Sunday, December 26, 2010

Riding into the Perfect Storm of Reform

NOTE:  This post is part of the December 26-January 1 "Blog 4 Real Education Reform - The (Action) Sequel." Blog links are being posted at Paula White's Cooperative Catalyst

It's here. We're in the middle of it. And when it ends, the landscape will look very, very different.

Not much changes in your neighborhood over time. If you don't believe me, step outside your door and look around. What you see for the most part is the same thing you would have seen yesterday, last week, and most likely last year. I live in an older neighborhood and with the exception of a few cosmetic changes to some of the homes, along with a couple of new ones built in vacant lots, it still resembles what it looked like fifty years ago. And I dare suggest that it will look the same fifty years from now. Unless nature has something to say about it. In my town, as in many others across the mid-west, straight-line winds and the occasional tornado can alter a neighborhood with suddenness and finality. In other regions, it might be fires, twisters, hurricanes, floods and other catastrophes that do the same. Often, when it's over, what gets built in the wake of the destruction looks and feels very different from the past. A new vision takes its place.

Economic storms quite often produce similar results. One only needs to look back to the progressive era born out of the growing gap between the super wealthy and poor at the turn of the 20th century. Thirty years later, the Great Depression spawned a move towards liberal socialism and eventual rise of the middle class. There are many other examples from the post-Civil War economic collapse to the oil embargo and double-digit inflation of the 1970's.

Public education is in the middle of a perfect storm and its giving us the opportunity to finally – and belatedly - re-vision and reshape our teaching and learning systems to meet the needs of 21st century students. Not just talking about change, but doing it! The landscape of education is being buffeted like never before by a combination of growing political forces, flat-world economic pressures, expanding technologies, public discontent, and declining financial resources. Resistance is futile (sorry, but I've always wanted to use that line), change is imminent, denial is a complete waste of time. And, we don't have time. The question then is, “will you be the change, or will you be changed?

Our system of public education – our curricula, teaching methods, and the tests we require students to take – were created in a different century for the needs of another era. They are hopelessly outdated.” ~ Wagner (2008, p. 9)

Indeed, most educators labor in bureaucratic, rule-driven school systems that owe more credit to the practices of early 20th century factory management than to any notion of how to foster great teaching and learning in the 21st century.” ~ Hess (2010, p. 1)

As superintendent, I see my primary role in the areas of budgeting and reform as helping to develop and guide a leadership core that can move us through this storm and use the powerful forces created to substantially alter our outdated, over-regulated, teacher-centric, control-oriented form of K-12 education. We have the opportunity to achieve a whole new vision for adult and student learning that capitalizes on a lean budget and emerging new technologies. By the end of 2011, our goal should be to have taken the steps necessary to move through and beyond these creatively destructive forces, emerging on the other side with a whole new design for learning.

Alison Zmuda (2010) talks about moving to action starting with the following reflective question: “How committed are we to actually doing something to realize our hopes?”

We cannot wait for the day when the stars align, when budgets are flush, or when colleagues are willing. We must begin with being the change we wish to see in our classrooms and our schools. … The largest obstacle to this process can be the shackles we place on our own thinking.” (p. 82-83)

Working our way through what is collectively one of public education's most significant budget challenges in recent history will certainly not be easy, but it can provide all of us with the unprecedented opportunity to re-imagine and redesign our entire system of administration, teaching, learning and support. To begin this new year, I propose ten essential questions that can help frame our conversations which form the basis for ours action on a 2011-12 budget and beyond:
  • How should we redesign our district and building administrations to maximize efficiency and economy while providing sufficient leadership and support for a 21st century learning system? What new leadership structure based on a 21st century organizational model could effectively replace the costly industrial hierarchical structure employed in most school districts today?
  • From a point of view of each student, how should we redesign our teaching and learning environments to move away from19th and 20th century industrial models of education to one that goes beyond the basic accumulation of knowledge and skills, incorporating 21st century learning styles and goals? (One note here: putting lipstick on a pig doesn't change it from being a pig. Many schools that call themselves 21st century learning environments mainly have resorted to wearing lipstick. The basic out-dated model of schooling is still prevalent.)
  • What should a team of adult and student learners look like in a 21st century school house? How should the team strive to replicate the environmental, political, and economical changes currently being experienced world-wide while anticipating the unknown future?
  • How do we move away from a costly educational model “that prizes efficiency over development of learners' intelligence?” (Zmuda, p. 10)
  • What evidence can we produce or have we explored that supports the continuation of any instructional, administrative, and support programs we currently employ now in our district, in our schools, and in our individual classrooms? How does the evidence connect with our vision, mission and goals, and what might it suggest regarding the continuation, expansion, reduction or elimination of these programs?
  • What student supports (remedial and accelerated) are absolutely necessary given the goal for all students to graduate college- and career-ready despite the changing structures of the family and surrounding communities? How do we efficiently and economically incorporate those supports into a new 21st century learning system?
  • How do we redesign our personnel contracts, compensation, and instructional staffing models to move our educational profession out of the current industrial labor era based primarily on seniority and protectionism, into a 21st century model that values and rewards pre-teacher preparation, creativity, innovation, collaboration, leadership, life-long learning, results, and new ideas free from the constraints of current practice?
  • How do we convince our legislative leaders that less is more when it comes to the growing and costly administrative burden of state and federal regulations and statutes? What evidence will we need to produce to support our contention that we can be successful at significantly raising student achievement for every child if they acquiesce to our requests?
  • How can we utilize limited and declining resources most efficiently to redesign our traditional school houses into spaces that are more flexible and supportive of 21st century learning, as well as cost-efficient and economical to maintain?

Hess, Frederick M., Education Unbound: The Promise and Practice of Greenfield Schooling. ASCD, 2010
Wagner, Tony, The Global Achievement Gap. Basic Books, 2008
Zmuda, Allison, breaking free from myths about teaching and learning. ASCD, 2010

Friday, December 17, 2010

In Response to Mackinac Center's Lawsuit

A contract agreement negotiated for the current school year saved our district a minimum of $122,000 and kept teachers in the classroom instead of on the unemployment line. The agreement also kept class sizes from expanding in light of our continuing growth in student enrollment.

This landmark regional contract template broke the ice on teachers contributing to the cost of their health care, froze salaries during a difficult financial time for school districts, and preserved jobs for scores of teachers who may have been laid off.


"Our bargaining units worked with us to negotiate a contract that would save jobs and recognize the political reality that all employees should contribute to the cost of their health care," Superintendent David Britten said of the template, which is the target of a lawsuit filed by the Midland-based Mackinac Center. "Our county has had superintendents all across the state ask us how we were able to achieve such a groundbreaking contract, given the debate over employee-paid premiums that has been going on in Lansing for years."


The Mackinac Center filed suit against Godfrey-Lee, Kent ISD and eight other districts - Byron Center, Comstock Park, Godwin Heights, Grandville, Kenowa Hills, Lowell, Northview and Rockford - on December 15 because the template contained language indicating none of the districts would outsource non-instructional services during the duration of the one-year contract.


The regional template was totally voluntary. Each of the 20 districts within Kent ISD had the opportunity to participate if it met their needs. Those that were considering outsourcing services within the 2010-11 school year were advised against participating in the regional template.


