Saturday, February 18, 2012

We no longer value failure in learning

Today's educational system is being pushed towards a mythical state of perfection, where all students (theoretically) achieve at the same high level at the same time. There's no room for failure in a high-stakes testing environment. It's no longer important to encourage discovery, failure, and perseverance in life's quest for success. It's now only important to be able to regurgitate what one has learned on a winner-take-all multiple choice test that's disguised as the only gateway to college and career. If you don't make it, you're a failure (and so are your teachers and your schools).

Thankfully, there were those in the past who came up through a more saner approach to education and learned that failing is not the end, nor is it the door to terminal disgrace. It's merely formative feedback that when combined with a touch of determination will eventually lead to success. No idiotic multiple choice test can predict that outcome.

Here's a few notable failures, some of whom never even completed a formal education yet ultimately achieved measurable success. For more examples, visit They Did Not Give Up:

As a young man, Abraham Lincoln went to war a captain and returned a private. Afterwards, he was a failure as a businessman. As a lawyer in Springfield, he was too impractical and temperamental to be a success. He turned to politics and was defeated in his first try for the legislature, again defeated in his first attempt to be nominated for congress, defeated in his application to be commissioner of the General Land Office, defeated in the senatorial election of 1854, defeated in his efforts for the vice-presidency in 1856, and defeated in the senatorial election of 1858. At about that time, he wrote in a letter to a friend, "I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth."

Thomas Edison's teachers said he was "too stupid to learn anything." He was fired from his first two jobs for being "non-productive." As an inventor, Edison made 1,000 unsuccessful attempts at inventing the light bulb. When a reporter asked, "How did it feel to fail 1,000 times?" Edison replied, "I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps."

Can you imagine earning the equivalent of a 1/10 of one-percent on a high stages test but ultimately succeeding beyond anyone's wildest dreams? Not in today's ridiculous NCLB crusade.

Albert Einstein did not speak until he was 4-years-old and did not read until he was 7. His parents thought he was "sub-normal," and one of his teachers described him as "mentally slow, unsociable, and adrift forever in foolish dreams." He was expelled from school and was refused admittance to the Zurich Polytechnic School. He did eventually learn to speak and read. Even to do a little math.

Henry Ford failed and went broke five times before he succeeded. 

"Failure provides the opportunity to begin again, more intelligently." ~ Henry Ford

Rocket scientist Robert Goddard found his ideas bitterly rejected by his scientific peers on the grounds that rocket propulsion would not work in the rarefied atmosphere of outer space.

"I never learned a thing from a tournament I won." 
~ Bobby Jones

When Julie Andrews took her first screen test for MGM studios, the final determination was that "She's not photogenic enough for film."

Enrico Caruso's music teacher said he had no voice at all and could not sing. His parents wanted him to become an engineer.

"Little minds are tamed and subdued by misfortune; 
but great minds rise above them."
~ Washington Irving

My personal favorite:

There is a professor at MIT who offers a course on failure. He does that, he says, because failure is a far more common experience than success. An interviewer once asked him if anybody ever failed the course on failure. He thought a moment and replied, "No, but there were two Incompletes."

"Every great cause is born from repeated failures and from imperfect achievements." 
~ Maria Montessori

"When the Columbia space shuttle broke apart above Texas in February 2003, no one knew that it could one day result in success. NASA astronaut Dr. Charles Camarda, however, believes the tragedy has provided both current and future engineers with a motto to live by - where there is failure, there is knowledge and understanding that doesn't come with success."

Fear is often the only thing that stands in the way of moving from failure to success. And fear is spawned by high-stakes testing and other narrow measures of achievement that have little to do with instilling courage to fail and the willingness to learn from failure and persevere. When the only purpose to testing is to rank students and schools, it serves as a roadblock rather than a map to eventual success. Instead of being seen as a way of sorting out what doesn't work from what does, a step that's necessary for failure to lead to success, it demoralizes the vast majority of students and teachers, and forces schools to spend more time focused on fixing what was failed rather than expanding on what succeeded.

