Monday, May 31, 2010

21st Century Administrators: Beware of Think Tanks Bearing Research Findings

How many times recently have you read an article in the newspaper that quoted research from the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation or have heard a TV news reporter quote research policy brief from the Friedman Foundation? Chances are, you have heard this more than once. These two think tanks work extremely hard to get their versions of research into the hands of the media at every turn. There are countless other organizations out there who disseminate information in the just the same manner and for the same purposes. As a 21st century administrator in the public schools, we must educate ourselves on the nature of research and learn as much as we can about think tanks and their political agendas. As a 21st century principal, I’m an advocate for public education, and I do not think those who would turn education into a market-based system have the best interest of children at heart.

According to a new book entitled Think Tank Research Quality: Lessons for Policymakers, the Media, and the Public, “there are many free-market think tanks that are part of a network of organizations promoting a relatively constrained set of educational policies.” These organizations and think tanks have a narrow agenda that includes promoting school vouchers, charter schools and any other measures that help them achieve education privatization. These organizations are even behind the strong anti-teacher union rhetoric seen so often in the media in recent months. Let’s face it, historically, the strongest and most formidable foe in their efforts to privatize education are the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. Should these professional educator organizations be marginalized, they stand to gain much of their free-market education agenda. These think tanks and organizations are relentless in their efforts to promote vouchers and other market-based education measures. Their research is often suspect or even weak. They see absolutely nothing wrong with bending the interpretation of facts to fit their narrow agenda. They provide the media with this tainted research which is presented as the absolute truth.

Who are some of these think tanks? Some of the most prolific are the following:

  • Brookings Institution
  • American Enterprise Institute
  • Hoover Institution
  • Heritage Foundation
  • Cato Institute
  • Rand Corporation
  • Consortium for Policy Research in Education
  • Thomas B. Fordham Foundation
  • Economic Policy Institute
  • Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice
  • There are quite a few others

These think tanks are some of the primary players behind efforts to promote school vouchers and charter schools. Their research is always slanted to support their political agenda, and they are some of the most often quoted in the media. not necessarily because their research is of such high quality, but because they make it so readily available. The 21st century administrator and educator would do well to view any research coming from these organizations with a healthy level of skepticism and scrutiny.

According to Think Tank Research Quality, these organizations have become so prolific due to large monetary gifts from a relatively small group of donors who have the same narrow political agenda. For example, three of the most common donors to these market-based think tanks are: 1) Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, 2) Sarah Scaife Foundation, and 3) John  M. Olin Foundation. Just a quick examination of the web sites for these foundations quickly tells the tale. These donors fund mostly conservative market-based education foundations and do not hide that fact at all.

Let’s face it, none of these organizations are friends of our American Public Education System and any efforts on their part to make it seem so are part of their deceit. As a 21st century advocate of public schools, it is vital that we educate ourselves in what solid, valid research looks like so we can see through pseudo-research that is pushed as a part of a political agenda. It is also important that we look closely at these organizations themselves. Sometimes what looks like an innocuous sounding education organization has a darker motive when it comes to public schools. Finally, we only need to follow the money trail. These ultra-rich foundations do not hide the fact that they would promote private or charter schools at the expense of public schools. Our American Public School System is under attack like never before. As a 21st century principal who believes in the promise of public education, I cannot sit idly by while others use tainted research to push their narrow political agenda.

Cover Image

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Taking Back the Reform Conversation from the Politicians

Educators have one certain thing for which they can thank President Obama and Secretary Duncan: these two politicians have re-framed the entire conversation about education reform into their own terms, and at the same time, made any educators or professional educator organizations who dare to question their reform agenda look like pro-status quo and anti-reform. One can certainly debate whether this was intentional or not, but it really does not matter. Secretary Duncan has placed himself and his education reform agenda on the high ground, and any attempts that criticize him or his agenda are pegged as anti-reform. The question I would ask is, Why did we as educators not see this coming?

