Monday, November 21, 2016

In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.

In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity ― Albert Einstein

Now that the question of raising the charter cap in Massachusetts has been resolved, at least for now, I am hopeful that we can begin to examine and discuss other necessary changes to our educational system here in the Commonwealth. I say this with a certain amount of trepidation as it seems that every time those discussions arise the end results rarely align with what educators in the field believe is important to improve our system. However, there is an area of immediate concern that should be addressed.  

The state accountability system here in Massachusetts is currently in a state of disorder. Over the last three years students in the commonwealth have taken four different state exams (MCAS, PARCC [paper based], PARCC [computer based], and MCAS 2.0). I understand that the DESE has done what it could to crosswalk the scores for these assessments in order to place schools in levels and assign percentile rankings. However, with many different assessment scores comprising districts' accountability rating based on a four-year calculation, the validity of those calculations are very much in question at least by many of us in the field. Furthermore, regardless of the efforts taken to be able to compare scores/growth/achievement levels on the various exams, many important variables have not been taken into account.

For example, student performance across the state has demonstrated that students who took the PARCC exam on paper score higher than those who took the PARCC exam on computers. Although analysis of the testing data has proven this to be true, this fact is not taken into account by the state for purposes of accountability and those scores are compared as if they were of equal weight. Additionally, at least 40 schools across the state saw their accountability levels negatively impacted due to opt-out students lowering participation rates. Not only do opt-out students impact participation rates, but this has the added effect of lowering scores as we have seen that the vast majority of those students are our higher achieving students. Thus, achievement in those schools is negatively impacted along with participation.

My reason for pointing out the above concerns is to encourage that, while we finalize both the exam and its impact on our accountability system, the department should reset accountability for next year when all districts have taken MCAS 2.0. I am not suggesting a moratorium on accountability, but rather a resetting of accountability determinations for all schools so that any variables, uncertainty or problems with having multiple state exams figure into the accountability determination is eliminated providing equity once again between districts.

In addition to resetting accountability determinations, we should also investigate the development of a calculation to weight the paper vs. computer based exam for MCAS 2.0 during this transition from one mode to the other. Some districts have made the decision to move immediately to full computer based testing because, although they know  in the short term it will negatively impact their scores compared to those districts that remain with paper based exams, they feel it will be a benefit in the long run as their students will gain familiarity with that platform.  

Some schools systems, however, even if they have the capability to take the MCAS 2.0 on computers, are reluctant to make that move before they absolutely have to because they know that students score higher on the paper based exams than they do on computer based ones. Basically, it's the difference between playing the long game instead of focusing on an immediate return. However, this fact is working to inhibit this transition resulting in an unequal playing field for districts.

These types of decisions are not educational decisions and they do not essentially effect the delivery of educational services to our students one way or the other. They are rather strategic calculations to take a big hit now rather than smaller ones over time so that in upcoming years the scores would be more competitive. This is a strategic gamesmanship decision and calculation all superintendents are being driven to consider due to the nature of this assessment system being in flux for years now. This should not be the case.

Furthermore, in looking to mitigate detrimental impacts to districts of this system in transition, the DESE’s idea of “hold harmless” is not a viable solution to this problem. To say that districts will be "held harmless" has no real meaning for those of us in the field for two primary reasons.  First, districts are not truly held harmless as, if we continue with the current method of calculating accountability, individual year’s scores are still factored into a four-year accountability determination. Thus, those scores continue to follow (harm) us for 4 years. Second, even in the current year we are not "held harmless" The harm is in public perception not our actual accountability rating. That perception is dramatically shaped by the percentile ranking of a school even more so than the accountability "level". Consequently, since the drop in percentile ranking is still shown on the district profile, even though they are "held harmless", public perception of the district is harmed.

At a minimum, we need to reset accountability levels after the administration of the MCAS 2.0 this year so that we all have a level playing field with the same assessment.  Additionally, taking this action would mean that districts truly were held harmless during this transition. As part of this calculation developing a method to weight computer versus paper based testing will add further validity to the system and help spur the transition to a fully computer based system by removing districts’ incentives to delay.

