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Friday, October 22, 2010

"Show Me The Money"

“Show me the money!”  These words from the movie “Jerry Maguire” seem to describe some of the tenets of 2010 Kansas gubernatorial candidate Sam Brownback.  In one of his campaign brochures he is calling for educational leaders to “promote uniform accounting of school districts’ use of state funds and require transparent online spending reports.”  With many schools touting that every classroom has an electronic smart board and how “wired” they are, putting a monthly line item school budget online should be an easy fair.  And besides, with nothing to hide, the public could see exactly where every one of their taxpayer dollars is going.
Another Brownback “show me the money” tenet is to “ensure that students who pass the 4th grade read at grade level.”  I am anticipating that Mr. Brownback also means that these same students can write, articulate and comprehend at the 4th grade level (or above) as measured by a reliable standardized assessment.  Likewise, if a student does not reach this lofty goal, they should be provided with the appropriate services that will get them up to snuff instead of just being passed along.
I would think that school leaders would have already instituted—or are at least in the process of instituting—the two aforementioned Brownback tenets.  If not, hopefully the candidate for Kansas governor who wins will “show us the money” and not “show us the rhetoric “by launching these two important educational platforms.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

What is an Effective Teacher?

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is giving $45 million to six school districts for a two-year study of teaching to figure out what works and what doesn’t.  Hogwash!  Give me and the master teachers I know the money and we’ll save the Gates’ time.  We’ll all tell you what the research says about effective teaching—and it has nothing to do with spending hours writing a kajillion objectives and standards, following a plethora of administrative directives, employing the latest “silver bullet” fad (e.g. class within a class, using alternative regular education programs, initiating late start or early start schedules, or for that matter using curriculum and pacing guides).
I believe after the Gates Foundation analyzes their data, they will find that great teaching is not easily quantifiable. In fact, they may find that great teaching might be likened to great artistry or great musicianship—it is a “gift” that is honed and molded through hard work over the years to become a “tour de force.”   The main commonality: Students learn from these caring, competent, compassionate teachers.
So Bill and Melinda, from the minds of some former great teachers, I offer you their top ten list of the qualities of great teachers: 1) insightful –knows about the students’ lives and is “street smart” , 2)intelligent-a master of the subject matter, 3)a good listener—hears out the students, 4)articulate-makes the subject matter understandable orally and in written form, 4)has a sense of humor-hey, once in awhile a student wants to play a joke on you, 5)has command presence—students know you are in charge without being a dictator, 6)has a fearless swagger-students just know that you know ,7)has a maestro’s instinct-can lead the group to perform masterfully, 8)well-read and well-versed in best teaching practices, 9)has developed a unique, winning  “coaching” style like a Phil Jackson or Vince Lombardi, 10)is a taskmaster with high expectations for all students .
You see Bill and Linda, it wasn’t that hard—and inexpensive to boot!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Waiting for Superman

Reportedly, some American school districts are sending the public taxpayers confusing and seemingly “disconnected” messages.  Ostensibly, the hue and cry for some schools is that they are under extreme budget constraints and are forced to cut many budget “items” as well as the heart of education-- teachers.  Yet, despite these cuts, some people still see schools spending millions of dollars on bond issues, thousands on expensive electronic “gadgetry”, thousands for upgrading athletic facilities and equipment, thousands for sending staff to various state and national conferences, and even some budget monies buying “incentives” for students taking state assessments.  Unfortunately, on top of the spending, some schools have apparently seen declining enrollments—which means less state funding.
For a nation that proudly stated it would leave ‘no child behind’, statistically, America continues to do so at disturbing rates. Despite increased educational spending coupled with shallow political promises to save our schools, our struggling public-education system (once number one in the world) often forsakes the education of millions of children—leaving some behind.

Fortunately, documentarian Davis Guggenheim (who directed Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth) will soon remind us that education “statistics” have names: Anthony, Francisco, Daisy, Bianca, and Emily, whose stories make up the riveting groundwork of WAITING FOR SUPERMAN. This poignant film (release: October, 2010) will follow several promising kids through a “system”  that apparently inhibits, rather than encourages, academic achievement, Guggenheim has undertaken an extensive review of public education, surveying  what some have called “drop-out factories” and “academic sinkholes.”   He carefully dissected the system and its seemingly obstinate problems—including how budget monies could be spent more wisely(especially for  first-rate teachers)

Thankfully, Guggenheim’s documentary embraces the belief that excellent teachers make excellent schools, and questions the role of some organizations in maintaining the status quo.  Thus, Guggenheim offers us HOPE by his examination of  innovative research-based approaches taken by some strong-willed education reformers (e.g. Michelle Rhee, Washington, D.C and Jeffrey Canada, New York City in Harlem)  and premier charter schools that have—in reshaping the education mindset—refused to leave their students behind.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

No Child's Behind Left

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is looking for a new name to replace the soon to be

defunct No Child Left Behind law. I certainly hope this administration does not change it into something like “No Child’s Behind Left”. With the newly proposed national “core standards” initiative, it’s no wonder why many dedicated teachers feel that the latter, farcical name (NCBL) could become “reality” as a non-intended consequence.

Moreover, according to data from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, eight of the 10 top-scoring countries have centralized education standards. However, so do nine of the 10 lowest-scoring countries in math and eight of the 10 lowest-scoring countries in science.

One might then ask, shouldn’t we be interested in students’ depth of understanding as well as their motivation to learn, and not just test scores alone? I have not seen an iota of data to support a claim of superiority for countries with nationalized education systems.