"Achieving the goal of every employee contributing to the cost of their health care was a significant milestone," Britten said. "We bargained collaboratively and the savings alone from that clause helped us reduce our budget deficit making it unnecessary to consider any additional outsourcing of services during this school year." The district had already outsourced food service and custodial services, and participates in outsourced regional special education transportation. These additional savings based on the template roughly represent the salaries of two first year teachers. "This agreement allowed us to maintain appropriate class size for our students and maintain programs important to their success."


Despite knowing about the regional agreement since last spring, the Mackinac Center did not bother to contact anyone at Godfrey-Lee directly to discuss the agreement, their concerns about the language, or the process and results of the district's contract negotiations. Had they done so, they would have understood that the objectionable language in the regional template was not used by either side as a bargaining position. "Neither of the district's final agreements with our two labor associations contains any language specifically referring to the issue of privatization," explained Superintendent Britten. "Rather they refer only to the portions of the countywide template that pertain to salaries and insurance protection." The agreements, which amended the existing three-year contracts for the final year expiring next summer, were ratified by the associations and the Board of Education during April 2010 and are available for inspection in the district office.


According to Britten, "It is our position that the Mackinac Center suit is without merit and may falsely accuse the district of entering into a contract agreement containing prohibited language. We are calling on the Mackinac Center to withdraw this suit immediately, which I believe is designed to be just another attack on teachers and public education, and avoid wasting any additional taxpayer dollars."


The Godfrey-Lee administration and Board of Education is proud of the relationship we've developed with our professional and support staff associations, and will continue working alongside our teachers and support staff to identify ways to reduce costs while continually improving the quality of our educational programs for our students as well as our staff.


WOOD TV 8 Story

Grand Rapids Press Article

Saturday, December 11, 2010

How Does Finland See it's Educational Success?

Since the Finnish education system is all the rage these days, I thought I'd pass along some simple comparisons and truths as touted by the Finnish Ministry of Education itself. You can (should) read more in depth on your own at The Finnish Education System and PISA 2006.

Here's a quick comparison of western education systems versus the Finnish system:

Western Model of Education (a.k.a, the U.S.)

The Finnish System

Standardisation: Strict standards for schools, teachers and students to guarantee the quality of outcomes.

Flexibility and diversity: School-based curriculum development, steering by information and support.

Emphasis on literacy and numeracy: Basic skills in reading, writing, mathematics and science as prime targets of education reform.

Emphasis on broad knowledge: Equal value to all aspects of individual growth and learning: personality, morality, creativity, knowledge and skills.

Consequential accountability: Evaluation by inspection.

Trust through professionalism: A culture of trust on teachers’ and headmasters’ professionalism in judging what is best for students and in reporting of progress.

In pre-primary and basic education, pupils are entitled to any welfare services they might need for full engagement in their respective education programmes, including general health and dental care for all students.


Here's a simple comparison of the pre- and post-1990's Finnish education models.  You can most certainly see the resemblance of the 1970's and 80's model to the direction our U.S. model is heading.


Finnish situation in 1970s and 1980s

Finnish situation in 1990's/2000's

Centralised control and decision -making

Devolution of power

• Centralised curriculum

• Long-term plans

• Budgeting based on expenditures

• External evaluation: inspections

• Self-governance

• School-based curricula

• Distinctive educational profiles of schools

• Self-direction and self-regulation

• Learning organisation as a mode instutional structure

• Self-evaluation and own control

• Performance-based funding

Both classroom and subject teachers attain master’s degrees (300 ECTS); the former in education, the latter in their respective subject(s). Besides consolidating their professional qualifications as a teacher, this allows and prepares all teachers to continue academic studies to doctorate level. The academic status of classroom teacher education has undoubtedly contributed to the continuous popularity of teaching profession in Finland, as well as to the trust parents feel towards their children’s teachers and the school in general.

However, as in many other countries, the situation is not so bright concerning subject teachers, and in fi elds like science and mathematics the number of applicants does not allow for similar rigorousness in screening, even if also they go through a special process of selection including an interview.


So the essential question is this:  If we want to copy, and indeed exceed, the successes of the Finnish system, why are we heading in the direction that system already proved doesn't work?

Friday, December 10, 2010

Update on Accident

Many of you know that four of our elementary students were hit by a pickup with a snowplow blade while attempting to cross a busy intersection last week.  It was a significant shock to our entire community which has mobilized in a number of amazing ways to help the families involved.  All four live together with their mothers and other extended family members and had only arrived in Michigan from Texas this past October.

Last night, three of the children attended the 3rd and 4th grade holiday music and art celebration.  Two joined their classmates on the stage and in no time were smiling along with the others while the young boy involved sat with his mother and watched.  It was a heartwarming moment for all, including me.

Our little 6-year-old is recovering but still has many days and weeks ahead of her under the expert medical care of Spectrum Health. The broken bones and internal injuries are healing well due to her immobility.  The swelling in her head has gone down and the bleeding has stopped.  Her eyes are open and she is responding to her doctors by squeezing their hand.

This has all been overwhelming for everyone and we're certainly encouraged by our little one's progress.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Sham in Lansing

The Michigan House of Representatives joined the governor and senate in approving a "legal" sleight of hand, towards the end of a marathon legislative session that concluded in the early hours this morning. House Bill 5887 (S-1) was passed by a vote of 90-5 allowing for the flow-through of federal EduJobs funds to the districts.  Tucked away in the bill was a shell-game designed to "meet the intent" of the Michigan Supreme Court's ruling on July 10 (Adair v. State of Michigan) that continuing to required districts to provide an ever-growing pile of student data was an unfunded mandate that violated the state's constitution.  The legislature, desiring to neither pay districts for this unfunded mandate nor reduce the amount of data down to only that which is required by federal regulation or which is used by the state to determine school aid, chose instead to thumb their collective noses at the rule of law.  The bill in effect approved a per pupil reduction (Sec. 11d) of an addition $16 per pupil over the $154 per pupil already in the state budget, and then turned around and created a new line item (Sec. 152a) that gives the funds back to the districts as so-called compensation for the CEPI unfunded mandate.

In the end, districts still have the costly administrative burden of feeding CEPI's insatiable appetite for raw data.  And just when you thought confidence in our state legislature was as low as it could go.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Blog 4 Real Education Reform - The Sequel

Aaannnddd, action!

On November 22, hundreds of voices nation-wide put their thoughts in writing and submitted some fabulous posts for the National Day of Blogging for Real Education Reform. I'm still in the process of reading and pondering some great posts on how we at the grass-roots level believe true education reform is occurring.

On January 1, we'll enter the first year of the 20-teens, a decade that is promising to be both tumultuous and exhilarating for public education.  For one, we'll be experiencing the continuing convergence -- a sort of critical mass -- of a weak economy combining with expanding technology which, politics aside, will serve as the fulcrum for deconstructing last century's factory-style education system and rebuilding off a totally new vision for delivering K-12 education.

I don't know about you, but it's definitely enough excitement to keep me in the game for the next ten years, God-willing!

This New Years, we can take another giant step forward by once again coming together in a grassroots effort to contribute the ACTION STEPS each of us plans to take at the start of the new decade to further positive educational reform in our classrooms, school houses, districts across the country.  What specifically will YOU do, what will you initiate, or how will you further sustain an initiative that will change or is changing the nature of learning for staff and/or students in your school?

Let's simply call it Blog 4 Real Education Reform - The Sequel.

By January 1, each of us commits to blogging a contribution to our collective ACTION PLAN for re-tooling, re-inventing, and re-imagining what we're going to do to turn the corner on 21st century learning. We've talked about it for ten or more years - now it's time to take the hill.

