Wednesday, December 31, 2014

My #Whatif for Secretary of Education Arne Duncan

US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently posted this tweet on Twitter:

In response educators and parents everywhere are posting their own “Whatifs” using the hashtag, #whatif,” and attaching @arneduncan. Judging by the #whatif stream, I suspect many educators are expressing quite a bit of frustration regarding Duncan’s education policies. But I wanted to just take a moment and look at what’s problematic about Duncan’s tweet.

First of all, it clearly indicates that he is still in “silver-bullet” search mode. He thinks that out there somewhere are some magical measures that will magically transform schools from being “unsuccessful” to “successful.” Time and again, his entire career as a secretary of education has been one long search for the magic of school reform. What he has never uunderstood was that reform on a national scale can’t be imposed from his office. He should have taken those lessons from No Child Left Behind; instead, he’s imposed a much more severe “measure and punish” tactics that have elevated testing above everything else that matters in public education. Schools are struggling for a variety of reasons. Some of those reasons aren’t due to education policy; they’re due to economic policies that are leaving many in this country behind in income. When Duncan asks the question about identifying what made 5 best schools successful, he automatically assumes that what those schools did to make them successful will automatically apply to all schools. That is at the heart of his “silver-bullet” search, and that’s why there has been nothing out of this Department of Education that will survive once they vacate the premises. Duncan has only searched for quick-fixes without really helping school districts get down to the hard work of improving education.

Secondly, I suspect, Duncan identifies “successful” as those schools with the highest test scores. For the length of Duncan’s tenure, he and his department have repeatedly made it known that high test scores and value-added measures equal success, so why would we believe he would suggest anything different? The problem is that Duncan’s definition of success requires reducing teaching and learning to statistics, when everything we know about learning as educators tells us that tests only measure a miniscule portion of what students learn. Duncan’s Twitter question is actually a statement of his faith. We all know what his “identify” entails. It entails subjecting kids at all levels to tests and then using those tests to judge the quality of everything in a school. Once again, Duncan failed to see the lessons of No Child Left Behind.

Perhaps Duncan was attempting to truly rally educators with his Tweet, but unfortunately, this late in his tenure that’s not going to happen. There are too many educators who have absolutely no confidence in his ability to lead. Judging by all the #whatifs posted since Duncan’s, there are a great deal of educators angry about his education policy. His federal mandates, though he avoids calling them that, have forced states to do more testing than ever. Perhaps Duncan’s tweet should be:

“What if I have been wrong about all this testing? What if my measure and punish education culture I’ve created has actually harmed schools?"

I won’t wait to see this Tweet; however, because it will not happen. Duncan believes in everything he’s done. Why else would someone tour the country and spend so much time promoting what they’ve done? He has repeatedly made the mistake of thinking himself a salesman instead of an education leader.

The 21st Century Principal Blog Anniversary and 1 Millionth Page View

Today, The 21st Century Principal shares two milestones: its 1 millionth page view, and its 5 year anniversary. 

About five years ago, I started this blog with the intention of sharing my own thoughts, ideas, reading, and opinions regarding the public education issues of the day. I have purposefully tried to share my own ideas about technology, teaching, and education policy, and I think I was successful. Over the years, I also think its clear I have not hidden my views because they might be deemed off limits politically. Many times, I have received messages from people who hold different views than myself who want to remind that I "must be impartial" or somehow fair. Unfortunately, that is not my intention for this blog. I'll leave being fair and balanced to the cable news channels MSNBC and Fox News. Personally, I think educators do too much deferring on political topics for fear that they might upset someone else, or maybe even hinder their chances at getting a job in the future. We must question these ideas and policies, and my job as an educator is not to blindly accept everything that comes down from the US Department of Education, nor the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. If an idea or policy can't stand up to scrutiny or criticism, it should die a quiet death, no matter who supports it. 

I have also tried to share my encounters with technology as well. Quick reviews of new software or new tablet apps have been common, as well as the occasional review of new hardware and technological devices. Over the years, I have tried to make sure that I only reviewed technology that I myself have tried, and as far as I know, I mostly did that. I know of less than a handful of situations where I reviewed items that I myself did not specifically try. This was in spite of the countless offers, which I appreciate, from companies wanting me to review their product. It's just difficult for me to honestly write about something I have not tried.

In addition to technology review and tips, I have also tried to share my own reviews of books I have read. I am an avid reader. Though I have been unable to share every item I've read, I have shared reviews of those I felt might offer educator readers something of value.  I have also tried to share my own ideas about leadership and sometimes just plain being human in the clothing of an educator.

Though lately, there haven't been as many posts on the The 21st Century Principal Blog, I assure you there will be this year. My own education in a doctoral program has consumed much of the time I used to spend blogging.  Once again, thanks to everyone who has read this blog. I look forward to sharing more during the next school year. Happy New Year to everyone!

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Arne Duncan's Proposal to Use Test Scores to Measure Teacher-Prep Program Effectiveness

Public schools have suffered under Secretary Arne Duncan's Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind law waivers. Testing, not learning has become the focus. Schools have cut arts programs and non-tested subjects. Enormous amounts of time are spent during the school year getting students ready for the tests. And, since the Obama administration took office, there are many states like North Carolina that administer a record number of state tests, and the use those results as a part of teacher evaluations. It has been this President's education policy that has done more to elevate test scores to even higher levels than under No Child Left Behind. 

Now, Arne Duncan is once again trying to elevate test scores even higher: he wants to use test scores to evaluate the effectiveness of teacher programs too.

Under Arne Duncan's latest effort to hold somebody else accountable for education except himself and politicians, Duncan now wants to create a new, massive bureaucratic procedure to judge the "effectiveness" of teacher preparations programs around the country. This behemoth proposal would bizarrely twist test scores once more in the name of accountability. As I read through this proposed procedure, I simply grow more and more angry at a President and Secretary of Education who simply have no clue as to what their "test-them-if-they-breathe" education agenda has done to schools, students, teachers, classrooms, and the future of the education profession. If you read the fine print of this massive document, you can quickly read between the lines regarding what Arne Duncan is actually proposing.