One obvious reason is that educators and professional education organizations trusted Obama the presidential candidate. His rhetoric about reforming No Child Left Behind and putting education on the right track was the change all educators were looking for. We believed that as President, Obama would set right the last eight years of failed education policy whose tenets saw testing as the salvation of schools. We believed that as President, Obama would engage educators in discussions about what real reform should look like. We believed that as President, Obama would be an advocate for public education. Instead, through his new education general, Arne Duncan, he still clings to the hope that testing is public education's salvation. Instead of engaging all educators in a discussion about reform, he has allowed Secretary Duncan to dictate an unproven and ineffective reform agenda that did not even work in Chicago to an education system already starved for funding. Instead of being an advocate for public education, President Obama and Secretary Duncan have reinvigorated the pro-voucher and school privatization forces in this country with rhetoric that has made teachers and educators look like the villains. In effect, educators have been had. We were convinced that candidate Obama was truly offering what was advertised on campaign banners everywhere, "Change We Can Believe In." Instead, this "Change We Were Asked to Believe In" has become "Change Dictated by Secretary Arne Duncan" and the Obama administration.

Perhaps asking questions like "Why did we trust the Obama administration?" or "What happened to this 'Change We Could Believe In'"? are not very fruitful any more. Instead, we as educators and our professional organizations need to take back the conversation from Secretary Duncan and the Obama administration. We need to move the discussion from being against Secretary Duncan's specific reforms to offering reform alternatives that are based in research and reason not the politics of the moment. We have one distinct advantage that President Obama, Secretary Duncan, and all the economists at all the think tanks do not have, We have years and years of classroom experience. We have participated in reform and had reform done to us over and over again. We need to use this advantage and take the conversation back from the Obama administration. We know that Secretary Duncan's education policy is going to fail and possibly going to harm America's schools because every bit of our experience is screaming that it will. In effect, teachers and educators have a moral obligation to move the conversation from the land of Duncan politics to a focus on what is best for the students we teach.

Secretary Duncan has boasted that he has heard no opposition to his education policy. That should be evidence enough that he and his education department are not interested in hearing from educators in the field. Sure, they put on the usual good show of going out into the schools for meetings with teachers, but the video clips I have seen have Duncan or his minions doing more speaking than listening. It's just hard to hear opposition when you are doing all of the talking. That should be reason enough to just quit trying to get the Department of Education to listen. Instead, educators and their professional organizations need to get back to the business of educating our kids. This means taking the reform conversation away from the Obama administration and really looking at what will bring our education system into the 21st century. It means remembering that President Obama and Secretary Duncan are politicians who by nature are more concerned about survival as politicians than what is truly best for our public schools system and the kids we teach.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Taking the Media and Technology Competition Seriously: Making Learning Engaging

“Consumer and media businesses that are trying to engage the minds and the hearts of the young understand some things that too many educators overlook, look past, deny, or find repugnant. These businesses understand they must earn youngster’s attention and commitment.” With those words in his book, Shaking Up the Schoolhouse, Phillip Schlechty aptly captures the massive problem our teachers face in the classroom. Granted, when Schlechty wrote those words in 2002, he was speaking mainly of video games, DVDs, and computer games, but those same businesses are trying to capture the attention and commitment of our students. They work hard at trying to find those triggers of interest that will lure young people en masse into becoming users of their products. Equally true today, too many educators either “overlook, look past, deny, or find repugnant” these very features of the technologies that are so engaging to our kids. We dismiss much of these things are irrelevant and shallow. Perhaps by dismissing our competition, we think the war is over. But, our students options for engagement are not getting fewer; they are increasing rapidly. Perhaps it will only be a matter of time before iPads and netbooks are carried around in their backpacks just like MP3 players are now. We honestly have no way of knowing what will next capture the attention of our students.  It’s time for educators to get over this tendency to look past all these media tools and technologies and start looking closely at our competitors, as Schlechty calls them, and ask the following: 1) What qualities do these things possess that are so engaging for our students? 2) Are there ways I can replicate those same qualities in the learning work that I ask students to do? and 3) Are there ways for me to use those same technologies to engage my students in worthwhile, relevant, and engaging learning activities? We continue to dismiss the competition at our own peril.

Technorati Tags: ,,

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Getting into the Mind of Our 21st Century Competition to Make Learning Happen

Today, I was reading a chapter from Phillip Schlechty’s book Shaking Up the School House and came across some words that transformed some of my thinking about education, teaching, and student learning. This particular passage, made me recall some advice my cooperating teacher gave me about 21 years ago. In her wisdom, she told me, “You don’t have to make everything fun for kids. I just tell them I’m a teacher not an entertainer. If you want to pay me want entertainers make, then I’ll entertain you.” Those words, while not necessarily a mantra guiding my teaching practice, they were an excuse when some classroom activity that I had worked on for hours flopped with the sound of some kid in the back saying, “This is boring.” My cooperating teacher’s words soothed my ego in those particular instances, but deep inside I knew that kind of thinking did not really satisfy my desire to reach students.