Most of us probably don’t remember learning to walk, but surely our parents do, and they can vouch that we didn’t get it right the first time we tried. Did we give up and continue to crawl? No. We tried again until we got it right. But not only did we try again, we practiced walking so much we were eventually able to run. We weren’t born knowing everything, but we were born with the ability to learn and grow. ~ Katie Barbaro

Imagine a "top-to-bottom" list of parents whose child didn't demonstrate proficiency in walking by a specific year, month and day. Thankfully we're not there, yet, but what will happen to the future of humanity when we no longer value failure as the stepping stone to success?

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Life would be great without all these kids!


Maybe it's me. Maybe I'm becoming cynical in the second half of life. It just seems to me that we are becoming a society that places less and less importance on children. It's almost like they are a necessary evil but a nuisance none the same. Mostly, I get the impression that the adult members of our species see kids as a drain on resources -- money, time and space.

Oh, don't get me wrong, I think we still enjoy them occasionally and for the most part see them as cute and cuddly.  Almost like we might feel about some other possession whether it be the latest electronics, a new car, our front lawn, or something else we value beyond people. Kids can be fun for the moment and then a pain in the posterior the next. But mostly as a society I'm seeing a greater emphasis on the latter.

More and more we seem to value accumulated wealth or our individual freedom more than we value the honor of bringing children into the world, investing the time and energy needed to raise them properly, and contributing our fair share of financial resources to ensure they all have an equitable chance for "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." And that's what seems to bother me the most. It's almost as if life would be great without all these kids?

But isn't that what life is all about? Aren't we part of an eco system that perpetuates itself by spawning offspring and ensuring they have a solid footing in which to repeat the cycle again and again? Do you think that the human species was created with the goal of acquiring the hottest new car or the biggest new house on the block? Was it simply to see who could aspire to the top of the heap and become an overlord CEO of everyone else? I don't think so. While none of those are bad things in and of themselves, they become so when the pursuit of wealth, power or position comes at the exclusion of ensuring the procreation of our kind and the well-being of our posterity.

"Are you kidding me? Attend a school board meeting?" 

"No way I'm going to become a member of the boosters, they'll expect me to actually do something." 

"I work all day long and I don't have the time or the energy to have to do the teacher's job and help my kids with homework. Besides, I sucked at math in school."

"Yeah, I was thinking about coming to parent-teacher conferences but I needed to work on my car."

"I'm sick of schools always asking for more money. I'm tired of paying taxes."

Well, let me put it to you straight if you're one who's fallen into this mode: I don't care if you're tired, if you want more time for your own trivial pursuits, if you want to amass more wealth, take more exotic vacations, live in a mansion or drive a Porsche, if your desires come at the exclusion of ensuring every child has an equitable opportunity to pursue all the things that you want, your position is immoral and an affront to the human race. Your sole purpose in being a member of the human race is to contribute to the perpetuation of it and that doesn't simply end with twenty minutes of self-serving pleasure, my friend.

This isn't about politics, or political parties, or other equally less important things in life; it's about greed vs. humanity and you don't simply have to be wealthy to be greedy. Some of the most self-centered behaviors can be seen even in those at the bottom of the wage-earner list. Anytime there's a need to come together and place our kids on a better footing in life, it seems to be more prevalent that the growing response is, "Oh, yeah, another entitlement for those too lazy to make it on their own." 

But I suppose if that's all you listen to on talk radio all day long, that's how you've been programmed to think. After all, it's hard work to think for yourself and that would cut into your own personal pursuits.

Those damn kids anyway. Now where did I leave the remote to my 52-inch screen TV? It's "me time."

Friday, February 10, 2012

Governor Snyder, "there you go again!"

With apologies to President Ronald Reagan, Michigan's Governor Rick Snyder is once again playing fast and loose with budget figures to support his personal agenda.

I came across an internal House Fiscal Agency email fact-checking some of the Governor's testimony regarding educational funding for the coming year. When you read this and match it to his statement yesterday before the House Appropriations Committee, you have to wonder who's telling the truth?

