Can We Just Stop?

straight talk about students and learning

State Rankings in Education Results – What are they actually telling us?

Last I heard, public education was a state’s right, and a state’s responsibility. Indeed some states fare much better than others when the state rankings come out, but let’s think about what those rankings mean, and where the real debate should be taking place.

States are made up of many, many school districts, each district is typically composed of many schools, even within those schools are various “cohorts” whose academic progress is measures and aggregated/disaggregated many times in many ways. Each state and district has many ways of assessing student growth, normally tied to specific initiatives within the school, district, or state. Beyond that, some schools have individualized student plans with student-specific goals and measures.

How do we get information about how “well or poorly” public schools are doing? Doesn’t it usually come out in some sort of splashy news story which indicates states that are doing well, and others that are doing poorly, and who moved up in the rankings, who moved down, etc. This “ranking” is typically based upon some very important measures such as graduation rate, SAT or ACT scores, high stakes test results, etc. at a macro level for the entire state. Then everyone scrambles to find out what the “good” states are doing and what the “bad” states are doing or not doing that is making a difference so we can “fix” everyone. Once the flurry dies down, everyone gets back to business as usual. Maybe implementing a new program or investing resources in complying with the latest federal program promising money in exchange for oversight and control.

There are so many things wrong with this process that I’m not even sure where to start, but I’ll give it a try:
1. Somehow we need to be able to sort through all of this static to get to what really matters in public education – are students learning? What is working at the student/class/school level? What are the specific individual local challenges that a student/class/school are dealing with, and how are those being addressed? States don’t prepare for employment or go to college, students do. I know we can’t rank states based upon individual student successes or failures, but it seriously calls into question why we would even bother to rank states at all.

2. What benefit is there to students to have their state ranked high or low? Will students work harder or slack off based on these results? Are teachers likely to do anything dramatically different based upon these results? I would posit that there are likely more negative effects to students in that they may not only have challenges of poverty, gang violence, low expectations, or other issues to deal with, now they get yet another blow – even if they are students who are succeeding and doing their very best, they are at the bottom, yet again.

3. Is there any one thing that “works” that could be implemented across the board that would magically save states who are ranked lower? The success of an entire state’s education system is grounded in a complex matrix of factors related to history, the state and local economies, culture and values, education funding formulas, infrastructure, and many others, none of which can be changed significantly in any short period of time, and I question whether they should be.

4. Perhaps the most ridiculous of all is the fact that in some states that rank consistently “high”, there are horrible failures, horrible schools, terrible practices, and miserable results that are not reflected in the overall ranking of the state simply because of the size of the state.

The more we aggregate data and control, the less we see the real winners and losers in the debate – students. Children who depend on their local public school for some structure in their lives and for the positive outcomes that can make or break a student’s shot at a life that raises them above their parents in education and circumstance. Who is more invested in the success of children than their own parents, their own teachers, their own school leaders? How much does or should the federal government tell these people how THEIR students should be educated? Does putting incredible amounts of time and resources into dotting I’s and crossing T’s for the feds to earn one-time grant dollars make any sense at all?

Many states obviously feel they do. I disagree, and I hope that individual schools and districts who either chose not to apply or were not selected for Race to the Top funds continue to serve students every day in the ways that they know are best. Only they know if they are doing right by their students. If they can’t figure out ways to improve their own practice to help improve student success they should get out-of-the-way and let others do it. This is where the educational “rubber meets the road”, and this is where the success of our country lies – with individual students. We owe each and every one of them the very best we can offer.

This topic is not over. As I was writing it, so many related topics have come to mind. I’ll be continuing to address what I believe are the keys to student learning in the coming days.


September 20, 2011 Posted by | Education Reform | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

I Fought Bureaucracy and Bureaucracy Won.

Is this a given? For crying out loud! Can We Just Stop? The system wins over innovation; status quo wins over creative problem-solving; lies win over truth; no wins over yes; adults win over kids. This is a description of a particular urban school district I a familiar with, and, I am sure, the majority of urban school districts across the country.

I heard a statement made yesterday about an innovative new district school: “If they think they are going to function as an in-district charter, they have another thing coming. That is not going to happen.”

This statement could be translated as, “If they think that they can step outside of the adult-centered bureaucracy and institute a student-centered, learning focused school, that is not going to happen on my watch!”

Do “educators” even listen to themselves? What would be so terrible about an “in-district charter” as an incubator for practices that could be easily translated to other in-district schools once they are proven to be successful! People fight for kids every day, and their voices are continually drowned-out by the background noise of the 76 Trombones of the school district bureaucracy.

How will this ever change under the current structure? Who is going to stand up and say – in this district, everyone is going to embrace proven student-centered practices – teachers, unions, district officials, parents, students, purchasing departments, business office staff, facilities, security, etc. Do they realize they are holding on to a sinking ship? Kids are counting on these “professionals” to take a calculated risk and say that our failed practices and structure are weighing this ship down to the point of sinking. To extend the ridiculous metaphor – throw the ballast overboard and return the ship to sea-worthiness.

