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Public Education at a Crossroads

March 28, 2012 1 comment
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A good friend of mine and respected colleague, David Gamberg, recently posted some thoughts on the state od education.  David always provides an insight that provokes thought and discussion, and frequently challenges the way we think and behave.

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How do we judge performance while maintaining the humanity of a profession that rests on an exchange of ideas between the child and adult? Thus is the dilemma faced throughout our nation as we grapple with the impact of testing our students and evaluating our teachers in the age of the Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) process. The art and science of teaching and learning is of course more than either the sharing of ideas and the grading of students and teachers.

The system of educating our youth has been a public covenant, which has supported our economic, political, and social growth for over 230 years. In recent years, we have arrived at a crossroads in education, one that requires a careful balance to move forward. The basic platform for the delivery of knowledge and skills that has been the centerpiece of our system for the past 100 years often referred to as a factory model of education is under assault. Disruptive forces from many directions are challenging the very foundation of the educational establishment as we know it. What will it take to preserve our democratic way of life throughout the twenty-first century given the tumultuous changes that are at hand?

Our American way of life has benefited greatly by supporting and promoting this covenant with education. Public schooling has led to advancements in science, business, and culture that transcend the borders of our country. As the beneficiaries of this covenant we are now wondering how to rekindle the spark of innovation in public education that has been the thread of our democracy woven together since the days of Jefferson and Franklin. Is it through charter schools? Merit pay? Enhanced testing and evaluation measures?

In times of data driven decision-making, rapidly advancing technologies, and disruptive innovation, a battle is being waged for the hearts and minds of many stakeholder groups both inside and outside the world of education. The public-at-large demands results and looks to either a return to basics, or to an elevation of expectations by applying pressure on students, teachers, and schools that is born out of a competitive spirit which is as American as apple pie.

The rhetoric is at a fever pitch given the high stakes of how a well-educated populace will drive economic growth both now and in the future. Those who seek to reform education simply by applying the metrics of a return to the good old days, or those who apply the analytics of contemporary high performing corporate entities, possess only a partisan or a partial view of the picture. The image of a Norman Rockwell classroom, or a teacher crunching numbers as though they were reading the latest profit and loss statement reflects the larger chasm between those who cling to the past and those who have taken up the false mantle of educational reform predicated on an overly simplistic business model.

Many teaching and learning models of old, along with the dispositions of practice that reigned supreme can appear outmoded. In the front of the room looking out at rows of desks, the teacher has stood at the chalkboard lecturing to students with them dutifully following along in their textbooks. The fountain of information that was once poured from a singular source be it the teacher or the textbook, now flows both to and from multiple sources at lightning speed. There is, however, one element of the process that is essentially the same since the dawn of time—rapport. This is the element that shall not give way to any new methodology, technology, or structure.

When a teacher and student have rapport there is a relationship built on trust and respect. The student can confidently approach new material, take risks, and know that their interests are primary. It is not simply that the student enjoys either a class or the teacher. Rather, as with a great coach, the teacher can demand and expect an intrinsic desire on the part of the student to come to a deeper understanding of why something is so, or how something works. To be taught something is to acquire this understanding such that the student may use this knowledge or skill in ways that lift the quality of any process or product.

We see this every time a teacher kneels down and reassuringly works at the eye level of a student to provide insight into a problem or task. When a teacher checks in or checks back repeatedly to ensure that learning has taken place that reassurance pays dividends, as the student is more willing to step forward in new, more difficult directions. What may be misrepresented as building self-esteem is actually a carefully orchestrated set of uniquely human traits to create the conditions for optimal learning.

Delivering content at the touch of a finger on a 24 hour, seven day a week basis is now possible and cost effective. However, who will step in and guide a child towards a path of self-discovery that bears any resemblance to what we may consider to be truthful and accurate? Separating fact from fiction, and imparting the basic tenets of an understanding as to why and how things are in math, science, history, and literature has always been the province of our teachers in school.

Unfortunately, the notion of exercising what may be akin to “a bedside manner” in rendering the teacher-learner relationship now seems to give way to a boiling down of the bottom line of test scores and tax dollars. Advancements in technology, brain research, and organizational efficiency have produced new, more effective structures and tools that can be harnessed to replace old ways of doing things. The new paradigm shift demands a new kind of educational system, one that not only embeds the use of these tools and structures, but also one that captures the imagination of all participants in the process, both students and teachers.

