Saturday, December 9, 2017

Expanding Education Leadership Innovation and Imagination by Valuing Art and Literature

I am going say something direct to those think the arts, literature, and even philosophy are frivolous and "impractical" for 21st century schools. We need these as educational leaders more than ever. 

This is because the only "truths" about leading schools are not going to be found in books located on the bookstore racks of the latest business management and business leadership, but somehow we unquestionably believe that the answers to our problems are found and can be resolved by the discourses of business management and business leadership.

Education leaders in the past 25 or 30 years have appropriated the latest book titles of authors like John Maxwell, Stephen Covey, and John Kotter (anyone else notice that these are "white" males as I do?) as if these business leaders offer the "gospel truth" regarding how to best lead schools or any organization. Schools are still struggling to find the golden fleece of reform while those peddling these "business discourses of leadership" have continued to fleece school systems out of uncounted sums of money. About the only thing the field of education leadership has to show for it is the improved bottom lines for those offering books, conferences, and official training sessions to administrators and school leaders who are genuinely searching for answers to the problems they are facing in the schools and districts where they work.

In reading Hofstadter, I stumbled across an idea and thought that I say has a lot of wisdom about being an intellectual leader of a school.

In his book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Hofstadter (1962) was writing about the limitations of thinking when we get caught up with the idea of limiting our thoughts just to the practical. He describes a physicist who discounted the invention of the telephone as a "bore." But Hofstadter points out that physicist James Clark Maxwell was limiting his imagination because he was only using "physicist-thinking" or physicist mind, and that was limiting his "vistas of imagination." "For him," Hofstadter writes, "thinking as a physicist, the new instrument (the telephone) offered no possibilities for play."

When we set limits on our thinking and imagining by requiring that it be "practical,""relevant," or "data-based" we destroy the playfulness of possibility. We restrict our own "vistas of imagination" and perhaps miss being truly creative and innovative. Fruitful and innovative ideas are found beyond the edges of the limitations that shackle thinking. The answers to 21st century problems to education may lie elsewhere.

Perhaps we as school leaders need to think like poets, like novelists, like artists, like sculptors, and even life musicians, in other words, become "intellectual leaders" instead of dismissing such as "impractical" or "fluff." History is full of inventive minds who worked beyond the margins of the acceptable, For example, Leonardo Da Vinci, considered by some to be the symbolic embodiment of innovation, had an enormous horizon of imagination, and the result was inventions in both art and science that did not exist before.

As educational leaders, the first step to really addressing the problems of our times might not always be checking the latest "scientific research." The answers to our current problems in education could lie in Shakespeare, Mozart, or even Rembrandt. Limiting our "vistas of imagination" to that which fits the scientific method and the education sciences, means our imagination for the possibilities of education are shackled. So, as education leaders, go see a Shakespearean play, listen to a Mendelssohn concerto, or read a Thomas Wolfe novel. We can't really be innovative and truly creative leaders and problem-solvers unless we're willing to break free from the limits of practicality and "science" and expand the "vistas of our imaginations."

Hofstadter, R. (1962). Anti-intellectualism in American life. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Why Earn a Doctoral Degree When NC Legislature Does Away with Doctoral Pay?

I’ve asked myself the question about why would I get a doctoral degree as an educator when our NC Legislature voted last summer to end pay for doctoral degrees? Who in their right mind would earn a degree that will perhaps have no immediate financial return? My answer? Me.

First of all, my reasoning is rather rebellious. Our North Carolina Legislature has made it rather clear through their work that they do not value education—from the K-12 level through college—they’ve been playing games and giving the appearance of funding education without really funding it properly. My earned doctoral degree is my way of shoving sheepskin in their face and a means of shouting, “You’re wrong!” My education is mine. It is the one thing of great value, in spite of their legislative ignorance, they can’t take away.  Education is important! It’s life changing and it matters and ultimately is more powerful than they give credit. Why else would politicians make a concerted effort to keep as many people in ignorance as our current state political leaders have?

Secondly, I firmly believe that there is still value that comes from learning for learning’s sake. Not every thing we learn has to have an immediate monetary return. Sure, I like earning a salary. I like having the ability to purchase things I want, but learning has value for it’s own sake, and it has value in ways we can’t foresee. Learning brings wisdom. It brings experience. It makes us better people. Ultimately, it creates people that can see what politicians are really doing. The bottom line for learning is that there is no bottom line.

Why did I earn a doctoral degree? Ultimately, I can hardly see why I would not have if I am communicating to the students in my school as principal that learning is an excellent thing and we can never get enough. While our North Carolina Legislature places little value in learning, as an educator and life-long learner, learning for me is like breathing; I’m going to do it until my time is no more. 

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Building a Better Teacher Through VAMs? Not So Fast According to Mark Paige's Book

As a part of my research explorations, I stumbled across a relatively new book published in 2016 about the problems with using value-added measures in teacher evaluations. This book entitled Building a Better Teacher: Understanding Value-Added Models in the Law of Teacher Evaluation is a short and concise read that any administrator who currently encounters the use of value-added data in teacher evaluations should read.