While the Governor suggested during his presentation that ongoing expenditures are going up approx. $200 per pupil or 2.0%, he is comparing FY 13 proposed costs to the existing FY 12 enacted budget, despite the FY 12 budget supplemental request that would increase the FY 12 budget by $70 million for mandatory cost adjustments (emphasis added) (plus $12.5 million for the kindergarten assessments/quality rating system). Secondly, he is referring to an increase in ongoing appropriations that simply results from a shift of funding currently characterized as one-time to on-going funding (emphasis added). This does not constitute an actual increase either in the total budget nor in the overall funding districts will receive. When the FY 12 baseline cost adjustments are taken into consideration, and when you look at total state appropriations, there is actually a decrease in total state funding for School Aid of $84 million proposed for FY 13 (emphasis added). Even if you adjust FY 12 totals by removing the $133 million that is appropriated to the MPSERS [retirement system] reserve fund in FY 12, the total increase in state spending in FY 13 would only be $49 million. This would equate to an increase of $32 per pupil, not $200.

My bet on who is being truthful goes to the House Fiscal Agency, the non-partisan experts who are paid to analyze the numbers and tell us the real version of the Governor's fictional story.

In the end, though, all bets are off because it's the kids who are ultimately hurt by the cuts.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Governor Snyder's K-12 Budget Continues to Equate Student Learning to Widget Production

It's apparent that a year on the job has done little to change the Governor's mind or enlighten him on the intricate processes of teaching and learning. It's no wonder. His minions of cheerleaders are about as narrowly focused as he is, as this particular excerpt quoted in the Governor's just-released two-year budget plans shows:

“Read through Snyder’s proposed education
reforms, and it’s clear he understands how
you go about producing an excellent product,
which in the case of education, means kids
who are ready to perform in the workforce.”
Dan Calabrese, The Michigan View,
April 29, 2011

And then we wonder why our kids are slipping more and more when it comes to advancing student learning and achievement. By the Governor's measure, as interpreted by Mr. Calabrese, its just a matter of producing "excellent product" ready to become mind-numbed robots in the corporate workforce.

Then there are others who think that improving student learning means we only invest in higher standards, more testing and increased accountability, aka, more shaming of schools and teachers when their poor, urban, English language deficient children can't miraculously catch up overnight to their peers in more affluent suburban districts. Equity of opportunity is not even in the lexicon of Republicans and their business partners.

“I believe the Governor’s plan goes a long
way toward creating the system of standards,
measurements and accountability that
Michigan so desperately needs.”
Stephen Henderson, Detroit Free Press,
April 28, 2011

Guess we just have to weigh the cows even more, but in the Governor's "enhanced" carrot-crazed plans, we won't be able to afford to feed the cows until the end of the year.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Using the school aid fund surplus to improve equity in Michigan

The House Fiscal Agency briefing yesterday projects a surplus in the school aid fund for 2012-13 to be $222 million. Already, plenty of ideas have emerged on what to do with this funding but no one is talking about using it to close the equity gap between districts in affluent communities and those serving the poor.

It takes considerably more funding and resources to provide the supports and programming that ensure students from poor communities and those struggling with the English language to meet the same college and career readiness goals expected of ALL children in Michigan.

This is an opportunity for our state legislators and Governor Snyder to show courage and do the one thing that will help improve academic achievement in low-achieving, urban poor districts. Set some reasonable expectations for use of the funds, require the receiving districts to write a plan on how the addition to their foundation grant will be used to overcome the obstacles to higher student achievement, and measure the results.

That's all fine and should be expected, but to do nothing with this surplus to significantly impact the funding inequity would be a shame. It would also send a solid message to poor communities, with large populations of minorities and immigrant students, that you are not worthy of the support necessary to throw off the shackles of poverty and succeed just as your affluent neighbors do.

Do the right thing, Lansing.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Defining equity in school funding the "Michigan way!"

The slide below depicts the foundation allowance per pupil for Michigan's school districts. Note there are several paths and based on a simple trend analysis, never shall they meet. The "promise of Proposal A" was to produce at a minimum equality in per pupil funding. And while there has been some narrowing of the funding gap since 1994, much of that gain was made in the early years but has slowed since. It will take decades before the lines converge but that's only assuming that increases will be provided. Under the current Governor and legislature, those increases don't look promising.