Twenty-one years later, I realize “the entertainer” argument was really a white flag, a surrender in the battle to teach students. Some would even call it an excuse to quit. With all due respect to my cooperating teacher, to whom I owe my teaching career, it is that kind of thinking that sometimes keeps teachers from growing and exploring new ways to make learning happen.

In his book, Shaking Up the School House Schlechty points out how teachers whine and cry about having to compete with TV, video games, and DVDs. He suggests as an educational tactic that teachers study these competitors who compete for the attention of students and learn from them just how they capture and keep the their attention. He suggests that teachers ask three questions:

  • Who are the competitors for the time and attention of our students?
  • What do they provide our students that we are not providing? How might we provide these things, and are we willing to do so?
  • If we are not able or willing to provide these things, can we provide alternatives that are equally attractive?

Schlechty’s book is from 2001. That was a time before Facebook, MySpace, iPods, iTouch phones, and wide-spread texting. Our students nine years later have even more toys to distract them. Now we could take the approach that some take. “Let’s take their toys away while they’re in school. They don’t need them to learn.” But I think we really need to take Schlechty’s advice instead. We know that text-messaging, iTunes, and Facebook, not to mention video games, are the competitors for the time and attention of our students. We must know who our competitors are. We need to know how to use them ourselves. We need to quit deluding ourselves that we can ban these and even hope to keep the attention of our students using old instructional methods. Our competition for the time and attention of our students is more fierce than ever. Eliminating the competition is an exercise in futility. Instead, once we know who they are, we need to move on to Schlechty’s second question.

Just what do Facebook, text messaging, and iPods offer to students that we as teachers are not providing? The answers to those questions are connections, novelty, control, creativity, independence, and list goes on. Just check out the writings of Don Tapscott for a complete list of just what our kids get from these technologies. Just as Schlechty points out, we need to then ask, How might we provide those things to our students and are we willing to provide them? And, the answer to that question is rather obvious, we can provide those things to our students by having them utilize the same technologies that compete for their time and attention from learning. In other words, we take advantage of the technological environments that consume their time and attention already, instead of trying to reinvent the wheel.

When Schlechty wrote those questions, teachers had less competition for the time and attention of their students. In only nine years, that competition has only become more intense with the addition of many more players. Perhaps my cooperating teacher had one point correct, “We aren’t entertainers” and I dare say we should not try to be. However, asking how we can make our teaching more relevant to our students is not taking on the role of entertainer. Taking on the competition for student time and attention is just plan smart teaching. It is time for teaching to become 21st century instruction.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

21st Century Principal Book Review: Daniel Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School?


Cover Image

Books about the cognitive aspects of teaching and learning abound. Many provide a great deal of information, but just are not very readable. Others are very readable, but just do not provide much in the way of substance that can clearly impact classroom practice and student learning. Willingham’s book Why Don’t Students Like School? does both of these. He provides readers with a readable and sometimes entertaining text at the same time he provides cognitive principles with examples that can be taken directly to the classroom. This book would actually make an excellent gift for any teacher.

The Nine Principles of Mind described by Willingham in this book include those listed in the chart below.

Principle Description
People are naturally curious, but they are not naturally good thinkers. Basically, according to Willingham, the human brain is just not good at thinking because it is unreliable and takes a lot of time. Our minds are just not designed for it.
Factual knowledge precedes skill. This principle describes what most educators know. Students have to have things to think about, so there is a time and place for learning facts and rote material.
Memory is the residue of thought. This principle means that if we want students to learn something, we have to get them thinking about it.
We understand new things in the context of things we already know. For those who have studied reading strategies, this principle makes sense. Background knowledge is vital to understanding.
Proficiency requires practice. This principle is the old distributed practice rule. If we want students to get proficient at something, we have to provide opportunities for practice distributed over time.
Cognition is fundamentally different early and late in training. For those who believe it is possible to teach students how to be historians, scientists, or mathematicians, you would disagree with this principle. According to Willingham, students are incapable of being experts in these areas because it takes years of training and practice to become experts. Instead, we need to seek to provide our students with “deep understandings of content.”
Children are more alike than different in terms of learning. Those who advocate teaching to learning styles and intelligences would take exception to this principle. Willingham suggests that attempts to address learning styles and intelligences actually do not improve students’ achievement. While he does not disagree with the need to differentiate for learning needs, he points out that a lot of energy is unnecessarily spent trying to teach learning styles when there is little research to support that these even exist.
Intelligence can be changed through sustained hard work. This principle just makes sense. Students’ beliefs in their own lack of intelligence impacts their performance. Instead students need to be taught the value of hard work and how that can positively impact their achievement.
Teaching, like any complex, cognitive skill, must be practiced to be improved. Experience alone does not make one a better teacher. Teaching and then getting feedback on that teaching is vital to improving practice.