Paige's argument is rather straightforward. Value-added models have statistical flaws and are highly problematic, and should not be used to make high-stakes decisions about educators. Scholars across the board have made clear that are problems with VAMs, enough problems that they should only be used in research and to cautiously draw conclusions about teaching. Later, Paige also provides advice to opponents to using value-added models in teacher education as well. Attempting to challenge the use of value-added models in teacher evaluations through the federal courts may be fruitless. According to Paige:
"At least at the federal level, courts will tolerate an unfair law, so long as it may be constitutional." p. 24
In other words, our courts will allow the use of VAMs in teacher evaluations, even if used unfairly. Instead, Paige encourages action on the legislative side. Educator opponents of VAMs should inform legislators of the many issues with the statistical measures and push for laws that restrict their use. In states with teacher unions, he encourages teachers to use the collective bargaining process to ensure that VAMs are not used unwisely.

Throughout Paige's short read, there are reviews of legal cases that have developed around the use of VAMs to determine teacher effectiveness and lots of information about the negative consequences of this practice.

Here are some key points from chapter 1 of Mark Paige's book Building a Better Teacher: Understanding Value-Added Models in the Law of Teacher Evaluation.

  • VAMs are statistical models that attempt to estimate a teacher's contribution to student achievement.
  • There are at least (6) different VAMs, each with relative strengths and weaknesses.
  • VAMs rely heavily on standardized tests to assess student achievement.
  • VAMs have been criticized on a number of grounds as offending various statistical principles that ensure accuracy. Scholars have noted that VAMs are biased and unstable, for example.
  • VAMs originated in the field of economics as a means to improve efficiency and productivity.
  • The American Statistical Association has cautioned against using VAMs in making causal conclusions between a teacher's instruction and a student's achievement as measured on standardized tests.
  • VAMS raise numerous nontechnical issues that are potentially problematic to the health of a school or learning climate. These include the narrowing of curriculum offerings and a negative impact on workforce morale.
Throughout his book, Paige offers numerous key points that should allow one to pause and interrogate the practice of using VAMs to determine teacher effectiveness.

Using VAMs to Determine Teacher Effectiveness: Turning Schools into Test Result Production Factories

"But VAMs have fatal shortcomings. The chief complaint: they are statistically flawed. VAMs are unreliable, producing a wide range of ratings for the same teacher. VAMs do not provide any information about what instructional practices lead to particular results. This complicates efforts to improve teacher quality; many teachers and administrators are left wondering how and why their performance shifted so drastically, yet their teaching methods remained the same." Mark Paige, Building a Better Teacher: Understanding Value-Added Models in the Law of Teacher Evaluation
Mark Paige's book is a quick, simple view regarding the problems with using value-added models as a part of teacher evaluations. As he points out, the statistical flaws are a fatal shortcoming to using them to definitively settle the questions regarding whether a teacher is effective. In his book, he points to two examples of teachers where those ratings fluctuated widely. When you have a teacher who rates "most effective" to "not effective" within a single year, especially when that teacher used the same methods with similar students, there should be a pause of question and interrogation.

Now, the VAM proponents would immediately diagnose the situation thus, "It is rather obvious that the teacher did not meet the needs of students where they are." What is wrong with the logic of this argument? On the surface, arguing that the teacher failed to "differentiate" makes sense. But, if there exists "universal teaching methods and strategies" that foster student learning no matter the context, then what would explain the difference? The real danger of using VAMs in the manner suggested by the logic of "differentiation" invalidates the idea that there are universally, research-based practices to which teachers can turn in improving student outcomes. What's worse, teaching becomes a game of pursuit every single year, where the teacher simply seeks out, not necessarily the best methods for producing learning of value, but instead, becomes, in effective a chaser of test results. Ultimately, the school becomes a place where teachers are simply production workers whose job is to produce acceptable test results, in this case, acceptable VAM results.

The American Statistical Association has made it clear. VAMs do not predict "causation." They predict correlation. To conclude that "what the teacher did" is the sole cause of test results is to ignore a whole world of other possibilities and factors that has a hand in causing those test results. Administrators should be open to the possibility that VAMs do not definitively determine a teacher's effectiveness.

If we continue down the path of using test score results to determine the validity and effectiveness of every practice, every policy, and everything we do in our buildings, we will turn out schools in factories whose sole purpose is produce test scores. I certainly hope we are prepared to accept along with that the life-time consequential results of such decisions.

NOTE: This post is a continued series of posts about the practice of using value-added measures to determine teacher effectiveness based on my recently completed dissertation research. I make no efforts to hide the fact that I think using VAMs to determine the effectiveness of schools, teachers, and educators is poor, misinformed practice. There is enough research out there to indicate that VAMs are flawed, and that there application in evaluation systems have serious consequences.

