Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Accountability is good

Accountability is a good thing.   It is just that testing is not a good thing.  Testing measures knowledge about a rather limited amount of content at one moment in time.  There is a huge number of variables that can and do confound this measurement.  An individual's anxiety, the "I studied the wrong thing" syndrome, and any disconnect between content and measurement are just a very few of the variables.   Additionally, while supposedly measuring learning, the tests are really set up as perform or consequences games.   People who do poorly on tests get low grades, fail to get an award or some other punishment.   With Race To the Top, teachers are now going to be punished for the behavior of their students on these tests.   The notion is that the tests will measure how well a teacher has taught.   There is just no way around the situation, regardless of intent, tests are punitive.
Well then if testing does not equal accountability, what does?
We must first begin with whom we want to hold accountable.   Are we holding the student accountable for learning?  In the end, the student will be accountable for learning with or without testing.   As long as the content we are teaching is useful to the student long term, then the student's life will bear the consequences of not learning that content.   If what we are teaching is not useful to the student then it really does not matter whether he or she has learned it or not.  And we should be ashamed to waste that student's time on something that is not useful.
Are we trying to hold the teacher accountable?  Testing students seems hardly the way to do that.  Providing teachers with a rubric of the kinds of behaviors we expect to see in the classroom would be a good beginning.   These rubrics should list only specific measurable observable behaviors.   Then teachers should be observed multiple times during the school year.   A remedial plan should be put into place for those teachers deficient in the expected behaviors.   Frequent in-service opportunities should be provided to all teachers to increase their skills.  Principals should return to their roles as instructional leaders.
Perhaps it is the school systems that should be held most accountable.   In most local jurisdictions schools take up more than the Lion's share of the budget.  The answer by the school systems to every problem  is to ask for more money, yet there are no measures to see that this money is well used.  There are two significant measures for school systems.  The first would be the number of dropouts.  We can reduce the number of dropouts by increasing the relevancy of the curriculum to ALL students, not just to those who are college bound.   When we speak of career readiness we need to include those careers that require technical training but not a program of higher education.  We need to follow up on our graduates.  What do they think of their education?   How has it worked for them? What could we be doing better?  How are our birds flying?  We are afraid to answer these real questions so we hide in the protective coloration  of a standardized test.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Leadership- does it even exist anymore

Is there no one who is willing to risk sticking her or his neck out to tell the truth and lead?  Of course, before anyone can lead he or she needs correct information.
Common Core is one of the latest bogey men out there.   For the one millionth time, it is NOT a federal program.   Yet last week in a debate, a man running for a seat on the county council proclaimed that he was not in favor of Common Core but could not fight it because "it is a federal program and we could lose federal dollars."  Listen up, it is NOT a federal program and one of the many complaints is that there are NO federal dollars attached to what will be an expensive rewrite of curriculum.  This man wants to represent people on a governing body and has a position on an important educational issue that is based on total misinformation.   How can we trust him to lead on other issues?  Does he make a habit of having opinions completely unsupported by facts.
Then there is Ebola.  Yes in Africa it is a very dangerous virus.  And not even in all of Africa.  Africa is a huge continent and only a small part of it is infected.  Then there is the United States.  We are a large county with approximately 330 million people.  So far, one person has died in our country and he was infected in Africa and misdiagnosed when he got here, so his treatment started well into symptoms.  He is still ONE person out of 330 million.   Run those numbers, I did.  That means .0000000909 people have died of Ebola in the United States.  That is .00000909%!   And yes there are two other people infected.  There have also been several people who were infected, treated and cured in our country. Politicians are screaming to close the borders!  Lots of citizens think we should too.   Three hundred thousand people die in our country every year from illness/disease that is the result of being overweight.  I have not heard a single person scream that we need to close the candy counters or purge the grocery stores of unhealthy food.  Where is responsible leadership gone on this issue?   Even the President has caved and hired an Ebola czar.  Maybe he ought to hire someone from Weight watchers as an executive assistant.  Between the media and politicians it is surprising anyone is venturing outside their homes.  Remember when we thought elected officials were elected to lead? Thing again.
Then there is going into the earth's rocks for oil and natural gas.  Is that process safe for the environment?  Are we doing it correctly?  I don't know.  And what I think is we don't have all of the science in to know for sure.  It has certainly helped us all economically as the price of oil is coming down steadily.  What I do know is that responsible leadership calls for getting all the facts that are currently available; weighing the pros and cons, and seeing how we can best mitigate the cons and move on.  I also know it is irresponsible and poor leadership to blame all of life's ills on this process just because you or your organization are against it. Organizations are asking people to donate to fight this process because it "could" expose chemicals that lead to breast cancer.  We really do not know what it COULD do.  Again the leaders of this organization have chosen to lead through fear rather than through thoughtful discussion and debate.
Leadership is tough.  It is not management or the status quo.  It is sticking your neck out and asking people to follow your direction.  It is risking being wrong.  But it is not purposely asking people to follow misinformation.  That is not leadership that is demagoguery.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Big Lie