Willingham basically provides readers with an overview of nine main cognitive principals that can guide teaching the classroom. This book is an enlightening and enjoyable read. This book would make a great gift to a new teacher just embarking on his or her career.

2st Century Administrator Book Review of Paul E. Peterson’s Book Saving Schools: From Horace Mann to Virtual Learning


Cover Image

I purchased Peterson’s book Saving Schools: From Horace Mann to Virtual Learning after a recommendation on some web site I have long since forgotten. What I remember from that recommendation was that this particular book provided a unique interpretation on the history of education and used that interpretation to provide some information regarding a promising direction for the future of education. I was disappointed. This book basically bends educational history to serve the purposes of making the conservative, right-wing educational agenda pushed by the Hoover Institute look like the only effective way to make education better. Its sympathies with pro-voucher, anti-teacher union rhetoric, and the non-professionalization of education bleed through every word in the book. He divides the book into three parts: 1) The Rise, 2) The Decline, and 3) Signs of Resurrection. It is not difficult for someone who is familiar with all the education propaganda being thrown about by the Hoover Institute, to guess which chapters are placed in which parts of the book. There are a total of eleven chapters in the book with each chapter basically focusing on historical educational figures of note who according to Peterson significantly influenced the development of the American education system. His placement of Horace Mann, John Dewey, and Martin Luther King Jr. in Part I The Rise, is an indication of Peterson’s belief of the positive effect these individuals had on the development of our current education system.

It is in Part II where Peterson starts blaming the decline of our education system on four things. He blames an increasingly litigious society that is basically lawsuit-happy that demands from the education system rights and opportunities due them. He describes the American Civil Liberties Union as a key boogey man in this problem, which is not surprising since this organization is on just about every right-wing organization’s target list. The next thing Peterson blames are teacher unions. According to Peterson’s argument, their efforts to fight for small class sizes, competitive salaries and better working conditions have basically robbed the education system of monetary resources that could better be spent elsewhere. It does not take a rocket-scientist to take Peterson’s argument to the next level, “The teacher unions and organizations in their efforts to selfishly satisfy their needs have deprived children of resources that could have made them successful.” This Hooverian-right-wing statement isn’t surprising at all. For the Hoover Institute to get its way with vouchers, the biggest obstacle to their adoption must be removed and that obstacle is teacher unions. Peterson just uses historical context here to push the same old tired right-wing agenda.

The third thing Peterson blames for the decline of the American education system is the push for more education funding through political channels and through litigation. He states the same old argument often coming from right-wing groups, “We have poured all this additional money into American education and all we have gotten is declining performance.” Using statistics Peterson discusses how labor-intensive education has become. According to him, schools have been adding teachers to decrease class size and adding non-teaching positions which has only served to increase the cost of personnel in the schools. Add to this the increase in the number of those who are seeking equity and adequacy through litigation. My impression from Peterson’s book is that old Hooverian tenet, “Funding is not the problem with schools; they have enough money, but they are just not spending it wisely.”

The final thing Peterson blames for the decline of the American system of education is the accountability movement combined with the excellence movement. Accountability and excellence has basically failed because there is no agreement on standards necessary for true accountability, and minus any serious efforts to institute school choice offering parents alternatives, excellence in schools never happened.

In Part Three entitled Signs of Resurrection,  Peterson very predictably describes his great hopes for school reform and just as predictably all of them are tied to school choice. He idolizes the research of James Coleman and the charter school movement. In the end, he holds technology and Florida’s Virtual Public School up as having the potential of finally bringing about the kinds of reform he and his fellows at the Hoover Institute would like to see.