Friday, November 10, 2017

What Happens When Schools and School Districts Use VAMs to Make Decisions about Teachers?

Many school administrators are using value-added measures in making decisions about teachers as if these statistical measures represent the latest, settled and unquestionable science. Those who do this are making a grave error. Despite companies such as SAS, who peddle their EVAAS data systems as the salvation of public education, the science behind VAMs is not settled, and there is even enough doubt about them, that the American Statistical Association issued a strong statement in 2014 against their use in decision-making when it comes to teachers. In that statement, ASA reminds educators that:
VAMs typically measure correlation, not causation---positive or negative---attributed to a teacher may actually be caused by other factors that are not captured in the model. (ASA Statement on VAMs)
Yet, administrators still use VAMs to infer that the teacher causes those scores. SAS, who owns the EVAAS model that North Carolina pays millions of dollars for each year, arrogantly claims that it accounts for all the factors that cause student performance on test scores, even when psychometric experts caution that this isn't possible.

In addition, administrators, who use VAMs to make decisions about teachers, should know better than confuse correlation with causation, but any time they base decisions about teacher status using VAMs, they are automatically assuming that teachers cause test results. If teachers operated in a lab where they controlled all the conditions of learning and the subjects of their learning, then one could perhaps better make this inference.

But there are other concerns about VAMs too. In a recent study by Shen, Simon, and Kelcey (2016), it was found that "using value-added teacher evaluations to inform high-stakes decision-making may not make for a good teacher." Using VAMs to decide the status of a teacher may not have the long-term impact administrators desire. These researchers also recommend that VAMs not be used "to inform disincentive high stakes decisions," which are any decisions regarding the professional status of teachers.

Ultimately, though, I can't help but wonder if those who are sold on using VAMs in administrative decision-making aren't caught up in chasing short-term gains in a measurement that lacks any meaningfulness in the long-term. VAMs aren't settled science. Yet, administrators use that data as if it were. Any decisions made using this data should be balanced with other data.

Shen, Z., Simon, C., & Kelcey, B. (2016). The potential consequence of using value-added models to evaluate teachers. eJournal of Education Policy, Fall 2016.

NOTE: My just completed dissertation was on the practice of using value-added measures to determine teacher effectiveness. My plan is to share over the next several weeks and months my own insights and personal thoughts on this practice. This is the first of may posts I plan to share on this topic. 

Friday, October 27, 2017

In Education, What's Wrong with the "It's-the-Best-We've Got Rationale?"

Over the years, as the waves of new reform efforts, federal policy initiatives, and latest educational fads have ebbed and flowed, all of them have been met by critics who questioned their efficacy and their logic. I've been one of those critics myself. What has always fascinated me was the defense of these sometimes reform measures. Take value-added measures for example.

When the statistical wizardry of value-added measures emerged, I distinctly remember their being justified as "the best measurement we've got"when their efficacy was questioned. Does anyone else see the error in that justification? Being the "best we've got" doesn't necessary make it the most effective and best means to measure learning and teaching. Rubbing two sticks together to make fire was the "best we had" until someone figured out flint rocks work better. The "best we've got" rationale doesn't necessarily equate with being effective or even right.

The next time someone uses the "best-we've-got" rationale to justify an educational practice of any kind, we should immediately call them out.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Where Have I Been and Why I've Not Been Blogging

I realize my blogposts have dropped off precipitously lately, but there is a simple explanation: I've been working on my doctoral dissertation. The simple truth is that all the writing energy I could muster has been directed toward the creation of that document. Now, I am drawing closer to finishing it. My hope is to defend in November, and then graduate in December. It has been one of the most difficult things I have ever done.

I won't bore you with the details of my dissertation, after all, I am not entirely sure anyone would wish to read it anyway. But, I will say that it has been one of the most challenging things I've ever undertaken. With the end drawing near, I certainly hope to once again take up this blog again after this process is done. If anything, I might just have more to contribute to the conversation about public education more now than I ever have.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Having Trouble Organizing Your Google Drive? Take Charge with These Tips

Managing documents in your Google Drive account can be problematic, especially if your district and your staff use Google Docs, Google Slides, or Google Sheets a great deal. What do so that you can access those documents you need to use the most? How can you organize those documents that are shared with you continuously? I think I have found a system that works, at least for me.

Since the premise of Google Drive is more collaborative that individual, that means you have to work with a product with this in mind, and carefully organize it to meet your individual needs. Speaking with others, the most common approach is create a series of folders to organize your documents, but if you use too many folders, then the problem of remembering which folder your put that inventory document or that course syllabus becomes enormous. Keeping folders to a minimum is a must. So, I designed my system with five folders that capture every single document I need ready access to. Here's those five folders and what I place in them.

