Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Are schools to provide an education or job training?

Earlier this week, the Grand Rapids Public School system announced the potential closure of ten schools along with other transformation plans to address college and career readiness of their students.

"I agree with Superintendent (Theresa) Neal that Grand Rapids Public Schools has a significant impact on the entire community. After all, they are training the workforce of tomorrow," (Greg) Sundstrom said. "It is important for this community to have a well-trained workforce." (emphasis added)

So, this is what K-12 education has become? Simply a workforce training program designed to support the economic goals of a community?

What ever happened to the values of preparing children for citizenship, teaching cultural literacy, or helping students become critical thinkers?

I recently read a post that summarized the purpose of education as follows:

"Contrary to what many pundits and politicians may state, neither the strength of our military nor the intelligence of our intellectuals make our nation more likely to endure.  It is also not the rise and fall of our economy, the housing market or the stock market that will be our saving grace or ultimate ruin.  Rather, our nation's future hangs in the balance of we, the people: you and I and our readiness and willingness to take on the mantle of our citizenship. It always has been this way, and it always will be this way until the day comes when the American Dream slips from our collective reach. But in order to take on this mantle and breathe renewed life, generation after generation, into the American Dream, we must first be educated and socialized to do so." ~ Scottie Seawall, What is the Purpose of Public Education

Manager Sundstrom and others who believe schools are simply job training centers may want to read the full post as well as the comments that follow to gain a greater appreciation of what education is all about. After all, if Sundstrom is correct in his vision of K-12 education, wouldn't it be cheaper to just go back to the apprenticeship system?

Friday, October 26, 2012

Change begins with removing the root of the problem...

...that is if you really want positive change. If you just like to bitch, like the "Quote of the Day" below, simply keep doing what it is you are doing.

There are many that bemoan their own perception of what is wrong with public education, but few are willing to actually take the real reform steps necessary to make a difference. Instead, they go for easy targets (i.e., teachers and unions, unengaged parents, lazy students, district bureaucracy) and the most creative idea they can come up with is "test 'em until morale and scores improve."

Not everyone as most Americans are simply lemmings, too disinterested in doing their own research or questioning the loud voices, instead following the pseudo-reformers over the cliff.

Which leads me to a...

Quote of the Day from The Urban School System of the Future!!
"We can't expect the century¬old district to completely change its fundamental nature. No one would try to turn General Electric into General Mills."

Why not? The multiple-centuries-old one-room schoolhouse rooted in a historical tradition of local control evolved to become a district. Get business and industry, principally responsible for the disastrous graded-school district movement in the early 1900's urged along by their mass-media accomplices of the time, out of the education reform movement and true structural reform can (will) occur. 

The corporate world's focus on grade-level testing along with decreasing funding for education (when adjusted for the CPI) are the glue of the traditional district structure. It can be undone if we begin with ending the federal role in education starting with NCLB, RTTT, and any other iteration of President Johnson's failed ESEA.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Future of Learning

"The future of learning is far more than new devices, digital content and online classrooms. It means potentially rewritten relationships between students and information, teachers and instruction, and schools and society."

Spend 30 minutes this week or weekend reading the post at and watching the embedded video below (or you can watch it from within the post).

"As schools adopt new instructional technology, debate has centered on the changing role of teachers, with critics concerned that online videos and other tools will diminish the role of the teacher. But in the film, Coursera’s Koller says one of the revolutions in education is that teaching will be less about conveying information and more of a return to its original roots where instructors engage in dialogue, develop critical thinking skills and spark passion about a discipline."

It will be time well-spent.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Cuts in Federal Funding Looming

We are planning for a significant loss of up to 9 percent in federal funds for some 2013-14 school year programs if Congress allows doomsday budget cuts (known as sequestration) in January. Such programs as Title I (reading and math for high-poverty schools), Title III (English Language Learners), Perkins (career and technical education), and IDEA (special education) could be affected by across-the-board sequestration that Congress and President Obama approved two years ago. 