In the end, this book was a big disappointment. What could have been an interesting, concise look at school reform history, and possibly some unique, interesting ideas on where it could possibly be going, ended up being just another book of propaganda pushing the ideas of the Hoover Institute. To be honest, I should not really be surprised at all. Those at the Hoover Institute will do anything to bring about the kind of change they want, whether it’s describing research findings deceptively in their favor, or bending the facts of history to match political views.But the truth is, for the 21st century administrator looking for innovative solutions, Saving Schools offers no new ideas at all.

Monday, May 10, 2010

21st Century Administrator: Software Review

Recently, as I was completing one of the classes for my education specialist degree, I began searching and looking at note taking software. I already had Microsoft OneNote, but I really wanted something a bit simpler and that would provide me with an organization scheme that somehow fit the way I try to organize my thoughts into notes. I came across a trial version of NoteScribe and downloaded it. I used it for a time and immediately found several features about the software that I thought useful. First of all, it allows users to enter sources into a running bibliography using APA format. For writing those papers, this was invaluable. I could simply type the information into the input screen for sources, save that information, then it would automatically print a reference entry at the end of the notes I printed.


Source Entry Screen for NoteScribe

Another feature about NoteScribe that is useful is the ability to arrange notes into categories. With ease users can create categories and subcategories in which to place notes. Within each of these notes, it is possible to place attachments and relevant links. Users can also use different fonts, and they can also use highlighting to mark important points and information.



Note Entry Screen

Finally, the notes can be printed and saved in document format.

What has recently increased the usefulness of NoteScribe is their development of an online version. The interface is similar with some additional features. It allows for online collaboration on notes, and it will sync with notes created with the desktop version of NoteScribe. The obvious advantage of having an online version is that it can be accessed anywhere. Current subscription costs are about $32 per year.


NoteScribe Online Interface

A 30-day trial version of NoteScribe can be downloaded at the address below.

Registration keys are purchased for $21 for basic and $36 for premium. NoteScribe Online can also be tried for 30 days free as well. Both options are relatively inexpensive solutions for collecting and taking notes.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Diane Ravitch on Problems with Tying Teacher Evaluations to Test Scores Under NCLB 2.0

Here’s a video of interest where Diane Ravitch talks about two important things that will happen as a result of the political movement to tie teacher performance to test scores. First of all, it obvious that teachers will teach to the test. What choice will they have? Teachers will immediately focus even more on testing than they did under George Bush’s NCLB 1.0. If your livelihood depends on the test, then forget those areas that aren’t tested. Secondly, Ravitch makes another good point, “Who would want to be a teacher under the conditions created by Secretary Duncan’s education policy?” The conditions created by high stakes testing is already toxic under NCLB 1.0. Under Secretary Duncan’s NCLB 2.0 testing gets even more emphasis. There is absolutely nothing rewarding about having a class of kids proficient on a test that is irrelevant and meaningless, which happens to describe most existing state tests. Teaching becomes meaningless and unrewarding. It’s all too sad!
What is really sad is that Secretary Duncan has stated that he has not encountered any public opposition to his education policy. Either he “don’t get out much” as they say, or he has a very narrow definition of the word “public” that only includes his government subordinates or the friends he plays basketball with. Perhaps he won’t realize opposition until somebody starts picketing his speaking engagements. Update: Secretary made the statement that he encounters no public opposition to the New York Times in this article:

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Generating Excitement With Teachers About Technology and Its Opportunities

One of the most refreshing experiences I have had recently is having passionate discussions with the teachers at our school regarding the opportunity that technology offers our students. As an administrator, I consider it priority one to keep that passionate flame for technology and innovation alive. One of the drawbacks of my having so much high school experience to draw from, is that sometimes, that experience gets in the way. For example, when a teacher at our school suggests a new and innovative way to use technology in the classroom, it’s almost like the “traditional high school mindset” sometimes tries to take over and make excuses as to why we can’t do that. The challenge for me as a 21st century principal is to break that habit. While I realize there are time-honored ways of doing things at the high school level that work very well, I need to continually ask myself the “why” questions when discussions turn to teaching practice. It is time for 21st century principals to move their teachers beyond the comfort zones to the point where we question the “why” of so much we do. Twenty-first century principals would do very well to seek out teachers who are passionate and unafraid to question. And that includes questioning administrative decisions. I am secure enough in my principalship to know when teachers honestly question the direction of my policy. As a 21st century principal, I invite debate, discussion, even passionate argument about teaching and learning. It is most refreshing.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

2010 Horizon Report: What 21st Century Principals Need to Look for in Technology

This is my last reflection posting regarding the 2010 Horizon K-12 Report. The first postings looked at technology trends and current challenges we face as we try to move toward 21st century learning. The last sections of the report focus "Technologies to Watch." In the report, there are two technologies on the near horizon that all administrators need to be knowledgeable about, because I am sure a lot of conversation as well as resources are going to be directed toward these technologies.

