Thursday, June 2, 2011

Letter to the editor: Salina Journal

A recent editorial about school funding, specifically what constituted a “suitable” education, prompted me to write in disagreement.  Most of the article pointed out areas of school funding that indeed could stand to be reduced, although not enough to significantly counter the reductions being made on what seems to be an annual basis.  Near the end, a statement was made that, paraphrasing, basically said that the Journal takes issue with any district that spends more money on computers than textbooks. 

The statement is vastly wrong and obviously biased. 

The Journal, like all newspapers, struggles to remain relevant in an increasingly digital world.  I am one of the few 30-somethings I know who reads any physical newspaper daily.  I have 12 RSS feeds that deliver exactly what I want to read directly to my inbox almost immediately after publication for free.  In that kind of world, of course the Journal would prefer that children not be taught to harness the power of instant information.  Encouraging digital literacy almost guarantees the demise of print newspapers.

What the Journal doesn’t realize is that teaching kids to use these tools effectively to think critically and solve problems is exactly what will enable traditional newspapers to innovate their way into the future.  If they want to survive, they (and all other businesses) need people who can work with others, invent, create, and solve complex problems.  They can only learn to do that in tomorrow’s world by using the best tools we can provide today.  Those tools are expensive, and providing an adequate funding base absolutely needs to account for them.  

It isn’t even reasonable to compare the cost of a book versus the cost of a computer.  Other technologies are not cheap, either.  Books are usually in the range of $50-$100 each, while computers cannot be purchased for less than several hundred dollars. 

Visualization of the various routes through a ...A view of traffic through a portal on the Internet Image via WikipediaThe value of a book versus a computer should be obvious, but for those who still have their heads in the analog sand, let me break it down for you.  Recent estimates put the amount of all human knowledge contained on the Internet at about 97%.  That means that with an Internet connection, students have instant access to almost every fact known to mankind.  Not since the invention of the printing press in the 1400s has there been such a revolution in the amount and availability of information. This revolution is much, much bigger.  The potential is limitless, but the responsibility we have to teach our children how to use it wisely and responsibly is even bigger.

With a book, you get, well, whatever is in that book.  It’s heavy, and you can’t search it quickly to find just what you want.  It doesn’t have links to other books where you can get pictures, videos, songs, and games to help you learn about what’s in it.  I can’t use the book to create something else without tearing it apart and rendering it useless as a book.  I can’t use the book to communicate with anyone.  The book won’t keep track of my schedule and when my assignments are due.  The book won’t let me work on things with other people around the world, and I certainly can’t write in it!  The computer can do all of these things in one day. 

Districts should be spending more on technology than on books.  They should be spending a lot more than they are.  Studies keep coming out that support that assertion.  One of them was published in the Journal on May 13, showing that even the best scores in one classroom where a lecture style was used didn’t compare to the average score in another classroom using clicker technology and more hands-on interactive teaching methods.  Students did nearly twice as well in the interactive classroom using “clicker” response systems.  Another study by respected researcher Dr. Robert Marzano found that veteran teachers who felt confident using interactive whiteboards could expect as much as a 29 percentile gain in student achievement.  In short, that’s like getting 12 months of learning in a 9-month period.  But these technologies are expensive.  One set of “clickers” like the ones used in the classroom experiment in the Journal article can be around $2,500.  One interactive whiteboard with the projector needed to use it is around $2,000 and the cost goes up from there. 

Additionally, districts could be spending money on technology instead of textbooks.  One electronic reading device can store all of a student’s books.  The texts themselves can be created by their teachers and loaded on the device, along with other resources and assignments.  The digital versions of texts can be highlighted, bookmarked, and notes can be taken in the margin.  If a student needs to know the meaning of a word, they can look it up instantly by simply selecting it. 

Technology and computers make things possible.  A student with a disability may be a tremendous author, but no one would know because they have a hard time getting their ideas on paper before they disappear.  With a free application, they can speak a story and have it translated to text almost instantly.  They can copy and paste that text into an editor where they can revise their work, and then they can share it with a worldwide audience for feedback, discussion, and further learning.  An autistic student with an iPad can communicate his feelings and needs.  A third grader with an iPod can learn their multiplication facts, shoot a video for a project, and turn in assignments all on one device. 

