Monday, December 28, 2015

Of the people, by the people

Of the people, by the people

We live in a democracy. Most people probably know that.   Unfortunately many people have not a clue how that democracy works.  “How many states are in the union?” answer: 49.    “How many senators does each state have?” Answer: depends on how many districts are in the state.  “Who is our U.S. Senator?”  Answer: is it a man or a woman?    Before you get too carried away with the state of public school education, or blame it all on urban youth- Let me explain.   Each of these answers was proffered by a college educated professional person between the ages of 25 and upper 40’s.   Scary isn’t it?   I thought so too.
The success of a democracy is predicated on an educated electorate.  In fact, this was the basic reason for a free education at public expense for all Americans. We are failing miserably at that mission.  Most native-born citizens could not pass the citizenship test given to immigrants who seek to become naturalized citizens.  And it appears from recent presidential debates that not a few of those running for the nation’s highest office are familiar with our Constitution that if elected they would be swear to uphold.  Our democracy is at risk not so much from people desperately risking their lives to cross our southern border, nor from those terrorists groups half a world away, but from ignorance from within that is racing like a killing virus through our population.  Don’t get me wrong illegal immigrants and terrorist groups need attention, but unless the termites of ignorance are stopped before they bore holes in the very fabric of our country, there might not be much left once the illegals and terrorists get here.
The problem is serious enough that Sandra Day O’Connor a retired Supreme Court justice in 2009 launched an organization called iCivics.  The purpose of the non-profit is to promote civics education among students by providing teachers with lesson plans, games and curricula to more than 100,000 registered teachers.  Recently Justice Sonia Sotomayor has become a member of the organization’s Board of Directors. 

With all this noise about testing in reading and math, you would thing someone would worry about an educated citizenry.  No I am not talking about the foolishness of the government exams that ask how old does one have to be to run for governor.   If I wanted to run for governor I would find out.  Lots of people these days are jumping and shouting about their rights as citizens.  I’m not hearing much about the responsibilities of citizens.   If we are not careful, the government of the people and by the people just might perish from this earth.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Graduation Rates are Rising-that's the bad news

The U.S. Department of Education is falling over itself congratulating schools for a record 82% graduation rate for 2014; that is an increase of 1% over 2013.  Of course, graduation rates for African-American students, Hispanic students, low income, English language learners and children with disabilities all lag significantly behind those of their white counterparts.  Nonetheless, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is full of pride.

There are a couple of things people should know about these graduation rates.  First of all, in order to be counted as graduating a student must graduate “on time”.  That means within 4 years of starting high school.  It is very good to have a high percentage of your students graduating “on time”.  So even if you are a child with a disability, and even if that disability guarantees you a free, appropriate (emphasis added) education until you are 21, school systems will push you out the door if at all possible so you can be counted as graduating on time.  No matter that you have a legal right to more education that might improve your chances of success as an adult once you have exited high school.

Another issue with the emphasis on “on time” graduation rates is that while the graduation rates are going up, there is no evidence that the readiness for college and careers of high school graduates is also improving.  In fact, institutions of higher education report little change in the number of students who need remedial courses upon entering college.  It seems even plain kids are being pushed out the door rather than getting the education they need to succeed.

“Dropout factories” complicate the problem.   These are schools where as many as two-thirds of students drop out of school before completing their coursework.  Often these school buildings are in huge need of maintenance and the teachers are the least prepared.  Additionally, over 20 states don’t provide any English/language arts or math courses that prepare students for college and careers.  Over half of all states offer multiple paths to a diploma.  That in itself is not bad.   What is bad is the failure to prepare students for the next phase of their lives, regardless of how long it takes.

Now that would be something to celebrate.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Competency based education, not such a new idea

Competency based education, an idea whose time came many years ago.  But, hey, it is always good when people catch up. 

U.S. businesses continue to express concerns over the job-ready characteristics of high school and college graduates.   All the testing of the last twenty years has not yielded a better employee.   The Committee for Economic Development, a non-partisan public- policy group of business education leaders, convened a panel after a survey identified the skills most needed and most difficult to find in the workplace.  Their conclusion was that critical thinking and problem-solving in job applicants are the most essential but hardest to find.  Other competencies being sought are the ability to work with others of diverse backgrounds and teamwork/collaboration.  Employers say that most STEM based job skills  content can be out of date within a year or two but the other skills will last the lifetime.

Some of the problem might be parenting trends.  A dean of students for a California university recently described a group of babied middle and upper middle class freshmen students who looked to their parents to resolve and solve all of their problems. She  commented in her book that lower socio-economic students fared better because they were used to standing on their own.

Competency based education does not require memorization.  Students work to demonstrate the use of knowledge through achieving certain competencies.  It is a continuing work in progress.  There are no tests as we know them.  Instead students do projects that demonstrate understanding and use of knowledge.

The President just signed the Every Student Succeeds Act.  It is a re-write of No Child Left Behind that left quite a few kids and teachers behind.  However we are still on the “accountability” train and our definition of accountability is only testing. 