The art and science of how a learning organization moves forward and progresses towards any definition of what we may generally describe as “improvement,” requires many components. There is no silver bullet for the prescription of success. Returning to the notion of a bedside manner, a doctor cannot write a script formulated simply on data from a chart or solely based on the cost of care. Careful attention to these and other details including rapport with the patient creates the dynamic that results in the wellness of any individual.

The American experiment in a free and boundless democracy, at least in part driven by a public system of educating our citizens, has come as a result of an unquenching determination to try new things, be bold, work hard, and take risks. In this ever more complex world where students acquire the habits of mind that will allow them to prosper and carry forward the values of our society we must ask ourselves how to build a system that promotes and protects a true understanding of that which is important to the soul of education.
-David Gamberg

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File This Under the “What If” or Wouldn’t it Be Nice If” Categories

November 13, 2011 Leave a comment

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Five education practices that should be replicated nationally

An extra day for teachers to plan and collaborate each week, and requiring classes in advanced reading strategies in high school, were among readers’ top ideas

five-education-practices-that-should-be-replicated-nationally

By Meris Stansbury, Online Editor
Read more by 

An Illinois district has boosted the percentage of its students meeting state standards by requiring reading classes throughout high school.

Education leaders are always looking for examples of successful programs they might be able to replicate within their own districts. But it can be challenging to find a program or policy that could work for hundreds, or even thousands, of diverse schools, districts, and states.

That’s why, in a follow-up question to our story, “Readers: These 10 education policies need to go,” we recently asked readers: “If you could name only one, what school or district practice would you like to see replicated or implemented nationally, and why?” Here are our readers’ best responses.

What do you think of these policies and practices? Could they be implemented on a national scale? And, do you have any ideas of your own for policies or practices that should be spread more widely? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

5. Monitoring networks to gauge application usage

“We developed a system called VIC (Virtual Information Center) that monitors all computers in the district to determine which applications are being used. This is not used in a punitive fashion, rather it is used to monitor if software or hardware is being used and when. We have learned a lot about what [software] teachers will and will not use. It’s all about accountability. We measure what we treasure—technology.” —Andrew Berning Ph.D., chief information and technology officer, Carrollton-Farmers Branch ISD, Carrollton, Texas

Five education practices that should be replicated nationally

An extra day for teachers to plan and collaborate each week, and requiring classes in advanced reading strategies in high school, were among readers’ top ideas

4. An extra day for teachers to plan and collaborate

“I would like to see school districts across the country practice a four-day week for students and a five-day week with teachers—one day out of the week, without students, that we could use to plan, prep our classrooms, and prepare students’ work with viable feedback. In my opinion, this practice will help teachers not take work home with them and become exhausted. Students do not know we are always thinking about them, and if they knew how much effort we put into their lessons, maybe they would think how valuable we think their education is to their livelihood. I think this practice already takes place in some of the school districts in Texas. I read about it a long time ago, but I have not kept up with the research on this topic.” —Gail M. Owens, Class Size Reduction teacher, Woodward School, St. Louis, Mo.

3. SEED Math program: Project SEED (Special Elementary Education for the Disadvantaged)

“Started in Chicago in the early 1970s [and] spread to Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay area, and Sacramento, the program invites college students who are math majors to be trained to teach students (in schools where students are poor) discovery algebra from grades 1 to 6. The regular teacher must stay in the room to watch, and he/she will still teach math by normal methods at other times. College students were paid gas mileage to drive in carpools to SEED sites. When this was implemented in the 70s, it was funded by Title III.  When enough students in the school had taken it, math scores improved to the point that the school no longer qualified for Title III. So, SEED math would be discontinued at that school. Scores would fall for the next set of entering students, and [the school] would qualify to get Title III funds again. This was a total waste of time and money. Any school that needs SEED math will continue to need it for others who enter the school. We need to find a better way to fund it. And we need to find a way to deliver it to many schools in the U.S. at this critical point in time.” —Prof. Sandy Feder, Sacramento City College Computer Science Department

An extra day for teachers to plan and collaborate each week, and requiring classes in advanced reading strategies in high school, were among readers’ top ideas