  • Using test scores, most likely value-added measures, to determine the effectiveness of teacher preparation programs that receive federal funding.
  • The development of a massive pile of red tape and bureaucratic procedures to make sure teacher preparation programs comply to the dictates of the US Department of Education.
  • An enormous overreach of federal power and powergrab by the US Department of Education.
There was a time when I would have defended the existence of the US Department of Education. Now, I am slowly beginning to feel that perhaps the best thing for public schools is for this new Congress to simply dismantle it. Has there been a single good policy or idea that has come down through this department during the Obama Administration?

I think it's perhaps time to write some letters, send emails, and make some phone calls on Duncan's bizarre plan to use test scores in yet another high stakes manner. All US educators and pre-service educators need to take some time and let the President, Secretary Duncan, Congress, and the US Department of Education know their thoughts on this one.  Otherwise, like the Race to the Top, Duncan will claim he has heard only praise for this latest effort to bend the education world to tests.

If you would like to submit your own comment or opinion, you can do so at the address below. The deadline for submitting comments is February 2, 2015. Perhaps enough educators will submit comments that it will take the US Department of Education five years to read them. 

How Schools Can Break Through the Fog of Cloud Security

Guest Post by Rachel Burger

When a school administration company goes bankrupt, what happens to the student records?

It turns out that the answer is unclear, as many school districts that used ConnectEDU Inc. discovered this year. As many as 20 million student records were sold and are now unaccounted for across the country. Joel R. Reidenberg, a law professor at Fordham and Princeton universities, told Education Week, “This is a significant red flag for the treatment of student information by education technology companies.” Moving forward, what can schools do?

The past twelve months have been difficult for cloud security. Gazing back at Heartbleed and the Apple iCloud breach, experts are already saying that more cloud data failures will be “inevitable” in 2015.

For schools, cloud security breaches pose a particularly dangerous situation.

In the United States, student personal information is taken seriously. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA) requires that schools must have a student or legal guardian’s consent before disclosing their data, including enrollment status, billing information, and education records.

Even before publishing a directory with student telephone numbers and addresses, the school must inform parents and students that such a guide exists and give these stakeholders a “reasonable amount of time” to opt out. This law applies to “educational agencies and institutions that receive funding from the U.S. Department of Education.”

This federal law has serious consequences if student data is released without the student’s consent, including the potential for a university to lose federal funding.

Aside from FERPA, a major security breach could violate the Fair Credit Reporting Act, PARCC, the USA PATRIOT Act, the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act, among dozens of other laws.

With all this in mind, schools are in a bind. Cloud-based school management software tends to be cheaper than locally-stored systems. And with schools struggling to optimize their budgets in the wake of aggressive cuts to education funding, many feel stuck. They don’t want to jeopardize their students’ secure information, but they can’t afford large, one-time software purchases (which average $4,000).

Luckily, there are some best practices to follow when opting for a cloud system.

Make sure your server is running the latest software patches and that your firmware is updated. Ask your IT administrator to set a static DNS server IP address and to disable DHCP. Make sure that all administrators have a unique login and password—that’s different from the default provided by the software. Use a secure encrypted connection like SSL or TLS. Never forget to password protect all of your devices—and make sure your passwords are strong and regularly changed.

But that is all basic cloud security protocol. When it comes to school privacy and all the security and financial risks that come with doing business over the cloud, school administrators should know the right questions to ask when considering school administration software.

According to Capterra’s IT professionals and Azreen Latiff of, school IT departments should ask their potential vendor:
  • Can you tell me about the baseline technology?
  • Do you have any enterprise customers?
  • How is our privacy safeguarded?
  • What data is encrypted?
  • What kind of encryption do you use?
  • Can you install a local instance on a school server? What about a district (as it applies)?
  • How can our school use your software to communicate with parents and guardians?
  • Who owns the data?
  • Who is authorized to view or change student data?
  • Can you provide us with references?
Naturally, your school or district might have a lower or higher risk tolerance than the next, or might be able to spend a little more on security, but every school administration software option should be compliant with local and federal laws. After so many schools suffered through major data breaches this past year, school administrators are experiencing a painful wakeup call.

As for education technology companies going bankrupt like ConnectEDU Inc., that’s not out of the question.  Joel R. Reidenberg explains, “Many ed-tech companies today are small startups, collecting lots of data. Many of them are not going to succeed. What's the protection when these companies go bankrupt?” Laws are already moving into place to protect student data, like California’s Student Online Personal Information Protection Act, but legislators have a long way to go to create meaningful policy.

School administrators need to avoid the dark clouds ahead. They should contact their current school administration software vendor and ask the abovementioned questions to make sure that, on the school’s side, their students’ information is safe. If their student’s data isn’t encrypted, if there isn’t a good way for the school to communicate with parents and guardians, and if the software doesn’t have a solid background in providing excellent service and security to other customers, it may be time to choose another option.

This post was contributed by Rachel Burger who writes for Capterra SchoolAdministration Blog.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Mac Pages Users Can Use Endnote Software for In-Text Citiations and Bibliography Generation

As an educator in a higher education doctoral programs, Endnote has become my choice for managing my bibliography, citations, and reference libraries for my graduate work. It is powerful software, even if the price tag seems a bit steep (there is student pricing however). Some of my favorite features include:

  • Being able to search online databases through the software and its auto-complete reference feature.
  • Customizable research file storage that I can make work for me.
  • Auto-Bibliography and in-text citation feature that works with my word processing software.
  • Ability to share and connect with others conducting similar research.

I have found its ability to work with Microsoft Word with in-text citations and bibliography generation to be mostly flawless. The only drawback, I also like to use Pages on my Mac, but I did not know that Endnote offered a plug-in for that word-processing software. It turns out, there is a plug in, and you can get it here. For more information about Endnote, check out their web site here.