Let's plan on posting our blog contributions during the week leading up to January 1, 2011 (between Christmas and New Years). This gives us plenty of time to think deeply about our own personal commitment to change and the actions we'll need to take to influence others to do the same.

We'll follow the same route we took on November 22.  Use the Twitter hashtag #blog4reform and a website will be provided as we near that week for posting a link to your blog.

Change is coming. Our struggling economy and rapidly expanding technology will be players. The question is what will we do to take advantage of these and other forces to build the best educational system in the world?

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Education's 9/11? A Twitter Conversation

A spontaneous conversation on educational reform broke out this morning between Pam Moran, David Britten, Ira Socol and M.E. Steele-Pierce. It began around a discussion over the parallels between the failures that led up to 9/11 and our current resistance to envisioning the educational system of the future. What ensued was an interesting discussion "Twitter-style" around the themes of a “stuck-in-the-past” vision of schooling, the speed bumps that make change difficult, and the possibility that education's 9/11 event will be centered on our inability to financially sustain the current method of public education.

Here's the link to the log of our Twitter conversation: Twitter Chatter: Education's 9/11?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Rule of Law

The State of Michigan expects all public school districts to fully abide by the massive pile of state laws and regulations governing K-12 education. If not, the state resorts to bully tactics and threaten (1) withholding state aid payments, (2) withholding grant funds, and/or (3) taking over a specific school or the entire district.  On the other hand, state legislators and bureaucratic officials have unfettered ability to openly and knowingly violate our foundational document - the Michigan Constitution of 1963.

The state constitution was amended in 1978 by the Headlee amendment passed overwhelmingly by Michigan's voters to get runaway taxes under control. A provision of the amendment specifies:

The state is hereby prohibited from reducing the state financed proportion of the necessary costs of any existing activity or service required of units of Local Government by state law.  A new activity or service or an increase in the level of any activity or service beyond that required by existing law shall not be required by the legislature or any state agency of units of Local Government, unless a state appropriation is made and disbursed to pay the unit of Local Government for any necessary increased costs.  The provision of this section shall not apply to costs incurred pursuant to Article VI, Section 18.  ~ Const. 1963, art 9, section 29

In other words, if the state requires local units of government, including public school districts, to provide any new or increased level of service or activity, the state must appropriate funds specifically to pay for that.  However, for the most part, this has been ignored by various state departments and agencies since 1978, and the legislature has been an accomplice all along.

In 2000, school districts filed suit specifically against the growing practice of the state to require districts to report mountains of data annually that has little or nothing to do with teaching and learning in the classroom.  The Center for Educational Performance and Information (CEPI) has been the primary culprit and focus of that lawsuit. The Adair suit claims that districts are being forced to spend tens of hundreds of dollars each simply to feed CEPI's appetite for data, money that's taken permanently from the classroom to support the requisite expansion of administrative staffing and technology in order to comply.  This past year, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled in favor of the districts but despite this confirmation of the rule of law, the state - and specifically CEPI - continues to ignore this constitutional prohibition.

Lately, the Michigan House of Representatives in lame-duck session has crafted a new shell game to allegedly fund the cost of CEPI requirements in districts.  House Bill 5887, which will be considered by the Senate after the Thanksgiving holiday, will set aside $25.6 million already committed to public schools in the form of regular per-pupil funding and then turn around and hand it to us as if it represents "additional funding."  What a joke!  This action will result in a loss of funding once again to support classroom learning.

It's high time that Michigan's citizens demand that Lansing be held accountable under the state's 1963 Constitution and specifically the Headlee Amendment. Crushing legislative and regulatory requirements that serve no purpose but to expand state government and reduce local control has got to stop once and for all.  Hopefully, the Senate will have sense enough to say NO to more illegal unfunded mandates and force CEPI and other agencies to scale back their overreach. In the meantime, if our districts and other local governments have to continue to go back to the courts to put an end to this nonsense, so be it.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Reform Revolution from the Ground Up

I had an awesome experience this week as part of a national effort to shine the light on school reform – not from some gilded stage or the bully pulpit of a television studio – but in classrooms and schools across the country, where the real educational professionals are making a difference in the lives of kids. It was on the occasion of a grassroots effort to declare November 22 as National Blogging for Real Education Reform Day and encourage educators across the country to contribute their ideas for continuing to bring our schools into the 21st century.


Twitter was the central medium for promoting yesterday's event and by the end of the day, over 384 people had contributed to the streaming conversation that included 1,110 tweets centered on public education reform. But most importantly, a majority of these professionals contributed in a more substantial way by blogging their views and opinions on what needs to be done to improve student achievement. Even U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan opined on this extraordinary event in an post that stated:


There’s been a great conversation happening online today on the National Day of Blogging for Real Education Reform. I appreciate how many educators have taken time to share their ideas thoughtfully with the rest of us....At the U.S. Department of Education, we’ve been listening in. I am convinced that the best ideas come from classrooms and communities across the nation. I am committed to supporting the great work that is happening in states and districts.


Secretary Duncan even posted a plug for the event and his contributory remarks on his Facebook page! And while most folks know that the Secretary and I don't see eye-to-eye on many issues of substance, his acknowledgement of the importance of yesterday's event is a step in the right direction for creating a more inclusive approach to the political momentum towards education reform.


Pam Moran, Superintendent of Albemarle County Schools in Virginia summed up the day's effort in what I refer to as the “capstone blog” titled, Imagine. November 22, 2010:


Each post, each tweet, each comment contributed to the weaving of a tapestry of voices from all the spaces of our lives: teachers, assistant principals, principals, central administrators, superintendents, higher education, parents, educational activists and, eventually the U.S. Secretary of Education.


I am struck that no superheroes made today happen. We didn’t even need just regular, run of the mill heroes to make today happen. Rather, today represents what it will take to transform our public schools from places that are mostly constructed for factory workers to spaces that are designed for contemporary learners- our children. It will take all of us leading together. It will take all of us working together.


One cannot fully appreciate what was accomplished yesterday until you've had a chance to read through the many outstanding blog posts that were collected and take time to browse through the Twitter transcript to get a better feel for the conversations as well as the momentum. Here's an opportunity for you to join in this professional dialogue, stretch and even challenge your own thinking about school reform, and perhaps become part of our growing Twitter community in the future. The time is right, the purpose is worthy, the goal is to provide the best possible educational system for our kids.


Besides my personal blog contribution titled, Real Reform Begins with Raising Expectations, here are the three main links that will open your doors to a rich professional learning experience:




Cooperative Catalyst


Twitter Transcript



Sunday, November 21, 2010

Real Reform Begins with Raising Expectations

Before I was a school administrator, I was a soldier – for nearly twenty-two years. I enlisted in December 1974 following the end of the Vietnam War. Not because I was patriotic. I needed a job. Our economy was taking a beating largely due to the oil embargo and the start of rampant inflation. During basic training that next spring Saigon fell. Mostly what I recall from that day was my big, burly drill sergeant crying like a baby. It was a low point in what would be nearly a decade of low points for the once-infallible United States Armed Forces. Years of persistently low morale, lack of organizational pride, leadership that abandoned their careers faster than rats on a sinking ship, and rampant drug use came to a climax with the “Debacle in the Desert” in the spring of 1980.


The supersecret operation failed dismally. It ended in the desert staging site, some 250 miles short of its target in the capital city (of Iran). And for the world's most technologically sophisticated nation, the reason for aborting the rescue effort was particularly painful: three of the eight helicopters assigned to the mission developed electrical or hydraulic malfunctions that rendered them useless.”


