Thursday, November 29, 2012

Common Core: Sound Education Practice or Bad Gamble?

Now that 45 states (and 3 territories) have adopted the Common Core Standards, edu-preneurs and opportunists have gone into overdrive, churning out tons of materials, programs, and trainings to help schools and school districts implement these standards. Not a day goes by that I don't receive 15 or so emails from companies and individuals offering their wares and promising successful and complete implementation of the Common Core Standards.

 By all this hype, one would be tempted to think that the whole idea of having national standards was more about providing enterprising individuals and other entrepreneurs another opportunity to make millions from the public coffers.  Is the Common Core just another opportunity for making money, or is it a 21st century policy decision? Or, is it a continuation of a outdated education paradigm that refuses to die? Could it be that the Common Core adoption is nothing more than a "wrong bet" as education researcher and author Yong Zhao calls it?

In his latest book, World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students, Zhao writes:

"The traditional education paradigm may have worked before but it is no longer adequate for the changed world. The efforts to develop a common curriculum, nationally and internationally, are simply working to perfect an outdated paradigm. The outcomes are precisely the opposite of the talents we need for the new era. It is the wrong bet for our children's future."

The thought that "If we just have the right standards, the right tests, then our students will achieve still blindly sees students as products to be developed. As long as we continue to view education as a process by which we bring students up to "standard" and not to their true potential, we are doomed to remain in the same cycle of education reform we've been in since the 1950s. Over and over, the political mantra has been, "We've got to raise educational standards!" Yet, little really every changes in our American education system. We are, in a word, hung up on a core assumption that education is something done to students rather than something they engage in.

I would like to hope that somehow the Common Core is an answer to our educational problems, but my own experience and knowledge tells me that it very well could be the "wrong bet" as Zhao calls it. Here's where some of my own skepticism lies:

  • There is no research that says having common standards is going to somehow better meet the needs of 21st century students.Some will say "Common sense tells you that having common standards will raise the achievement of all," but then again, "It was common sense that told us the world was flat too."
  • Common standards by its very nature assumes students have common capabilities, abilities and talents to some degree. Reality tells us something much different. Students have all manner of abilities and talents, and being able capitalize on individual talents and abilities rather than trying to standardize each child is what education should be about which is not what the Common Standards movement is about.
  • The Common Core Standards movement is at its core more about having "standards for comparison purposes" than it is about truly meeting the individual needs of students. When politicians, policy-makers, and education leaders are more interested in developing a system that allows them to say "Our education system is better than yours," the needs of individual students suffer. The assumption that "we need to be able to compare students" is perhaps faulty to begin with. Students, and human beings, are different, and can't be considered cogs in a system.
  • We are truly deceived if we think having the bragging rights of saying "US students lead the world in test scores" is going cause companies to suddenly relocate jobs and businesses in the states. Businesses move to other countries for economic reasons: they move to where labor is cheapest, period. To argue that "test-score bragging rights" will suddenly turn around our economy ignores the reality that businesses want cheaper employees, not necessarily more educated ones.
I know those who developed and have been trying to sell the Common Core mean well. Educators in the US have meant well all the way back to Sputnik and beyond. Still, I think it is important for us to remain skeptical as well, especially of initiatives like the Common Core implementation. A great deal of money and effort is being put into this education reform, and I can only hope it is more about the kids we teach every day, than business opportunity and professional advancement and political bragging rights. I just hope we haven't made the wrong bet.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

5 Principles That Make Outdated Educational Practice Impossible

Last night, the #edchat topic was, "How should teachers deal with colleagues who are comfortable with 19th century and punitive measures for non-compliant students?" Judging by the responses, many teachers either felt they could gently prod this colleague to changing his or her practice. Others did not see this their responsibility at all. They saw it as the responsibility of the administrator.

At first glance, I would agree that the administrator does have the responsibility to address the issue of teachers using outdated practices. However, I think the real solution is a bit more complicated and can be captured with another question: How can a teacher engaged in outdated pedagogy and practice possibly exist in a true 21st century school? Should the school environment not be so innovative and challenging that such teaching is impossible? Perhaps the real problem is that we have been fooling ourselves into thinking our school is a "21st Century School" when it's not. Just maybe our school systemically allows teachers to continue do what they've always done and avoid growing personally and professionally

As long as you have a school, school district, and school system that allows people to use "outdated methodology in instruction and educational practice" such practices are going to exist. In other fields such as medicine, obsolete practice is rooted out by a culture that values innovation and pushes out obsolescence. Why can't schools foster that same kind of culture?

