Monday, April 28, 2014

A Spoonful of Sugar Helps the Medicine Go Down...

Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another.     - G.K. Chesterton

In my last several posts I have highlighted concerns I have with the current reform environment in our country. However, it is easy to point the finger without offering any solutions. The following are some ideas for ways we could approach the situation in a different, and at least in my mind, more productive manner. This list is not meant to be a comprehensive or in depth analysis. That would be the suitable topic for a book. These are merely intended as ideas to stimulate discussion and maybe, just maybe, begin the process for productive reforms.

The process of change is never easy and compromise can often be a bitter pill to swallow. The larger the organization or system the more difficult it is to institute comprehensive meaningful change. When you are talking about changing public education in the United States you are looking at a monumental undertaking. There is no silver bullet. This is not a process that can be effectively navigated though top-down, mandate driven reform where that change is simply imposed upon educators with minimal input from them on the substance and process by which that change occurs.  Educators are professionals and should be treated as such by those developing the policies and regulations by which our professional activities are governed. Change through coercion, threat or fear will not be effective and we must engage with teachers to develop meaningful strategies for comprehensive reform.

1. First and foremost we need to treat our teachers with respect and value their professionalism, experience and opinions. We need to stop viewing teachers and unions as adversaries that must be controlled, but rather treat them the professionals that they are and engage them in the process of change. All educators recognize that we need to change our instructional practices to meet the needs of today’s students. We must stop expecting students to learn the way we teach, but rather we must work together to develop strategies to teach the way they learn. Our country is now well into the Information Age and this access to an often-overwhelming amount of information is creating a cultural shift the likes of which hasn't been seen since the Industrial Revolution.  Our schools are lagging behind in this transition, but the current accountability driven landscape is not conducive towards moving us in the right direction as we are too busy trying to comply with the latest mandate to come down the road.

2. Please give educators room to breath. Even assuming that all the initiatives we are required to implement are good ideas it is impossible to effectively implement them all at once. The volume and pace of these mandates are inhibiting our ability to make effective process. We need to slow down the rate of this transition in order to have time for a productive dialogue. Systemic change can not be accomplished overnight and we need time to implement initiatives in a thoughtful manner so as to adequately assess their effectiveness. 

3. Common Core: Massachusetts has always been considered a leader in the standards based education movement. The previous Massachusetts State Standards were created by teachers working in conjunction with the Department of Education. These teachers were both experts in their content areas and experienced in teaching students at the appropriate grade levels. This insured that the standards covered the necessary content while at the same time being developmentally appropriate for the grade level at which they were taught. It also lent credibility to both the process and the product that was created. The use of those standards by our schools made Massachusetts a world leader in the field of education.
I am not against the Common Core State Standards, but would like to see us utilize them as a model upon which to base our own state standards. The very name implies such a process.There is much about those standards that I feel is beneficial and works to create a positive instructional shift in our classroom practices. The problem with the  2011 Massachusetts State Standards for English Language Arts and math is that the implementation has been a disaster. We moved too quickly to full implementation without taking the time to engage all stakeholders in the discussion. This has led to our current situation where misinformation abounds and levels of distrust are rising. Additionally, teachers have not had the time and training nor been given the necessary resources to effectively implement the new standards. I would encourage those at the Department of Education to restore the Standards Committees and review the 2011 Massachusetts State Standards for English Language Arts and math. This will once again engage educators in the development of our standards creating an open and transparent process to lend credibility to the final product thereby creating ownership while addressing the concerns expressed by many teachers.

4. Standardized Testing: We must end this unproductive fixation upon standardized testing as the primary metric whereby we assess the success or failure of our students, teachers and schools. Research consistently demonstrates that test scores as they are currently being utilized are not effective at determining true student ability or teacher performance. Policy makers give lip service to educating the whole child while creating a situation that forces us to narrow our curricular offerings, particularly in this time of fiscal uncertainty.
            Rather than focus on improving our students’ ability to score well on standardized tests, let us focus once again on producing students who have the broad range of skills necessary to be productive participants in our modern society. Innovation and creativity are the hallmarks of our nation and have led to the United States being a world leader. These characteristics should be encouraged through a broad curriculum that allows students to find what they are passionate about and inspires them to achieve. As Leonardo Da Vinci recognized well before the advent of standardized tests,  “Study without desire spoils the memory, and it retains nothing that it takes in.” 