In the end, all that educators are looking for is an accountability system that gives a fair and accurate picture of the health of a district. I still assert that standardized testing alone will not accomplish this goal and that we need a more comprehensive accountability system that takes a holistic approach based on more than test scores, but that is a larger discussion for another day.  In the meantime, I believe that the steps outlined above would certainly help in moving us in a direction that provides greater clarity and equity in our current accountability system

Monday, October 17, 2016

A narrative is like a room ...

A narrative is like a room on whose walls a number of false doors have been painted; while within the narrative, we have many apparent choices of exit, but when the author leads us to one particular door, we know it is the right one because it opens. - John Updike

As the Charter school debate continues to blaze, in this state and across the country, it is helpful to examine the narrative which is driving this push by charter advocates to increase the number of charter schools. Charter School advocates assert that every child is entitled to the opportunity for a high quality educational experience and that traditional public schools, particularly in our urban areas, are “failing” in their duty to provide such services. We have for the past 20 years or so labored under our current educational policy agenda centered upon state standards, standardized assessments and punitive consequences for schools for failure to meet those standards. As a result of these polices, overall performance on Tests such as NAEP and PISA showed some improvement, but gaps still exist between the aggregate scores for all students and some subgroups such as those delineated by race, economic status and/or students with disabilities. However, rather than blame the policies that drive this system for these gaps, the blame for that failure is being placed upon the districts and schools responsible for implementing them.

Charter school advocates would now have us include within this narrative that charter schools are inherently better than public schools and thus we should have more of them to allow parents the “choice” of a better education for their children. The data does not bear out this viewpoint however, as although there are some high performing charter schools just as there are high performing traditional public schools, when taken in the aggregate, charters do not score appreciably higher on state assessments. Additionally, recent studies seem to shed light on the fact that charter students may be less prepared than their traditional public school counterparts for success in college and careers.

The idea of charter schools has now gone well beyond the mission for which they were originally conceived. Charters were never designed to replace public schools, but rather to fill the gaps for specific populations of students and as a laboratory for innovations that could then be shared with traditional public schools thereby serving to improve the system as a whole. This sharing of innovative practices has yet to come to fruition and often charters themselves seem reluctant to participate in that practice.

As an example, let’s take a look at the publically available employment contract for the Rising Tide Public Charter School in Plymouth. According to the language found in the confidentiality provision of the employment contract for the that school, teachers are prohibited from sharing information with others which “includes but is not limited to matters of a technical nature such as methods of instruction, curriculum development, proposed changes to curriculum, and similar items…” This demonstrates that not only are charters uninterested in sharing any practices with public schools, their teachers are, at least at this school, specifically prohibited from doing so.

In addition to this hurdle, the 2014 report of MA State Auditor Suzanne Bump found, among other flaws in the accountability and oversight by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, that the mechanisms for “sharing” of innovative practices had not even been established. Consequently, although substantial questions remain about the accountability, oversight and funding of charter schools, we are to believe that the solution is to increase their number.

Competition for scarce resources from the state also adds to the complexity of this question. Policy makers who favor our current system often like to assert that the development of Massachusetts statewide standards for teaching and learning coupled with assessment of those standards through a standardized state test propelled our Commonwealth on an upward trajectory from a good educational system to a great one that leads the country and is competitively ranked among the best in the world. However, what those same individuals overlook, or at best downplay, is the massive infusion of money and resources that accompanied that change in practice.

We now find ourselves in a similar situation as faced our Commonwealth in the early 1990’s with the Foundation Budget Review Commission finding last year that schools in Massachusetts are underfunded by billions of dollars. In McDuffy v. Secretary of the Executive Office of Education, the Supreme Judicial Court held that the education clause of our Commonwealth’s Constitution is not “merely aspirational or hortatory, but also imposes on the Commonwealth an enforceable duty to provide an education for all its children, rich and poor, in every city and town through the public schools.”  We can only hope that it won’t take a looming court case like McDuffy to spur necessary legislative action.