2. Reading as a high school graduation requirement 

“During the past 10-15 years, research has shown that there is still more to learn about the skill of reading as a student progresses through high school, just as there is more to learn about mathematics. The process of learning more about the skills of reading changes as a student’s academic knowledge changes and increases. A reading course at the secondary level should not be considered remedial. In 2004, Lincoln-Way Community High School District No. 210 made reading a graduation requirement for all students. The program is organized around seven essential reading skills: Comprehension Monitoring, Cooperative Learning, Graphic and Semantic Organizers, Question Answering/Question Recognition, Question Generation, Structure: Narrative and Expository Text, and Summarization Skills. From 2004–2009, students in the Lincoln-Way High School District went from 66 percent meeting and exceeding state standards to 77 percent meeting and exceeding state standards.” —Sharon Michalak, Ed.D., assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction, and staff development, Lincoln-Way Community High School District No. 210, Illinois

1. Tablet computers and electronic, interactive textbooks for all students

“The single most economic and productive action which could be taken to improve K-12 education is to provide each student with an interactive 8″ x 11” tablet PC, together with subject material in digital interactive, color, and animated form instead of paper, books, and similar learning materials. A tablet PC soon will cost less than $100—making it less expensive than present learning tools. We’re in an electronic world that is rapidly expanding—[and] K-12 school systems must get with it to keep up with others.” —Stan Doore, former adjunct lecturer (Information Systems), American University

I could not agree more…

March 17, 2011 1 comment

Heather Wolpert-Gawron posted a piece which was featured on Edutopia today.  As I read through each of the issues and corresponding responses, I found myself nodding in agreement and quietly saying “yes.”  Yes, to everything she wrote.

Yes, legal concerns can be overcome through proper modeling.  Yes, teacher training is possible and who better to teach teachers than other teachers?  Freeing up teachers from mundane an outdated tasks to allow them the time to impart 21st century skills on today’s students makes perfect sense.

I may be wrong about this, but whenever I poll teachers and students about technology available at home, the response is that nearly all (if not all) students have computers and broadband access to the Internet.  Those that do not are directed to the local public library.

Of course implementing technology can be expensive, but as stated, “”we cannot afford to fall any more behind in our comfort and use of technology.”

It is time for parents, community members, teachers and administrators to ban together in recognizing the importance of effective use of technology to the future of our students.

We speak about the achievement gap between the different cultures in our schools. Meanwhile, however, many of the stakeholders in education have created a vast trench that lies between those who accept the inevitability of technology and those who still refute its place in our classrooms.

Policymakers demand our schools must reflect the 21st century, yet continue to deny schools the funding to do just that. Additionally, our districts block many of the online sites for collaboration from our schools.

It is fear that guides many of the decisions about educational technology: fear that we will be left globally behind by countries more committed to technology integration and also fear that our students will somehow be scarred its use.

Frankly, there are many reasons to avoid providing technology as a more common and frequent tool in education. However, as stated in “Strictly Ballroom,” one of my favorite movies, “a life lived in fear is a life half lived.” Fear cannot shut us down from our mission: to educate students for their future.

For the Naysayers

Here are some typical arguments against technology in schools — and better ones for using it:

1. The legal issues are daunting: what if a student writes inappropriate content online? Answer: Our job is to teach them how to use the tools of the real world. After all, using a circular saw is dangerous too, but only through shop class have many students learned to build a birdhouse safely. So is it with technology. Parents and teachers must be a part of monitoring and modeling. It may be scary, but without teaching students about appropriate use, they will surely encounter exactly that which we are most scared of.

2. How ever will we train all those teachers? Answer: It’s simple. Have teachers train teachers. Give teachers who know how the paid release time to be trainers during their contracted hours of those who don’t know how. There are willing teachers on every site, at every district, teachers willing to take on hybrid roles in education that allow them one foot in the classroom and one foot working to improve the pedagogy and practice of those who need to learn. For those who train, they will, as a result, avoid burnout by being permitted ways to utilize their other skills, all the while helping other teachers improve their own 21st century knowledge.

3. Where does the time come from? How can we add more to a teacher’s plate? Answer: How ’bout this? Don’t. Instead, take something off teachers’ plates rather than put more on. We have to prioritize, and including technology is too important. We can’t continue to have teachers waste their time on the curricular needs of yesteryear. We need to redefine how a teacher spends their time during the day and redefine the curriculum of tomorrow.