By now, the American people had little faith in the capability of its military complex and support was at an all-time low. Many of us rarely wore our uniforms in public and leaders accepted a culture of disobedience and disrespect from the lower ranks. Recruiting quotas in active and reserve units were rarely achieved, and there was a feeling among the soldiers that if the Cold War stalemate were to break on the European front, our forces in Germany would serve as nothing more than a speed bump. There was no expectation that we would achieve success.


Then came the Reagan-era beginning with the election of Ronald Wilson Reagan as 40th President of the United States. And despite your political or personal beliefs about that era and Reagan himself, one thing he certainly did was lead a restoration of faith in our Armed services. He refused to accept that we could not restore our military strength and again lead the world-wide fight for freedom and democracy. He raised the bar while providing the needed supports and by 1991, following a decade of escalating and successful military expeditions that included the end of the 40-year Cold War, the United States Armed Forces were once again seen as competent and a great source of national pride. Obviously, Reagan didn't do it alone but the example he modeled from the top by steadfastly refusing to accept what had become a culture of low expectations firmly set the historic transformation in motion.


This is the beginning of the path to positive educational reform in America. Real reform cannot be successful until political and educational leaders – including most importantly our teachers – change our mental models, first about our students and then about our schools, restoring our belief in their abilities to achieve. We can build a hundred or even a thousand half-billion-dollar Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools but without the critical mindset of staff, parents, community and students believing that every child who walks through the door can achieve, all we'll be left with is another expensive monument to a growing mediocrity.


How does that happen when every day, educators across this country are bombarded with negative messages that convey a persistently expanding lack of belief in the competence of our public education system? Just imagine if President Reagan had decided the only way to reform our military and greatly improve on its capability was simply to fire all the sergeants, lieutenants and captains and replace them with inexperienced leadership. What would have been the chances of a successful Desert Storm in 1991? Or, perhaps, he might have decided that a government-run military is no longer capable of being successful, so let's get rid of it and replace it with a privately-run security system. Dare we think of placing our future security in the hands of companies like, oh, say Blackwater?


Not likely. Nor should we expect that the future success of our educational system rests with mass firings and expanded privatization. And at the same time, given our national pension for blaming the current economic woes on our schools, something that has become almost a sport in the political and “billionaire-boys-club” arenas, don't expect a Ronald Reagan to lead a similar national conversion of faith in public education. If public schools are to remain the mainstay of our educational system, it will be up to the teachers and principals, and it will begin when we turn our individual and collective backs on a culture of low expectations.


No one rises to low expectations.


The Chilean mine rescue earlier this fall is another great example of setting high expectations for success. Following the cave-in that trapped thirty-three miners nearly a half-mile underground, their fate at best was uncertain. Chilean President Sebastián Piñera was told by advisers that expectations for success were low and chances of their survival were slim. But the President refused their advice.


Many people thought the rescue was impossible,” said an exuberant Piñera after having shown Churchillian determination during the rescue effort. “But we made a commitment to look for the miners as if they were our own sons.” Time


Instead of capitulating to an established culture of low expectations surrounding mine rescues, he set in motion and led an intense rescue effort, sparing no expense. His belief that the operation could be successful led to the eventual emergence of all thirty-three miners.


As I hinted above, true educational reform begins in the classroom and the school house, not on the floor of Congress or in a television studio. We know from the data that many of our so-called failing schools are in urban areas with high concentrations of limited-income and minority students, a growing number of which do not speak English as their first language. A high percentage of these students do not enjoy the same parent support as their more affluent suburban neighbors, and have greater risks to exposure to high levels of crime, gang activity, unemployment, homelessness, and single-parent households. All of these have statistically been shown to contribute significantly to low levels of academic achievement and high drop-out rates, despite a few pockets of success in rare but not necessarily replicable charter schools. But teachers and administrators can have little impact towards changing any of these social factors. Our work must be done in classroom but if we continue to maintain low expectations for students in these situations, no matter how many strategies we employ, we will not be successful at closing achievement gaps and turning public education around.


Teachers' expectations play a significant role in influencing student performance, determining how well and how much students learn. This has been proven time and time again since the idea was first presented in Pygmalion in the Classroom, a 1968 study by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson.


Simply put, when teachers expect students to do well and show intellectual growth, they do; when teachers do not have such expectations, performance and growth are not so encouraged and may in fact be discouraged in a variety of ways.” ~ James Rhem


There's a monograph by Jerry D. Bamburg posted on the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory website that goes into great detail on the three different types of teacher expectations that contribute significantly to student achievement. It's well worth the read by anyone interested in contributing to real education reform, particularly in our urban schools. The Pygmalion effect is one of two results from teacher interactions with students that are influenced over time by lowering expectations. A student who persistently struggles in school may be seen as part of a social-class that over time, always appears to achieve at lower levels. Hence, the result of a perception of low achievement in the classroom eventually becomes a key contributing factor as to why students are failing, and even an excuse for lowering our expectations in the future. A sort of wagging-the-dog-by-the-tail effect as time goes on: student behavior is impacted by opinions and perceptions that others initially have for them which in turn become self-fulfilling prophecies.


I'm not going to go into a long thesis in this forum on specifically how low expectations are manifested in the classroom, both through words and deeds, but just to say that teachers and school principals are usually unaware that they have low expectations for students (Marzano) and that unless we start changing our behaviors towards our students, a conscious awareness of this bias will have little positive effect. If all President Reagan did was make rosy speeches about our military might, very little would have changed. It took outward visible action to raise the level of expectation.


The second of nine characteristics of high performing schools outlined by Dr. Terry Bergeson, Washington State Superintendent of Instruction, defines what it takes to demonstrate high standards and expectations for all students:


Teachers and staff believe that all students can learn and meet high standards. While recognizing that some students must overcome significant barriers, these obstacles are not seen as insurmountable. Students are offered an ambitious and rigorous course of study.”


The first two sentences demonstrate the belief while the third sentence combines action.


High standards and expectations require more than lip service. The mantra “all students can learn” must be followed by instructional practices and teacher behavior that demonstrate that teachers believe in the students, believe in their own efficacy to teach students to high standards, and will persist in teaching them. Teaching advanced skills and teaching for understanding together with basic skills are required for all students to achieve at high levels.”


So on this National Day of Blogging for Real Education Reform, let's turn our focus to what will truly make a difference in the achievement levels of our students. If you haven't yet begun, start by having professional conversations around what it means to have low expectations and what it will take individually (yes, you do need to risk vulnerability if you truly want to see change) as well as corporately to transform the culture of your school to one of high expectations for all. Jonathan Saphier provides a powerful but simple recipe for raising students' belief in what they are doing:


All students receive three critical messages at every turn from every adult and from the policies, practices, and procedures of the organization:


  1. What we're doing here is important.

  2. You can do it.

  3. I'm not going to give up on you – even if you give up on yourself.”

     As cited in Tim R. Westerberg's Becoming a Great High School, ASCD, 2009


This may just be the most important step you take toward reforming public education in the 21st century.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Defending Freedom

I was fortunate to serve twenty-two years in the United States Armed Forces and while prepared to do so, was never called on to serve in combat. So while proud of my service and the many valuable experiences I had and training I received, on Veterans Day my attention typically turns to my many ancestors and family members who did answer the call during times of war.