According to the House Fiscal Agency (Dec 2011), the difference between the highest and lowest districts before Proposal A was $6,900 while that gap had "shrunk" to $5,008 as of last school year. There's no indication of any accounting for inflation in the HFA figures.

While all of this is pretty entertaining (and depressing at the same time), the likelihood of districts even being on dollar-per-dollar equal terms anytime soon is next to none. What's interesting is that the more than $5K per pupil difference between my district (one of those along the bottom line) and the top line districts would provide us with $9 million more dollars this year that could fund a longer school day and year-round school to address the many needs of our low-income, high limited English proficiency district.

Since Proposal A, the state has been on a whirlwind trip putting more demands and requirements on school districts. Added high-stakes assessments, setting minimum four-year, on-time graduation requirements, and mandating a complete high school graduation curriculum has led to increasing costs across the board, let alone in the hundreds of districts serving poor urban and rural communities. Providing a competitive education for kids who come from poor communities, learning English as a second language, and generally having to confront far more obstacles to success than the more affluent districts is tough enough when money and resources are there.

But the fact is, the funding is not there, especially for districts in poor communities. Bet you can't guess where some of the most affluent districts are on the graph!

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Defining quality education must include equity!

You can't drive through farm country much anymore without seeing a variety of signs with mysterious numbers marking out sections of corn fields. We've raised expectations for corn so high that greater quality and yields are necessary if a farm is to survive. Because inferior seed or the actual soil being tilled can mean lower quality or yield, farmers turn to more resources to help overcome the cruel inequity that could lead to bankruptcy. Every farmer knows that simply raising crop expectations or testing the plants more will not in itself lead to a bountiful harvest. Tending to the inputs while nurturing growth is a crucial part of farming success.
There are many examples of this type of "production cycle" throughout business, industry, the arts, and other professions. The only glaring exclusion is in education and the way we fund our K-12 schools. Here we most often choose to ignore the growing variations with "inputs," turn our backs on aging infrastructure, set higher and higher expectations, measure results at a more frequent pace along the way, and then bemoan the fact that the majority of our "outputs" are inferior while all the while blaming it on the teachers and schools for not effectively "cultivating the crop."
We simply ignore the lessons we see in the world around us. No, let me restate that: we chooseto ignore what we see working in every other facet of life -- strengthening the equity of inputs and providing a climate and culture of resources that promote growth and quality of outcomes. It's something that works everywhere else but is sadly absent in public education.
What is quality? 
Our Michigan legislature is attempting to define educational quality through an appointed committee representing both the House and the Senate. They sincerely believe that to do so will enhance the debate over K-12 effectiveness and reform. But so far, their focus appears to be on what type of exit standards to set that would demonstrate a school was being successful. Little has been mentioned of the quality of inputs on the front end. While goals are certainly important, goals to the exclusion of nurturing and expanding inputs and resources is an exercise in futility, one we've already been experience in the ten years since NCLB came on the scene.
UNESCO's worldwide research in 2005 (Education for All - The Quality Imperative) points to several indicators of a quality education that begin with the quality of the learner:
...learners are central to attempts to improve the quality of education. While this may appear obvious, it is not always reflected in practice. All learning activities designed to offer meaningful learning outcomes should start with the clear understanding that learners are individuals, with different aptitudes and learning styles and with personal attributes influenced by their home and social backgrounds (Lubart, 2004).
It follows that schools need to respond to these conditions of severe disadvantage and be proactive in helping to mitigate their impact on children. An essential starting point is assuring good health and safety, while recognizing that some problems require particular types of educational response (i.e., English language learners and students with disabilities).
The link between health and learning is well established (WHO, 1997). Ill health  affects attendance, retention, cognitive development and academic performance. There is strong evidence that poor nutrition and health in early childhood severely affect cognitive development in later years. Recent studies also reveal negative relationships between health and nutritional status and learners’ school achievement.
It is now widely recognized that early childhood care and education (ECCE) substantiallyenhances children’s school readiness, yet this is not an area of significant investment by governments in most countries, despite evidence suggesting that suchinvestment is a cost effective way to improve education quality.