Today however, rather than explore policy changes that might remedy this situation, charter advocates assert that we must increase the number of charter schools so that students have the “choice” to attend a higher performing school. This argument defies logic as the creation of more charter schools would strip even more resources from struggling schools in our neediest communities already found to be underfunded by the review commission. How will this do other than exacerbate the disparity and increase the challenges faced by our neediest schools and populations?

One need only look to the disarray created in other large urban environments such as Chicago and Detroit to see the educational chaos that results from charter caps and regulations that are too loose allowing for the creation of weak charters that fail to meet the needs of their student populations. There is a reason that millions of dollars are pouring into Massachusetts from out of state interests in support of more charters in this state. Right now in Massachusetts we have relatively few charter school run by “for profit” management companies. Raising the cap on Charters in the Commonwealth could result in a system that sees the influx of more of these entities risking the results found across the country when profit is placed before educational considerations. Please let us remember that these are PUBLIC funds that those entities are using to profit themselves.

I can already hear charter advocates complaining that this is a doomsday scenario. However, that is but one risk inherent in this push to increase the number of charters in our state. The argument that increased number of charter creates a competitive environment where traditional public schools will be encouraged to rise to the occasion fails to take into account that in competition there is always a winner and a loser. None of our children should be losers when it comes to access to a free and appropriate public education.  It is time to ignore the false doors and find the door that opens to supporting educational opportunities for all our children. 

Thursday, September 1, 2016

It is time to do that which is hard...

Well, it’s that time of year again when, with a big yawn and stretch, our schools slowly awake from their summer slumber as staff and students return after their annual summer hiatus. Soon the halls will once again be filled with life. This is a period of expectation with the whole year before us. The trials and tribulations of last year that wore us down have faded and we are emotionally charged, expectant, and ready to embrace the school year before us.

These are turbulent times in public education as schools adapt to the new realities of the cultural shifts affecting our society. Reflecting upon the challenges facing public education in our country I am forced to ask myself when as a nation did we stop dreaming big? From manifest destiny, the building of the intercontinental railroad and the development of the assembly line to the establishment of our National Parks, the construction of the interstate highway system, and travel to the moon Americans have always dreamed big. While the execution of those dreams was at times questionable and the steps taken may have created controversy, it was the vision, drive and willpower, both individually and collectively, to achieve greatness that propelled this country to leadership on the world stage.

On September 12, 1962, President Kennedy delivered what is commonly referred to as his "We choose to go to the moon" speech.

We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.

President Kennedy committed us to reaching the moon within the decade of the 1960’s. He had no idea whether we would succeed or fail. It was a big risk, but one which he believed was essential for our country. He recognized that, even if we were to fail, the advances created in the attempt alone were worth the effort. So he took that risk and led us down the difficult path towards what seemed at the time an unreachable goal.  

When did we as a country stop doing that which is hard? When did we become a risk adverse myopic society fixated on transactions lacking the patience and political willpower for large scale transformational change? Such change is often difficult to measure, except over time, requires working together to build consensus and will entail mistakes and setbacks along the way.  The polarization of our political environment prioritizes Party over progress, maintaining power over doing that which is right, and consequently tweaks rather than transforms our current systems. This is particularly true with respect to public education.

One personal quality that I admit can be both a boon and a burden is that I am not good at moderation. I have a strong tendency to go “all in”. About seven years ago I decided to start running for the first time. Within eight months of that first run, I ran my first marathon. Shortly thereafter I began competing in triathlons. Within one year of making that decision I competed in my first half-ironman triathlon. I relay these examples not to brag, although I must admit I am proud of those accomplishments, but to provide context and understanding for the following: When asked what my goal is as an educator my response is always, “To reform public education”.