John Britten - my 4th great grandfather who served in the Revolutionary War first with New Jersey in 1779 with the Virginia 4th Regiment and again in 1782 with the New Jersey 2nd Regiment.

Abraham Britten - oldest son of John and my 3rd great granduncle who served in the War of 1812.

Jacob A. Britten - great-great grandfather who served in the American Civil War with the 1st Michigan Infantry; wounded in the arm at Gaines Mill, Virginia where he was captured by Confederate forces and confined at Richmond, Virginia; he was paroled a month later and discharged that next winter for disability resulting from his wound.

Joel P. Hudson - great grandfather who served in the American Civil War with the 13th Michigan Infantry and was wounded in the face at Chicamauga Creek, Georgia September 1863; continued to serve beyond the end of the war and was promoted to corporal.

Howard Hudson - grandfather who served in World War I as a member of the United States Marine Corp with rank of corporal.

Glen Hudson - great granduncle who served in the United States Army as a member of Troop C, 7th Cavalry, during the Mexican Expedition Campaign of 1916-17.

Gale H. Britten - father and disabled American veteran who served in the United States Navy during World War II.

Joel L. Hudson - uncle who served as a "frogman" on an underwater demolitions team, forerunner of today's Navy Seals, during World War II and continued to serve until his retirement during the Vietnam War.

Gordon Britten - uncle who served in submarine duty during World War II.

I have two nephews currently serving (Jeremy Britten - US Air Force and Mitchell Britten - US Marine Corps and Afghanistan War veteran) and also two younger brothers (Thomas and Steven Britten) who wore the United States Army uniform during the height of the Cold War.  I'm proud of each of them as well as my many cousins who have served their country in preserving freedom.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

They're Just Brick Walls

"Brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don't want something badly enough. They are there to keep out the other people"  
Randy Pausch (The Last Lecture)

We need to face the fact that our district will continue for some time to come wrestling with budget shortfalls even while the learning expectations for our students continue to rise.  And in the end, that's a good thing!  We cannot allow the lack of resources in one area or another to restrict our thinking, our creative imaginations, our focus on success. Our students deserve the best possible schools no matter what the economic conditions. This is a "perfect storm" for modeling Dr. Randy Pausch's credo and teaching every student how to achieve the best even when conditions are the least.

I invite you to read Michael Fisher's DigiGogy post on "How can we do more with less?"

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Friday, November 5, 2010

GLPS and City of Wyoming to Honor Veterans

Our schools will set aside time on Thursday, November 11, to honor veterans of our Armed Forces as well as those still serving.  Lee Middle & High School will hold its program in the gym beginning at 9:05 a.m.  Veterans from the Godfrey-Lee community are invited to attend.  Short programs are also scheduled for 1:30 at Godfrey Elementary and 2:15 at the Early Childhood Center.

The Wyoming Veterans Memorial Garden Committee cordially invites the community to join them in honoring local veterans during its annual Veterans Day ceremony, Thursday.  
The ceremony will take place at 6 p.m. at the Veterans Memorial Garden, 2300 DeHoop Ave., SW. The evening's program will feature a number of presentations and recognitions, as well as a message from Capt. Charles Heidelberg, a local veteran who is currently serving full time at the Grand Valley Armory. Music will be performed by the Lee High School band under the direction of Kevin Gabrielse.  
Attendees will also have the opportunity to view the first of three planned entryway arches being added to the Veterans Memorial Garden. The first arch was installed on Oct. 25, just in time for Veterans Day. The arch includes an American flag emblem and the word Honor.  
"Being able to honor our veterans and current service members is a privilege for our committee," said Michael Carpenter, chair of the Veterans Memorial Garden Committee. "Our community is blessed to have so many veterans, and those currently in active duty, as citizens. We want to remember them, especially on this day."

The Wyoming Veterans Memorial Garden Committee annually sponsors Veterans Day and Memorial Day services, provides cemetery flags for veterans and plans and implements improvements to the Veterans Memorial Garden. Improvements are funded, in part, by the sale of special memorial bricks, which feature the name, branch of service, conflict and years served by the honoree.  

The committee has already begun work to raise funds to erect two more arches over the next two years. Funds for the arches, which cost approximately $6,000 each, are being raised through donations.  
The garden is completely funded by donations and was developed to serve local veterans and give them a place to reflect and be honored. The committee is asking for help to reach the goal. Donations can be made payable to Veterans Memorial Garden, 1155 28th Street SW, Wyoming, MI 49509 or contact the City Manager's Office at 530-7272.

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Monday, November 1, 2010

Failing to Read the Tea Leaves...Again

Fifty years ago, ASCD's May 1960 issue of Educational Leadership was devoted to looking "forward" to 1985 and discussing some of the changes and potential problems in K-12 education.

Curtis Paul Ramsey contributed an article titled, Testing in Tomorrow's School (p. 503, Vol. 17, No. 8.) in which he foresees the inherent dangers of high stakes standardized testing:

"As testing programs assume a larger role in the curricular structure, and as decisions of increasing importance are made with reference to class and school achievement test results, many teachers and administrators find themselves giving way to the pressures induced by indiscriminate testing.  When the unsophisticated person places so much emphasis on a single score, the groundwork is laid for an erosion of ethics related to test administration, scoring, reporting, and to the teaching experience which precedes a testing session.  Because of the undue stress some administrators have placed on meeting or exceeding test norms, some teachers have begun to teach material specifically related to test items they anticipate will be given to their students.

"...manipulating an academic environment before a testing session does not provide reliable information about general scholastic achievement.

"Should these pressures continue to increase, due to national testing programs..., a sub rosa (author's emphasis) national curriculum will have been established by test publishers.  Abnormal emphases on a single test score can produce such unwanted and unsought results within individual classrooms of our nation's schools (emphasis added)."



While Ramsey's article was primarily focused on national testing programs for college admissions and was written many years before most state K-12 assessment programs were developed, it was visionary in pointing out precisely what our system of education has become: test-prep institutes vying for the golden apple that results from arbitrarily-defined success on a single test score.

It also serves as another reminder that we too often fail to heed the warnings.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Feed-Up, Feedback, and Feed-Forward (#ascdfc)

Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey

Notes from ASCD Fall 2010 Conference

What formative assessment looks like beyond "formative assessment in a box."

Quality instruction is important but it's not enough if the teacher never knows where her students are during the course of instruction.

Teachers need to...
  • Establish learning goals
  • Check for understanding
  • Provide feedback
  • Align future instruction with student performance
Feed up:  Where am I going? This establishes purpose
Check for understanding: daily monitoring of learning

"There are teachers who do not want to check for understanding because they taught it the only way they know how."

Feed back:  providing students with information about their success and needs. If teacher and learner don't share the same definition of quality, feedback is useless. Feedback with no future direction leads to frustration, confusion, giving up

Feed forward: using student performance for "next steps" instruction and feeding this into an instructional model

Shared model for gradual release of responsibility: Gradually transferring responsibility for learning to the student.

Homework: Practice doesn't make perfect but it does make permanent!

Feed Up:  Why are we doing this anyway?

"If instruction doesn't have a purpose, student doesn't know what to pay attention to & teacher doesn't know what to assess."

Purpose always has a content component and a language component.

Check for understanding: How am I doing?