What would a school or school district that has a culture that makes obsolete educational practice impossible look like? What are the operating principles? Here are some ideas to start with.

1. A strong expectation of personal and professional growth permeates the school and school district environment. Everyone, beginning with leadership, are lifelong learners, and their every action is focused to that end. There's an attitude of perpetual learning and professional development surrounding everything that is done.

2. The school and school district culture values risk-taking more than playing it safe. Valuing risk-taking takes courage from leadership and everyone else. It means accepting failure as part of learning. Leadership that values risk-taking can't ask others to take risks if they themselves aren't willing to do so.

3. Leadership in the school includes more than the principal. When the leadership includes strong teacher leadership, it is difficult for those not growing professionally to exist. Teacher leadership means there are peers pushing those teachers to develop professionally.

4. Collaboration among staff is the norm. When issues and problems and challenges are viewed as "our issues/problems/challenges" then everyone is expected to be a part of the solution. This means those who are hanging on to outdated practice find it more difficult to do so. Their colleagues are pushing them to take ownership of the school's future and they can't continue to exist in their tiny isolated compartment within the school.

5. There's a strong sense of entrepreneurship among staff regarding the school. They feel that it is "their school." Staff who feel this aren't just provided a token opportunity to give feedback on School Improvement Plans. They have a say in the direction and focus of the school because it is genuinely their school too. Teachers engaged in obsolete practice can't continue to operate in an obsolete manner because colleagues push them to do better.

So, in answer to last night's #edchat question, "How should teachers deal with colleagues who are comfortable with 19th century methods and punitive measures for non-compliant students?" I submit that the answer isn't just a question of what the teacher should do or what the principal should do. It is a systemic problem that can only be addressed by creating places that make obsolete educational practices impossible. It's a question addressed by creating a school or school district culture that will not tolerate obsolete educational practice.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

3 Reasons to Purchase a Kindle Tablet Rather than a Nook Tablet

Now that I have had the opportunity to test drive a Nook Tablet, I can say, without a doubt, if you’re looking for an e-reader, you may want to consider purchasing a Kindle, rather than a Nook.

First, not all the books I purchase through Barnes and Noble are available across all my devices. For example, I purchased a special edition of a book entitled Crucial Conversations, and I am unable to access that book on my iPad. There are also at least two other titles I am unable to access either on my iPad or through using the Nook desktop app. For someone like myself, who is an avid reader, being able to access books on all my devices is vital. Unlike the Nook and Barnes & Noble e-books, every title I have purchased through Amazon has been available across every device. In the age of e-books and those of us who are avid e-readers, having anytime-anywhere access is key and the Nook fails on that count.

Secondly, the Barnes & Noble Nook tablet e-reader software makes for a “buggy” reading experience. On several occasions my reading has been interrupted with a screen inexplicably going blank, and I usually have to back out of the book I’m reading and reload it to get the text back. Also, on several occasions, the text I highlight either does not highlight, or I am unable to select specific words due to software glitches. In addition, on a few occasions, when I have tried to advance a page, the page simply would not advance. There also have been occasions when the “highlight text selection bar” freezes on my screen and I am unable to clear it. When e-reader software has this many bugs, it can make for quite a miserable reading experience. In contrast, with my Kindle Fire, I have never had any of these experiences. Avid e-readers like myself don’t mind a few bugs and quirks in the software, as long as they don’t unduly affect the reading experience. So far. my experience with the Nook e-reader software on the tablet has been borderline miserable.