I am not so arrogant to believe that I can actually accomplish this on my own, but my goal remains as I take every opportunity to work with likeminded individuals to collectively change our educational system. The work is hard, but necessary, as our system must change to meet the needs of today’s students and society. In my district I encourage my teachers to take risk, try something new and work together to change our practices as much as the possible within the constraints of our current system. However, if we are to make real, substantive, and lasting progress we need to change the current educational polices that work to inhibit that change through a primary focus on measuring and accountability rather than innovation. 

Consequently, to the teacher in the classroom I ask, what are you doing to utilize the latest technologies and change your practices as new opportunities for your students become available? To the administrator in the building I ask, how are you supporting those teachers by encouraging and modeling these practices through your own actions? And, most importantly, to our policy makers I ask, what are you doing to listen to all educators (rather than a select chosen few) and support necessary changes to our system providing flexibility for growth and transformation? I ask these questions not to criticize, but to encourage you to think beyond the immediate to what is possible.           

It is time to stop merely doing that which is easy or expedient and work together to do that which is hard by instituting necessary reform. It is time to put aside Party to do that which is best for our country and its children. It is time to remember what truly made America great finding the vision and courage to set long term goals while practicing the patience to see the process through. It’s time to stop arguing over increasing the cap on charter schools or what new test we will use or how to prove educators are doing their jobs, thus breaking this fixation on tweaking policies that have proven ineffective at providing desired results. It’s a new school year and it’s time to do, once again, that which is hard. Dream big and go “all in” to reform public education. 

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

There has to be a better way...

It’s that time of year again. State standardized testing season is upon us. Across the Commonwealth students in grades 3 and up will have the opportunity to prove what they have learned over the course of this year through their performance on a standardized state assessment. At least, theoretically, that it is what these tests are supposed to measure. The results from these tests will then be used to hold teachers, schools, and districts accountable, ranking our schools across the state from lowest to highest based almost exclusively on the performance of their students on these exams. In order to maximize performance, schools often try not to schedule more than one session per day as student performance declines in subsequent sessions due to fatigue. Furthermore, due to staffing, resource constraints, and students needing accommodations, different grade levels are tested at different times and on different days. Consequently, with multiple sessions in each content area across many days, the disruption to the learning environment and lost instructional time has a substantial impact in our schools.     

Advocates of this approach assert that such an accountability systems is essential, for otherwise how are we to know how our schools are performing.  Without such a system how can we compare one school and district to another? Without such a system how can we identify weak schools or teachers? These arguments are easily understandable and seem logical when taken at face value. However, educators know that these arguments are buttressed by false logic inherent in their formation and based upon the presumption that these tests, taken in isolation, are a true and accurate measure of school and teacher performance as well as individual student achievement.  In reality the steps necessary to gain a true picture of a district and school’s performance are much more complex and comprised of a rich tapestry of indicators. The difficulty is that the complexity of that process is difficult to boil down to a number or data point.

Complex policy discussions are difficult today because the media forces us to argue in soundbites. Additionally, the emergency atmosphere currently surrounding education leads to a situation where immediate results are seen as necessary to reform what is continually portrayed as a failing system. This creates an environment where actions taken are transactional instead of transformational. Transformation of a system takes time and patience. It involves false starts, failures and trips down blind alleys. However, in the end, such time spent would result in a transformed system that is reshaped in the image of our modern society and culture. Today in education, everybody is talking about innovation, but few are doing anything truly innovative. Our current system is designed to drive us toward standardized delivery of education services which inhibits necessary innovation and mires us in mediocrity. Pockets of excellence do emerge, but it is difficult as we struggle upstream against the deluge of polices flooding our overburdened system. Educators realize this, but are held hostage to our test scores as these are the primary metric by which the state judges our performance.

This year in Massachusetts the situation has reached a level that is truly unbelievable. Students across the state will be taking multiple forms of state assessments.  Students in some districts will continue taking the traditional paper based MCAS exam. Other students will be taking the paper based PARCC exam and still others will be taking the PARCC exam on computers. Further complicating the picture is the fact that some districts whose students took the PARCC exam on computer last year have now switched back to have them take it on paper instead. Why you might ask? The answer is that student performance across the state demonstrated that students did better when taking the exam on paper as opposed to computer.  Given the high stakes nature of the results of these exams for districts one can’t fault systems for trying to give themselves a competitive advantage by gaming the system. However, what do such strategies have to do with an accurate measurement of student achievement?