MSNBC, CNN, Fox News Ignore Career Educators in their Public Education Coverage

It doesn’t matter whether it is MSNBC, CNN, or Fox News; each one of these cable news channels have proven through their education reporting during the past year that they aren’t in the least interested in getting all sides of the education story. The evidence of this is a Media Matters report that came out in November that found that “Only 9 Percent of Guests Discussing Education on Evening Cable News Were Educators.” (Also see Diane Ravitch’s summary of this report here.) In other words, all our cable news companies failed, for the most part, to involve those of us in the schools and classrooms in their discussions and coverage of educational issues. The question then becomes: Why do cable news companies refuse, either deliberately or inadevertently, to include educators in their discussions about educational issues? By practically ignoring educators in their education discussion, MSNBC, CNN, and Fox are guilty of engaging in a complete dismissal of an entire group of professionals who certainly have a great deal to add to these education policy discussions. They are also guilty of not getting all sides of the issues, which I thought was what impartial news reporting was about.

I would like to think that it is not deliberate, and that there are no ideological reasons for this. Perhaps because the pundits and reporters have all supposedly had an education, they see themselves as experts and that there is no need to bring in educators, but this ignoring of those who experience the things they discuss every day is puzzling. It is the teacher or principal who can really describe what current education policy has done to our schools, classrooms, and kids. For example, it’s the educators at the school and classroom level who can attest to what Race to the Top has done to education. Some of the effects of President Obama’s education agenda include the following:
  • We test our kids more than we ever have before.
  • As a result of these tests, we are transforming our schools into “test-prep” machines.
  • We are standardizing learning for all students, when research and our experience screams to us that we should be personalizing, nor standardizing.
  • Our schools have become more interested in credentialing students than providing them with worthwhile, life-changing learning experiences. (Which is a direct result on focusing on a statistic, like the graduation rate.)
  • We now judge teacher and principal effectiveness by test scores, as if those scores can infallibly tell anything about how each are doing their jobs.
There has to be some reason why educators are being excluded from the education discussions on cable news channels. In the meantime, it might be more important for those of us who are educators to simply dismiss what MSNBC, CNN or Fox have to say on the subject, because they certainly aren’t getting the full story. We also need to work harder to get our stories out there as well, because we no longer have news networks interested in making sure all sides of these educational issues are reported. I just have to remind myself that cable news is more about entertainment anyway rather than trying to actually inform anyone of anything, so why would I even think they might be interested in getting all sides to a story anyway.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Facebook, Bogus Timeline Posts, & Authentically Helping Others

If your Facebook timeline is like mine, rarely does a day go when you don’t see a post that asks you to share it because your act of sharing will somehow benefit the subject of the post. For example, today I found a post from a well-meaning friend asking me to repost a photo with a description that stated, “If this boy gets 100 shares he gets his heart transplant for free!” Most of us would immediately repost without question, after all, it’s the least we could do in situations like this.

If this boy gets 100 shares he gets his heart transplant for free!

But here’s the real problems with these posts: they are bogus just about every time. Or so it seems. Lately, when I’ve seen these posts, I’ve gotten into the habit of googling the bylines, and just about every single time an article from comes up telling me the post is bogus. Snopes usually provides a bit of additional background as well, such as who is really in the photos, when the post began circulating, and other variations of the post. Web sites like Snopes are excellent tools for helping sort out fact and fiction from the web.

Part of us wants to believe that we can help someone so easily with the click of a button. We may even justify our reposting of things like this because we say, “What can it possibly hurt.” But in some ways we are perpetuating a lie and just maybe giving people a false sense of having done something good for another human being when we’ve really done nothing.

But sometimes the real issue we have with the web is our own personal approach to it. We turn to the web sometimes to only verify the world as we wish it could be or want to it be. For example, we want to believe that there are people like this little child who need a heart transplant, and there are people like us who can help. Better yet, just maybe, these opportunities to repost these requests for help exist to give us an opportunity feel better about all the time we waste thumbing through these social media sites.

Perhaps the truth is simply this: you can’t really believe much of anything that comes through your social media feed, and if you want to really make a difference in someone else’s life, turn off Facebook and help someone face-to-face this holiday season. In the real world, need can be a bit more obvious and you don’t need Snopes to fact check. If you take a hard look at the real world around, I bet there’s someone whose needs are apparent, and we might have to do a bit more than simply repost.

Friday, December 5, 2014

NC to Adopt Curriculum with Ties to ALEC & Koch Brothers? Cause for Alarm and Concern?

In a recent post on her blog, Diane Ravitch called attention to the continued machinations of the Koch brothers and the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. According to a post entitled “North Carolina Plans to Adopt Koch-Funded Social Studies Curriculum,” the state of North Carolina is planning to adopt a “Founding Principles” curriculum develoiped by the Bill of Rights Institute, which is an organization with strong ties to both the Koch brothers and ALEC, and whose purpose is to teach and “promote a conservative interpretation of the Constitution.” (See here for more information regarding connections between Bill of Rights Institute and ALEC.)

ALEC has a solid presence in  the North Carolina Legislature for the past several years, so it isn’t surprising that it passed laws requiring a history curriculum that might be more in line with its conservative views. The fear I have is that with the implementation of this new curriculum, ALEC continues to solidify its hold on North Carolina and will begin to utilize public education as the means to indoctrinate students with its worldview. Rarely do these organizations seek balanced approaches to learning; most often they seek to stifle those who hold dissenting views. Let's just hope that's not the case in the Old North State.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Cliques in High School and What We Can Do About Them

When most of us were high school students, we often encountered the cliques, the pecking orders, and groups we had to navigate around and through during our high school experiences. Many times these experiences left us with unforgettable memories and even scars as we were struggling to fit in. It turns out that we as educators might be able to do something about “teen cliquishness” after all.

Sociology researchers Daniel McFarland, James Moody, David Diehl, Jeffrey Smith, and Reuben Thomas recently published their findings regarding “Network Ecology and Adolescent Social Structure” in the American Sociological Review. Without getting too deep in the details of this study, or getting tangled in their terminology, it turns out that there might be things about our schools that contribute to the development of these cliques. (See Edmund Andrews excellent summary of this study’s findings “Stanford Research Explores Why Cliques Thrive in Some High Schools More Than Others."