Finally, the Nook PC Desktop software has many problems too. It suffers from many performance issues. It runs extremely slow in comparison to the Kindle PC software and takes much longer to load. It also suffers from strange, buggy behavior like the Nook tablet software. On several occasions, titles I have purchased, suddenly ask for credit card numbers to verify I have purchased them, even though I have purchased them. This especially happens after you download and install an update. It can be quite frustrating to have to uninstall and redownload purchased books again and again, but that is what I’ve had to do with the Nook desktop software. There are also titles I’ve purchased that I can read on my Nook tablet, but can’t access through my desktop app. Being able to read all of my purchased books on my desktop is important to me. The Nook desktop software is also prone to freezing on occasion as well, and this shouldn’t happen because I have more than enough memory and processing power. In addition to these issues, there are timee when  I highlight text and make notes on my handheld devices. These do not sync with the desktop app. This is important to me because I often highlight, read text, and make notes while using my tablet, then refer to those on my PC, but with the Nook desktop app, this is impossible. In contrast, any notes I take or textual highlights made using the Kindle handhelds appears in the Kindle Desktop app too. Over all, the Nook PC desktop app suffers from performance issues, buggy behavior, and syncing problems.

Overall, Amazon e-books and the Kindle offer readers a much better reading experience than e-books purchased through Barns & Noble and read on Nook devices. Barnes & Noble e-books and the Nook tablet suffer from performance issues that make for one frustrated reading experience.

Monday, November 26, 2012

21st Principal’s 2012 Edublog Nominations

Here’s my 2012 Edublog nominations. While it is difficult to narrow down my choices, these are sites I visit and read just about every single day and important nodes in my own professional learning network. Thanks to all!

Individual Blog
Larry Ferlazzo’s Websites of the Day: Consistently, day-after-day provides links to valuable information for all educators.

New Blog
Diane Ravitch’s Blog: Diane Ravitch’s new blog gives voice to public education advocates everywhere.

Best EdTech/ Resource Sharing Blog
Free Technology for Teachers: Very reliable and consistent resource on web and technology tools for the classroom.

Teacher Blog
The Tempered Radical: An ongoing and constant voice of a classroom teacher and all things teaching.

Library/Librarian Blog
A Media Specialist’s Guide to the Internet: Site with tons of information and resources from the perspective a media specialist.

Administrator Blog
A Principal’s Reflection: Voice of an administrator who advocates for technology and leadership.
Individual Tweeter

Jerry Blumengarten Cybrary1: A trumpet blast in a 140 characters sounding the way in all things ed tech.

Twitter Hashtag
#edchat: The most influential and ongoing conversation about all things education.

Free Web Tool
Edmodo: A total online teaching environment, that I can say I have used as both teacher and administrator.

Social Network
Twitter: Most useful social media tool yet.

Mobile App
Evernote: Evernote continues to evolve and change its mobile apps, always with the end user in mind. They get better and better.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

7 Kinds of Thinking Keeping Your School or District from Transformation

Is your school or district “missing the wave of change” that is propelling many other innovative schools and districts forward? What exactly is it within the DNA and thinking of your educational organization that is causing it to resist efforts to reform, transform, or change? We only need to look to business in recent times to learn what the consequences are for “failing to adapt to the enormous wave of change” that is all around us.

In Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative, Ken Robinson writes:

“Organizations that stand still are likely to be swept aside, and corporate history is littered with the wreckage of companies and whole industries, that have been resistant to change. They become stuck in old habits and missed the wave of change that carried more innovative companies forward.”

Many of our schools are “standing still” and stuck in "old habits" and are in danger of being “swept aside.” It is difficult to believe in an era of reform, but there are still educators, policymakers, and politicians who are “stuck in the old habits” of seeing education “as something done to kids,” and who see children’s learning as a “process of adding value.” Those, who hold tight to this conception of education where children are passive participants in learning, will be standing among the “wreckage” of a public education system that stubbornly held on to past era.

Believe or not, I experienced this “wave of change” at an early age. At only seven or eight years old, I experienced firsthand Ken Robinson’s phenomenon of companies “standing still in a wave of change” way back in the 1970s. My father worked for the trucking industry, which at the time was a way to make a good living. Then, deregulation came along, and many of the trucking companies refused to adapt and cope with the new world they faced, and they went under, one by one. My father worked for a series of successive trucking companies, each folding the tent when they could not longer adapt and cope with rapidly changing transportation industry. Instead of adapting to the change, they tried to ride it out, only to ride into nonexistence.