5. It is time for policy makers to put adequate resources aside to make the necessary changes to education. Additionally, this competition driven market approach to education is unproductive. Competition by its very nature necessitates that there be a winner and a loser. None of our children should be allowed to fall into the later category. Education is based upon the concept of collaboration. We must bring that back into the discussion and support the programs necessary to achieve sustainable change and the long-term success of our students and our schools.

6. Schools are increasingly called upon to serve a social service role in our society. We provide programs for behaviorally challenged students, offer counseling services, advise families and provide meals along with a myriad of other services often without having appropriate training or resources. One of the best decisions our district has made to improve the quality and climate of our schools was the addition of licensed clinical social workers to work with our staff, students and parents. This has had a dramatic impact on the overall school climate as well as aiding teachers with appropriate strategies to utilize in working with disruptive or troubled students. The problem is that these individuals are overwhelmed by the need for their services.
            One idea to help in providing necessary services to children and families would be to embed workers from the State Department of Children and Families in each school district. Schools and educators have the most information on those families that are struggling and in need of support. However, often due to poor communication or lack of follow through our concerns go unheeded. Placing DCF workers in the districts would bring them to where the difficulties truly manifest themselves and work to strengthen the relationships between two organizations (schools and DCF) that provide vital services for our children. This solution would involve a financial commitment by the State, but in the end the results could potentially be dramatic.

7. We cannot truly change our educational practices or reform our schools until we work to update how we train our teachers. It is time for High Education and K-12 to stop pointing fingers at each other and work together to develop new strategies for training teachers. This is not something either entity should try and accomplish on it’s own. We need to bring together representative practitioners from each level to work together with state policy makers to create a system that prepares teachers for the realities of a modern classroom. If we are to strengthen the abilities of our teachers, we must work together to strengthen the processes by which they are created.
            We must then continue that partnership to provide relevant training opportunities for our current teachers so that they are afforded the opportunity to learn and grow as professionals. We must work to ensure that such professional development opportunities are not what administrators or policy makers think they need, but are responsive to what teachers feel they need to improve their craft. If we listen to those concerns, we will go a long way to reforming our instructional practices to address our current situation. 

As I stated at the beginning of this post this list is not meant to be a comprehensive or in-depth analysis. This is merely a starting point for the discussion. Learning should be inspirational and fun. Young children recognize this and are eager to absorb and understand the world around them. We need to stop our arguing with each other long enough to figure out how to maintain that level of enthusiasm throughout their educational career. For all the stress, frustrations and the headaches, I love my job. Every day I get to go to work with people who care about children and want to prepare them for life. It is time that as a country we stop spinning our wheels, end the bickering, and work together for lasting positive change in our schools. 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

WE the People of the United States...

The marvel of all history is the patience with which men and women submit to burdens unnecessarily laid upon them by their governments. – Senator William H. Borah (1865-1940)

There is an apparent disconnect between the development and implementation of educational policy in the United States. Since the very inception of our country, public education has fallen under the purview of the states through the application of the 10th amendment which reserves all powers to the states that are not expressly granted to the Federal Government by the Constitution. This was not an oversight by the founding fathers. It was yet another expression of a young nation’s healthy suspicion of an overly powerful central government and the colonial tradition of a locally controlled educational system responsive to local needs and identity. In recent years, the educational system in the United States has received a substantial amount of negative attention and, as it currently functions, has been deemed a problem. Consequently, a great deal of political attention and energy has been dedicated to the creation of policies designed as a reaction to this perceived crisis. The fact that education is now considered a national problem, in what has traditionally been a state and locally controlled area, exacerbates the tensions inherent in a federal system.