First of all, it turns out the organizational setting, or “network ecology” of a school has a great deal to do with how cliquish that school is or becomes. "Schools that offer students more choices——more elective courses, more ways to complete requirements, bigger range of potential friends, more freedom to select seats in classrooms——are more likely to be rank-ordered, cliquish, and segregated by race, age, gender, and social status.” These “pecking orders, cliques, and self-segration are less prevalent in schools and classrooms that limit social choices and prescribe formats of interaction.”

According to McFarland et al., “Smaller schools inherently offer smaller choice of potential friends, so the ‘cost’ of excluding people from a social group is higher.” In addition, the structured classroom offers more guidance on student interactions with “prescribed routes” and an “encouragement to interact on the basis of schoolwork rather than on the basis of their external social lives."

Some of the other interesting findings of this study include:

  • Large schools tend to "accentuate teens finding friends more similar to themselves."
  • Larger schools offer a broader range of potential friends, as well as greater exposure to people who are different, but the "freedom and uncertainty spurs students to cluster by race, gender, age, and socioeconomic status."
  • A school’s openness to choice spurs cliques and social-status hierarchies.
  • "Schools with a strong focus on academics, where teachers have a hand in setting the pace and controlling classroom interactions, teenagers are less likely to form friendships based on social attitudes imported from outside the school. Friendships are more likely to develop out of shared school activities and similar intellectual interests."

McFarland does caution against the idea that students are better off in smaller schools with less choice. There is still more to learn on this issue. Still, as we ponder our school’s climate, we might want to think about the ways our schools are helping facilitate the division and cliquishness often found in high schools. For the first time, we may not be able to do away with cliques, but there might be some ways to foster a more inclusive culture of acceptance in your school.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Myth of the Powerful Teacher Doctrine: Excuse to Keep Funding Low

“The research-based truth is that the teacher effect (i.e., 10-20% of the variance in test scores) is not strong enough to supersede the powers of the student-level and out-of-school influences and effects (i.e., 80-90% of the variance in test scores) from one year to the next.” Audrey Amrein-Beardsley, Rethinking Value-Added Models in Education

The current push by the Obama administration, Arne Duncan, and many state departments of education to solely tie student achievement to teachers, demonstrates that they are ‘true believers’ when it comes to the power of the teacher. That sounds magnanimous. It has the smell of being a strong supporter of teaching. In practice, it continues to erode the quality of our schools. Why? 

In defense of the massive increase in testing and the use of those tests in high stakes decision-making, these individuals point to one assumption: “The teacher is the single most powerful influence on student achievement.” All we need do is focus on the teacher. Ignore that teachers don’t receive adequate funding for their classrooms. Ignore the fact that the school has not been able to buy textbooks in over six years. Ignore the fact that the heating systems, the plumbing systems, and ceilings are all falling into disrepair and crumbling. In a word, under Race to the Top and Duncan’s No Child Left Behind waivers, schools have been given the go ahead and excuse to spend all the funding they can on testing and ignore funding for resources for the classroom and for professional development. In addition, schools have also been given permission to ignore the effects of poverty and other outside-the-school influences on achievement as well. This agenda of relently laying the burden of all learning on the back of the teacher has allowed states to continue to pour increasing amounts of money into testing and accountability systems with the belief that because the teacher is the most important influence of student learning, nothing else matters.

You will see variations of that statement, but this belief about teachers is the heart of what I will call the “Powerful Teacher Doctrine,” a statement of faith so many policymakers, politicians, and even educators have so recently declared allegiance to. It is used as an excuse to ignore and wall-off a whole range of societal problems, such as child poverty and lack of healthcare, because they do not matter as much as the teacher. It is also used the dimiss the need to adequately fund schools, because tied to this belief is another myth, “Just throwing more money at our education problems won’t fix them.” No one is advocating “just throwing money” at problems. What we do advocate is providing money for the resources needed to give our students a quality education. The cheap, mythological fix that all we need do is shift the entire burden of student achievement to the shoulders of teachers is simply throwing less money and creating many new problems. After all, why would anyone want to be a teacher in a system that demands results without providing the means to bring about those results?

So what is wrong with “The Powerful Teacher Doctrine?” We, as Americans, love our heroes, and we have created quite a few, and are quite fond of creating them when none exist; just look at our movie industry. Now, in the interest of school privatization, in the interest of dismantling the teaching profession, and in the interest of accountability promotion, it has been declared that achievement is to be balanced entirely on the backs of teachers. In doing so, we have created conditions in our education system so that teachers may demonstrate their “heroic efforts” against all odds to increase student achievement. We want our teachers succeed against powerful odds, so we create a system, both educational and socially, that forces heroic action. These conditions are created by our politicians, policymakers, state education leaders, who continue to use the “Powerful Teacher Doctrine” to starve schools, classrooms, and teachers of funding, because all that matters is getting a good, heroic teacher in those schools in classrooms and student achievement will increase. Our education leaders and politicians keep education funding stagnant and then expect our schools and teachers to overcome the mess they’ve created.

It is no doubt that education funding remains stagnant. Just look at North Carolina as an example. I haven’t seen a new textbook in five years in our school, and that’s in any subject area. Our legislature this year provided a meager $25 million on the table for textbooks statewide. By the time that’s distributed to the schools, schools like mine only receive around $2,500. Now, how many textbooks can you purchase with that? Just look at the price of a popular science textbook. Take Glencoe’s current student biology text priced at $87.48. If you do the math, purchasing a class set of only 30 is $2624.40. A class set means that not every student gets a textbook either. This is a pure example of how our state politicians and education leaders are using the “Powerful Teacher Doctrine” to keep education funding low in the area of textbooks. After all, the extension of this belief is, "The omnipotent teacher is resourceful and can find ways to teach students without resources.” All we need are good teachers in the classrooms and the resource problem will take care of itself.

This “Powerful Teacher Doctrine” drives other areas of funding as well. North Carolina spends a miniscule amount on professional development too. Teachers are often forced to pay out of their own pockets to attend national conferences in their teaching specialities because there is no funding for such activities. Once again, this belief that good teachers will find ways and resources to improve their instruction is the underlying belief. Many good teachers do find ways to learn how to improve their craft. But when one looks to the medical field or business, these organization invest in resources for professional learning. Not so in public education. The expectation is that teachers come out of college, fully-developed professionally and willing to pay for their own training if it is needed.