According to the Horizon Report, there are 2 technologies on the "near horizon." For those not familiar with the format and terminology used in these reports, "near horizon" refers to "technologies to be adopted in the next 12 months." So these technologies are the ones we as administrators will be seeing and hearing discussion about in the next year. The two technologies on the near horizon are: cloud computing and collaborative environments. The definition provided for cloud computing is "a type of computing based on sharing computing resources rather than having local servers or personal devices to handle applications." For example, in cloud computing, your word processor application is not an installed program on the computer that is sitting on your desk. It is an application that exists on a company's server, and you access it through a web browser. I am typing this blog in Blogger, which is an application not installed on my computer, but available to me through my Internet browser. When you finish a document using a cloud-based application, you save your copy on that company's server. There are several companies currently offering cloud-based applications. One of the most popular is Google Apps. Another is There are others available as well, and as cloud-based applications become more popular, you will see even more offerings. School systems are just beginning to see the advantages of engaging in the use of cloud-based applications. The state of Oregon is already leading the way by moving to the use of Google Apps statewide. They project that the state will save up to $1.5 million per year by making this change. The savings come from not having to purchase licenses like you do for programming like Microsoft Office. You also do not have installation and maintenance issues to worry about since the software is web delivered. In addition, since the files created by cloud-based applications are most often stored on the provider's hardware, there is no need to have computers with extensive storage. Basically, cloud-based applications provide savings in terms of information technology support costs, software costs, and hardware costs. As schools experience shrinking budgets, they may turn to cloud-based computing because using it could end up saving lots of money. Anyone who has used Google Docs extensively knows the luxury of being able to access their documents anytime and any place. Currently our school system is moving to the use of Google's gmail as our email service. Because we are a small school system it is basically a no-brainer. During the next year, more and more school systems are going to start engaging in cloud-based computing. Twenty-first century administrators will need to know about this technology in order to make informed decisions about its implementation.

The other technology on the near horizon is collaborative environments. Collaborative environments give students opportunities to "interact with peers and mentors, experience other world views, and model kinds of work patterns taking place in a number of professions." These environments support the collaborative creation of content and the communication of existing content. Collaborative tools include resources like: Ning, PageFlakes, and Moodle which can customized and membership can be restricted. Other popular collaborative tools include Google Docs, Etherpad, wikis, and group blogging systems. The primary use of these tools is to provide an environment for individuals to exchange ideas and share knowledge. Using these collaborative environments provides students with the opportunity work with students at other schools and even in other countries. There are more and more online tools being created that provide opportunities for collaboration on projects. Twenty-first administrators need to understand these tools, and look for ways to support teachers in their efforts to engage students in their use. This means the 21st century principal may want to become a user of these same tools in order to understand them well-enough to support teachers.

Today, the 21st century principal needs to take on leadership roles in the utilization of both cloud computing resources and collaboration resources. We need to learn as much as we can about these and be consumers of these resources ourselves so that we can support our teachers. This means exploring the available technologies ourselves. This means becoming users of these technologies ourselves. The world is changing rapidly and I want to be changing with it. That's my job as a 21st century principal.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Challenges for the 21st Century Principal: Reflections on the K-12 Horizon Report 2010

One of the most interesting sections of the 2010 K-12 Horizon Report is the "critical challenges" we face as educators as we attempt to make 21st century education a reality. As I see it, many would use these challenges as crutches to continue the status quo, but just as Secretary Duncan stated is his Op Ed to the Denver Post, "the education status quo is unacceptable." While I realize Secretary Duncan's words were used to push his own version of reform under "Race to the Top," he is right about one thing, the status quo is a problem, and as the Horizon Report 2010 indicates, there are a number of challenges that are getting in the way of moving schools, teaching, and learning into the 21st century.