Fast forward to more recent times and we see the same thing happening again and again with businesses. If you glance back four of five years, the names of companies like Circuit City, Blockbuster, and Borders come to mind. Each of these companies stood still in the face of change and it cost them dearly. More recently, news reports speak about the struggles of Best Buy, a major electronics retailer, who is trying to cope with the rapidly changing retail environment, and who seems guilty of the same kinds of thinking these businesses had. Each of these businesses found themselves in a changing environment and made decisions, based on specific and stagnation-generating kinds of thinking. With the exception of Best Buy at this point, that thinking ended in their demise. They could not adapt.

If you examine your school or district closely, you are likely to find this same self-destructive thinking that is causing your educational organization to “stand still in a wave of change.” If it continues, then you could find yourself standing in the wreckage.

What are these kinds of thinking that are clearly obstacles to adaptation and transformation? Over the years, I have come to see them in very simple terms. Here are the top 7 Kinds of Thinking, or what I might call “Resistors to Change.”
  • “We’ve always done it this way thinking.” In public education, I have found this kind of thinking the most common. You can easily run up against this thinking by simply questioning a policy or procedure, or by suggesting a new way of doing something. Immediate replies by the institutional-preservation police are, “You can’t do it that way. We've always done it this way.” Or, more simply, “I like the way we've always done it.” At the heart of our schools and school districts are thousands of these “ways of doing things” that are protected vehemently by others, not because there is anything special about them. These are valued because they are wrongly seen as  not negotiable for change. The best antidote for this kind of thinking? Asking the simple “Why” question. If the answer is, “Because we’ve always done it this way,” then the underlying rationale might be suspect.
  • “Head in the sand thinking.” I can’t help but wonder if this was the kind of thinking Blockbuster was guilty of. They had to see streaming video services coming, especially if they were reading anything about industry trends. But just as deadly as ignoring the “waves of change” can be, so can the same head-in-the-sand habit of getting so caught up in “the doing” that you don’t see the change coming. In other words, sometimes organizations are so busy caught up in doing what they do, that they don’t pause and connect to the world around them. In that environment, it is extremely easy to miss the “wave of change” right in front of you. Schools are sometimes notorious for adhering steadfastly to motions they've always carried out, and with change roiling all around them. Each of these businesses certainly had to be guilty of some of that. They did not notice the change until it was too late. That can happen to schools too. Antidote for this kind of thinking? Simply being informed. Having the latest information goes a long way helping education organizations avoid being blindsided by change. But there must be a willingness and courage to act on that information.
  • “It’s someone or something else’s fault thinking.” Back in the 1970s, many of those trucking companies complained that is was the government’s fault they had to go out of business, after all politicians brought about deregulation. In more recent times, I am sure there were those at Borders who blamed cheap electronic books and Amazon for their demise, and currently I read  where Best Buy is blaming Amazon for their problem of decreasing sales. Schools, school leaders, and policymakers do the very same thing. It’s the teachers’ unions fault. It’s the politicians’ fault. It’s the parents’ fault. In the interest of honesty and confession, I have been guilty of this thinking myself. Still, there’s no productivity in searching for a boogie man on which to place blame. There’s certainly enough blame to go  around anyway. If you spend all your effort and time trying to find someone or something to blame, you are wasting energy and resources that could be used to adapt and meet solidly the “wave of change” that is upon you. The best antidote for this kind of thinking is perhaps to engage in looking for solutions. That way, there’s no energy to expend on blaming.
  • “You have to do it this way because policy says so thinking.” I honestly find this one of the most ridiculous reasons why we defend so much of what we do in education. Educational institutions are notorious for this kind of thinking, and often they do it much more than businesses. Businesses, to exist for any length of time, are most often forced to question what they do, and when they become too entangled in “policy-think” they lose sight of their reason for existence: making money. Then they simply cease to exist. On the other hand, schools do the same kind of thinking too, and they continue to perpetuate it. They get so caught up in “policy-think” they lose sight of their purpose too. This is most evident when decisions are made, clearly not in the best interest of kids. When adhering to a policy is more important than meeting the needs of kids, the school or district has lost sight of its purpose, and it’s reason for existence, and the world will move on without it. Antidote for “policy-think?” Spending some refocusing on why we do what we do, the kids.