My whole point here is not to deny the impact a teacher can have on students in their classrooms. They do impact student learning. The problem I have with the “Powerful Teacher Doctrine” is that our politicians, policymakers, and some educators use it as an excuse to not adequately fund and provide resources needed for education. School leaders often buy into this argument so much, that they forget to advocate for increased resources. They make a conscious decision that “advocating for increased resources for my school or district” is outside my sphere of influence, so they give up. It is this very thinking that has put our schools in the starved conditions in which they operate.

Friday, November 21, 2014

When Accountability Becomes a Wall-Street Tactic of 'Cooking-the-Books'

What happens when all that matters are test scores? Just ask former El Paso Superintendent Lorenzo Garcia who was sentenced by a federal judge to three and half years for a test-cheating scandal(See “Former EPISD Superintendent Lorenzo Garcia Gets 42 Months, Offers No Apologies for Scandal.”) Don’t get me wrong, I don’t shift the blame for one minute away from from Garcia. As a leader, compromising your morals to cook the books is never excusable, even if there’s pressure from elsewhere to do so. Yet, Garcia’s actions are understandable in a corporate American culture where “cooking the books” in order to deceive investors is acceptable. After all, is that not what the financial meltdown was about? Was it not about Wall Streeters who hid toxic loans from investors while making exorbitant salaries? “Cooking the books” has become an American management strategy, so should anyone be really surprised when school leaders like Garcia, or Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Beverly Hall does just that to make their school systems appear to perform better than they really are?

In his book, Who’s Araid of the Big Bad Dragon: Why China Has the Best (and Worst)Education System in the World, Yong Zhao blames the accountability system based on high stakes testing. True. This obession with test scores in the United States is unhealthy. Our politicians and state education leaders have convinced many school leaders that obtaining higher test scores is the ultimate goal and product of school systems. No wonder there are cheaters who cook the books of school accountability to make it look like their districts are performing better than they really are. Accountability in the United States is evolving into the same game that Wall Street bankers play; cook the books to make it look like things are better than they are.

But at the end of the day who are these who cook the books really fooling? Are our students really learning more than they ever had? Are we actually producing the best graduates we have ever produced? Is our graduation rate really any higher than it has ever been? In some ways, I am afraid accountability in education has become a game that educators play. In a culture where numbers ultimately matter more than kids, education has adopted the exact same thinking that Wall Street adopted; whatever you can do to make your bottom line appear better than actually is becomes acceptable. Instead of focusing genuinely on the kids, accountability is game of data manipulation.

Garcia and Hall did a great disservice to education by cheating. Their actions are inexcusable. Yet, there are other educators still playing the game of accountability, shifting data points around, in order to make it “appear that their school or district” is on top.

Wall Street's “book-cooking” tactics have no place in education. What we do as educators determines the course of young lives, and when our focus shifts from that to numbers alone, we too are as guilty as those who wrecked the economy, and who “cook the books of accountability” for appearances sake.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Desk: Interesting Blogging App for Mac Users

I have posted about some Mac blogging software options before. Recently, I stumbled upon Desk, which offers some features totally unlike the other blogging options available. Desk is an interesting writing app for Mac users. It offers writers a distraction-free place for writing blogposts. The main features of this app are:

  • Currently supports several platforms including: Blogger, Wordpress, Tumblr, Squarespace, Movable Type, and Typepad.
  • Clean, distraction-free interface.
  • Assorted writing modes such as full-screen, transparency, day & night, and floating.
  • Save your work locally or in iCloud.
  • Automatic backups.
  • Manage multiple blogs on multiple platforms.
  • Access and update existing posts and drafts.

Desk App Day & Night View

As a Mac user, I have been searching for blogging software, and Desk is an interesting and functional option.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

9 Reminders for School Leaders When Reviewing Value-Added Data with Teachers

“A VAM (Value-Added Model) score may provide teachers and administrators with information on their students’ performance and identify areas where improvement is needed, but it does not provide information on how to improve the teaching.” American Statistical Association
Today, I spent a little time looking over the American Statistical Association’s "ASA Statement on Using Value-Added Models for Educational Assessment.” That statement serves as a reminder to school leaders regarding what these models can and cannot do. Here, in North Carolina and in other states, as school leaders begin looking at  No Child Left Behind Waiver-imposed value added rankings on teachers, they would do well to remind themselves of the cautions describe by ASA last April. Here’s some really poignant reminders from that statement:
  • “Estimates from VAMs should always be accompanied by measures of precision and a discussion of the assumptions and possible limitations of the model. These limitations are particularly relevant if VAMs are used for high-stakes purposes.”
  • “VAMs are generally based on standardized test scores, and do not directly measure potential teacher contributions toward other student outcomes.”
  • “VAMs typically measure correlation, not causation: Effects—positive or negative—attributed to a teacher may actually be caused by other factors that are not captured in the model.”
  • “Under some conditions, VAM scores and rankings can change substantially when a different model or test is used, and a thorough analysis should be undertaken to evaluate the sensitivity of estimates to different models.”
  • “Most VAM studies find that teachers account for about 1% to 14% of the variability in test scores, and that the majority of opportunities for quality improvement are found in the system-level conditions.
  • “Ranking teachers by their VAM scores can have unintended consequences that reduce quality.”
  • “The measure of student achievement is typically a score on a standardized test, and VAMs are only as good as the data fed into them.”
  • “Most VAMs predict only performance on the test and not necessarily long-range learning outcomes.”
  • “The VAM scores themselves have large standard errors, even when calculated using several years of data.”
In this season of VAM-viewing, it is vital that informed school leaders remind themselves of the limitations of this data. You can’t take the word of companies promoting these models as “objective” and “fool-proof” measures of teacher quality. After all, they have those multimillion dollar contracts or will lose them if one casts doubt about VAM use. Still, a 21st century school leader needs to have a more balanced view of VAM and its limitations.