As I have stated before, education is an inherently local pursuit. Each community has its own distinct culture and climate. As Americans we revel in and celebrate our differences while remaining committed to the larger concept of our Nation. Uniformity of expectations, particularly when imposed with little substantive input from those who must implement them, leads not to exceptionalism, but rather drives us towards mediocrity. I understand that this statement seems almost counter intuitive. If we are all held to a high standard then we should all excel. Right? However if, as an implementer of educational policy, my beliefs, values, opinions and expertise are not contained in those expectations then I will not value them. If I do not value them, then I will merely comply with the mandates I have no choice but to carry out. I will not be inspired to go beyond what is required. I will resist, most likely passively, and try to squeeze in those practices that align with my beliefs and local established priorities.

The Federal Government has no direct authority over the field of education. It exercises its will upon the states in this arena through the application of the Federal Government’s spending power. It is not mandatory for states to implement federal initiatives such as Race to the Top. Nevertheless, failure to do so means they will forgo any federal funds for education allocated through this program. There is no doubt that Race to the Top, although it is coercive, is a permissible use of Congress’ spending power. The Federal Government has the right to set conditions for the receipt of those funds available under this initiative (see South Dakota v. Dole). However, in this time of fiscal austerity, I find such coercive use of the Federal Government’s authority to be unconscionable. How can they fail to fully fund long-term bedrock federal education programs such as Head Start and IDEA while creating competitive politically motivated initiatives designed to nationalize our educational system?

As educators we are ultimately responsible for the implementation of any new policy and with that responsibility comes the power to determine just how it will be implemented in our individual districts, schools and classrooms.. How do we navigate this crowded mandate driven landscape? The answer is simple. When a new initiative is handed down from above (state or federal) local educators need to work together to determine if this initiative is one we feel will positively impact learning in our district. If it will not, then we need to determine what the minimum compliance level is for that mandate so as not to risk penalties imposed by the State or Federal government. Initiatives we believe in are the ones we put our time, resources and effort behind, along with our own locally established priorities. A problem remains however, as you can only stretch resources so far and the numbers of mandates are crushing us so that even this approach is becoming challenging.

This leads to the situation in which we now find ourselves where local initiatives are crowded out by State and Federal mandates. Locally elected officials no longer have the ability to align available resources with the priorities of their communities as much of those resources must be allocated to cover legislative requirements. At the state level, the intentions of federal educational policies often fall apart when they run into local realities. This phenomenon is also seen as unintended consequences occur when state policies are implemented at the school and district level, creating unforeseen costs or new challenges to be overcome. This tension is present in all aspects of the management of governmental affairs, but the fact that education affects children adds an emotional component to the discussion.

Legislation alone is not enough to compel sustainable effective change in a school environment. Implementation of externally defined accountability standards such as those imposed by the Federal Government on states and which the states then pass on to the schools often meet with resistance. Policies that affect a school environment must be flexible and adaptable to the individual needs of the specific school community in which they are to be implemented. Educators, parents and the community must be engaged in the process of change, and their input valued in order for implementation of a new policy to be successful because they are the individuals who should ultimately have control over educational systems.

Policies are not static and the changing political climate in the United States often alters the direction of the public’s will as expressed through the laws passed by its legislators. It is time for us to remove all doubt and make our will known. We have had over a decade of the top down mandate driven reform effort and yet our policy makers insist our educational system is still failing. It is time to try a different approach. Rather than pushing educators aside or viewing them as opponents in the debate, engage them in the discussion. Utilize their knowledge and experience to make lasting substantive changes that will allow our educational system the freedom to strive for excellence.

It is evident from the growing discontent from educators and parents that they do not feel their voices have been heard in the educational policy debate occurring in this country. These are the groups that must be engaged and whose views should be given the most weight in the final determination of the direction we should take. I encourage you to contact your state and federal representatives. Make your voices heard. It is my hope that the voices are beginning to speak loudly and with enough of a common message that policy makers will soon be forced to listen.