The Harbour School in Maryland has been doing Competency Based education for almost 20 years.  It is working very well as demonstrated by the success of its graduates.  Good to see some other folk are getting on board.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Where have all the teachers gone?

We are burning out teachers faster than we can produce them.  We spent a big chunk of the second half of the last century getting our best and brightest to go into teaching as a career.  And we are spending the first part of this century driving those people out in droves.  First we tried to bribe them with higher salaries.   Let’s face it.   Money has never been the primary attraction for teachers.  Sure people want a decent wage with reasonable benefits, but no one ever expected to get rich teaching.

One of the differences between any profession and other work is that professionals expect some portion of control over their lives. Teachers are losing that control almost daily.

Pacing Guides are one of the primary culprits.   Pacing guides dictate to teachers where that teacher should be each day in the curriculum guide.  They are disrespectful to the good judgment of a good teacher.  Pacing guides insure that content that will be on a test has been “covered” in classroom instruction.  In essence, they are in place to cover the behind of a school system in case parents complain that their children got low scores on the school-wide testing because the information was not taught.  Pacing guides take away teacher judgment and do not insure learning.  They probably get in the way of learning since a teacher may have to move on because of the guide before the children are ready.

Unions and school administrations also conspire to reduce teacher control.  Union officials decide, with some input from the rank and file, what they will go to the mat for in the contract.  Most union officers are no longer working in the field.  The union pays their salaries.  So it stands to reason, they want to stir up enough mischief to show they have been at the table.  System administrators speak for “the taxpayers”.  They regularly forget that teachers are also taxpayers as are the families of the children schools serve.  In truth, both organizations should be concerned about what is best for the kids.  The boots on the ground belong to teachers and they have the least input into these negotiations.

Teachers need and want professional development.  It should help them do their jobs better.  What teachers do not need and want is someone else telling them what professional development they need.  Yet school administrators are regularly handing down proclamations about what teachers need to learn to do their jobs better.  It would be nice if teachers were asked and allowed to develop their own professional development.

Finally as obvious as it may seem, people become teachers because they want to teach children.  Circumstances are conspiring to take the interaction between kids and teachers away from being a human relationship to being a data driven one. Teachers love to see faces light up; they love to be the agent of change in a child’s life.  They love to give and get hugs.  Last weekend I met a young teacher from a Title I school.  It is her first year as a classroom teacher.  She told me all about her pacing guides.  She also told me that she has to tell her children they cannot touch her and she cannot touch them.  She told me how sad it makes her feel because she knows that many of her children come from homes where they get little affection and she would love to give them a hug once in a while.

But she told me.  I explained to them; I cannot touch you at all- it is against the law.  Doesn’t really take all that much research to understand why the best and the brightest aren’t staying around very long.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Is the money spent on special ed services worth it?

What do you think?   Is it worth spending money on the education of a child with special needs?  I mean think about it, a special education probably costs around thirty to forty thousand dollars a year.   Public schools tell us that it costs about three times as much to educate a child with disabilities than it does a plain child.  So truthfully do you think the taxpayers are getting their money’s worth.  I mean let’s just talk money here, forget the moral responsibility.  We really do not know how these kids are going to turn out as adults.  I have seen a number of commentaries lately from our more conservative colleagues who think this expenditure may be a waste of money.
Here is another fiscally responsible thought.  High school costs about twice what it costs to educate a younger child.  All those additional courses and expensive equipment don't come cheaply.  Maybe there would be some way to filter out the kids who aren’t worth the investment.  European countries have been doing that for years.  Kids are tested at various plateau levels and those that don’t make the cut are shunted off to more vocational style programs.  Only those who make the grade get to go on to college preparations. 
Or maybe we could give the kids some psychological screening and those who are going on to commit crimes or even become serial killers would not need to have our tax money invested in THEM!   If we just knew in advance.
But the really big problem is that we DON’T know in advance. How do we know which kids who flunk the test aren’t the really creative thinkers who are going to discover some medical cure, some technological advance or even more importantly teach us how to talk and negotiate with each other to solve some serious world problems. 
The fact is we don’t know.   We don’t know which of the kids with disabilities will be that next brilliant engineer, a field where autism traits go a very long way toward success.  We don’t know which of those smartass kids will become a wonderful lawyer that will help us to understand each other and our relationship to the law.  It may just be that school skills aren’t necessarily the ones that lead to breakthrough achievements that help us all.
What we do know and what we know for sure, is that a democracy believes in its people.  A democracy believes in its people so deeply that it allows all of them to vote to choose the leader.  Even if those same people make foolish decisions.  There is no merit test for voting. 

If there is no merit test for voting, the most important thing we do in a democracy, why on earth would we have a perceived outcomes test for education.  Oh right there is that money thing, what’s wasting a few million here and there.  We do that everyday in a democracy too.  It’s called government contracts.  So maybe we should think of education as just one more government contract.  And in a way, you know it is.  It is a contract between the individual and the democracy.  We will educate you.  Now you use that education to make us a better democracy.  The system has worked pretty well so far.