Value-added ratings should never be used to inform school leaders about teacher quality. There are just too many problems. In the spirit of reviewing VAM data with teachers, here’s my top ten reminders or cautions about using value-added data in judging teacher quality:

1.  Remember the limitations of the data. Though many states and companies providing VAM data fail to provide extensive explanations and discussion about the limitations of their particular value-added model, be sure those limitations are there. It is common to hide these limitations in statistical lingo and jargon, but as a school leader, you would do well to read the fine print, research for yourself, and understand value-added modeling for yourself. Once you understand the limitations of VAMs you will reluctantly make high stakes decisions based on such data.

2. Remember that VAMs are based on imperfect standardized test scores. No tests directly measure teacher  contributions to student learning. In fact, in many states, tests used in VAMS were never intended to be used in a manner to judge teacher quality. For example, the ACT is commonly used in VAMS to determine teacher quality, but it was not designed for that purpose. As you review your VAM data, keep in mind the imperfect testing system your state has. That should give you pause in thinking that the VAM data really tells you flawlessly anything about a teacher’s quality.

3. Because VAMs measure correlation not causation, remind yourself as you look at a teacher’s VAM data that he or she alone did not cause those scores or that data. There are many, many other things that could have had a hand in those scores. No matter what promises statistics companies or policymakers make, remember that VAMs are as imperfect as the tests, the teacher, the students, and the system. VAM data should not be used to make causal inferences about the quality of teaching.

4. Remember that different VAM models produce different rankings. Even choosing one model over another reflects subjective judgment. For example, some state’s choose VAMs that do not control for other variables such as student demographical background because they feel to do so makes an excuse for lower performance for low-socioeconomic students. That is a subjective value judgment on which VAM to use. Because of this subjective judgment, they aren’t perfectly objective. All VAM models aren't equal.

5. Remind yourself that most VAM studies find that teachers account for about 1 to 14 % of variability in test scores. This means that teachers may not have as much control over test scores as many of those using VAMs to determine teacher quality assume. In a perfect manufacturing system where teachers are responsible for churning out test scores, VAMs make sense. Our schools are far from perfect, and there are many, many things out there impacting scores. Teaching is not a manufacturing process nor will it ever be.

6. Remind yourself that should you use VAMs in a high stakes manner, you may actually decrease the quality of student learning and harm the climate of your school. Turning your school into a place where only test scores matter, where teaching to the test is everybody’s business is a real possibility should you place too much emphasis on VAM data. Schools who obsess about test scores aren't fun places for anybody, teachers or students. Balance views of VAM data as well as test data is important.

7. Remember that all VAM models are only as good as the data fed into them. In practical terms, remember the imperfect nature of all standardized tests as you discuss VAM data. Even though states don’t always acknowledge the limitations of their tests, that doesn’t mean you can’t. Keep the imperfect nature of tests and VAMs in mind always. Perhaps then, you want use data unfairly.

8. Remember that VAMs only predict performance on a single test. They do not tell you thing about the long-range impact of that teacher on student performance.

9. Finally, VAMs can have large standard errors. Without getting entangled in statistical lingo, just let it suffice to say that VAMs themselves are imperfect. Keep that in mind when reviewing the data with teachers.

The improper use of VAM data by school leaders can downright harm education. It can turn schools into places where in-depth learning matters less than test content. It can turn teaching into a scripted process of just covering the content. It can turn schools from places of high engagement, to places where no one really wants to be. School leaders can prevent that by keeping VAM data in proper perspective, as the "ASA Statement on Using Value-Added Models for Educational Assessment" does.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Testing and Accountability: More Oppressive and Destructive Than Ever!

"You can prep kids for a standardized test, get a bump in scores, yet not be providing a very good education." Mike Rose, "The Mismeasure of Teaching and Learning: How Contemporary School Reform Fails the Test"
It should not be a surprise at all to politicians, policymakers, and educators that the cry and backlash against testing and accountability is growing. During my 25 year career, I've seen the number of state tests administered in public high schools in North Carolina grow from 1 to well-over 2 dozen. Testing and test scores are the talk, and the focus is almost always on "how can we get those test scores up?" About the only ones, with the exception of a few teachers, who are enthusiastic about all this testing are school administrators, who for the first time have a "cattle prod" as Taubman calls it in his book Teaching by Numbers, to shock those teachers who get out of line and who aren't "producing." Blind acceptance of test scores as "the only data of importance" is common, because such data is seen as an "objective" measure, another myth perpetuated by testing and accountability supporters. But is that true?

Peter Taubman's book Teaching by Numbers: Deconstructing the Discourse of Standards and Accountability in Education points out some flaws with this blind acceptance of testing as "the data" on which to base all educational decisions. He writes,
"Fundamentally, tests provide little more than data, but just as one must question the confessions extracted under torture, one has to wonder just how reliable that data is, when it is wrung out of students shocked by the constant administration of tests." 
In other words, no one questions, least of all school administrators, this "data" we're looking at as measures of teacher, school effectiveness and student learning. Tests are data, but how good is that data when students have been subjected to test-after-test-after-test as we do in high schools in North Carolina? North Carolina education leaders truly believe in the maxim, "If it breathes; test it." Data collected under the oppressive, tortuous testing system in our state isn't foolproof, and our jobs as administrators, educators and teachers is to remember that when we start looking at numbers.

There's no doubt when our state education leaders, administrators use the phrase "accountability" they mean primarily multiple choice tests designed to keep teachers, administrators and whole schools in line. As Taubman writes again,
"All too evident, accountability translates into teachers' responsibility for their students' learning as measured by performance on tests." 
I would add that when our state leaders and most administrators use the phrase student achievement they are only speaking about test scores. The testing math in North Carolina is captured by this equation:
Student Achievement=Test Scores
Reducing learning to a test score is great if you are accountant, but for those of us who know teaching, we know that genuine learning is rarely, if ever, only contained between the letters of a multiple choice question. Real, worth-while learning is not always subject to being captured on a a standardized test.