How not to check for understanding (how often do you do this?):
  • Everybody got that?
  • Any questions?
  • Does that make sense?
  • Ok?
  • Oral to oral
  • Oral to written
  • Oral to video
  • Reading to oral
  • Reading to written
  • Reading to video
  • Viewing to oral
  • Viewing to written
  • Viewing to video
Use digital retelling such as "trailers" for books.

Questioning habits of teachers: 
  • Dominated by initiate-response-evaluate cycles; no exploration beyond what the student is able to recall
  • 85% of novice teachers' questions are recognition and recall (Tienken, Goldberg, & DiRocco, 2009)
6 types of formative assessment questioning:
  • Elicitation - draws on information
  • Elaboration - solicits reasoning
  • Clarifying - extends thinking
  • Inventive - stimulates imaginative thought
  • Divergent - requires use of previously taught and new information
  • Heuristic - engages in informal problem solving
Feed back: how am I doing?

Typically teachers are caught in a mismatch between feedback and core beliefs.

Making feedback useful:  Timely, specific, understandable, actionable

When to provide feedback:
  • Feedback about the task
  • Feedback about the processing of the task
  • Feedback about self-regulation
  • Feedback about the self as a person
Feedback must be structured for effectiveness: Improving student performance.

Feed forward: where to next?
  • Error analysis
  • Error coding

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Friday, October 29, 2010

Fair and Meaningful Grades for Exceptional Learners (#ascdfc)

Lee Ann Jung and Thomas R. Guskey
University of Kentucky
ASCD Fall 2010 Conference

Before we can apply grading practices to exceptional learners, we have to have a good, solid grading system in place for all learners.

Perplexing question as to fair grading of special population of learners in this age of standards-based one-size-fits-all learning.

Subjectivity in grading by teachers has always been a problem. Easily shows up in written compositions.

3 Reflection Questions:

1.  What are the major reasons we use report cards and assign grades to students' work?

2.  Ideally, what purposes should report cards or grades serve?

3.  What elements should teachers use in determining students' grades?

Guskey: Purposes of Grading

Most single reporting devices do not serve the above purposes equally well. Print the purpose of your report card at the top.

Many elements typically go into a student's grade, many of which have little to do with whether or not student has learned material.

Grading & reporting should always be done in reference to learning criteria. NEVER grade on a curve. It doesn't tell you if anyone has learned anything.

The word "valedictorian" has nothing to do with achievement; it means "farewell."

Grading Criteria:

1.  Product criteria - don't worry about how they get there; worry about what they can do when they get there.

2.  Process criteria - focuses on how they got there, not what they know when they get there.

3.  Progress criteria - improvement grading, value-added grading; how far have they come when they get there.

What about exceptional learners? (20% of learners are exceptional; 100% of teachers experience exceptional learners)

What's a fair grade for exceptional learner who doesn't master math standards but achieves IEP goals?

What current practices or policies exist in your school regarding the grading of exceptional learners?

90% of general education teachers make adaptations for exceptional learner grades having little to do with learning standards.  Why?:  Common myths that higher grades = higher motivation and adapted grades are seen as fair.  You can't "adapt" grades in standards-based reporting.

Exceptional learners usually receive adapted grades that ultimately lower motivation. 

Decide WHAT to measure in the beginning, instead of HOW to measure in the end.

Jung's Model for Grading Exceptional Learners

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ASCD Fall 2010 Keynote: A Bolder Approach to Reform (#ascdfc)

Pedro A. Noguera - Understanding and Responding to the Achievement Gap
ASCD Fall 2010 Conference

This session was livestreamed at

Despite all the challenges this country is facing, education continues to surface as a priority issue.

Amazing that so many people out there, just because they once went to school, think they are the experts.

Waiting for Superman:  Solutions of charters and blaming unions are obstructing attention on the real problems.

Social issues affecting education and schools are being ignored.

Many people do not understand why they are not making progress in schools and thus will pursue the same strategies that haven't worked (NCLB, etc).

The failure of past reforms:

1.  High dropout rates and low achievement patterns are symptoms of deeper systemic problems (multi-dimensional).

2.  Many school reforms have not been implemented with a clear focus on how they will solve the problems schools face.

3.  Raising standards is unlikely to lead to better outcomes unless we improve learning conditions and respond more effectively to student needs.

There are examples of turnaround schools.  How can you create success in environments with high crime and poverty.  Not by test prep.  Expose to rich curriculum, reading good books, writing regularly, cultivating a love of learning.  Educators with the same vision can make this happen.

Why do we assign the least experienced teachers to work with the most difficult classrooms without support?

Gates Foundation:  Spent $2 billion on small schools initiative and it didn't work.

We need to change how schools respond to students:

1.  Challenge assumptions within schools about why certain students are likely to fail.

2.  Provide schools with accurate information on student needs and guidance on how to respond.

3.  Develop greater clarity among policy makers about what might be done to change to improve struggling schools and districts.  Need a strategy for developing the capacity of schools.

Being an educator today is a commitment to life-long learning.

Too many examples of surface level reform.  We put a coat of paint on the wall but don't check to see if the drywall is rotting.

"Seeing is believing." If your school is not getting the results you want, send teachers to observe schools that are.

Part of the problem is policies disconnected from the realities of school. NCLB 2014 goal has no strategies, just a date.

Build capacity for schools to be successful:

Have faith in parents; vast majority want their kids to succeed.  They must be our partners.

Focus on extending after-school programs with not only remediation but with quality, accelerated opportunities.

Schools need community partners.

Give parents explicit advice through respectful conversations and they will more likely do their part at home.

Can't just teach to the test.  What about history, science, music, and art?  We need a well-rounded education.

Break stereotypes by exposing students to new learning opportunities (robotics, etc)

Bolder Approach: Our theory of change:

Data driven instruction and university support for school reform.
  • Classroom based coaching
  • Personalized systems for students
  • Development of new schools and lab schools through partnerships with universities
  • Student engagement strategies focused on youth development, mentoring and internships

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What Data Do We Use and How Do We Use Them?

Presentation by Thomas Hoerr (
New City School, St. Louis, MO

Facilitated dialogue format.

Question:  If you weren't here, what would you be doing back at your home setting right now? (8 am on a Friday)
  • Dealing with school bus issues
  • Answering emails
  • In meeting talking to a faculty member
  • Doing something with students
  • Dealing with upset parent
  • Teaching
Showed picture of tombstone:  Here lies Frederick Jones - verbal 680 - math 720

Question:  Which students are successful at your school, and how do you know it?
  • Demonstrated college readiness (ACT?)
  • Portfolios
  • Definitely not course grades (at least not by themselves and not if they are disconnected from learning standards)
  • Completion of first year of college
  • State assessments
  • Formative assessment
  • School attendance and participation in activities and events
  • Smile quotient
  • School climate says to you, "This is the place you want to be."
Need to measure student success more widely than we do now.

Question:  Are there differences between success in school and success in life?
  • Can students apply in life what they learn in school?
  • Can students solve problems and learn without teacher involvement?
  • School and real life are very different
  • Some students figure out the "system" of schooling but don't necessarily figure out the system of life
  • Becoming independent in thinking and learning
  • Kids need to hear more about real life from outsiders while in school
  • Technology restrictions in schools don't mirror real life
  • Students not given opportunity to provide input in how schools are run
  • Tom Hoerr: Too often success in school is considered the 'ceiling' instead of the 'floor.'"
  • Not enough schools are having this conversation in staff meetings or even in the teachers' lounge
  • Tom Hoerr: Schools are not assessing student growth for success in real life. Stuck on standardized tests.
Question:  What formal mechanisms exist - besides standardized tests, besides anything with a % - to assess student growth?  How is it reported?  What other assessment mechanisms could be used? What are the obstacles to this?
  • Student surveys and focus groups
  • ePortfolios
  • Demonstration in outside activities such as internships, community service, mentorships, leadership programs, etc
Great "wake-up" discussion this morning.  I sat at a table with a wonderfully diverse group of building administrators and teachers.

