Wednesday, March 18, 2015

NC Governor McCrory Dismisses & Ignores Most Teachers as Special Interests

According to a WRAL news story today, "NC Still Lags in Teacher Pay, Student Spending," the National Education Association released a report that ranks NC teacher pay 42nd nationally. 

As would be expected, North Carolina governor McCrory's education adviser, Eric Guckian, immediately dismissed the report. Whatever happened to the idea of arguing perhaps that the content of the report is incorrect and present the correct facts. Instead, our North Carolina's governor office labels the report as irrelevant.

In rather telling and interesting statement made by Eric Guckian, McCrory's "Education Adviser" the Governor reveals how he "really" feels about teachers.

"Governor McCrory is leading change that makes targeted investments in education spending that has students, not special interests, at the center of the equation."

Is he labeling every teacher in the state of North Carolina a "special interest" as if their needs somehow don't matter? Sure looks like it.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Why the Continued Obsession with High Stakes Accountability and Testing?

"The test obsession is making public schools, where nine out of ten American children are enrolled, into unhappy places." Anya Kamenetz, The Test: Why Our Schools Are Obsessed with Standardized Testing---But You Don't Have to Be
At the center, high stakes accountability and standardized testing policies are an attempt to justify public education. Politicians need quantification for the expenditure of tax dollars for education, no matter what the quality of the accountability system providing them with that justification. Various groups of people are happy with the massive increase in standardized test administration in spite of the fact that such testing has indeed began to suck the life out of our public schools.

Politicians want these accountability systems for a variety of reasons. Some are fine with public schools being unpleasant places because they do not want them to exist in the first place. They want evidence that public schools are performing poorly, and testing gives them the evidence. Other politicians blindly see these tests as the "objective" tools of salvation for public education. They have the faith that "objectivity" is possible, and that tests can fairly measure all that is worthwhile in schools. They are true believers in standardized testing.

Then there's the federal and state level policy makers who want all this standardized testing too. They see them as vital "measures" that tell them how schools, principals, teachers, and students are doing. Test scores give them purpose. "Let's get those test scores up!" becomes their focus, without which the existence of their job is questionable. They find the justification in what they're doing rooted in standardized testing.

Finally, there are administrators, from the national to the school level, who want these massive testing systems too. It gives them an "easy and simple" way to measure how their teachers are doing their jobs and how students are performing. No judgments are required: if a school, teacher, or student doesn't get the score, "dump'em." That makes leadership all tidy and neat, because there's no need for thinking, and there's no need for courage either. Test scores are used by school leaders as evidence of their own leadership as well; when scores go up, they feel validated. If scores drop, they can blame the teachers under their charge, the students, or lack of support from elsewhere. In addition, focusing on test scores is an excuse by many to ignore advocating for social justice and true actions taken to deal with poverty.

It's simply true, a lot of educators and politicians need test scores, otherwise, they don't have justification for their existence or evidence of their success. If there's nothing to count, then they can't show anyone "numbers" which, in their eyes, is the only convincing evidence of success in this thinking. But what if there are other ways to show success?

Maybe, it's time to rethink the high stakes accountability and testing paradigm. Maybe, if accountability is ultimate goal, there is a way to get that without this continued chasing of shadows. Perhaps, it we really put our heads together we could find a way to really improve schools and know it, rather than this multi-decade search for the measure and punish tactic that will work.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Listening with Real Compassion: A True Leadership Trait

"Having the space to listen with compassion is essential to being a true friend, a true colleague, a true parent, a true partner." Thich Nhat Hanh, from Silence: The Power of Quiet in a World Full of Noise
How many of you find that you don’t listen well in your role as leaders? I find that out every single day of my life. In the job of being a school leader, my mind races through the day. Even when I am sitting still, my mind is elsewhere. It’s chasing those classroom observations I have yet to do. It is preoccupied with a specific issue involving a teacher, parent, and student. It is racing about so much, there are times I just don’t listen to what anyone else has to say. It’s not that I am stubborn; its that my mind is tuned in to what Thich Nhat Hanh calls  Radio Station NST, and the NST stands for “Non-Stop-Thinking."