Administrators love tests though, and with the same enthusiasm that politicians do. Why is this? I think Taubman once again hits the bullseye. He writes,
"One reason administrators are sympathetic to testing, the data it generates, and various practices connected to testing and data aggregation is that these provide control from a distance, a fundamental component of what is called audit culture." 
Testing allows principals to become accountants, district leaders to become accountant managers, and superintendents and state level leaders become CEOs. Through test scores, all levels of administrators finally have a tool to control what happens in classrooms. They can dictate how teachers can act, and even in some school systems, teachers are given scripts to follow to make sure they cover what is to be tested. Increase the number of tests administered and you control more and more of what happens in schools. All that talk about allowing teacher decision-making, but holding teachers accountable for those decisions is just empty rhetoric. Tests are measures of control and compliance, and they are gradually strangling public education. Testing finally gives administrators what they think is an "objective" tool for getting rid of teachers and for making sure everyone is compliant.

Test data also gives administrators at every level "bragging points." It gives them something to boast about to the public, to business, to industry, and to politicians. Never mind that testing almost always reduces teaching and learning to only what can tested. Taubman gets it right once again when he writes,
"Tests constitute one way the educational reforms show the educational system. Extracting data from students, teachers and schools, they force our noses into the bottom line. Keeping us under constant surveillance, they make us vulnerable to centers of control beyond our reach, and, providing the illusion of objective accountability and meritocracy, they reduce education to right answers and information." 
Testing is about keeping teachers and students noses to the bottom line. It is about using the "illusion of objective accountability" to make sure no one gets out of line.

There is no question that this accountability and testing culture is negatively affecting teaching as a profession as well. According to Taubman,
"High stakes tests erode the autonomy of teachers, for if tests determine the curriculum, and if tests tell us what is important to know as a teacher, and if these tests are fabricated by centers of control beyond the reach of teachers, then the teachers' passions, commitments, and wisdom count less and less." 
As mentioned earlier, accountability and testing is in some case reducing the act of teaching to little more than a "scripted lesson." Instructional delivery is simply following the state or district lesson plan. Teacher autonomy due to the massive testing load is at an all time low. Teaching is no longer a profession; it is a factory job, whose goal is to churn out test scores. If a teacher fails to "make production," they are branded "Ineffective" or "Not Making Expected Growth" as its called in North Carolina.

What is more amazing is that state educational leaders just don't get it. Enrollments in education programs in colleges and universities for training teachers is at an all time low, and it isn't just about salaries. Teaching is just not very attractive when your job is test-score production. Talk to any students about becoming a teacher, and they laugh in your face. Even worse is when you find yourself as an educator no longer encouraging young people to become teachers because being a public educator anywhere, much less North Carolina, has been robbed its ability to be satisfying career because too much emphasis is placed on accountability and testing.

Where does all this end? I wish we knew. North Carolina, as do other states, continues to ramp up its testing by adding new tests, and the state stubbornly hangs on to its massive testing regimen. Will it be when there's no one entering teacher education programs in our state? Will it be when there is no one with more than 10 years experience left teaching in the classroom? Or, will it be when parents, students, and teachers finally push back and say they've had enough? Testing and accountability is more oppressive than ever in North Carolina and elsewhere, and it is sinking public education and the teaching profession along with it.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Merit Pay's Continued Failure in Education and Some Darn Good Reasons Why!

“How reward power is exercised affects outcome. Compliance is most likely if the reward is something valued by the target person. Thus, it is essential to determine what rewards are valued, and a leader should not assume that it be the same for everyone.” Gary Yukl, Leadership in Organizations
As our political leaders and state level policy makers continue to try to find ways to “improve our K-12” systems of education, one persistent idea that just won’t go away is the idea of merit pay and punishment by accountability. They still remain faithful to the idea that somehow teachers will raise test scores if they are offered a big enough carrot or if their livelihoods are somehow placed in jeopardy enough to bring about a level of fear strong enough to give them the test scores they desire. After over a decade of “test-reward-and-punish” policies under No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, you would think they would finally give up. Instead, money is still being poured into even more standards development and testing, in the hope that somehow education reform magic will happen. What these educational policymakers and politicians just don’t understand is performance pay and punishments are dead in the water before they are even implemented.

One of the reasons for the uselessness of merit pay is captured succinctly by Gary Yukl in his book, Leadership in Organizations. Rewards will only bring about compliance if those rewards are something valued by the "target person.” Don’t get me wrong, teachers and educators want to be paid fairly and be able to live comfortably, but educators know going into the the job that what they are doing is an endeavor much greater that a paycheck. Most are just not built to pursue the big carrots for their own sake. That is one thing that politicians and policymakers don’t get. Perhaps they are motivated by greed, but many of us are not.

Another problem with the carrot and stick approach to education reform is that many educators just don’t believe that test scores are a worthy goal to pursue. Most teachers who have been in the classroom see the tests for what they really are: a single measure focused on a small portion of learning given at a single point in time. That means the test can give s snapshot of only a sliver of learning, but it can’t be the ultimate goal of learning because so much of learning falls outside testing. Our current public education system is asking educators to believe that test scores are an important goal of learning, and many aren’t buying it, and never will.

As Yulk points out, “Even when the conditions are favorable for using rewards, they are more likely to result in compliance rather than commitment.” Rewards only get people to do what is required; they do not engage people’s hearts and minds totally in the goal of education. Under rewards, people aren’t committed to their jobs, the kids, or to the profession. Our current system of accountability and testing along with its reward and punish for test score performance will never work because at its heart, because teaching requires more than compliance; it requires dedication and commitment and no amount of money can purchase that.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Tillis, McCrory, Berger & Company's Hidden Anti-Public Ed Budget

In this News and Observer article entitled "A Hidden, Drastic Change in NC School Funding" Helen Ladd and Edward Fiske describe more sinister legislative action taken by our North Carolina Legislature and Governor during this last legislative session.

In the past, school districts received funding based on projected enrollment. This allowed school districts to plan for growth, and if their enrollments did not pan out, adjustments to funding were made. Now, the waning hours of this past legislative session, and without much public input, schools funding will be based on last year's enrollment. Basically, as Ladd and Fiske point out, "Funding to cover growing enrollments will have to be negotiated and compete with other state priorities." The bottom line, is our legislature has opened the door to being able still cut education further without saying they are cutting education.