The state will point out that schools that have chosen to have their students take PARCC will be “held harmless” if their scores decline. The problem is that schools will only be held harmless for students’ achievement scores and not participation rates. Across the state parents, concerned about the impact that the chaotic approach to standardized testing outlined above is having upon the educational environment in our schools, are expressing their dissatisfaction in the only way left to them: by opting their children out of standardized state assessments. No one is listening to their concerns, so they are left with no alternative course of action.. Now, administrators are anxious as this will create a situation which negatively impacts schools and districts as they decline in “levels” when their participation rates fall.  Furthermore, the state refuses to set up a process to even track the number of students who are opted out. One can only assume that they don’t want to have the ability to accurately report how many students were opted out as they feel that this might encourage the movement.

There has to be a better way. It is time to infuse some rationality into this discussion. It is time to put these state accountability provisions on hold while we work on the next generation MCAS exam that is currently under development. The problem is that the development of that exam is being rushed because of an extremely aggressive timeline scheduled to have that exam ready for next year. I do not fault the efforts of those working on that project, but rarely does a rushed development process lead to a solid end product. We need to stop worrying about merely getting this new exam done and worry rather about getting it right. We need to work together to determine what is the most focused and concise exam possible to minimize the disruption to instructional time in our schools, yet still garner the information we need to assess performance. We need to ask the question if something else such as performance based assessment measures could help provide a more complete picture of student performance.  We need to work to develop a set of additional school performance indicators to obtain an accurate and comprehensive picture of school and district performance so that we are not relying on test scores alone. We need to take the time to do the hard work of creating a comprehensive system that gives us an accurate picture of our schools rather than quickly coble together one which merely replicates the problems of the past.  This is an opportunity for us to get this right; to learn from the past 20 years and develop a system that will transform public education for the 21st century. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The beatings will continue until morale improves…

The beatings will continue until morale improves… - Unknown

            These are challenging times to be in education. Today, more than any other time in our history, education is in the national spotlight. Since the publication of a report in 1983 by a commission established to examine public education in the United States entitled A Nation at Risk, the dominant narrative in this country has been that America’s schools are failing. Not only are they failing, but that failure is a national security concern placing our country in danger from our rivals on the world stage. This belief has worked to create an environment where everything is an emergency and something must be done to correct the problem NOW! The difficulty with this perception arises from the fact that it is a false narrative in that, since the release of A Nation at Risk, we’ve seen the end of the Cold War and the continued growth of the power of the United States on the world stage. Some may question the security of that position in the current global environment, but that is more a product of the polarization of our political process and subsequent gridlock in our national government than it is reflective upon our educational system. 
            In response to this narrative of failing schools, the reaction of policy makers has been to increase oversight, standardize content, and emphasize state mandated testing as the primary metric to judge student performance and teacher/school effectiveness. The primary goals articulated by policy makers are that we must increase overall student achievement and close achievement gaps for our high need student populations. Therein lies the problem. After 20 years of these standardize accountability driven based policies our nation’s scores on the international PISA test are essentially flat and achievement gaps remain. At what point do we stop blaming teachers and the system rather than focusing the blame squarely where it belongs: on these education “reform” policies that have failed our schools.

            We are currently experiencing an escalating crisis in education that is real rather than imagined. Around the country fewer and fewer young people are entering the profession. Is it any wonder why? If truth in advertising were to be our guide, the current sales pitch for the teaching profession should be: Come be a teacher! Enter this exciting profession where you will be undervalued, underpaid, overworked and treated as a cog in the machine rather than a skilled professional. Research shows that close to 20% of teachers leave the profession in the first five years and in urban districts that number is closer to 50%. Young people enter the field driven by their passion for teaching and quickly run into the wall of our current system that crushes that enthusiasm under the pile of bureaucratic requirements we heap on teachers and lack of appreciation by many of our political leaders.