Why are we not insisting on this kind of learning?  Why aren’t we demanding that our students be taught this way?  Why are we taking money from our kids at all, in order to pay for mistakes by some of the richest Americans?  Why do their salaries and bonuses continue to hit all-time highs while we blame our teachers for not doing more with hardly anything, all the while threatening to take away even more?  How can our Governor claim “a victory” for Kansas just because he managed to avoid raising taxes while allowing the playground bully-like thieving from our kids to continue for yet another year?  Does this make sense to anyone?

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Friday, May 13, 2011


As the state of Kansas gets closer to finalizing a budget, it is becoming clearer exactly how much public education stands to lose this time around.  An article today in the Salina Journal quoted Governor Sam Brownback calling the budget "a victory" for Kansas, because no taxes were raised in the effort to reduce spending and cut back the budget shortfall.

How can we as a society collectively complain about the state of the education system while simultaneously removing the resources necessary to even maintain the status quo, let alone make improvements of any kind?  How can we take money from our children to pay for mistakes made by the richest Americans and call that a victory?

Let's be real here, Governor.  This so-called victory is a sham; an irresponsible attempt at leadership by those put in (or kept in) office on promises to tight-fisted Americans who are tired of seeing their money taken from them.  Who is really to blame?  Who should pay for the problems we have in our economy?  Leaders should be making the tough choices to right the ship and prevent this kind of bloated money mongering from causing a global economic downturn in the future.  Instead, they take money from kids like a playground bully while CEO's salaires were again at record highs last year.

Big pats on the back all around, guys.  Nice "victory".

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Are you walking or just talking?

I'm like most teachers.  My first year or two, I was swimming in newness and trying to stay afloat.  As soon as the dust settled, I started to realize the hurdles I was up against.  Soon, I became disillusioned.  I think that is when most of those who leave education do so-when they realize their workload will forever be increasing and their support will forever be decreasing from the futile, but still appreciated, efforts of mentoring during the first year.  

A roadblock in Klemmets vegImage via WikipediaI made it past the doldrums, and continued on my journey determined to make a difference, despite the odds and roadblocks stacked against my fellow teachers and me.  The roadblocks are many, varied, and complex, but one in particular always rubbed me worse than the others, simply because it was so easy to 
change, but no one ever seemed interested or willing to change it.  That roadblock is staff development.  

Even the name draws ire from deep within my teacher-centric being.  After all, anyone who has been to the traditional staff development can attest to the fact that they were not being developed at all.  They may have been preached to, or they may have drilled down into the data, but they certainly were not "developed".  If they were, we wouldn't still be talking about trying to change for the 21st Century 11 years after the century has started. 

Staff development has long been criticized by teachers, but there are also plenty of organizations, research, and documentation out there to prove that the old way of "one size fits all" and "sit and get and forget" don't work.   We KNOW that we need time, time to give teachers to practice and apply with support the things we want to eventually affect change in the classrooms.  If we don't give them the time and sustained support, nothing ever changes.  Look around.  Does this describe your school?  

Chances are, you work in a district like most others, in which a new initiative comes along every so often that gets everyone all fired up.  Then, when nothing becomes of it, it goes away.  Nothing becomes of it because no one ever took the time to make sure it was being  understood, internalized, and practiced by all staff.  That didn't happen because those with the power to give teachers what they've been asking for won't change the approach.  

It is ironic to me that we are so bent on the idea of data-driven decision making in education that we fail to recognize some of the most important data.  That data states that nothing is ever going to change unless you make sure your teachers are on board, prepared, and supported.  That simply cannot happen in two in-services at the beginning and end of the year.  The National Staff Development Council has clear standards that are regularly ignored.  

If your district isn't providing the time and allocating the resources to support initiatives at the teacher level, then it is just doing lip service.  Talking the talk, but not walking the walk.  
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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

NCLB was written backwards

Teachers know to plan with the end in mind. I wish that our legislators had done the same.

The NCLB laws mostly focus on students as a way to measure teachers. There are many, well documented problems with this approach, and many problems centering around using standardized (culturally biased) tests to measure student progress. The biggest of these, in my opinion, is that even if the test were the best test ever conceived, it still measures a class at a snapshot in time, not their progress as they learn and grow.

NCLB should have been written for teachers. After all, no real change is ever going to reach classrooms unless it starts with teachers. Adding more unfunded mandates for teachers and schools in the hopes of improving student learning is something only congress could come up with. Those in the lawmaking bodies seem to think that unless we force teachers to do things, and then force them to prove that they are doing what they were forced to do, and then having them document that they did the proof of what we forced them to do, nothing will get done.