We have not yet estimated the actual financial impact on the school district if sequestration occurs, but we would have to come up with funds elsewhere to continue federally mandated services. Cuts will likely have to be made in other programs and staffing because funds to make up for the lost federal funds would need to come from state and local general fund revenue, which has been declining due to continuing cuts by Governor Snyder and Michigan's legislature that sent School Aid Fund monies to colleges and businesses. And because sequestration is a 10-year process, it potentially could have a negative impact on our district for several years to come. Services not mandated but paid for by federal Title funds to provide supplemental services to students who for a variety of reasons have fallen behind in their schooling, would simply have to be scaled back potentially leading to lower student achievement and less students fully prepared for college and career. 

Districts such as Godfrey-Lee providing educational services for low-income, minority, and English language learners require additional time and support for students if they are to compete with their peers attending school in more affluent or better-fund schools. At the same time, we are being mandated to make costly changes to our curriculum, textbooks, other teaching materials, and technology to support the switch from Michigan's curriculum standards to a set of national standards called the Common Core, complete with more comprehensive approaches to teaching and testing that require greater use of technology tools. Nobody is helping us pay for this transition that must be in place no later than the fall of 2014. However, Michigan's political leaders refuse to recognize this and prefer to send considerable tax dollars to more affluent districts (such as those in Oakland County that receive nearly $5,000 more per pupil from the state) or to support tax cuts for businesses, the same group that keeps whining for higher achievement and graduation levels.

All of this is occurring at the same time normal operational costs continue to rise and the need for compensatory support services for our students to achieve the state and federal mandate of college and career readiness are at an historical high. The district currently is wrestling with a $1.2 million deficit this year that will significantly cut into our dwindling fund balance (savings) and put us in a position of financial instability that may effect programs for years to come. While our goal is to reduce this deficit as much as possible and balance the budget by next fall, federal sequestration that likely will kick in this January threatens that plan and virtually ensures draconian cuts in 2013-14.

While we have wrestled with the state's continuing nearsightedness in cutting back school funding for nearly ten years now, these new federal cuts will likely be the tipping point that sees schools serving urban poor areas submit to bankruptcy and fold. The question will be do the people living in communities such as Godfrey-Lee care enough to stand up and say, "enough already?" I guess we'll find out pretty soon.

Monday, October 15, 2012

When Initiative and Innovation Collide

I've been blessed to see a number of great things going on in our district and in others. Two weeks ago I travelled to Denver and toured Rock Canyon High School just outside of town. This past Saturday I was at New Milford High School in New Jersey and listened to a number of presentations on creative uses of technology to not only engage students but get them thinking at a critically deep level.

Most of what impressed me was the initiative used by teachers to build an excellent learning community over time with very little money. Even in some cases where school funds weren't even available to purchase a $10 webcam, the teacher either obtained support from a parent group, borrowed equipment from another program when it wasn't being used, or simply doled out the cash from his own pocket, something that all too frequently is happening in this era of cuts to public school funding. The point here is that these teachers see something valuable in what they are trying to build and are willing to take time (often many years) to beg, borrow or purchase the items they need along the way. Simple tech tools that go a long way towards developing a classroom culture or activity that infuses 21st century learning skills in kids.

It brings back memories of my first year as principal for a 4/5/6 building in Wayland, Michigan. I had just retired that summer from active duty and was very excited about my new venture. I noticed about mid-year that the school had been recently wired for closed circuit television. That March I decided to see what this "new fangled" technology could do and chose the awards program at the end of March is Reading Month to test it out. I borrowed my wife's aging Panasonic video camera with built in microphone, stopped by Radio Shack to pick up the required AV cord, plugged it all into the "return feed" outlet in the Media Center and the rest as they say was history. We ran the prize drawing that spring as a televised game show complete with student hosts and kids running excited from their classrooms every time a name was drawn. It turned a pretty standard reward assembly into something different and all for the cost of a cable.