Every day we are bearing false witness to our children.   It is something we do in the name of higher standards and equality.  We want all of our children to achieve high academic standards so we declare it so and go home.   Nothing on the ground changes.
The latest and greatest thought is that all children need to take algebra 2.   It is never exactly clear why this is so.  Mainly we are told that our children need algebra 2 in order to go to college.  There are no requirements that students master the skills in algebra 1, only that they "take it" before they "take" algebra 2.
We have a significant number of children in algebra 1 classes that have never mastered basic arithmetic.   Many of those children are poor or black or Hispanic.  Others are not.  The problem is we cannot as a society admit that the poor, black and Hispanic kids have not yet mastered arithmetic skills because that might mean they have not received a quality education.   And we all know that since our society is equal they must have received an education of equal quality to their socio-economic better off peers.
So we continue the big lie.  We teach kids material for which they are not in the least bit prepared.  We do not go back and teach them the 4th or 5th grade skills they desperately need and might actually use in their lives.  Indeed not.   In the 9th grade we teach algebra and lie to our colleagues, the children's families and worst of all to the children themselves.  We tell all these groups that we are teaching algebra.  How on earth could we be teaching algebra to children who have not mastered basic arithmetic?  The answer is we cannot.   But that has never stopped us before.
Since we have done such a great job of teaching algebra 1 to all of the children, we will now move onto algebra 2.   There will be many more children who don't learn algebra 2 than there are who haven't learned algebra 1.   Perhaps we will call this progress.
Someone once said that the bigger the lie, the more likely people are to believe it.  It is not clear just how many people are believing this lie.  Hopefully it is not the math teachers who are supposedly teaching algebra 1 and algebra 2.  Great empires have been built on the notion that you can fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time.
Here is the biggest foolishness of all- of what purpose is algebra 2 to the vast majority of all students. Oh right, forgot again, it will be needed in college.   Hey does that mean once college is done it can be forgotten altogether!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

What if you don't agree with the team

According to federal and state law, parents are equal partners in the team.  However, this situation does not always play out as described.   First of all the school team is made up of multiple school personnel.  So that means any issue that is voted on, the school wins.   It is not unusual for school personnel to meet prior to a team meeting and decide ahead of time what the school position is going to be.
What's a parent to do if the team's view of a situation differs from that of the team.   First and foremost, parents need to remember that the child will belong to the parent forever.   Whereas, the team will be done with this student in a few months or a year or two.  That gives the parent a lot more skin in the game.
So step one.  Parents should arrive at the meeting dressed like a grown up.  Ones appearance speaks a  lot toward ones credibility.
Secondly, parents should come with a friend, advocate or other parent.  It is good to have two sets of ears hearing what is being said.   It doesn't hurt to bring a small tape recorder either or else have the second person take complete notes.
Thirdly, parents should cross-examine presentations made by the school personnel regarding a child's needs.   How often has the child been observed?  Has the child been tested?  Has the professional met with the child?  How do these experiences compare with other children of a similar age.  Parents should be prepared to provide the same standard when presenting their views as to the child's needs.  When a parent simply says, "I believe my child can do better than that", it is not a strong case without evidence.
Fourthly, parents should summarize what is being said and attribute comments to the specific speaker.
At the end of the meeting, if parents disagree with the conclusions of the team, it is important for the parents to make sure they are summarizing the comments accurately.
Finally, parents should ask what the next level of appeal is.  There is usually another level that can review school based decisions.
Remember, the child belongs to the parents.   Their stake in the situation is the greatest of all, other than the child him or herself.  The cost of a mistake is borne by the child and the family, not the school system.  Go for the gold.