Therefore, it’s no wonder why so many classroom teachers and education researchers are opposed to this “core standards” initiative — which, to some degree, has been driven primarily by politicians and testing companies (for more money).

Saying that our kids should receive a high-quality education is not the same as saying all students should get the same kind of education. A one-size-fits-all approach to education does not produce excellence. Furthermore, it certainly doesn’t further the cause of equity.

Leaky Bucket

The current teacher supply in America has been compared to a leaky bucket. That is, every fall, new recruits pour in, while in the spring, many teachers pour out for early retirement or look for higher paying careers and more congenial working conditions. In fact, approximately one-third of our nation’s teachers leave the profession within their first three years of teaching, while almost one-half leave within five years.

Teaching is very tough work. If you doubt it, visit our schools and see for yourself. Maybe you will understand why we are experiencing crisis-level teacher turnover. Some critics conclude that public education has failed. Perhaps the question should not be “Has public education failed?’ but rather “Have we as citizens failed public education?”

The reality is we fail when we do not hold our elected officials accountable. According to their campaign ads, they have promised to support a quality public education for all children, but have not delivered.

Therefore, the first step to ensuring a quality public education for every student is to focus our attention on those elected public servants who are committed to funding academic excellence in public education. We need those public servants to keep true their promises of ensuring that every public school is as good as our best public schools.

Next, we must aggressively recruit intelligent, high quality teachers who know the subject matter to be taught and how to teach. Quality teachers are trained in how children learn and develop. They are mentored and prepared to make teaching their life-long profession and passion. The sooner we begin treating those teachers that have “earned their stripes” as respected professionals, the sooner we will attract and retain quality teachers.

Also, like other professionals, quality teachers need the opportunity to grow professionally, to ensure that their skills and knowledge are honed to become better practitioners. Consequently, our students will be the beneficiaries of the wisdom and insight gained by the devoted teachers who will work to leave no child behind.

Furthermore, before any elected body initiate any major education policy changes, it would be logical and wise to consult with the “front-line” professional teachers—because they know what works. Likewise, public officials need to divert their attention away from “things” and turn their attention to the task of adequately funding the effort to recruit and retain highly dedicated and quality professional teachers. The rhetoric must stop if we want the “leak in the bucket” to stop.

More on Race to the Top

President Barack Obama has stated that the selection of states to participate in the $4.35 billion Race to the Top school improvement program will be based on "whether a state is ready to do what works." He continues, "States that outperform the rest will be rewarded with a grant." Between 10 and 15 states will be selected in April 2010 to receive federal RTTT grants.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan chimed in by saying, "Race to the Top is the equivalent of education reform's moon shot."

One must keep in mind the several “strings attached” to receiving this money:

• Creating data systems that includes linking student progress to individual teachers

• Improving bad schools

• Creating tougher academic standards

• Boosting teacher quality

States also need to be receptive to charter schools and alternative teacher pay (i.e. “performance pay”). An emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) also will receive more consideration.

However, many of the “new school” acronym programs haven’t always improved student achievement.

Some of the best educators will tell you the uncomfortable truth that some of our supposedly struggling schools are not that way solely because educators are somehow not motivated, trained, mandated, paid or worked enough.

In fact, veteran teachers may tell you that some of our students fail because they choose not to do the work and because some parents are unwilling or unable to help or make them do the work and because our culture apparently no longer instills values that are essential for success at school, such as work ethic, personal accountability, persistence, resourcefulness, innovation, and pride.

No amount of reform, schemes, new programs with catchy titles like Race to the Top, or snake oil will ever substitute for joint and honest effort among everyone (i.e. “the whole village that raises the child”).

Hopefully, scapegoating others, rejecting shared responsibility, and trumpeting questionable solutions like merit pay for teachers will not win out in today’s culture over the hard work needed for our students to gain knowledge and wisdom. As Justice Sandra Day O’Connor eloquently stated, “We don't accomplish anything in this world alone... and whatever happens is the result of the whole tapestry of one's life [or system of education] and all the weavings of individual threads from one to another that creates something.”

Race to the Top

President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative has recently suggested “merit pay” for teachers—paying teachers differently based on the results they produce in the classroom. The National Education Association (NEA) reportedly opposes merit pay; but, is it an idea whose time has come?

Recently, the Washington, D.C., school board, with the help of school Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s leadership, has successfully contracted with teachers unions to implement performance pay. Reportedly, the agreement offers teachers more compensation in return for greater accountability in their students’ academic achievement. Significant bonuses will be offered to teachers who demonstrate “positive” results in the classroom. Bonuses of up to $20,000 to $30,000 will be given to teachers whose students show better-than-projected growth in test scores—one of the main criteria in the performance pay teacher evaluation system. However, this controversial teacher evaluation system will also allow principals to base their employment decisions on performance instead of seniority.

Rhee had this to say about the performance pay aspect of the new contract:

The new union contract passed unanimously by the City Council means students will have more effective teachers in the classroom and teachers will be rewarded monetarily for increasing student achievement. … It also tackles three of the perennial problems that have plagued school district agreements over time—lock step pay, seniority and tenure.

So, are we opening up a can of worms to define standards of success for our nation’s schools when the stakes are cash in the pockets of real teachers? Or, with some American schools in “crisis” and some of the old lockstep ways of running schools and motivating teachers aren’t working, perhaps maybe it’s time to think “outside of the box” and try a system that has the potential to dramatically improve our education system and make teaching careers more attractive by treating educators as “true” professionals.