You may believe that the above paragraph is an exaggeration of the situation. I’ll admit that maybe it is a slight embellishment for effect, but not by much, particularly when it comes to how teachers are treated and perceived by those responsible for crafting educational policies. Massachusetts is an excellent example. The current executive leadership of our state has no educational policy platform other than to loudly espouse the need for more charter schools. They assert that our students deserve a better education. Their position would essentially provide for the elimination of the current public school system in favor of this quasi private model as they believe that this is the only way to accomplish educational improvements. Consequently, they support raising the cap on charter schools in our lowest performing districts, thus stripping resources from those neediest of schools and children.

This is no less than an attack on public education and a complete devaluation of the hard work of teachers across our state. I agree that these children deserve better. I agree the model needs to change, but to perpetuate flawed policies and then blame teachers when they continue to fail lacks reason and logic. Change should be accomplished by supporting and advocating for all our schools and all our students.  Educators understand this and it is why we enter the profession. It is time for policy makers in our state to recognize this as well.

It is time that we fund education to the amounts indicated by the Foundation Budget Review Commission established by the state to research this very topic. It is time that policy makers live up to the obligations they have already made, such as fully funding special education circuit breaker accounts and regional transportation, prior to creating additional requirements further necessitating the commitment of financial resources. Before we consider raising the cap and adding more charter schools, how about we take the novel step of providing adequate oversite, establishing accurate (rather than inflated) wait list numbers and fully funding the charter school reimbursement formula we have now?

The frustration among educators continues to build causing disillusionment, dissatisfaction and inhibiting effective progress. No system can function under constant unremitting pressure without breaking. No person can effectively accomplish the responsibilities of their profession while consistently being told they are failing, particularly when they lack the power to change the parameters under which they labor. It is time to change the narrative. Any successful organization knows that the morale of its workforce is essential for organizational health and success. It is time to recognize this about public education and listen to the ideas educators have about education reform. There are times that I feel almost like a hypocrite as, in order to be in compliance with state laws and regulations, I tell my teachers we have to take actions that go against the philosophy I so loudly espouse; expending time, effort and resources on activities that I know will have little impact on student learning. However, what I refuse to do is treat them like less than the hardworking, dedicated professionals I know them to be. It is time to stop the beatings and bring hope, enthusiasm and creativity back to public education. 

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

You can’t do the Bloom’s stuff...

“You can’t do the Bloom’s stuff, until you take care of the Maslow’s stuff.”- Allan E. Beck

              It is a brave new world for public education in this country as schools become a focal point for ideological battles where policy makers seek to shape the educational environment to one which standardizes the process for all students in an attempt to promote the concept of equity.  However, this system, fixated on standardized assessment and accountability driven data metrics with business model competition and choice initiatives, ignores the underlying reality that pervades our public schools leading to the following question: What is equity? Equity, like fairness, is not treating every student the same, but rather focuses on giving every student what they need. Educators recognize that what individual students need varies greatly between individuals and is not solely based upon academic considerations.  

Today’s schools and educators are being asked to fill a larger and different role than in the system of the past. Schools are increasingly seen as the means to combat poverty, provide equity of opportunity, and serve as a resource for children and families in need. The mantra of the day in justification of the profusion of accountability type provisions is that educators must be held accountable if we are to close the achievement gaps between minority and non-minority students, between those with learning disabilities and those without, and between low income students and their peers who come from more financially stable households. However, the question that remains unanswered is how can we close the achievement gap without focusing on the underlying conditions that caused the gap in the first place? That is like treating the symptoms while ignoring the disease and then holding that doctor accountable for an ailing patient all the while withholding the resources necessary to affect a cure.