4. Some students don’t have access to technology at home so how can we expect them to use it for assignments? Answer: To this I say, many homes don’t have libraries either, but we still teach how to read. The fact is that it’s a school’s job to step up to provide and instruct. Even though some students may not have access to a computer at home, the school needs to see its role in equalizing the differences between those who have and those who don’t. It’s also society’s role to find a way to provide for those homes in a more equitable way or our country’s children will be left behind. Some districts are already working in conjunction with phone providers and computer companies to help bridge this gap. Those districts should not be few and far between, but should be commonplace.

5. It’s expensive. Answer: Nevertheless, “we cannot afford to fall any more behind in our comfort and use of technology.” Policymakers need to start backing up their demands with funds. Parents need to be a part of monitoring their student’s use at home. Teachers must continue to develop the skills that make them the technology guides in the classroom. For as the gap gets ever wider, the money it will take to fill the divide will increase. We are already in the red. Our reluctance to think and plan ahead has already created a debt of technological knowledge.

Taking Action

We can’t allow fear to dictate our progress, nor can we allow those who won’t move forward to dictate whether we do move forward. We cannot allow policymakers to insist on adoption and not provide for it, or worse yet, tentatively provide it and not find bravery and support by those within education’s walls.

Teachers need to be on the forefront of curriculum, not in its wake. We need to be leading the charge towards preparing our students for their future, not hindering our march towards tomorrow.

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School Tech: 6 Important Lessons From Maine’s Student Laptop Program

January 16, 2011 Leave a comment

Many educators struggle with the concept of implementing a student laptop initiative.  They have good reason to.  There are many considerations in this type of an undertaking.  Aside from the obvious costs associated with project like this, other factors such as logistical challenges, security concerns, and the cost benefit must be considered.

For years now the state of Maine has been a pioneer in this area.  There are a great many lessons to be learned from Maine’s experiences.  Recently Mashable‘s Sarah Kessler posted about six of these lessons that can be learned from Maine’s Learning Technology Initiative.

When students at Skowhegan Area Middle School decided to undertake a study of the town’s history, they departed from traditional readings and paper writing. They instead made podcasts about historical landmarks that cumulatively produced a walking tour, recorded interviews with town elders and created websites for local farmers. Like the 225 other middle schools in Maine, every seventh and eighth grade student has been provided with a laptop computer, making projects like these accessible.

“It’s just a part of how we do business now, and in some ways we’re starting to take it for granted,” explains Michael Muir, who helped design the leadership development program for the initiative that brought one-to-one computing to Maine. “It’s very exciting because it’s now a part of the culture of teaching middle school in Maine … that all the kids have laptops and you teach with technology, and it’s exciting because it’s no longer the new thing.”

In 2002, the state of Maine signed a $37 million contract with Apple that provided laptops to 33,000 middle school students and 3,000 teachers. The contract was extended in 2006 and expanded in 2009 to include some high schools. All seventh graders, all eighth graders, and students at 55% of Maine’s high schools are currently issued laptops. At the launch of the initiative, the state made no apologies about how it had chosen to spend its one-time state surplus.

“The challenge is familiar, but the imperative is new: we must prepare young people to thrive in a world that doesn’t exist yet, to grapple with problems and construct new knowledge which is barely visible to us today,” reads the the 2001 request for proposal.

It’s been about 10 years since Maine implemented its initiative, and while at least 33 states had experimented with one-to-one computing projects by 2007, none have reached the scope of Maine’s project. As jobs and life increasingly involve computers, it’s clear that in order to remain relevant to students, schools will need to adopt more technology. Here are six lessons about doing so successfully, taken from Maine’s initiative.


1. Treat Technology as a Tool, Not a Curriculum Area


Bette Manchester, who directed the program for its first seven years, organized many training sessions for teachers, but none of them focused on how to use software.

“You would say, ‘What are the objectives we’re trying to teach in mathematics?’ And then you would work backwards and say, ‘OK, what kind of software or what kind of resources would help the students in middle school learn algebra,’ for instance,” she says. “So you would be selecting your resources based on what you decided you were teaching the students and work backwards, instead of buying a bunch of math software and having no clue what you are going to do with it.”

Instead of running a workshop for teachers on how to use a spreadsheet, for example, the state might hold workshops on collecting and analyzing data. While the teachers left the training knowing how to use a spreadsheet, the focus remained on the learning.