In addition, a quality education requires what the research defines as enabling inputs that provide for quality teaching and learning:
Effective teaching and learning require wide and equitable availability of learning materials.
Good school infrastructure is important to effective teaching and learning...
Sufficient learning time is critical...
To fully meet the needs of all students by providing a quality education requires a commitment on the part of legislators and policymakers to provide equitable funding and resources so that no matter where a child lives and regardless of the child's socioeconomic, English language learner, or disability status, he/she has a equal starting chance to achieve at a level comparable to children growing up in more affluent surroundings. This is the only way to break the cycles of poverty on a wide-scale basis.
So far, that commitment has not been there.
Why is quality only for the rich?
Most people in the United States believe, at least rhetorically, in education equality -- that all kids should learn and compete on a roughly equal playing field. Yet disparities between the most affluent schools (both independent and public) and schools in poor communities have grown nonsensically extreme. (Weissbourd with Dodge, Educational Leadership. ASCD Vol 69 No 5)
Money alone doesn't necessarily lead to a higher quality education, but the lack of equitable funding and resources certainly handicaps the ability of schools serving poor communities, making it much less likely the students who attend those schools will reach the same academic and economic levels as their more affluent peers.
Weissbourd points out the growing disparity between affluent and poor schools noting that although state budget cuts have hit all public schools, "Low income schools have been hit even harder, with further cuts in basic materials and activities, deteriorating facilities, and even more students crammed into already-overcrowded classrooms."
Let's face it, schools serving students from low-income households, English-language deficiencies, other disabilities, and generally coming to school everyday with "junk in the trunk," have a greater need for more resources that will support quality learning programs and provide equitable opportunities. While many taxpayers seemingly yearn for a tax-free society, they aren't living in reality when they encourage lawmakers to cut more funding for public schools. They've been brainwashed into thinking that money sent from the state capitol merely flows into teachers' and administrators' pockets, but they fail to spend any quality time in a school taking in what's really occurring, and where the needs really are.
Public schools serving a preponderance of high-needs students require more equitable funding to address learning gaps and provide for accelerated opportunities. The areas where more funding and resources are needed include:
  1. Providing for high-quality early childhood programs so that all students, regardless of where they live or their family situation, are ready for school when they set foot in a​kindergarten classroom.
  2. Providing all children with access to ongoing basic health and dental care so they can be in school everyday focused on learning.
  3. Providing extended school days and years to meet academic and enrichment needs for students who are behind and who need to experience more out-of-school learning opportunities similar to their more affluent peers.
  4. Providing on-going rigorous training and coaching for teachers and school administrators to help improve the quality of teaching and learning that targets the gaps while setting high expectations for meeting the same achievement levels as students from more affluent communities.
  5. Employing sufficient numbers of specialists such as counselors, social workers, school nurses, and specialized teachers in the areas of special education and English language learning to address obstacles holding kids back while helping keep them focused on a goal of college and career ready.
  6. Building and expanding modern learning facilities that provide classroom spaces for collaboration, project-based learning, STEM (science, technology, engineering, math), health and physical education, world languages, and the arts.
  7. Providing equitable access to wireless high-speed Internet, mobile technology devices, and the wealth of expanded learning opportunities that students in other more affluent districts enjoy as a result.
Of course, those who oppose equitable funding in public education will shun most of these needs and provide their own brand of educational reform: Teach the poor to not be so lazy, expect more out of teachers for less compensation, set the bar higher for measuring success, and test kids more frequently so we can publish lists that compare and ridicule schools. If they persist, simply close them. In the meantime, quit whining and be thankful for what you have! We'd rather not be bothered by the issue of inequity because we're much too busy running our own kids back and forth to expensive tutoring for all those AP classes, swimming team practice, equestrian competition, or a performance in the district's multi-million dollar theater.
...sooner or later, more of us will have to recognize something more fundamental -- that education equality is at the heart of any healthy, just democracy. What is perhaps most distressing is that fewer and fewer Americans appear to feel shock and anguish that some of our children are left behind, stranded, always climbing uphill while other children are growing up in rarified, precious circumstances beyond any semblance of rational understanding. (Weissbourd with Dodge)
