are no pre-planned programs and usually no keynote speakers.  Edcamp sessions are proposed by those who attend.  You can propose a session on a topic that you would like to learn more about and see if anyone in attendance has expertise in that area.  You can also propose a session on a topic that you would like to lead.

3.     They’re Free, But You Can Buy Lunch and Cool t-shirts

Nothing beats free!  You can spend an entire day with little or no cost to your bank account.  Most edcamps offer lunch, if you need it, and who doesn’t want a cool edcamp t-shirt to show off to their colleagues!

4.     You’ll Grow Your Personal Learning Network

As strong as our colleagues may be, educators can only benefit from connecting with those outside their usual travels.  Edcamps can be springboards for professional growth.  Through social media (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) we can find the creative teaching ideas that flow from a highly motivated group of learners.  Many edcamp participants backchannel their learning by tweeting out ideas and resources using the edcamp’s hashtag (#edcampbmore).  If you can’t attend an edcamp, find a hashtag to follow!

5.     The Model Easily Translates to School-based PD

The edcamp model is quickly becoming a professional development alternative that can be used at the school level.  Many schools are running their own versions of edcamps to promote the value of learning from each other.  Teachers enjoy and benefit professionally when they learn from their peers.  Our schools are full of teachers who want to contribute to the success of their schools.  Edcamps give them that opportunity.

Redefining the Narrative: African American Students Find their Path to College

There is an excellent article in the Washington Post today written by Emma Brown (Traversing two D.C.s, from Dunbar High to Georgetown University).  It highlights the experiences of two former Dunbar (D.C.) High School graduates and former class valedictorians.  The article is a must-read for anyone seeking to understand the challenges that African American students face when they venture into the world of higher education.

Johnathan Carrington and Sharnita James want a chance to excel in life.  They grew up in neighborhoods and went to schools that provided the best education possible.  It wasn’t enough.  College was a wake-up call for Johnathan and Sharnita who shared the challenges they faced in transitioning to Georgetown University and the University of Delaware, respectively.

The inspiring aspect of their stories is that, despite the odds, they are succeeding in college (Sharnita graduated) and have bright futures ahead of them.  Their stories remind us that minority students can write their own personal life narrative.  They can define who they are despite how society might see them.

What can educators learn from their stories?  Urban students shouldn’t have to make the higher education journey alone.  As strong-willed as they both seem, Sharnita and Johnathan shouldn’t have to maneuver the complex environment of college unaided.  Georgetown University recognizes that and seems to have supports in place.

There were two important quotes in Brown’s story that stuck with me:

“My mind-set was, no matter what, I’m going to graduate.” (Sharnita James)

“I realized I have to take initiative in some things. I have to make Georgetown cater to me. I have to find my path.” (Johnathan Carrington)

Such wisdom from growing young minds!  How can we NOT support students when they demonstrate an unfailing desire to succeed?  Dunbar High School must be incredibly proud of their former valedictorians.  Maybe one day Johnathan and Sharnita’s success stories will be the norm, rather than the exception.  One can hope.

Will Fed Guidance on Charter Schools Bring Change?

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights issued a letter of guidance last week to charter schools (see link below).  While supportive in tone, it laid out clear expectations regarding the application of civil rights laws in charter schools.  This is good news for all schools.  Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, Catherine E. Lhamon’s letter suggests that a new level of transparency needs to be practiced by charter schools.

Charter schools have been criticized for many of their dubious practices.  The OCR letter, thankfully, addresses these concerns.  The letter included guidance in the following areas:

  • charter schools are expected to know and understand Federal civil rights laws
  • admissions procedures may not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, or disability
  • special education students cannot be excluded
  • once admitted, students with disabilities must be provided FAPE (free appropriate public education)
  • charter schools cannot ask students to waive their rights to FAPE
  • English learners must be provided the same meaningful access to admissions information
  • English learners must be provided with effective language instruction
  • charter schools must operate under local desegregation plans
  • discipline policies and enforcement must be free of discriminatory practices

It is reasonable to expect that charter schools operate under the same rules as public schools as they are funded by the public using a per-pupil expenditure formula.  The rush into the public charter business led to violations by many of these eager start-ups.  While some charter schools have been touted for their innovative practices, many of them have been operating outside the guidelines addressed in the OCR letter.

Why should anyone care about how public charter schools operate?  They should care because charter schools have been siphoning away students from their home schools and eroding communities across the country.  They have become quasi private schools by selectively choosing who gets in and who doesn’t.

The OCR’s letter is a starting point for holding public charter schools to the same expectations as all other public schools.  Enforcing civil rights laws will be another question.  Let’s hope the OCR monitors the performance of public charter schools and takes action when necessary.

http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/letters/colleague-201405-charter.pdf

Race to the Top-Equity and Opportunity?

President Barack Obama recently announced a new initiative called Race to the Top-Equity and Opportunity.  The aims of the program are admirable.  The President wants to support states and districts in identifying and closing educational opportunity and achievement gaps (http://www.ed.gov/racetothetop-equity-opportunity).  The President, like many politicians and educators, recognizes that we need to do more to ensure that all students have access to rigorous coursework, positive school climates, equitable discipline policies, and a clear, supportive road to college and career readiness.

The President’s plan calls for $300 million in competitive grants for states that agree to enhance their data systems and develop comprehensive strategies to address achievement gaps.  The states would have to use their funds to strengthen teaching and school leadership.  The funds would also be used to attract and retain more effective teachers in high-need schools.  Additionally, the plan requires states to utilize fair formulas for the distribution of funds to schools.

So far, so good, although one could argue that incentivizing states is not the best way to reform schools.  The competitive grant process also has its detractors.  Will states rush to comply with the guidelines and begin implementing effective strategies to eliminate the achievement gap?  If they learned any lesson from the original Race to the Top efforts, they may wait a while before jumping for the carrot.

The President should be applauded for highlighting the need for creative solutions to eliminating the achievement gap.  If his plan works it will lead to the creation of model programs that other states and districts can look to for solutions.  Three hundred million dollars sounds like a solid investment towards that effort, but is it?  When you realize that there are over 11 million school-age children living in poverty in the United States (2011, US Census Report), the investment begins to look a little light.  The President’s proposal provides about $27.00 for every child living in poverty in the US.

Of course, the President’s plan does not aim to help all children.  It will only affect the children in states and districts that are willing to jump through a series of complex and rigid hoops.  The states with savvy policy makers and skilled grant writers will be at a significant advantage.  Meanwhile, the 11 million students living in poverty will see little or no change to their schools, at least not for some time.

No one should scoff at a $300 million dollar investment in education.  We should be grateful for every dollar that goes toward the future of our children.  Yet, somehow we continue to underfund the most important aspect of American culture, our schools.  How about a real effort toward strengthening our public community schools?  Not just some, but all of them.  While we are experimenting with plans like the President’s, what’s happening to the rest of our students?

The President’s plan specifically mentions that no child should suffer because of their wealth, home language, or zip code.  Unfortunately, his plan fails to address that goal for all students.  It falls short because it won’t impact enough students in a timely manner.  Twenty-seven dollars per child in poverty just won’t do that.  Our students deserve better before it’s too late.