Working Docs: I place any ongoing Google Doc that relates to a current project I am undertaking. It might be a presentation I am developing and will be using in staff development in the near future. It might be a letter to parent that I am writing, or a new schedule I am developing for my school in the coming weeks. The general rule here? These are documents under construction that I will be getting back to short-term.

To-Do Items: This folder is for those documents that require action in the future. It might be a request for information or a form that needs to be completed in the future. If someone shares a Google Doc with me requiring future action, I make a copy of it and place it here. These are all documents that correspond to a "To-Do" Item on my Google Keep To-Do List. (I'll do a blog post shortly that shows how I use this Google App.) If I start working on a doc in this folder and not finish, I move it to my Working Docs folder.

Templates: This is one of my favorite folders. I have begun to make Templates for those docs that I find myself recreating often, such as my Staff Memo or my Parent Newsletter. I simply make a copy of the template in my Working Docs folder when I am working on these items. Over time, I will develop a complete library of personalize templates for use on any occasion.

Current School Documents: In this folder I place those documents that are mostly complete but that I find myself referring to quite often. For example, I have my school master schedule, daily class schedule, bell schedule, and many other documents that I will most likely refer to at least once a day or week. The central office often asks for a copy of these documents. I don't have to search for them.

Archive: This is the folder of everything else. All documents end up here when I am no longer working on them or they are no longer needed. Because this is fully searchable, as is all of Google Drive, I can locate items here through the search function. The key here is: make sure your documents have unique names.

In addition to these folders, I have also set up a Team Drive for my school. In this folder, I and my staff can place most used documents and those documents under construction that are totally collaborative.

So far, I've found few problems with this system. If someone shares a Google Doc with me, I immediately make a copy of it, and file it in one of these folders.

Google Drive Folders and Team Drives

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Should Children Play Football? Is It Safe? No, It Is Not

"Wherever I go," writes Dr. Bennet Olmalu in his new book, Truth Doesn't Have a Side, "people ask me one question more than any other: 'Dr. Omalu, is it safe for my child to play football?' The answer is simple. 'No it is not."

With those words, the physician who discovered that NFL players suffer and have died from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, makes it clear that no matter what coaches may say. No matter what helmet manufacturers or football safety equipment designers say, playing football is not safe. Olmalu makes it clear that the human head is not designed to absorb the blows that often occur during the game of football. He write that animals like woodpeckers have built-in shock absorbers to protect their brains from impact forces, but humans do not.

In addition to not having brains capable of absorbing the impact of hits, he also points out that the football helmet is not designed to help. It protects the skins from cuts and perhaps the fracturing of the skull, but it does nothing to help with the jarring of the brain inside the skull. Add the fact that the brain doesn't have the ability to repair itself like other bodily organs, there is a problem with any activity that ,damages the brain.

No one asked me if I would again play football as I did in high school many years ago. Nor did anyone ask me if I could once again coach high school or middle school football as I once did. I'll answer anyway: "No, to both questions."

If I could replay my life again, I would not play football when I was high school, because I would have avoided that knee injury that ended my play then and has prevented me from being as active as an adult as I've wanted to. It has resulted in two surgeries and years of pain as well.

As for the coaching? I'm fairly sure I could not in good conscience, with all the increasing scientific evidence, enthusiastically encourage our youth to strap up and use their bodies as missiles either. As Dr. Omalu points out so clearly, humans aren't made for that. Of course, one could argue that "Humans weren't made for flying either." True...that's why I don't do that often ether.

The truth is, and I think Dr. Omalu makes this point very well: Adults choosing to play football with all its risks is one thing. They are mature enough to weigh the risks and decide for themselves. Children? Well, there's a reason why they're prevented to making decisions about risky behavior. As a parent, as a teacher, as a coach, and as a principal, we have children in our families and in our schools playing football. Let's just make sure these little ones teenagers aren't playing and taking the risks for us so that we can enjoy the "glory" of football. Personally, that's one sacrifice I can't make.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Advice to New Teachers 2017: Teaching as Stepping Stone and Not Career

As a 28 year experienced educator my advice for those entering the profession this year is simple. There was a time when teachers could expect that teaching would be a career. You could expect to enter a profession that valued your work and that would do everything it could to keep you satisfied and committed to teaching in the long term. Times have changed drastically.

The current system values educators who are short-timers. It treasures those who will use teaching as a stepping stone to other endeavors. It does not want educators who are dedicated and committed to a life of educating the young. It simply wants educators who want to make short-term gains and move on.

To the new teachers who begin their careers this year, my advice is simple. Take advantage of a system that simply wants to get as much productivity out of you in the short-term as possible. You, in turn, should get as much short-term gain out of your experience as possible. Business has taught the educational establishment this very well. When legislators at the state level gut benefits and tinker with pay as has been done in North Carolina, education becomes a stepping stone not a career.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Saturday, July 22, 2017

NC Legislative Still Manages Devalue Public Ed with New Principal Pay Scale

After this year’s North Carolina General Assembly sessions, what can one say about principal pay? Somehow we have a legislature that thinks administrators in North Carolina should be somehow grateful that they’ve alotted an additional $35.4 million dollars to principal and assistant principal pay increases, and that increases to $40.6 million in the 2018-19 school year, but took away longevity pay and established a pay system tied directly to test score performance. As has always been with our North Carolina Legislature since republicans have assumed control, let’s say the truth is really in the details.