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Thursday, October 28, 2010

Reporting from ASCD Fall Conference on Teaching and Learning (#ascdfc)

I'm attending the fall conference in Chicago this weekend and will not only be Tweeting the key points made by the many excellent presenters, but will be writing real-time summaries of the sessions I attend so that folks back home or around the world can connect from a distance. If you are following on Twitter, I'll be including the official conference hashtag of #ascdfc.

The session summaries will be posted here on my Posterous blog as each concludes.

Here is the lineup of sessions I'm planning on attending:

Friday, October 29 -

What Data Do We Use and How Do We Use Them? By Thomas Hoerr, New City School, St. Louis, Mo.

A Bolder Approach to Reform: Understanding and Responding to the Achievement Gap by Pedro A. Noguera, Ph.D. Peter L. Agnew Professor of Education, New York University, N.Y. (opening general session)

Action Research That Closes the Achievement Gap by Patricia Reynolds, Intermediate School 73, New York, N.Y

Fair and Meaningful Grades for Exceptional Learners by Thomas Guskey and Lee Ann Jung, University of Kentucky, Lexington, Ky.

Saturday, October 30 -

Overcoming Roadblocks to Data Use by Jennifer Morrison, Educational Consultant, White Rock, S.C.

ESL WISE! Closing the Achievement Gap for English Learners by Virginia Rojas, Educational Consultant, Brunswick, N.J.

Feed-Up, Feedback, and Feed-Forward by Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey, San Diego State University, Calif.

Sunday, October 31 -

The Power of Data Teams by Jennifer Morrison, Educational Consultant, White Rock, S.C.

Effective Instructional Leadership for Closing the Achievement Gap Within Your School and School District by Baruti Kafele, Newark Tech High School, Jersey City, N.J.

A Broader Approach to Accountability by Richard Rothstein, Economic Policy Institute, Washington, D.C. (closing general session)

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Friday, October 22, 2010

Keeping the Pressure Up

Educational folks just have to step up to the challenge and stop making excuses as to why they're not using technology, both as a professional learning as well as an instructional tool. Heard it all. Seen enough. Time to move forward. It's what the profession expects. It's what our kids deserve.

"We can't let educators off the hook" (Dangerously Irrelevant)

Thursday, October 21, 2010

140 Character Conference

Had a wonderful opportunity to participate in a small panel of educators during the recent 140 Character Conference in Detroit.  I joined Linda Clinton (@linda704) and Nicholas Provenzano (@thenerdyteacher) on the stage for 15 minute panel discussion on the use of real time communications in education.

<p>140 Conference Detroit Education Panel from Shelly Terrell on Vimeo.</p>

Thank you Shelly Terrell (@ShellTerrell) and Jeff Pulver for the invitation!

Why I'm Supporting Justin Amash for Congress

Justin Amash, currenly my state representative in Lansing, is running as a Republican for the 3rd Michigan Congressional District.  I met Justin personally this past spring when I invited him to meet with me on my concerns regarding state funding for education and some of the innovative strides we are taking to address student achievement.  Afterwards, we took a brief look at the work being done on the Lee building and the new 6th Grade Campus.  I found Justin more than willing listen and we both shared the same concerns regarding big government and the need to improve our schools.

Justin has a leadership style I personally believe is sorely needed in all of our public officials, elected and appointed, including our school administrators.  He is transparent, using real time communications to keep us informed on the progress - or lack of progress - in the legislative process.  Just is honest about his stance on issues, unwilling to sell his soul simply to support a political party or special interest stance.  He studies the bills and refuses to support any legislation he has not read, doesn't understand, or goes against his personal beliefs.  I don't necessarily agree with every decision he makes, but I am always confident that Justin has done his homework and will stand on principle when it comes time to cast his vote.

Justin and I agree that the Federal government has for too long overextended itself in the area of education.  During last evening's debate at Davenport University, while not necessarily advocating completely eliminating the U.S. Department of Education as I do, he does agree that Washington takes far too much out of Michigan and doesn't provide a fair return: "'The problem I have with the current structure is that we are sending all the money to Washington and not getting our fair share back,' he said. Amash said he advocates a "federalist" system in which states would compete with each other instead of being forced to use a "one size fits all" system." (The Grand Rapids Press)  I believe that if the only solution is to eliminate the Department of Education to solve this problem, Justin will come down on that side of the issue.

Justin is often criticized for his lone "no" votes in the Michigan House. As one who often finds myself on the "lonely side of an issue or position," I commend him for standing with the people or the interests of our state, not the special interests or deal-makers in Lansing.  While I'm pretty sure that the increased pressure in Washington will no doubt soften his lone-ranger approach, I know that his willingness to overlook the criticism to maintain his principles will make him an outstanding congressman and will help to strengthen our federalist system.

On November 2, I will be casting my vote for Justin Amash.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Standing Vigilant for 87 Years

As part of our effort to upgrade the facade of Lee Middle & High School, and recreate what once was considered the gem of the Godfrey-Lee Public School district, the two black iron lanterns alongside the main front entrances were removed this past summer, completely reconditioned and reinstalled, now ready for new glass and re-lighting.  

These "lamps of learning" have stood vigilant since the very first students set foot in a "new" Lee Street School on a cold, wet November day in 1923.  While their usefulness as the sole exterior lighting diminished with time, they continued for decades to be identified with the image of this great institution. Each year they welcomed a new group of freshmen and bade farewell to the graduating class of seniors. Through good times as well as times of strife, through depression and times of war, the tirelessly beckoned the inhabitants of the school to always do their best so they could go out and make something of themselves.  

But sometime toward the end of the '60's, the two lanterns were extinguished, coinciding with the start of several decades of decline throughout the Godfrey-Lee community, a condition that often found its way into the halls of Lee school. You might say it was a period symbolized by the cold, dark blank stares of the lanterns themselves.  Now more than four decades later the lanterns have been given new life and will once again light the way for generations of students to come.  So too has the old Lee Street School been given "new life" with its changing outlook on preparing every student, regardless of background and means, for unequivocal success in college and career.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

When did America decide to follow instead of lead?

There's a troubling reality in today's push (in the wrong direction) for education reform. 


There's something happening here

What it is ain't exactly clear...


When did America decide that in educating millions of our children, it's better to follow instead of lead? We have always, at least until now, prided ourselves as a unique experiment in democracy and human spirit. While the social fabric of older European and Asian nations settled into a static sense of “living for the now,” Americans forged on exploring new lands and pioneering new technologies for the future. Our educational system, born out of the one room schoolhouse not too far removed from “Little House on the Prairie,” evolved to equip and encourage our curiosity and entrepreneurial sense of adventure. A.S. Draper, then commissioner of education in New York, summed it up by declaring, “The educational purpose of America is sharply distinguished from that of other lands. The essential difference comes through our democracy.” (American Education, 1909) Several years earlier, a commission of distinguished educators from Great Britain had descended on our schools and declared that, “The types of men that the educational methods of America have developed appear to me to be entirely different from what we produce at home.” (Reports of the Mosely Educational Commission to the United States, 1904)


There's battle lines being drawn

Nobody's right if everybody's wrong...