How effective as compassionate leaders can we really be with our minds so distracted? I suspect not very much. So, what’s the answer? I think Hanh offers a pretty solid answer: we have to begin with ourselves.

“If we want to help others, we need to have peace inside,” Hanh writes and teaches. We have to focus on creating this peace within ourselves or else, we’re wasting everybody’s time, including our own.

We need to take time today and listen inwardly. Have compassion on yourself first and listen; then you can have genuine compassion for others.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Art of Welcoming Silence to Become Authentic Leaders

How many times do you find yourself chasing away the silence? In the role of leadership, sometimes “the silence” becomes a reminder of just how lonely the job of being a leader can be. As Buddhist monk and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh writes:

"We can feel lonely even when we’re surrounded by many people. We are lonely together. There is a vacuum inside us . We don’t feel comfortable with that vacuum, so we try to fill it up or make it go away. Technology supplies us with many devices that allow us to “stay connected.” These days, we are always “connected,” but we continue to feel lonely. We check incoming e-mail and social media sites multiple times a day. We e-mail or post one message after another . We want to share; we want to receive. We busy ourselves all day long in an effort to connect."

As Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us, we actively avoid silence by filling our lives with as many things as possible. Those things can be electronic devices as Hanh describes, or they can be check-points on a massive to-do list that just keep us busy to avoid the silence of loneliness. Truth is, we can avoid the loneliness that the job of leadership brings with it by filling the vacuum of silence. Instead, we need to welcome the silence.

But as Thich Nhat reminds us, “Silence is essential.” It is the silence that gives us time for us. It is here in the silence that we can begin to look deeply and find out who we are. Is that not ultimately what we want as leaders? To become authentic, we need to shut down the noise around us long enough to connect with who we are instead of Facebook or Twitter.

Hanh, Thich Nhat (2015-01-27). Silence: The Power of Quiet in a World Full of Noise (p. 24). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Evernote's Scannable: A Powerful But Simple-to-Use Scanning App for Your iPhone or iPad

Evernote just got even more useful for me with its new iOS app Scannable. In many of my past posts regarding Evernote, I have made it clear that the Evernote note taking application is my everyday "go-to" app in both my professional and personal life. With all the smartphone apps, desktops apps, and browser extensions, Evernote makes note taking and web curation simple and easy.

Now, they've added an iOS app called Scannable. With this app, you can scan any document with your iPad or iPhone. You can then send it to someone by email, upload it to an Evernote notebook, place it in your photos, send it through the messaging app, or export it any number of your iCloud apps. It's rather simple interface is an added benefit.

Evernote's Scannable is definitely another one of those apps you'll want to download and use with your iOS devices.

Scannable Document in Evernote Desktop App


Scannable Interface in iOS

Scannable is excellent choice for quickly capturing any document, whether it be a handwritten note, receipt, memo, or sticky note. 

Thursday, February 5, 2015

NC's New A-F School Grading System: Perfect Measure of Poverty in Schools

Today, the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction released the school report cards mandated by North Carolina’s legislature. (See those here.) These report cards graded each school with a letter grade A-F. Once again, our state has taken a step backward into absurdity with this action. Grading all the things our schools do with a single letter grade reduces, once again, what matters in North Carolina schools the most, to test scores. Once again, our state has elevated state testing to even higher stakes. Schools will now work in earnest prepping students for tests and getting those numbers up.

But elevating test scores is not only what this exercise in madness does; it also clearly demonstrates what’s wrong with education, and society, in North Carolina. In its article entitled “NC Public School Letter Grades Released, Reflecting Student Family Incomes,” The News and Observer sums up the real truth we learn from these report cards.