It is frustrating that when educators such as myself point out this problem we are often attacked as making excuses or accused of failing to believe that every child can learn. That is far from the truth. As educators we recognize the abilities inherent in all our students and endeavor to assist them in reaching their full potential. We take students as they come to us with all the baggage that might be attached working to inhibit their success. We not only teach them academics, but help them work through any external factors that might be impeding their progress. A good teacher teaches “life” through whatever content they might be responsible for implementing in our schools. I recently saw a quote by Alan Beck (referenced above) which stated that in teaching, “You can’t do the Bloom’s stuff, until you take care of the Maslow’s stuff.” The truth of this statement is often overlooked by policymakers. If a student is hungry, or scared, or emotionally troubled then they cannot help, but struggle academically. This isn’t an excuse. It’s a fact.

Policy makers give lip service to the importance of the socioeconomic and social emotional needs of our students without providing the resources to correct the problem. Feel good grants that quickly dry up and/or legislation that creates more exercises in bureaucratic compliance rather than remedy the underlying problem propagate in this system. Lasting systemic change to the manner in which we provide for the emotional and developmental well-being of our children cannot occur without resources dedicated to that task. One and done workshops for educators on social emotional topics are not enough.  If we are truly to meet the needs of today’s children, we must take a more holistic approach to education and educational reform. While it is true that the primary purpose of any school is academics, one cannot get to academics if external factors inhibit that process. Furthermore, we cannot make the necessary changes to our educational system merely by changing what we are teaching, and what test we use to measure progress, without addressing the underlying problems that inhibit many students’ progress.

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. We need to provide for these service through resources, time, money, personnel and training to meet these needs. We need to strengthen mental and physical health services in our schools. We need to bring those services to our students rather than expect our students and families to go to them. The social emotional needs of our student populations are being neglected through the incessant push for higher test scores. Educators recognize and prioritize the need, but lack the resources and time to effectively implement appropriate interventions.

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, high caseloads 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 the 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.

The time to act is now. It is time to stop giving lip service to the social emotional needs of our students. If we are going to make the schools serve as the social services center of the community we need to give them the resources to effectively fulfill that role. It is time to recognize that the one thing standardized test scores are truly effective at measuring is the relative affluence of any given community. It is time to break through that barrier and more of the same strategies will not lead to closing those gaps. If we are serious about closing achievement gaps we must give schools the resources, staff and training necessary to achieve that goal. Teachers struggle daily to take care of the needs of our students. We shouldn’t have to do it alone and without the resources to accomplish that task. The time for words is past and its time that social emotional wellbeing of our students is treated as more than simply another buzzword. 

Friday, January 15, 2016

Once more unto the breach...