Then came Sputnik. Then A Nation at Risk. Then NCLB. Then Race to the Top. For the first one-hundred-and-fifty years of our nation's existence, we provided the educational system everyone else coveted. Focused on developing a culture centered on personal accomplishment, pioneering, and fierce independence, we demonstrated through the development of a manufacturing system second to none, victory in two world wars, great medical advances, birth of the computer age, and landing a man on the moon that our educational system, void of the incessant need for national or even state-wide testing, was capable of producing great leaders, thinkers, scientists, business adventurists, and a nation whose strength rested with the growth in the middle class. Until that point in our short history, America didn't look to other cultures and say, “We need to be more like them.” Instead, for centuries people have been coming to our shores trying to escape the very things many in the past fifty years, especially those who are not in the education profession, now want us to emulate in our public schools: A nationalized educational system, built on the belief that annual testing of every student in reading and math in place of developing the skills and individual abilities that made our nation great. This is precisely what many other countries are trying to get away from! But meanwhile we ignore the warnings and march on, dragging our public schools through the mud, firing teachers, narrowing our curriculum to only what will be tested, and essentially creating factory-like schools filled with children who can regurgitate what they learn only by filling in a bubble answer sheet, in the quest for what other nations such as China no longer want:


Through No Child Left Behind and now Race to the Top, the US has been working on increasing the power and frequency of testing, standardizing and narrowing the curriculum, simplifying teacher and school evaluation, centralizing education decision making, and reducing the definition of achievement and success to test scores.


"In essence, what China wants is what the U.S. has and is eager to throw away, while what the US wants is what has and is eager to cast away." Yong Zhao, Who Will Invent the Next Google or Apple?, 2010


What a field-day for the heat

A thousand people in the street...


Education Nation and Waiting for Superman. We came to this fork in the road, not through common sense or learned decisions but rather through political power struggles, boy-billionaires seeking to create a legacy for themselves, and media sensationalists spurred on by panic sustained through twenty-four hour cable news cycles. Couple this with inappropriate use of data from international tests and “cherry-picking” comparisons of educational systems around the world, and you've created the perfect storm for unrest in the streets. Actually, we don't even bother much to look beyond our shores anymore for the comparisons; we've created a hodge-podge of charter schools and school systems – some successful, many not – and we use them for our favorite sport of comparing apples-to-oranges in the compulsive quest for uncovering failures in our public school system. The elite politicians, media personalities, and business leaders, most of which got to where they are because of our public school system and not in spite of it, incite the general public with one-sided views and control of the traditional media outlets. If you agree with them, you are invited onto the national stage. If you do not go along with their point of view, you are marginalized, often brutalized, and mostly shut out. Even if you agree that we need to make changes in our public education system, a point of view many professionals in the education arena agree with, but you disagree that it can only be accomplished by firing the teachers and providing more choice through charters, you are forced to sit in the corner and portrayed as the classroom dunce.


Paranoia strikes deep

Into your life it will creep...


The state of our current economy, arguably in worse shape since possibly the economic disasters of the 1870's and promising to get worse before it gets better, isn't helping educators attempting to get out their message that while changes are needed, destruction of the system that played a central role in the building of our nation is not necessary. Nor is it wise! There's a growing concern that the chasm between rich and poor is growing ever wider and the middle class is disappearing, in large part due to the decline in our manufacturing base and loss of millions of jobs during the first decade of this century. While in the past, industry leaders and capitalists have born the brunt of the blame for economic predicaments, a new pattern appears to be emerging: the capitalists and the industry leaders are using their tremendous wealth to stir up paranoia and point the finger of blame at public schools. They have spent the past ten years trying to convince the American public that the loss of our traditional industries and the lack of job opportunities is due in large part to our so-called failing school system. It's as if they are trying to convince Joe-citizen that if we just had better schools, you'd have more jobs. It's the school's fault, not ours. Never mind that we are the ones who moved our manufacturing plants to Mexico and China. That's not important! What is important is that we fire all the public school teachers, destroy the teacher's unions, and send all of our kids to charter schools. Period. Only then will America be great again and only then will you avoid foreclosure on your house and enjoy the security of a good job.


It's time we stop, hey, what's that sound

Everybody look what's going down...


It's all about giving up our leadership role and following others such as communist China or socialist Finland. If we were just more like them – nationalized and centralized control over everything, including public education which has been one of the bedrocks of our republican form of government centered on local control and diffusion of political power – we'd solve all our problems. As far back as 1909, Commissioner A.S. Draper was naïve enough to believe that power rested with the states and local governments, including school boards, when he made the statement, “The United States is powerless to control and does not assume to manage the educational interests of the people; the states have full authority to do so.” (American Education, emphasis in original). Now we are on the verge of a nationalized curriculum in the guise of the Common Core, designed purposely by using a back-door that avoids conflict with federal law precluding the establishment of national curriculum standards. Through Race to the Top, we are also nearing the imposition of standardized evaluation systems for teachers and principals, merit pay to replace traditional salary systems, the end of tenure, and pointing all of the blame for failing students on individual teachers by tracking achievement test results and pinning it on them. But the reality is that nothing in this paragraph has anything to do with improving student achievement. Simply changing the structure, or even the rules by which a structure such as a public education operates, is not proven to produce better results. We've already tried this with charter schools and the results are mixed at best. So while we spend all of our waking hours and resources on changing the institution, we waste valuable time and opportunity to band together to improve teaching and learning.


For better or worse, here are my recommendations for doing just that:


  • Completely eliminate the federal role in education and restore the responsibility back to the states. There is no evidence to suggest that since the establishment of the original Department of Health, Education and Welfare at the federal level in the early 1950's, our educational system has improved as a result. In fact, one could make the argument that the increase in federal meddling has actually helped with any perceived decline. To lessen the impact of a sudden loss of revenue which has led to a socialistic dependency in states and local districts, federal funding could be phased out over a pre-set time period.


  • State governments should limit their roles to establishing learning standards (aka, graduation requirements and teacher certification standards) coupled with providing fair and equitable funding for all schools, including accessibility to the latest technology, provision of Internet access for all students, and the ability of local school systems to provide every student with an education in World Languages. Curriculum selection, instructional methods, assessment of learning, and evaluation of teaching are to be left to local school boards with monitoring and assistance from county or regional-level, intermediate districts. Put the responsibility of operating public schools back in the hands of the local public and help by reducing the overwhelming burden of needless regulation.


  • Local, regional and state colleges and universities should be compelled to completely revamp their teacher preparation programs and be required to partner with local school districts in providing for a more robust internship and mentorship period for new teachers. In addition, higher education institutions should be required to create panels of instructors and deans who meet regularly with K-12 teachers and administrators to establish K-16 curriculum alignment, reviewing and revising as necessary.


These are just a start on the road to restoring America's desire to lead in public education. Enough has been said regarding the concerns and it's high time we end this senseless hype. Start by bringing the educational professionals onto the stage, enabling them to participate fully in identifying the real problems and solutions, and then provide them with the backing necessary to implement changes that serve the needs of kids.


But most of all, let's stop looking to be like everyone else. That's not what America was built on and that won't serve our future generations well.


Ours is a purposeful nation. It has always faced the east. It has always planned for the future.” A.S. Draper




Lyrics: For What It's Worth, by Buffalo Springfield, 1967

Written by Stephen Stills