First of all, the North Carolina Legislature ditched any connection between pay and experience in their new pay scale. Maybe this was because some economist out there has determined there’s no connection between experience and the raising of test scores, so experience is seen as meaningless. (Never mind that test score performance is not the entire end of education.) I think it is perhaps more truthful that we have a legislature really does not want principals to stick around anyway. Experienced principals are more expensive. They want newer, cheaper administrators anyway. We now have a principal pay system in North Carolina perfectly designed to encourage new and young principals to move in but quickly leave because the system does not value experience at all.

In fact, the new principal pay system completely dissolves a long-time practice of giving experienced longevity pay to experienced principals too. Now, the budget language says this longevity pay was absorbed into the pay schedule, but that makes no sense. The fact is, our legislature took away longevity pay to create their new merit pay system. Ultimately, with the actions of our North Carolina Legislature in recent years, our state is becoming the kind of state where educators are much better off looking for jobs elsewhere, and now principals are no exception.

Secondly, the new principal pay scale employs a merit pay system with substantial bonuses tied to test score performance. In spite of many studies and research pointing out the fallacies and failures of such pay schemes, our legislature still assumes that principals are motivated by greed, and that test score performance is the end of all things in public education. By dangling a few thousand dollars in front of principals this legislature believes that somehow principals will figure out how to increase student growth with less textbook money than ever and less resources than ever. Our state government has been cutting public education for years, and now, our legislature with its merit pay scale wants to use money as a hammer to beat principals into getting more out of teachers in this state with less resources than ever. We don't even have enough money to purchase textbooks and supplies any more, never mind professional development funding.

Finally, let’s stop kidding ourselves: our republican-controlled legislature just does not value education. Phil Berger and the republican elites in our legislature want to appear from year to year that they are increasing education funding, and by the numbers they are, but they are increasing it to strategically to harm public education and not support it. The principal pay scale is a perfect example. It is not designed to encourage educators to take principal positions and remain in them as careers. It only wants principals to stay around until their pay is too high. Like almost everything else this legislature supports, it is short-term and short-sighted, with the ultimate goal of harming public education in the end.

In North Carolina, despite the boasting of many republican legislators, we have a state government controlled by those who still want to end public education.  Why do we in education deceive ourselves from year to year. They might be actively trying to appear to support it, but their tactics have gotten more devious than ever. They strategically fund programs and initiatives that actually undermine public education. That’s why the political activism of educators is all the more important in the coming elections.

ADDITIONAL NOTE: One aspect of this new principal pay scheme adopted by out North Carolina legislature that I forgot in my original post is this: It also ends pay for advanced  and doctoral degrees for principals. As usual, this legislature continues to ignore the value of further education for educators. Now, any principal in North Carolina can no longer expect extra pay for obtaining an EdS degree or EdD degree. In the history of North Carolina I don't think we've ever seen a governmental body so anti-education from the public school level through the university level. Perhaps they still think if we keep the public ignorant, then they will continue to buy their baloney. It's time for a major change in North Carolina.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Be Careful of Your Quotes: Einstein Probably Didn't Say That Insanity Quote

We've all heard this quote, or might have even used it:

"The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results."

I've heard ed reformers and educators pushing change and innovation use this quote many times, and attributing to Albert Einstein. I honestly have to admit I might have done so myself. The truth is, there's no solid evidence he ever said it. It's not in any of his writings or interviews. It may be just made up.

In his book, Head in the Cloud: Why Knowing Things Still Matters When Facts Are So Easy to Look Up, William Poundstone calls this "Churchillian Drift." That's when a quotation by the marginally famous gets attributed to someone famous, like Winston Churchill. Turns out, Einstein probably didn't say it. Just Google the quote and you'll see the dispute.

The truth, at least for me, is clear: even if we really believe in what we're peddling, we still need to get our quotes right.

"It may sound good at the time, he who gets one or two of his quotes wrong, or facts, can't be trusted to be speaking all the truth."

You can quote on that, at least until someone else says it better!

By the way, Poundstone's book, Head in the Cloud: Why Knowing Things Still Matters When Facts Are So Easy to Look Up is a fascinating read.  Highly recommend it. Probably even will convince you to stop using those quote sites for quick quotes to add to your presentations.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Did I Really Need That Amazon Echo Dot?

I received an email telling me that Amazon was offering its Prime Members its Echo Dot for less than $35. I had seen the commercials, and certainly was fascinated with the device, so I broke down and purchased it.

