Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Where oh where will a superintendent be found?

There is a new approach to leadership that has been happening in the last 5-10 years in this country.   A school system needs a new superintendent.  In the good old days, the Board of Education looked at the current system leadership and picked the next leader.   It was also not unusual for that next leader to have been groomed by the previous leader.  Such a quaint system, but it made for the orderly transition of leadership and the system itself was protected from upheaval.  And, of course, each new superintendent added his or her stamp to the way the system was run but there were not any huge breaks from the past.
Then came a time, when the common wisdom became we need to get someone from outside the system, we need new ideas, we need a shake up wizard.  Along with that notion came the present era of rock star superintendents.  These are folks who wander the country ever moving up the salary and system size ladder.  Their only interest in the new employer is how it will help them to climb to the next rung of the ladder.  When they finally get to whatever is the top of their ladder, they leave the aggravation of being a system superintendent and go to work for a big foundation or educational media company from whence they can sell products to former colleagues.
You will notice that rock star superintendents rarely stay more than 3-4 years in each new post.  Their goal is to make a short term splash so they can tout these achievements to the next system position they are seeking.  They certainly are not there when the fall-out comes from their mistakes.  Oh and be sure you note that each new superintendent says how much the system means to them and they are there for the duration.  What they do not say is just how long that duration will be.
The most recent Baltimore City superintendent extorted a huge contract from the Board AND an assurance that he would stay as long as they wanted him and that the Board, his employer, could not challenge or question what he did.  The Board, for whatever reason, bought into the idea.  Of course, he broke his contract and left after 4 years to be on the faculty at a university.  But the Board did not learn from experience and hired his successor also from an outside district.
So now we have situations where schools systems are routinely thrown into upheaval by new leadership, each new leader working fast and furiously to leave a footprint for the next job.  Existing leaders who have given their professional lives to the system are routinely marginalized.
No new curriculum is going to fix this problem.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

People for the ethical treatment of kids

I am told that cheating is on the rise in all schools.   Students are accessing term papers online, are texting each other during tests, giving other students a heads up re: upcoming questions on quizzes.  I am not sure that we are seeing a spate of poor ethics or if the tools for being dishonest have just become so much more efficient that more people are using them.
Whatever the reason it bothers me.   Years ago when high stakes testing became part of No Child Left Behind, I mentioned to someone that the higher stakes would cause more cheating by kids and staff.  People seemed stunned that I would have such a low opinion of my professional colleagues, not to mention the students.  Turned out I was correct.  My problem is I think we are teaching the wrong thing in the way we handle testing.
First of all, every survey will tell you that the traits employers value most is cooperation among team members, problem solving and multi-cultural acceptance.
Yet our testing system rewards just the opposite.  Students are tested alone.   If you ask for help, that is cheating and not allowed.  You may NOT ask for any help.  If you are weak in one area and a classmate is strong in that area, you may not ask that person to team with you in doing the test.   Yet that is certainly what you would do in the workplace and your employer would value that effort.
Tests are mostly designed for knowledge recall.  Here is an area where technology soars.  Why bother to store all that information in your head when you can find facts on the internet faster than a heartbeat.  Instead wouldn't it be better if we taught the kids WHERE to look for the answers and HOW to evaluate the information found.  Wouldn't it be ever so much better if we gave students a problem to solve, had them pick some team members and then present their solution to the problem.
That approach would do a couple of things.  First of all, it is hard to find a pre-done paper when there is no paper involved.  Since each assignment would be unique, it would be more difficult to find the complete answer online and finding the facts you needed to work with would be quite ok.  Secondly, this "test" would mimic the "tests" students would find on the job when they are employees.
One of the things we have learned in this information age is that facts are not immutable for long.  All of us need to learn to work in a changing world and deal with new information.  We need to work with others to solve problems.  We need to get along.  With the new Common Core testing, the situation is going to get even more out of synch with the real world waiting for today's students.  Let's prepare them now and make school relevant to where they will be, not where they are.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Common Core Uniting the Right and the Left

Can anything more be written about the Common Core that will further enlighten anyone.   Well maybe the civil disobedience it has stoked.  But one thing is sure, it has united the right and the left in clear opposition but for different reasons.
The right, particularly the Tea Party, denounces the Common Core as yet another opportunity for  a federal take over of our schools.  Of course, they are wrong about that as they are wrong about so many things.  Common Core is not a federal program, it came from an attempt by the nation's governors to standardize what is taught across our country.  It is true that federal funds have supported the development of the testing programs that Common Core has spawned.  Nonetheless, right wing legislators across the country are trying to dismantle CC through direct legislative mandates to defunding any efforts to develop curriculum and/or testing.
The left wing is also opposed to Common Core.  Teachers and their unions do not like the link to their evaluations and testing.  Race to the Top, a federal funding voluntary program, required that teacher evaluations be linked to testing programs.  And the Common Core testing programs are what we have now.  Folks who are just anti-testing in general are also opposed to the program.
Oh and then there are just ordinary families who do not like to see the melt-downs that their kids are experiencing when testing season begins.  They are also not happy with the preparation for the tests.  Anecdotal evidence seems to be that families are so unhappy that they are organizing civil disobedience stay at home during test days.  Sort of like, "hell no, we won't go" on test days.
This year's testing is really more about testing the test than the kids.  But the children still need to go through the experience for the test to get tested.  It will be interesting to see what form this whole program looks like after all the stake holders weigh in.   More to come, I am sure.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Preparing kids for jobs

There is no part of our lives today that does not include a computer.  Seventeen states and the District of Columbia now have policies in place that allow computer science to count as math.  Some states are letting it count as a foreign language.   Think about it.  The UPS guy has a tablet computer for the recipient to sign for the service.  We all use smartphones that are wonderful mini computers.   We go onto the internet to find out the most arcane information.
Yet here is the most remarkable thing.   The Common Core State Standards have the most minimal mention of computer science in the standards for math or science.  Some advocates report that by 2020 there will be 1.4 million jobs in the computing field but just 400,000 college computer science majors.  The Computer Science Teachers Association defines computer science as the study of computers and algorithmic processes, including hardware, software and programming.  The data are even more astounding when you take a look at the racial and gender divide.  In 2013 no African-American students took the AP exam in computer science in a total of 11 states, and no Hispanic students took it in 8 states.  Fewer than 20% of the test takers overall were female and three states had no females taking the test.
We can't solve this problem with just legislation.   We need commitment and we need teachers.  The overwhelming majority of teachers is female and these women are notoriously science and math adverse.  This would be an excellent time to get people from industry to come into the class room and teach 1-2 periods a day.  Students could be taken to the community to see what the workplace would be like.
Common Core is supposed to be preparing students for college and careers, yet we are ignoring the major area of career growth for years to come.  We are being faced with another instance of politicians seeing the need and taking the lead.  That is how we got No Child Left Behind and other political disaster solutions to education problems. Some state legislators are passing bills that require computer science as a foreign language, others as a math course.  These legislators know not what they are doing but the are rushing to fill a vacuum.   Where are the educators?  Why are we, yet again, allowing politicians to hijack our profession.    The time is now for educators to work this out.