2. Think Differently About Teaching


This graphic, from a presentation at one of Maine’s teacher training sessions, shows different levels of technology integration.

Muir and his colleagues who work on technology initiatives in schools jokingly refer to their main obstacle as APP or “adult paradigm paralysis.” In order for technology to enhance education, Muir says, schools need to change the way they think about education. And that can be a difficult process.

“I think there’s still a lot of assumption that a school is doing a good job if kids are sitting in rows and being quiet and the teacher is at the front of the room directing the activities,” Muir says. “And the new paradigm that took a while for people to get used to is kids working on projects, kids looking up the same information not necessarily all from the same place and sharing what they’re learning about a topic — a lot of small group work and kind of a productive hubbub in the room.”

When the laptops were first introduced, there were some teachers who merely substituted a computer projector for a traditional one or used the computers only to assign homework. This kind of technology use obviously wasn’t going to make a change worth the investment of the laptops.

Research suggests that classroom technology initiatives are only as effective as their teachers. It’s only when teachers in Maine used the laptops to connect students to resources, interact with students in other parts of the world, extend discussions, create multimedia and work on collaborative projects that students started becoming more engaged. The new tools had the capability to diversify teaching methods, but only if teachers were willing to explore them.


3. Decide to Do It, Not Pilot It


Maine never ran a pilot program for the initiative. It did have nine exploratory schools during a “phase one” of the project, but there was never a question of whether the program would continue. The departure from the term “pilot” was intentional.

“If you do a pilot to see if you want to do it, nobody will take it seriously because there’s no guarantee that the program will continue,” Muir says. “Well, if people don’t take it seriously and put their time and energy into it, it’s no wonder that the program isn’t going to continue.”


4. Concentrate on Current Curriculum Initiatives at First


walking_tour

Students at Skowhegan Area Middle School created a podcast walking tour of their town to explore its history.

As the technology integrationist at Skowhegan Area Middle School, Laura Richter works with teachers to design projects like the town history unit. She admits that not every teacher has been as eager to work with technology as she is. “They weren’t able to see that this isn’t beyond and extra, this really is a part of what you’re already doing,” she says about teachers who have been hesitant to integrate digital learning.

To help these teachers adjust to using computers in class, Richter asked them to look at the projects they were already working on and think about how they could enhance them using digital resources. A teacher already working on a unit about irrigation in ancient Egypt, for instance, could ask students to look up an illustration on the InternetInternet rather than providing one from a textbook. When a variety of images portrayed the system differently, they could discuss those differences.

Another approach that Muir says helped initiate this kind of thinking without overwhelming teachers was to ask teachers who were beginning the laptop program in their classes to do at least one new thing with the laptops before December.

“Almost always it was like putting a pinhole in a dam,” Muir says. “Once you got them started it was kind of hard to stop them. But setting that expectation made it clear that it was an expectation, that you had to do something, but it also it got people over that initial hump of getting started.”


5. Support Teachers as Much as Possible


“There was resistance, and it came from fear,” Manchester says. “I can’t say that people weren’t very worried about how it was going to go and very fearful, because you can imagine as a teacher … in a middle school you see 100 students over the course of a day, and all of those students are on the Internet at the same time and may be much more adept at using technology than you are. That’s a pretty scary situation for a teacher.”

One thing that Maine did right was not abandoning teachers with a class full of laptops and no direction on how to use them. The state paid for substitute teachers while full-time teachers attended training sessions and held workshops where school leaders could exchange ideas. Every principal was provided with a stipend to appoint a teacher as a tech leader. Maine continues to maintain a resource website as well as provide training sessions, web seminars and even instructional podcasts (iTunes link).

“This isn’t unique to laptops, but if you’re going to ask teachers to do something new, train them, support them, and give them professional development in an ongoing fashion. Have them share information with each other,” Muir says.


6. Make Technology Part of Teachers’ Everyday Language, Too

Before Richter became a technology integrationist, she conducted technology trainings for teachers around the state. One success factor she noticed among new laptop schools was whether principals from a school used technology themselves.

“In the schools where you had principals who were themselves using technology [and] delivering class development information or communicating with teachers digitally, [computer use] became part of [the teachers’] classrooms faster,” she says. “It was their way of connecting with the administration, and then it was easier for them to say, ‘OK, this is the real world, students need to be using this tool also.’”

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