We don’t really learn which schools are failing and which are succeeding because the data used for this is narrowly focused on test score data and a few other indicators. What we learn of real importance is stated so aptly in this article:

“Among the schools where 80 percent or more of the students qualify for free and reduced lunch, 81 percent received a D or F. Only one of those schools got an A. At the other end of the spectrum, more than 90 percent of schools where fewer than 20 percent of the students qualify for free and reduced lunch received an A or B. Only one of those schools received an F."

In other words, our legislature and North Carolina Department of Public Instruction hasn’t come up with a test at all on how our schools or do; they’ve developed the perfect test for poverty. In fact, it really shows that North Carolina’s barrage of tests are great for indentifying students who live in poverty! Probably much better than actually measuring student achievement.

Sadly though, I suspect the motivation behind this A-F grading system isn’t really about improving public education at all. After all, our North Carolina State Legislature proved during its last session it is no friend to public education, why would we expect different.? No, this grading system is simply another attempt by our political leaders to drum up or even manufacture false charges of failure so that they can continue to push their pet project of school vouchers and their blind obedience to free markets.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Thoughts on School Choice and the Fight to Preserve Public Schools

Is it time for school choice? Before those against vouchers and charters start throwing rotten tomatoes, let me explain. As most who've read this blog know, I am and have always been a staunch public school advocate. I do not believe that anything miraculous will happen if suddenly vouchers were available for every student, nor do I think that an increase of a thousandfold of the number of charter schools is suddenly going put us at the forefront in international PISA scores. Often those who push these choices do so for ideological reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with what's in the best interest of kids. So I am certainly not siding with free market fundamentalists who believe that market forces will suddenly catapult student achievement to first in the world. I simply don't see that happening. I also certainly do not side with those who think public education should be abolished and that the government has no business in it. Public education in this country has done wonders in providing opportunities and futures for kids. Still, what makes me ask the question, "Is it time for school choice?" has more to do with a public education system more interested in preserving itself than being introspective and asking why parents and their students want options in the first place.

Immediately, when public education begins to argue against charters or school choice, they begin crying about the loss of funding. From my perspective, this is entirely the wrong argument to make. It betrays a perspective that sees each student as an additional dollar sign to be added to a total, instead of a individual student to be taught and provided with educational opportunity. When districts begin using dollar amounts lost to defend against school vouchers or charter schools, they are demonstrating the wrong attitude. Instead, they should be asking why parents and students want to attend charter schools or want vouchers in the first place. Instead, they fight battles with the wrong ammunition, when they would be much better off being introspective and asking the tough questions about why their students are leaving or leave in the first place.

I suspect most parents just want the best schools they can get for their kids. They really don't care whether they are a charter school, private school or traditional public school; they want school to be a positive asset in their child's life. Public school districts, school leaders, and educators can work to provide those schools for parents, or they will continue to pressure politicians to give them options. I haven't the data, nor do I know even if it exists (maybe a reader out there can provide it), but I can't but wonder if there's a correlation between the proliferation of charter schools and school vouchers in places where public schools focus more intently on self-preservation rather than focusing on making themselves better. I realize many schools fight budget constraints, and poorly funded schools who are struggling can't compete. Still, when public schools lose their focus and spend more time on self-preservation than taking an honest look at themselves, schools couldn't possibly be focused on the primary mission of educating young minds.

What I have learned these past few years as a principal of a public school of choice, not charter, is this: many parents are seeking options, especially at the high school level. They want alternatives to the large, often impersonal, traditional high schools that most districts still operate. They are least interested in arguments about why charter schools are a bad idea because big schools will lose funding. They don't care about how efficient these large schools operate, and you can honestly throw all the test data you want to try to convince them of the effectiveness of that school. In the end, they want their child to be in a school that cares about them, that knows their child as individuals and not as test scores or a number. Finally, they want their child in a school where that child wants to be.

So, is it time for school choice? I think that question has been answered, at least here in North Carolina. Public schools districts had better stop fighting the battle of self-preservation, and start looking to see how they can re-form their schools into places that meet the needs of kids.