The reality is that the best teachers desperately want to do what's best for their students, but mandates, paperwork to and requirements often bog them down to the point where they don't have time to plan quality lessons or grow professionally. There are new things added all the time, and rarely is anything removed from teachers' 'to-do' lists. Even if government and administrators took every opportunity to remove anything that wasn't completely necessary from teachers' plates, teachers are still responsible for more today than even five years ago. Character education and anti-bullying initiatives speak to that truth.

So what to do? Standardize teachers instead. No, we don't want carbon copies of teachers in every room, but we want a consistent level of quality nationwide. Build the system to evaluate teaching and learning, not snapshots of students. Build in supports for teachers who need help to grow, and make it easy for administrators to help those who should be in another profession find the doors.

Time should be built in, funded by the federal government, to allow for professional development. Teachers should have a baseline requirement for planning time as well as collaboration time with peers. Extra time can be added by districts, but everyone should expect the time they need to do their job well. Teachers, not students, should be required to show progress on learning goals and growth over time.

With the best teachers in every classroom, the learning will take care of itself.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Investing in Failure

Are we investing in our future, or are we investing in failure?

Government officials standing with the guillotine like to say that education is the biggest budget item, and therefore, should get at least its fair share of cuts. On the surface, that seems fair. But only on the surface.

Below the surface, there is a lot of dirt. There are things we pay for that were approved by no one, simply because legislators don't read most of what they pass. There are lobbyists for big business who get their pet projects passed with methods the public school system can't afford, and frankly, has too much integrity to employ. There are things we pay comparatively more for that have long been known as failed or ineffective.

Nothing we pay for as citizens of a taxed democracy could be more important than ensuring our future survival and success. Nothing but public education does that. Why, then, do we spend so much money on criminals and so little on children?

In Kansas in 2008, the average cost to the taxpayer per inmate was $25,127 (National Institute of Corrections) while today, we spend $4,012 to educate a child for a year. That figure will likely go down further as budget cuts loom.

Now, there are some legislators who will argue with those statistics; saying that the total money spent on schools is higher. I read an exchange in my local paper between a state senator and the director of operations of the local school district in which the senator told the school official, "Don't do that again (referring to the base student aid per pupil amount), it irritates me when school officials don't include all the money spent on schools."

Well, Mr. Senator, do you know what irritates most of us? When you talk around dollar amounts to avoid the painful truth-that you underfund public education at the expense of nearly everyone for generations to come. The money he was "irritated" about isn't even spent on kids and/or doesn't come from the state. He was referring to grants, federal dollars, and money spent on retirement funds. None of that money can be counted on year after year and most of it never sees a classroom. It is unfair to include this money in the discussion of what is fair and necessary to provide an adequate education. How does the money the state spends on retirement affect learning in the classroom?

More importantly, what is the return on the investment to prisons and jails across the state? How is it that sticking someone in a room with bars costs so much more than providing them with rich experiences that develop useful skills for a lifetime of learning and productivity? It seems to me that if we spent more on the front end of this investment, while children are young, we could avoid quite an expense later on. Giving children the tools they need to succeed eliminates many of the causes of crime.

The choice is simple: we can provide a stellar education for our children; enabling them to succeed in life, deal with its challenges productively, and contribute to the advancement of the human race. We do a pretty good job of that now, even with ridiculously underfunded programs and restrictive mandates that limit what teachers can do to truly inspire students. Or, we can dump nearly six times that money per person into those who we've already failed.

Where are our priorities?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Government Hates Teachers

Harsh title? I don't think so. Sure, politicians love talking about teachers and education, but only in the same way that it makes a good photo opportunity to kiss babies. Voters care about their kids' education, but the politicians really don't.

Just try to follow the money if you don't believe me. How many programs are mandated by federal or state government? How many are fully funded? Of the funds that schools do receive, are they adequate to do the job according to what we know from years of research to be best practices? Are the funds safe when government squanders revenues, gives away lavish tax cuts to businesses, and is "forced" to make cuts in education spending down the line as a result? Can anything be counted on from a government that will break its own laws intentionally?*

The truth is simple: the people we elect care most about being elected again. Whereas that appears to be progress on the outside, it is often nothing more than political game-playing to win the hearts of the voters. But when the going gets rough, policy makers are quick to say that schools waste money and are inefficient. In reality, it is frequently the government-mandated programs using up resources and time. It makes sense: when you don't have what you need to do a job well, but you are required to do A and B, where do you spend your time? Not on C and D. In this simple scenario, C and D could be technology, staff development, teacher pay or benefits, programs, clubs, maintenance, or whatever. Schools are set up to fail from the beginning; being given far too much to do without the means to do it. Is it any surprise that someone would stand up and say, "This isn't working!"?