That next fall, we moved into the completely renovated old middle school (which was an old high school at one time dating back to 1940) creating a new single 5/6 school for the district. It was an exciting time as we teamed together to develop a unique program that met the needs of "tweens" and merged two former schools with 5th and 6th graders into one. I decided that year, after the moving dust settled and we were rolling, to develop a student television production program as a lunchtime activity of which I would serve as the faculty advisor. The program and shows would be completely staffed, directed, and produced by 10, 11 and 12 year-old kids.

We started out with the same equipment -- my old, tired Panasonic camera -- but we added an external microphone to improve sound (another "big" personal expense of about $15) and eventually some cheap floodlamps to improve lighting. The weekly show was completely live at first but eventually we started recording shows on tape for playback on Friday mornings. To move ahead and get back to my point, over the next five years we slowly built the program to a point where as many as 80-100 students a year got to be involved in the production and broadcast of approximately four shows each, adding new technology a little at a time and eventually even setting up our own small production studio. That program continues today under the tutelage of Ms. Susan Boehm, one of the most creative and innovative teachers I know. I had a chance last year to watch her crew produce a show segment during the Michigan MACUL conference in Grand Rapids and couldn't help but be impressed by how far they have come. 

And I also couldn't help but smile a little as I recalled that old Panasonic camera back in 1997.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

EdScape reflection: It's more than just the tools

Had a great experience at Eric Sheninger and New MildfordHigh School's Edscape this weekend. I particularly enjoyed observing teachers, specialists and administrators as they shared many innovative and creative learning environments and activities they've developed back in their respective home districts. I'm not sure if I was the only superintendent in attendance but being there allowed me firsthand to observe what can be accomplished by individual teachers with a little enthusiasm, ingenuity, and a lot of love for their profession. Nothing I witnessed this weekend requires big technology budgets or expensive new toys.


It actually got me wondering why there weren't more in attendance or why there aren't hundreds of "Edscape" experiences all across the country? A close cousin to Edscape is the EdCamp "un-conference" that has popped up here and there, but I would hypothesize by my personal observations that attendance is still virtually limited primarily to what some might call "the choir" of technology integration – the teachers and administrators who are already "doing it" with technology tools, project-based learning, creativity, and authentic assessment. They were here and at other conferences primarily because they've already seen the positive results and either want to build on what they know or learn something completely new. They're committed members of "the choir."


The folks that attend Edscape, EdCamp and other technology-infused gatherings are important "points of light" in their schools. However, that's not to say there aren't other similar "points of light" doing great things with kids and impacting learning with positive results in their own classrooms. As Gene Glass once pointed out they are out there but traditional education reform methods will not help discover them:


"There are in the nation's schools 'points of light,' hundreds if not thousands. But they will not be discovered by giving paper-and-pencil tests and analyzing statistics. They shine in the eyes of any impartial observer who takes the time to look for them." (p. 248)


Not all of these "points of light" have necessarily bought into the power of technology or the transformational culture brought on through project-based learning. To some, the jury is still out; to others, a clear path has not yet been discovered.


On the flight home, I got to wondering if it actually matters that so many choose to hold back on using tools such as Skype, the latest apps, or podcasting with their students. They're not flipping their classrooms and pencil and paper still may dominate their instruction. This got me thinking about curriculum, assessments, textbooks, data projectors, interactive whiteboards, and the myriad of desktop and mobile devices being deployed as if someone finally found the end of the rainbow and once and for all discovered the solution to greater achievement. And those of us crisscrossing the country, trying to catch the leprechaun so we can get his "Lucky Charms," may just need to slow down once in awhile to be sure we're still focused on the fact that education is a people activity. In the end, learning will always be more about the relationship between teacher and learner than it will be about having the latest technology toy or innovative idea.