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more… - William Shakespeare

Systemic change is a process, not an event. It occurs over time and often with great reluctance on the part of those involved. Individuals are often resistant to change as with change comes the unknown. There is comfort to be derived from situations that are easily anticipated, processes that have become rote and procedures that do not create any cognitive dissonance.  The larger the system, the more difficult it is to propagate substantive transformative change.  Those responsible for the creation of educational policy in this country have fallen victim to this inertia and, rather than change our course, continue to put forth the same policies that have proven to be ineffective in reforming what they believe to be a failing system.  However, what is becoming readily apparent is that those policies reflect an outdated ideology and fail to take into account the very different culture in our country today.
One example of the dramatic impact which failure to understand and adapt to an altered environment can engender occurred in 1914. That year marked the beginning of World War I. World I saw extremely high casualty rates as military commanders utilized strategies and tactics that were tried and true, yet failed to reflect the realities of the modern battlefield. Technological improvements in the tools of war like machine guns, airplanes and chemical weapons created situations where massed infantry charges upon fixed defensive positions led to massive numbers of casualties and a bloody stalemate on the Western Front. It was not until the military leaders recognized the change in circumstances, adapted their strategies and tactics, and developed new weapons that the stalemate was broken.
I bring this up because this country finds itself in a similar situation today. Thankfully, not with respect to war and weapons, but rather in its approach to the way we are educating our children. Much talk and energy is being directed at the idea that our educational system is failing to prepare our students for the world they will enter upon graduation. However, rather than adapt to the new reality of the cultural shift our country is experiencing we continue sending our students “over the top” and into the heavy fire of outdated “standardized testing” and “accountability” tactics that have failed to achieve the results our leaders intended. Rather than recognize the error of the polices that drive the system, they choose to blame the educators and schools for failing to implement those policies correctly.  This is the equivalent of a military commander in WWI blaming the troops for failing to take a position through a frontal assault while rushing headlong into heavy machine gun fire. It is time that instead of blaming educators for a perceived failure, policy makers should listen to their concerns and value their professional opinions.
In this environment, reluctance on the part of educators is often perceived as resistance to change when it is frequently a reflection of their professional assessment that the new initiatives are not as valuable as the ones they are replacing or do not work to further local objectives. It is thus that the world of state and federal policymakers collides with the local (district, school, and classroom) world of front-line implementers as both strive to achieve their own priorities and goals. Consequently, after more than a decade of the current educational reforms, achievement gaps still exist and schools are still consistently labeled as failing. Policy makers need reevaluate the theory of action which controls the creation of these policies rather than just propagating more of the same type of policies if we are to expect a different result.
In our country today, big business is driving the corporate education reform agenda in this country and they are attempting to push business solutions for the problem they have identified as students not being prepared to enter the workforce. Their solutions are grounded on the assumption that educators are lazy and students need to be pushed harder. Out of that belief comes our current reform efforts that focus on increasing “rigor” and holding teachers “accountable” rather than focusing on what is actually developmentally appropriate for students and what teachers need to shift their practice. This is flawed thinking as simply making something more difficult and telling someone to try harder will not lead to achievement of the desired goal.  For example, I am a rather large middle aged man and I can’t dunk a basketball. I’ve come to accept that fact and realize that I have talents in other areas. Raising the rim, giving me lessons on technique and telling me to try harder is not going to change that, yet in the minds of policy makers that same strategy is how we will improve public education.
 For over a decade now, these underlying assumptions have driven reforms in this country with minimal gains shown in the very metrics that policy makers have put forth to measure success or failure. These “reforms” have been detrimental in that they’ve gotten in the way of the work that needed to be done, hijacking the conversation and diverting attention and resources away from where they are needed. True professional development is a victim of the current educational reform environment. The irony is that the very processes by which policy makers are attempting to stimulate growth and change are acting in concert to inhibit and slow that change in our schools. Mere compliance is draining let alone actually implementing these initiatives with fidelity.
I recently had a conversation with a policy maker who said that he was strongly in favor of expanded learning time for students. It was his belief that this would help to dramatically improve student outcomes. He was surprised when my response was that I didn’t want my students for a longer period of time; I wanted my teachers. The United States already ranks among the top in the world for the length of time students spend in the classroom on a yearly basis. Come in to any classroom at the end of the day and teachers and students are drained. Learning, done well, is exhausting. Teaching them more is not what is needed, we must teach them in smarter more thoughtful manner. Rather than have students for a longer period of time, I want my teachers for extra days so that we can have time for meaningful professional development that is designed to change the way teachers are instructing our students. Teachers need time to collaborate on new strategies, develop engaging lessons and work to maximize instructional resources to shift our teaching to meet the needs of today's students and our society.
Time is the greatest casualty of this “reform” era. Time is a precious commodity and educators never have enough of it. All the bureaucratic business type reform initiatives take time to train the staff, time to implement and time to prove that we are complying. We need to stop throwing billions of dollars the problem in an attempt to force teachers to prove what they are doing, rather we need to support, with appropriate resources, the time necessary to change what we are doing. What we truly need is time for professional development that consists of more than just training teachers in methods to ensure bureaucratic compliance.  All too often we get caught up in a defensive cycle where we are too busy fighting against something to fight for something. It is time for that to change. It is time to stop sending students and educators “unto the breach” and fight for the time we need to work with experienced educators to identify the instructional shifts necessary to effectively teach today's students.