The first challenge is "Digital media literacy continues its rise in importance as key skill in every discipline and profession." In every profession, the use of digital technologies becomes more and more important as those within these professions discover innovative ways to employ these tools to carry out day-to-day tasks. There's just no way to get away from the digital world in the workplace. Yet, as the Horizon report indicates, "training in digital literacy skills is rare in teacher education programs." I would add that it is equally rare in professional development for teachers and administrators. There is a lot of talk and a lot of conviction that we have to address this deficit in digital media literacy among educational practitioners, but a number of educators still can't get beyond the "stuff" to just what it is we need to be teaching. In practice we just are too far from "seeing digital literacy as the norm." The personal challenge we face as 21st century principals is how can we move digital literacy "ahead of all that other stuff?" Digital literacy is rare because we have not yet made it the business of the school. It is still too tempting to look at it as some add-on that we get to when we can. After reading this in the Horizon Report 2010, now is the time to make digital literacy a regular part of our discussions about teaching and learning. In other words, it needs to become a regular part of our learning community agenda discussions.

According to the Horizon Report, the second challenge we face as educators in making 21st century education a reality is "in spite of our acknowledgement that our students are different due to the digital world, our educational practices and materials are changing too slowly." It is still too darn common to walk into a secondary history classroom and see a teacher standing at the front of the room, lecturing from notes written on the board or on an overhead. Even worse, there are teachers who have only taken those notes they would have put on the board or overhead and made PowerPoint presentations out of them. What is truly sad, teachers and administrators defend that practice as movement into the 21st century. The same can be said to happen in other subject areas as well. In English classes, teachers think having students word-process their papers is an acknowledgement of 21st learning and teaching. Sadly, it is not. Just as the Horizon Report indicates, we need to "adapt to our students' current needs and identify new learning models that engage our younger generations of students." This means moving from the old classroom that has the teacher at the center to models where students can engage technology and take personal responsibility for their learning. And our glorious policy-makers in state capitols all the way to the Department of Education are going to have to help us make these changes by finding new assessments rather than the old multiple-guess tests. It is about time our politicians realize that some of the most worthwhile learning cannot be molded to fit the current test formats. If we want teaching practice to change, we need to change how students are assessed to reflect the realities of the 21st century.

The third challenge is a symptom of the times. "Our policy-makers and educators agree that deep reform is needed, but there is little agreement as to what that new model of education should look like." I know of no single educator, teacher, or principal who does not feel that we need to change how we carry out educating our young. We know what we have falls short and needs to be fixed. The problem occurs when policy-makers, politicians, and even federal/state education officials come to the table with some kind of political ax to grind, or they are too busy promoting themselves and their own ideas to see what might really be a viable model for 21st century education. Add to this mix the rhetoric and pseudo-research coming out of these so-called "think-tanks" and all the educational establishment ever gets done is chasing its own tail so to speak. It's time to genuinely set aside political agendas pushing reforms like school vouchers and charter schools and stop trying to tear down public education and honestly look at how we are going to fix it. It's time to see these self-promoting medicine men pushing their latest potion for what they are, selfish individuals who are simply using education to make a buck. It's time to sit down and honestly talk with those who really want to move our education system into the twenty-first century, and begin the process of creating what that looks like and enlist politicians and policymakers to make that happen.

The fourth challenge described by the Horizon Report is "the fundamental structure of the K-12 educational establishment." Educators and their stakeholders expend a great deal of energy trying to maintain basic elements or components of an educational system that has outlived its function. Take the idea of "seat-time." Many states hold on to the idea that simply making students sit in classrooms longer will increase student achievement. Such arguments show a ridiculously naive view of what happens in classrooms specifically and in all of education generally. These foreign countries do not have higher academic achievement because they go to school longer. I think the truth about why their achievement is higher has more to do with what the students are doing in those classrooms rather than how long they sit in them. Subjecting students to longer periods of ineffective instruction will do nothing to increase learning and will probably do more to turn kids off from learning. It is time to stop tinkering around the edges of schooling, and take a real hard look at the fundamental structure of schooling. What is working? What is not working? How can we change the structure of the educational establishment to meet the academic needs of our students? We need to quit wasting energy trying to preserve what we have that does not work. We also need to quit buying the "flavor of the month" changes and honestly look at our establishment and make it better able to meet the needs of 21st century learners.