In many ways it's similar to what's wrong with the entire education reform movement. We think if we add more testing, create a new curriculum, pass more anti-union legislation, create more ranking schemes, cut spending, and move more money away from public education to corporations and private schools, we'll finally have those "Lucky Charms" the reformers appear desperate to find. For the most part, they're looking for "super-hero" teachers that seem to have it all together, those "points of light" that can serve as beacons for everyone else. But as Glass has pointed out, the attributes of people can't easily be scaled up:


"We celebrate 'points of light' when we see them. A Deborah Meier in East Harlem or a Jaime Escalante at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles shine brightly in the media. Others then speak of 'scaling up' their model, that is, finding the essential elements of their success, putting them into words, and sending out the message so that the entire world can do likewise. But they forget or never knew that these stars' successes come not so much from what they do as from what they are as persons. And it is not only about who they are as persons but also in part about who their students are at the times of their greatest successes. Their wonderfully successful schools can no more be 'scaled up' than one can scale up great families, great marriages, or great love affairs. In this I am an optimist: that the only reform that stands any chance of making our public schools better is the investment in teachers-to aide them in their quest to understand, to learn, to become more compassionate, caring, and competent persons." (p. 248-49)


So while we continue expanding our knowledge of what new technology tools and personalized learning techniques can bring to the table, I think my biggest takeaway from this past weekend's event is that it's really people – teachers, administrators, support staff, parents, and especially the kids themselves – that make a difference. And most of what each of us as individuals contributes to the lives of our kids is not easily replicable or scalable.

Reference: Glass, Gene V (2008) Fertilizer, Pills, andMagnetic Strips: The Fate of Public Education in America.  Information Age Publishing

Friday, October 5, 2012

Manufactured crisis in education

"I think the crisis in American education is that there is a concerted effort to destroy it. That is a crisis—that's a genuine crisis. Is there a crisis of academic achievement? No.

"First of all, the test scores are the highest they've ever been in history on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is a no-stakes test. The scores of white kids, black kids, Hispanic kids, and Asian kids are the highest ever in history. What you hear from Bill Gates and [former chancellor of Washington, D.C., public schools] Michelle Rhee and all the others is we're in a period of decline, all the schools are obsolete, the test scores are flat. Nonsense. They have been going up steadily for 40 years, and they are the highest they've been in history.

"Number two, the graduation rates today are the highest in history. Number three, the dropout rates are the lowest in history.

"Is there a crisis in American education? Yes: We have all these Wall Street-funded foundation people running around saying we have to get rid of public education and saying all these phony things about our schools."

Diane Ravitch Talks School Reform, the Chicago Strike, and the "Testing Vampire"

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The real reform agenda: cheapen the cost of public education

Politicians still play to the middle class despite its shrinking numbers, and much of what's being played in the name of education reform is really simply a call to reduce costs for public services primarily due, as Gene Glass puts it, to growing personal debt and financial crisis hitting that sector of the population hard.

"The crisis in elementary and secondary education is not a crisis in achievement, but rather a crisis in cost, or more properly, a crisis in the willingness of the middle class to support a long-standing institution. The reforms proposed in the name of making education better and the nation's children more competitive internationally are in reality proposals to cheapen education for the poor and privatize it for the White middle class."

From Fertilizers, Pills & Magnetic Strips: The Fate of Public Education in America, 2008

Taxes aren't always about political philosophy

We often chalk up the arguments for or against new or higher taxes as a political philosophy. Hence, liberals never saw a tax they didn't like while conservatives, and particularly libertarians, never saw a tax they liked.

It's far more complicated (or simple?) than that. I tend to agree with Gene Glass in his remarkable tome, Fertilizers, Pills & Magnetic Strips: The Fate of Public Education in America (Kindle edition):

"Credit cards first changed America's spending and saving habits. Now they are beginning to shape public life; generations saddled with personal debt are unlikely to vote for taxes to build libraries, parks, museums, and schools." (Chapter Five)