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?