After a day of experimenting with it, I actually enjoy the device. Being able to say “Alexa, play some James Taylor” and then his music magically starts playing through my bluetooth speaker is fantastic. I’ll admit I am a bit smitten by the technology, but it does have some interesting features. It’s easy to set up as well. Here’s some of the positives I’ve found:
  • Connects to a bluetooth speaker, so my Bose Soundlink Mini sounds fantastic.
  • Instant, or darn near instant access to any music.
  • Has a “News Flash” feature that allows “Alexa” to read the news update to you.
  • With my Amazon Fire I can get weather updates too.
  • I can listen to Pandora channels with an easy request from “Alexa."
  • Haven’t tried the “Jeopardy” game but is was recommended by a friend.
I’m just learning the device, but I can see what Apple is scrambling to catch up with Amazon and Google with these kinds of devices.

How else can I get the ability to command James Taylor's music to appear?

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Killing Innovation Through Standardization

Have you ever encountered a program, a product, or an educational practice that is worthy enough to be implemented state-wide or even district-wide? I haven't. Really, in almost 30 years as an educator I've outlasted more programs and initiatives than I can count. Most of these were not adopted based on their merits. They most often were adopted because their promoters were great at sales pitches. It turns out that I've begun to think that we've become much better at salesmanship sometimes than our chief task of educating.

I have a hunch regarding why these district-wide and state-wide, or even national improvement initiatives don't work. It's rather simple: you can't standardize true innovation. Schools are individual, quirky, unique entities like the students in them. Innovation can only occur at the school level. Trying to standardize an innovation at the district or state level is an exercise in windmill jousting, or nailing jello to a tree. Nothing sticks, nor will it ever. It turns out that innovation is local. We talk about "personalizing learning for students, then why not localize innovations? Let's start innovation at the level of the school.  Imposing innovation from on high doesn't work nor will it ever.

Next time you start thinking as a district or state education leader that some program or idea would be great for all my schools, just remember you really can't standardize innovation.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Education Administration's History with Eugenics: What Can Be Learned from the Past

Some of our "founding fathers" of educational administration around the turn of the 20th century actually supported the "Science of Eugenics" as it is called. That's right; they supported sterilizations and other measures to "improve the human stock of America" because they considered it to be deteriorating. I realize that during this particular time period, these "founding fathers" of educational administration were products of their times and cultures as well, and that society had just begun to discover its faith in the biological sciences and other sciences, and began to exercise that faith entirely in a variety of ways. Yet, it does disturb our present to think that some of those who began our field educational administration, supposedly dedicated to the betterment of our children and society, advocated eugenics which today is unspeakable.

For example, one of these "founding fathers of educational administration" was Franklin Bobbitt, who was a professor at the University of Chicago, and who also wrote prolifically on both education administration and on curriculum. He was also clearly an advocate of eugenics and actually made an address on the topic to the Conference on Child Welfare at Clark University in July 1909. His words seem so disturbing to read today, but were actually in line with others like our President Theodore Roosevelt and Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes. Society was wrestling with what to do with the new science of heredity and genetics at that time and Bobbitt was actually along for the ride.

In that address Bobbitt states:
"If a child is well-born, if he springs from sound, sane stock, if he possesses high endowment potential in the germ, then the problem of his unfoldment is well-nigh solved long before it is presented. Such a child is easily protected from adverse influences; and he is delicately and abundantly responsive to the positive influences of education. But if, on the other hand, the child is marred in the original making, if he springs from a worm-eaten stock, if the foundation plan of his being is distorted and confused in heredity before his unfoldment begins, then the problem of healthy normal development is rendered insoluble before it is presented. Such a child is difficult to protect against adverse influences, and he remains to the end stupidly unresponsive to the delicate growth factors of education." 
Franklin Bobbitt, "Practical Eugenics," Address before the Conference on Child Welfare at Clark University, Worcester, July 1909
From a 21st century perspective, it is very easy to try to excuse our forefathers in administration from advocating what we would call unspeakable. We might even be hesitant to judge individuals like Bobbitt. Still, his support of eugenics should still disturb us. He was involved in shaping the field of public education and educational administration in its infancy, and he was also an advocate for some practices that are so unjust and distasteful to us today.

In this same address he sympathetically described several eugenic measures being undertaken:

Marriage laws were passed  to "shut out from marriage those affected with tuberculosis, alcoholism, epilepsy, insanity, deaf-mutism, blindness, and other serious diseases and defects which affect posterity."

Laws were passed to "raise barriers against the unfit" and "shut out racial pollution at the bottom."

"The sterilization of criminals and defectives of every sort" was being proposed as well.

There were also proposals to abolish public charities, public schools and all other public agencies because these were only serving to "preserve the weak and incapable."

No doubt, these measures to purify the "human stock" are shocking to us today. Still, I submit that we have much to learn from this period in the history of the field of educational administration.