The Citizens Research Council of Michigan and The Education Policy Center at Michigan State University jointly recognized the growing disparity in adequacy and equity particularly when it comes to capitol funding for facilities and other educational resources such as technology:
Educational adequacy depends on a number of factors, including access to financial resources, teacher quality, and curriculum.  Educational adequacy also requires that all children have access to school facilities that fully support their academic achievement and social development. Michigan's current policies fail to provide such facilities for many children, denying them a fair chance to succeed in school. 
The principle of equity requires the state to provide similar services to all citizens, regardless of where they live. Michigan’s current policies on capital funding violate this principle in two ways. First, these policies produce inequity for students, by perpetuating stark differences across school districts in the age and condition of school facilities. Some Michigan children attend school in brand-new buildings, fully equipped with the latest instructional technologies and state-of-the-art facilities for art, music, and athleticsprograms. Other Michigan children attend school in buildings that are more than 100 years old, with leaking roofs and a few aging computers. 
In addition, Michigan’s policies on capital funding violate the principle of equity for taxpayers, by perpetuating inequalities acrosschool districts in property tax rates. 
Where do schools serving poor communities turn next?
Sadly, despite warnings from Horace Mann and others such as those who advocated for desegregation to ensure poor Black students had opportunities to learn with more affluent white kids, we've done little in the past half century to provide for equitable opportunities. Instead, civic leaders have seemingly worked harder to ensure that affluent districts are virtually unaffected by education and school finance reform, while districts serving high-needs communities continued to scrape along and be brow-beaten for lack of progress.
Even in areas where there's a mix of affluent, middle class, and poor districts, little is done to create ties between them that help share resources and provide more opportunities for the students who need them most. And when the leaders of the poor districts raise a red flag, those in the more affluent suburbs bury their heads in the sand. They are all about "equalizing funding" but only if it means more for them, too.
Middle-income and more affluent families, mostly white, have largely walled themselves off in separate school districts, leaving to others the task of educating low-income students, most of whom are African-American or Hispanic. For fifty years, the law and politics of educational opportunity have operated to protect the schools behind those walls. Court and legislative decisions alike have ensured that those schools do not have to share their resources -- whether teachers and principals, funding, or students -- with other schools or districts. (Ryan, James E., Five Miles Away, A World Apart, Oxford University Press 2010)
Poor school districts typically serve communities that have the least clout in our state capitols and even in the courts. There are literally no powerful constituencies that represent urban, poor communities which typically have high numbers of unemployed or underemployed, minorities, and non-English speaking households. Those who do advocate for them are often accused of trying to promote a system of welfare where a disproportionate amount of taxes go to support those who pay the least. The loudest voices -- often amplified by a mainstream media and array of conservative talk shows -- are now congregating on the side of corporate schools that theoretically will whip those poor bastards into shape, and they'll do it for less money (as long as that doesn't mean less money in the pockets of the CEO of those corporate schools).
Poor, mostly minority families do not have the resources or the understanding to effectively advocate for themselves. State legislatures are dominated by suburban district representatives who more often now represent the majority party wielding all of the power. They don't have to debate the issue, they simply control access to the big show and any chance of making a case for more equitable funding. As urban and suburban school districts become even less diverse, the chasm between students attending rich schools and those attending poor ones will grow and further expand inequity of opportunity. And while we quickly dismiss providing any more funding to schools -- poor or not -- we seem to have not problem adding more prisons and warehousing more prisoners at five times the annual cost, despite the fact the vast majority of those in our prison system came from urban districts and poor communities.
The logic fails me.
Without courageous leaders in Lansing and other state capitols willing to step up and address​educational quality that includes equity, our public school system and its outcomes will continue to be divided along economic and demographic lines.

If you would like a complete compilation of my recent blog posts on inequity of opportunity & growing K-12 funding gap in a PDF booklet, it's available free on Scribd at