In spite of the recent political advertising by Governor Pat McCrory and House leader (US Senate Candidate) Thom Tillis boasting about their "increased" education funding, these two have been leaders in a North Carolina government that has done more to hurt education than ever. Of course I have to throw Senate leader Phil Berger in that mix as well because he is the third prong of this anti-public education crew. The one thing all of these gentlemen have been consistent about is their disdain for public education and for public educators. They have resorted to trickery and deception on a number of occasions before, so this little budget wizardry is hardly surprising.

These are sad times in North Carolina when our North Carolina Legislature and Governor have resorted to deceptive and underhanded tactics to continue to underfund and undermine public education. Teachers and educators in general are leaving. None of our young people are choosing teaching as a profession. It has become fairly clear that our current state government continues to damage public education in North Carolina in ways I fear it would never recover, but perhaps that's the plan.

Monday, September 22, 2014

My Three Days with My iPhone 6 +

I admit it. I am one of those guilty ones who set his alarm to get up at 3:00 AM Eastern Standard Time in order to purchase an iPhone 6 + on September 12. I must admit, I have been more than pleased with my experiences so far.

The issue I had with my old iPhone 4s was simply screen size. It worked well as a phone, an email-checking device, and even for occasionally checking my social media accounts, but the screen-size made it difficult for me, a fifty-plus year old to read any text for a length of time. With the iPhone 6+ I have finally found a phone, or phablet as they're called, that meets my needs.

With the iPhone 6+ I am able to do all the things I was able to do with the iPhone 4, but now, due to its size, I can now do many of the things I used to do with my tablet on my phone. For example, reading from my Kindle app on the iPhone 4 was a miserable experience for me. The screen was just too small. In addition, this same small screen problem prevented me from using my other favorite productivity apps such as Pages or Writer Pro. Now, I simply connect my MaCally keyboard to my iPhone 6 +, and I can type away, as I'm doing with this blog post.

Now the naysayers point to the size of the iPhone phablet as a negative, saying it's just too big to use as a phone, but with my extra large hands, I have had no problems. In fact, there've been few issues at all with the device. The battery life is actually better than either my iPhone 4s or my iPads, mini or otherwise. It really does hold a charge.

I suppose the question many would ask is: Why should I get an iPhone 6+? Well, if you're like me, it brings the best of two devices together: phone and tablet. I actually have found myself using the iPhone 6+ for many tasks I had relegated to my tablet. Overall, my early experiences are mostly positive. I am hoping for a little better case as these devices become more popular.

My iPhone 6+ Screen

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Truth About NC Rep Thom Tillis and Gov Pat McCrory's 'Simple' Math of Teacher Raises

Most of us have heard the old politician joke that begins with the question, "How can you tell when a politician is lying?" And the answer? "Their lips are moving?" While the humor from that joke might have disappeared from that statement after years of use, the truth of that statement is perhaps alive and well in North Carolina. Maybe the word lying isn't exactly correct, but there sure is a great deal of prevaricating going on.

Recently, in a WRAL newstory, "Letter from McCrory Stirs Pot Over Teacher Raises," it seems our governor's office and NC US Senate candidate have declared that a 5.5% raise is the same as a 7% raise. According to that same article, Josh Ellis, a spokesperson for Governor McCrory, states that McCrory and Thom Tillis are saying the same thing. According to Ellis, the difference between whether his office and the North Carolina Legislature gave teachers a 5.5% average raise or a 7% raise is a matter of "accounting differences." Methinks I see both politician's lips moving on this one.

The question I ask is really simple, "Why does our NC Governor and NC State Legislature, led by Thom Tillis and Phil Berger have to resort to deception and trickery when they should simply be doing something right for education and teachers?" I certainly know part of the answer; there's an election in a couple of months and they had to at least "give the appearance of giving teachers a raise." What better way to do that than by using "accounting trickery" to cook the books? That way, they can claim the same truth, and both be right. Well, they might use this "accounting wizardry" in their businesses, but it is just plain wrong to play those games on the hardworking teachers in this state, and to deceive the public as they've done.

What's even worse, other legislators like NC Representative Nelson Dollar and State Senator Tom Apodaca don't even appear to be sure about the amount of raise they gave teachers. Apodaca is quoted as saying that from "everything he's seen on the pay raise tells him its a 7% average hike, not the 5.5% percent raise listed by the governor." The phrase "from everything he's read" could certainly mean he hasn't read much except the lines being fed to him by legislative leaders.  Other legislators aren't sure about other things in this raise as well. NC Representative Dollar seems to be either confused or is being misleading. Hard to tell which, except his lips are moving too. He even questions whether the raise provided by this NC Governor and Legislature included taking away longevity and adding it back as part of the "7.7%" raise. He claims the 7.7% does not include the longevity. Perhaps its some of the NC Legislative Accounting again. According to our state legislature and governor's office, 2+2 can equal whatever they decide it equals apparently.

What's really bad about all this, is that appears we have a NC governor and NC Legislature that purposefully or unpurposefully made the raises they gave teachers this year murky. For Thom Tillis and Governor Pat McCrory, it makes a great deal of sense to do just that in an election year. Figure out a way to give the least amount of raise, and then use fuzzy accounting to inflate the amount of raise you gave. Instead of using reality to back their arguments, they use inventive accounting. Either these two gentlemen think the general public and teachers are too stupid to figure it out, or they are more devious that even I could imagine. Once again though, you have to keep in mind their lips are moving!

Friday, August 15, 2014

Teaching Is Impacting Lives Forever Not Raising Test Scores

What the testing and accountability crowd does not get is the impact teachers have on lives. No bubble sheet can capture that, and you won't find it in standards. Each of us has a teacher or teachers that have impacted our lives. In my own, there was fifth grade with Ms. Case and sixth grade with Ms. Williams. Ms. Case captured my imagination in reading with Old Yeller which she read to us lovingly everyday. Ms. Williams encouraged me to explore my interests in the stars and science. These teachers fired my curiosity for learning and exploration. The impact teachers have on lives can't be measured using EVAAS, ACT, or SAT. As much as we would like to reduce teaching to numbers, it can't be done.

This video of a surprise party for a teacher of 40 years will move you to tears. In spite of the test score fetish our education leaders and politicians have, there are still teachers touching lives. Let's make sure that continues.