The founding fathers of both the fields of educational administration and education slovenly acted as sycophants to "King Science." Bobbitt accepted "eugenics" and the rationale behind it because it was "scientifically supported." He, like many, had a blind faith in the salvation wrought by science, and if the data and observations demonstrated any proposition, then it was true. That's why he saw eugenics as an attractive audience: his "science," which he uncritically accepted, led him to that conclusion.

We still in some ways are sycophants of science. We test students unendingly and incessantly in order to make "data-based" decisions. We cancel music and art classes because "participation in these don't lead to higher test scores." We load 30, 40 and even 50 students in classes because "there's no 'scientific evidence' to support having smaller classes. Education and educational administration so badly wants to be a science, that it will harm its students, its teachers to follow "science" where 'er it may lead. Just as Bobbitt did, without really asking whether that destination is really where we want to go, we accept the "science" uncritically and almost in a cult-like manner. The problem with our science, and Bobbitt's science, it will not and cannot tell us whether what we're doing is ethical, right, or just, but we pretend that it will.

In some ways, I can understand why Bobbitt supported eugenics as he did. He was caught up in a major discourse of his time. But because of his story, we have no such excuse. We can critically question our "science." Just because a study or studies says it is so, doesn't mean we have to do it. We can realize science's limitations and acknowledge that the 'scientific evidence' is not infallible. We can recognize that just because A happens, it was not necessarily because of B or C. It might have been E, F, and G along with an infinite number of causes. We don't have to believe that by doing A that B will happen.

The founding fathers of educational administration's flirtations with such a distasteful notion as "eugenics" should tell us that we as educational leaders can and do and will get it wrong. Also, there is clearly a danger when we get on a pedestal and shout that what we want is what's best for children is subject to criticism as well. Bobbitt's mistakes are our mistakes. We have to question and then question some more those making decisions. We should encourage people to question our own. That's how we might avoid Bobbitt's mistake.

Monday, May 22, 2017

If You Want Students to Be Passionate Readers, Learn from This

It is easy to forget during the season of testing just what it is about reading that lures us in. We can become hung up in test prep---exposing students to so-called "test questions" and sample passages---and in the process utterly blaspheme the joy of reading and the beauty of literature.

Looking back, I became a reader due to two educators in my life: Ms. Jackson (name changed) and Ms. Sherrill (again, name changed, in case she is still out there). Ms. Jackson was our school librarian. She was not a media specialist as they are called now. In fact, I could bet Ms, Jackson would have disdained that title. She would have seen all this hype about "computers" and "technology" as major distractions. She would not have liked the direction our school libraries have taken at all, with the removal of books and the placement of high-tech gadgets.

My fondest memories of Ms. Jackson is her reading fairy tales to us. She read them all: Hans Christian Andersen, Grimms, Native American Tales, mythology, etc. During my first and second grade, Ms. Jackson introduced me to the world of fantasy where almost anything could happen. She provided me with a ticket to my own imagination. She introduced me to books. But what Ms. Jackson did really was instill within me a insatiable flame of desire for books and reading, and she did this when she "broke the rules." Yes, she broke the rules.

In those days, the rule of the library was that you could only check out books from your assigned grade level. Such a rule makes sense on the surface. Students aren't allowed to check out books that are too difficult or are inappropriate, but rules can put out the flames of passion, and in this case, she could have just enforced the rules, and let my own passion for exploration and reading die. She didn't. She allowed me to wander everywhere and check out anything I desired, so when I had a passion for the stars and planets, I checked out every science book on the topic. When I became interested in the Civil War, I checked out books on that topic. When I stumbled on dinosaurs, as every young kid inevitably does, I read every book in the library on the topic. I literally checked out books, in some cases, way over my head, but when I got the books home, I wanted to know what they said so badly, I read, re-read, and read again, until I could understand. Ms. Jackson, by simply choosing not to enforce her library rules, created a life-long passionate reader.

 Ms. Sherrill, who was my sixth grade teacher reinforced my passion for books in her classroom. First of all, she surrounded us with books and a comfortable place to read. She had this carpeted mat sitting next to the class library, and she practically gave us free rein to spend as much time there as possible, if we got our other assignments done, of course. But that alone wasn't new. Ms. Sherrill also fostered my passion for books by reading aloud to us as well. She read Old Yeller, Tom Sawyer, Oliver Twist. She read with such energy and passion. I could tell she loved novels, and she infected me with the same disease.

Both these teachers remind me of these words by my favorite writer, Pat Conroy:
"Great words, arranged with cunning and artistry, could change the perceived world for some readers. From the beginning I've searched out those writers unafraid to stir up the emotions, who entrust me with their darkest passions, their most indestructible yearnings, and their most soul-killing doubts. I trust the great novelists to teach me how to live, how to feel, how to love and hate. I trust them to show me the dangers I will encounter on the road as I stagger on my own troubled passage through a complicated life of books that try to teach me how to die." Pat Conroy, My Reading Life
Today, we aren't going to foster reading, I mean real reading by being obsessed with standardized tests. These two educators introduced me to the "great words" of writers. They also introduced me to novelists and then allowed me to "search out those writers" for myself, "who are unafraid to stir up my emotions, who entrust me with their darkest passions..." Ms. Jackson gave me ability to search and fulfill my hunger to know. Ms. Sherrill infected me with a disease that means I can't walk by the new novels rack in the bookstore and not feel the passion and energy surging from them.