The final challenge described by the Horizon Report points out that "many activities related to learning and education take place outside the walls of the classroom, but these experiences are often undervalued or unacknowledged." Students are online creatures and they are learning a lot of things in spite of us. They use their home computers to learn a great deal. My own son uses YouTube videos to learn about things such as constructing objects made out of Lego bricks and ordinary paper. His creation of a paper dart gun from one of these videos was ingenious.Our students are learning from these social media in spite of our lack of acknowledgement of its place in education. Our students interact with social networks constantly and educators just wish they would go away. We have allowed our undervaluing of social media to prevent us from capitalizing on the one technology we could use to highly engage students in learning tasks. Instead, some administrators send letters home warning parents about the evils of MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter. The end result is an education system that has become highly irrelevant to a whole generation.

Many of these arguments are not new, but the it's time to move beyond the rhetoric to action. All this reform talk from our federal government should excite us, but we know what kinds of reform they want. They want a culture of testing where our students and teachers are measured not as individuals, but as numbers and statistics that give politicians talking points to take into the next election. Honestly though, the 21st century is here, and the world could care less about who is elected in the next election. Politicians, policymakers, and educators who continue to push these shallow education reforms without rethinking our entire education model, are going to drive our country into obscurity anyway. Moving into a genuine 21st century education system is going to take more than trying to graft the business model onto the education system like our economists are trying to do. Creating an education model for the 21st century means taking on the challenges posed in the Horizon Report and moving away from the status quo.

Horizon Report 2010: What’s It Mean to 21st Century Principal

I have finished my review of the Horizon 2010 K-12 Edition from the New Media Consortium. As usual, the report provides some insight into what is happening with technology in education currently, and some ideas about where technology is going in the near future. As a 21st Century principal, there were two areas of the report that interested me. One was the “Five Key Trends Seen as Technology Drivers of Technology Adoptions for the years 2010-2015. That is the substance I focus on with this post. These trends are:

  1. Technology is increasingly becoming a means of empowering students both as a means of communication and of socializing.
  2. Technology continues to profoundly affect the way we work, collaborate, communicate, and succeed.
  3. The perceived value of innovation and creativity is increasing.
  4. Increased interest in just-in-time alternate, or non-formal avenues of education such as online learning, mentoring, and independent study.
  5. The way we think of learning environments is changing.

Those administrators who are still fighting the battles against student-use of technology as a means of communication and socializing are apparently going to find themselves losing their war. Just about every single student has a cell phone, even those students who come from limited-income households. Policies and rules that try to govern when and where students access technology for communication purposes are going to become meaningless pursuits. Students are going to have and use these technologies, and they are becoming empowered by their use. They can access information like never before. As the report points out, students may not even have Internet access through a computer at home, but many are gaining access to the Net through their cell phones. They use their phones to not only send text now, but increasingly they can send photos and video messages. They have become composers of information with these communication devices. As far as socialization, they are also empowered through the use of social media such as MySpace, FaceBook, and even YouTube. They can organize in ways never before possible, and as more and more students access these tools, there will only be more opportunities for them to organize.

How technology affects the way we work, collaborate, and communicate is evident every day I walk into my office. Email is still an important part of my own day to day communication, and I still have to answer the occasional phone call. But now I find myself using Skype at least several times a day. I find myself scanning through my Google Reader files looking for ideas. I usually have Twitter running in the background. I try to post on the blog more often. I use wikis and blogs to communicate ideas and information to staff and parents. I carry a smart phone around in order to check email, follow Twitter updates, and access the Internet when I need it. In other words, I maintain a higher level of connectivity to work and to my professional learning network. The online tools “profoundly affected” the way I do my job as an administrator, and I find the way I do my job changing with the technology.

Everyone is calling for innovation and creativity. As the Horizon report points out, everyone now sees the value in these two activities. We are having conversations with our teachers about how we can get away from old teacher-centered approaches and tap into student interest and their natural curiosity to make learning happen. We are giving our students more opportunities for creativity with project-based learning. When talking with committed and passionate teachers, I know longer get the feeling that they think they have learned how to teach and can now sit back and do the same thing year after year. Teachers are talking about their teaching and what works or doesn’t work.

There can be no doubt that interest in online learning opportunities is growing. We had over 40 students enrolled in online virtual classes this past year. Next year I am sure that number will increase. Parents are asking more about these courses. There are also students seeking independent learning opportunities.

After spending the last four months at our redesign high school, I do not see the Horizon trends alarming in any way. These trends are opportunities for the 21st century principal to make 21st century learning a priority.