  • “I’m right and everyone else is wrong thinking.” In our polarized society right now, there is a great deal of this kind of thinking, and it can have a detrimental effect on an organization facing a “wave of change.” There was a time when being “open-minded” was a virtue, and compromise was not a dirty word. Tolerance ruled the day. Now, our polarized “”I’m right thinking” has bled over into our schools too. Polarized debates on topics such as school vouchers, sex education, prayer in schools, and teachers’ unions only serve to widen the divide between people. If someone questions the effectiveness or usefulness of these measures, they are immediately attacked.We can’t have an honest look at policy change without one side or the other cooking the data, which in educational research is all too easy to do. An immense amount of effort is going into establishing the “I’m right and you’re wrong” view, and the waves of change meanwhile are slamming hard into our educational institutions. There is greater interest in proving the other side wrong, than learning the truth of what really does work. What is an antidote for “polarized thinking?” Realizing that there is nothing sacred about being right in the debate, especially when it’s more important to do what’s right for the kids.
  • “Protect our turf at all costs thinking.” I have often thought, the only people who have a claim to “turf” in public education should be the kids, and that turf is “What’s in their best interests.” When the “waves of change” started battering the trucking industry in the 1970s, I remember well how trucking company owners held strongly to their turf of wanting wage concessions and benefit reductions to preserve the company. Union trucking company workers held equal ground on these same issues of turf, and in the end, both sides lost. Companies closed, and no one had any turf to battle over any more. Fast forward today, and the recent complaints by Best Buy about Amazon seem to be the same kind of turf battle. Best Buy does not appreciate Amazon’s selling electronics and appliances to undercut their prices, so there was talk about Best Buy refusing to sell Amazon’s Kindle readers. The end result of this turf war would not improve Best Buy’s current situation against the “wave of change” that is upon them. There is just too much money to be made in electronics and appliances. Protect the turf at all costs thinking in both these cases results in both sides losing. Amazon loses satisfying customers who want to go purchase an e-reader locally. Best Buy loses that customer who came to their store to purposefully buy an ereader. In education, protect-our-turf-at-all-costs thinking is happening on multiple levels. It is most insidious at the local level, where individuals fight hard to preserve what exists because it is their turf, and they’re not giving it up. Antidote for “turf-protecting thinking is simple. Keep your eyes focused on the real reason why we do what we do, the kids. Recognize that we share a common purpose.
  • “Change for Change’s Sake thinking.” With everyone yelling about the need to reform our education system, this is perhaps one of the most increasingly common forms of thinking that keeps a school or district from moving forward. This kind of thinking is perhaps best illustrated by the argument many make for certain reforms, by simply stating, “Well, we’ve got to do something.” This kind of thinking is responsible for the endless wheel of reform, education often finds itself on. Educators and policymakers institute change because, in their view, change is called for. Never mind whether the change is sound or really addresses the issues. Many people accuse those who speak out against such reforms or proposals as “defending the status quo” or as “advocating for what is.” But “We’ve just got change this” thinking is just as dangerous to an organization as well. When Borders decided to enter the ebook market, a great deal of blood between Barnes and Noble and Amazon had already been spilt. Their decision was late, and more importantly, it was reactionary thinking. Change for change’s sake thinking is reactionary thinking without deliberation. It is deciding to take a course of action, not because it is the best course of action, but because “We’ve got to do something.” I can’t but wonder whether a great deal of our current national ed policy under Race to the Top is this kind of thinking. There is no research to support that having Common Standards, instituting merit pay for teachers, or using value-added measures is going to raise student achievement. In fact, there is some research to the contrary, yet there’s the push to implement reform, and anyone who questions it is said to be guilty of “supporting the status quo.” Change of change’s sake thinking submits to simply taking a course of action, because there’s a perceived obligation to do so. The antidote for the reactionary thinking of this kind is simply pausing and resisting the urge to do something immediately. By pausing, you buy time for level heads to prevail. 
There are certainly many other kinds of thinking that would cause a district or school to miss that “wave of change” that propels other schools and districts to successful innovation. In my experience, the forces within a school or school district employ any and all of these ways of thinking to preserve things just as they are. Let’s just hope those schools and districts don’t end up like Circuit City, Borders, or Blockbuster.