In this season of testing, let's remind ourselves, that the test is not everything; it never was, nor will it ever be.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Why Saying “I’m Doing What’s Best for Students” Isn’t the Best Rationale

One of the most common utterings you will hear from school leaders is, “I’m going to do what’s best for kids” when justifying or providing reasons for actions taken. But, is saying that justification enough?

By using the justification that actions are “what’s best for students,” the addressor, or one uttering that phrase, is staking claim to the higher moral ground. Educators, for the most part and by nature, became so because of their concern for the learning and well-being of the young. So, when one claims what one is doing is “best for students,” the immediate reaction by other educators is simply acceptance and obedience. Most times, not one asks for further explanation and proof either. But what if that action really isn’t the best for students?

As a school leader, I am so self-aware when I use that phrase and when others use it too. Sometimes it is tossed around so much, it almost loses its real power to justify anything. But when we use that phrase as school leaders, do we really know that what we’re doing or asking others to do is “best” for kids? It might very well be in our minds that it is, but the history of education is riddled with schemes and ideas that were “what’s best for kids too."

Should we not be a little hesitant to use this phrase? After all, we don’t get a grade of “A” in leadership when we were well-intentioned. I don’t get the consolation prize of knowing that, “Well, I did really mean well when I decided to trash the school’s arts program in favor of more reading instruction” because I thought it best for students to be able to read rather than play the violin or paint a landscape. Never mind that there just might have been a Mozart, or a Shakespeare in the midst of bloom in my school that was stamped out by my actions.

Perhaps we should discard the phrase “doing what’s best for students” from our leadership practice. I suspect it’s another thing of many that educational leaders have borrowed from the field of business and industry leadership. In business, there exists a true bottom-line. You need to make a profit, and to do that, you delineate the bottomline to make that happen. And, as leader, you simply make your decisions align with that.

But I don’t really think there’s a ‘bottomline’ in education. Things are not just that simple. Perhaps there’s a bottomline for every single student who walks in the hallways of our schools, and because of this, there’s absolutely, no way, we can say with 100% confidence, that what we do is in the best interest of all our students. We are fallible human beings in spite of what our college educational leadership programs tried to tell us.

One major lesson I’ve learned from educational leadership? Abolutely certainty will surely get you into trouble. I honestly think I know less about being an educational leader now than when I started. What this really means in practical terms is that I am a fallible human who can’t always say definitively that my decisions are “What’s Best for Kids!”

Thursday, April 13, 2017

How to Be an Educator When Thinking Has Become Dangerous

"Thinking has become dangerous in the United States and the symptoms are everywhere." Henry Giroux, Dangerous Thinking: In the Age of the New Authoritarianism
 For all the talk and blather about teaching students to think critically and creatively, we need to face the reality that much of our political and educational establishment is actually more interested in conformity, and teaching others to think in certain privileged ways. For example, with all the talk that comes with education as the engine of the economy, also comes the worship of greed, free-market fundamentalism, and simple form of idolatry that places the "businessman" as the salvation of all that is good and wonderful. Schools are seen as the producers of workers for industry. Art and music is irrelevant and unnecessary. Education is not about thinking critically; it is about making sure our students accept and conform to a culture that pursues economic interests, and selfish individual interests at the expense of everything else, with the belief, that in the end, all will be well in such a society.

The current predicament we face in this 21st century isn't just about jobs for our students; it is whether or not the world we are leaving them will even be inhabitable. Instead of educating students how to work the machines in the factory down the road, we need to be teaching them to be problem-solvers, creative thinkers, and dare I say, teaching them to be willing to be non-conformists?

Non-conformity is not always a negative. There are plenty of examples of constructive non-conformity in our history. Had the forefathers of our country chosen the path of conformity, we certainly would not have the country we have today. I realize that is a bit of tired thinking, but I think it illustrates a simple point that should be a part of our educational philosophy for 21st century thinking. You simply sometimes can't think outside the box when conformity matters most. You can't always expect different results when you insist on playing by the rules set by others. Sometimes you need to invent new rules, or simply refuse to play by the old ones, and invent an entirely new game.

As Giroux points out, "Thinking has become dangerous" and I would agree it has especially become dangerous in the United States in our current political climate. But, if we are going to push the limits and be "dangerous educational innovators," we are going to have to engage in the unsafe. We are going to have to be critical and creative thinkers, and question the official, and dare I say even resist. Ultimately, we can by example teach our students to be "dangerous thinkers" who can disturb the present by being willing to question and even think dangerously ourselves.