Rather than protect teachers, or work to improve compensation that more closely matches the prestige of the job they do, politicians are on the attack. They are cutting their collective bargaining rights, cutting pay, cutting jobs, cutting programs, and the list goes on and on. To justify beating up on heroes while they are already lying bleeding in the street, they blame teachers for things research has shown to be due to systemic flaws.

Politicians like to talk about how schools are one of the biggest ticket items on budgets, so that the uninformed believe it makes sense to go after them. Just one question: shouldn't educating our youth to lead our future be one of our top priorities, if not THE top priority? Isn't it worth the money to ensure that our kids can compete with the rest of the world? Isn't it worth any price to ensure our success and survival in the future?

Politicians need to wake up; quick fixes or things that look good in the short term for reelection are not going to solve our long-term economic woes. It isn't fair to today's youth, who didn't cause this mess, to be cheated of an adequate education. Doing so just might jeopardize politicians of the future...when there isn't a country left to lead.

*In Kansas, legislation was passed mandating funding for public education. Instead, payments from the state to school districts were frequently late, and the state did not live up to court mandated funding requirements.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Who has time?

Whenever I ask teachers what they need most, they all tell me the same thing. Resoundingly, they echo each other in saying that what they really need most is time.

I haven't been out of the classroom too long to remember that I scarcely had time to breathe. It seems like there are new things to try, new initiatives, new tests, new somethings every year, but nothing ever goes away. Things are added but they are never (are hardly ever) taken away. It is easy to understand the sentiment, then, of the teacher who throws their hands up whenever they have to invest more time to learn something new. They don't know if their time will be worth it. The initiative may not last, the idea may not produce results, or there may not be enough support to fully implement whatever it is they are doing in the first place. When it comes to technology, it is inherent that whatever it is will change. This is one of the frustrations of those who try to stay current with technology trends; they are always going to have to learn, unlearn, and relearn the latest tech tools.

When I was teaching, if there was something to learn that was important, I would have to take the time, or often make the time, to learn it. It is our job, our duty, as educators to always be on the top of our games collectively and individually. We owe that to the students we serve. No matter where I've been, there has always been the attitude that we do whatever it takes to do the best job we possibly can for our students.

Lately I've been frustrated with what appears to be an unwillingness on the part of teachers to do this. Let me explain.

I know that time is the number one factor that teachers say they need in order to learn about new technologies. They need time to learn about it, time to try it, time to make mistakes with it, and time to be able to ask questions about it and how it can be utilized in their classrooms. What I am finding, however, is a growing number of teachers who won't put in the time necessary to learn these new tools. This is in spite of the fact that they are the same people who say that they believe they NEED to learn, and WANT to learn how to utilize 21st Century tools in their classrooms. Something doesn't fit.

As an example, I did a survey at the beginning of this school year asking what the most pressing needs were for teachers. Also in the survey, I asked about their preferences for when and how this learning should take place. The two biggest answers in these two categories were learning about Promethean software after school. Yet, when I have open sessions to learn more about Promethean software after school, hardly anyone comes. I spread the meeting locations around so that it is convenient for participants to attend, and there are usually only one or two people who come besides the person whose room we are using.

Am I wrong to assume that teachers aren't willing to put in the time they said they wanted to spend?

Another survey, taken by all but two teachers district-wide, found that the number one priority as seen by teachers in my district is 21st Century Teaching and Learning. This just adds more to my confusion. Here is evidence to support the idea that learning about technology is rather high on the list of many teachers' priorities, yet when time is provided for this to take place, they aren't taking advantage.

Do they not mean what they say? Is it just an excuse, saying that time is needed when really they have no intention of learning new things? Is it a resistance to learning new things in general, or just technology? Is it me?

I tend to think that what they really mean is that they need more time in the day to do everything they are being asked to do-a 25th, 26th, and 27th hour added to the day. The amount of things on a teacher's workload is quite frankly ridiculous. I think that, for whatever reason, technology is just not important enough (in their minds) to bother with it when there are so many other things that HAVE to get done daily. There just isn't time left at the end of the day for anything else.

Teachers-I really need you to weigh in on this one. What prevents you from spending time learning new technologies for use in your classroom?