Where are those people? I know they are out there, scattered across the country in pockets, all fighting the same battle. Sadly, it seems that even those who would innovate enter a school district and start to drink the kool-aid. The monster that ate Cincinnati (not chosen for any particular reason) is on the prowl. I am utterly disgusted and frustrated.

August 20, 2011 Posted by | Education Reform | , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Is For-Profit Education the answer to failing schools?

NO…and I repeat NO!!, but maybe not for the reasons you think. Not that for-profit is bad, not that non-profit is bad; or good for that matter. The answer is that there is no “the answer” if it involves one system or one solution. The problem with schools today is not the standards, it’s not the testing, it’s not the teachers, it’s not the students, it’s not the funding, its not the parents…the problem is that our educational structures have gotten so large, bureaucratic, and cumbersome that they require so much energy just to move, that there is not enough energy in them to serve students in ways that are meaningful for students today. The systems are the problem, and the systems are what is weighing our students’ future down.

I’ve seen the inside of “for profit” education, and it is impossible to put students first when the bottom line is the first priority. Even good educators in a for-profit system are limited in implementing what they know in their gut really works if it conflicts with the most recent profit projections, and the need to meet bonus objectives.

How about breaking up components of a large “system, and offering financial incentives to for-profit or non-profit entities

July 5, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Does Cutting Education Funding Mean Less Education?? Not Unless We Let It!!

The news is starting to be sprinkled with more and more stories of horrible Governors cutting spending on education (pausing for a gasp here). Students will no longer receive the same education they have been receiving…how horrible is that? Automatically, we need to cut essential programs and services for students. Test scores will plummet and no one will ever to go college again. Don’t our kids deserve better??

Our kids deserve better than having teachers and educational leaders jump immediately to whacking a hunk off of of the most politically charged areas of education instead of taking a look inward and working creatively toward defining a new way of utilizing the funds available to reach students in ways that are most effective. Hint: “More of the same: is not the most effective. It would wonderful if educators could truly be “lifelong learners”, and practice the problem-solving skills that we promote with students
Let’s review the process of solving a problem:
1. Clearly identify the problem
2. Brainstorm as many possible solutions as possible
3. Research and test out possible solutions, and narrow the list down to a few that seem to have the best chance of meeting the need.
4. Devise further study, testing, or plans to determine the best possible solution(s)
5. Develop plans for implementation of the best possible solutions, identifying the anticipated results and ways to measure whether or not the anticipated results are achieved.
6. Review the outcomes and make recommendations for modifications.
7. Set up a schedule for ongoing review of results to insure that the solution is continually updated and meeting the need.

Yes, there are financial challenges. Less Money only means less education if we rely on outdated educational methods and bloated bureaucratic “systems” instead of fresh thinking, innovation, student-centered thinking, and willingness to take on a challenge that just could define the next generation of education marked by flexibility, innovation, smaller “systems” and more robust future-focused strategies.

Come on America. Let’s get to it!

July 1, 2011 Posted by | Education Reform | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Starting This Blog Is Not Really a Choice

This is my first post.  You will have to suffer through the background material!

I was raised in a mid-western American community, with lots of people who looked, believed, talked, and consumed pretty much just like I did.  Some people made more money, others less, but it wasn’t a noticeable difference.   We learned in a self-contained classroom through grade 8, with many of the same students year after year.  What became apparent as time went on, was that even within that basically homogeneous community, differences began to emerge, and students who all started out pretty much scrubbed and rosy-cheeked as a kindergartener, started to move  automatically to their placement on the familiar Bell Curve.  After all, that was the way students and grades are supposed to be divided, wasn’t it?  MY FIRST CLUE THAT SOMETHING WAS WRONG

As I moved on to high school and college, I was most fortunate to continue in that same small world that I started out in.  If you haven’t guessed yet, that is white, middle class, and faith-based, in a 1960’s-70’s style of family life.  I wanted to be a teacher since I was a little girl and my friends and I played “school” after school, in the basement.  “School” was about order, having someone in charge who made sure everyone was working and turning in their homework.  Teachers dressed nicely, sometimes lost their tempers, but for the most part, smiled and guided us through familiar routines day after day.  If we got into trouble at school, we were in more trouble at home.  Our families were part of the PTA, scouting, church activities, sports, and other community activities.  I had no idea I was really, really lucky. MY SECOND CLUE THAT SOMETHING WAS WRONG

I completed college with relative ease, and made it out the other end with just a little debt, and started teaching.  Things were pretty much just like they were when I was in school, although it became apparent that some students were much better students than others, and that some families were more involved and had higher expectations for their students than others.  For the most part, teaching was great, and I felt like I was really doing a great job!  I was energetic, creative, funny, and dedicated.   Like many young female teachers, I left the profession to have children, and returned a few years later to what was becoming a much different world. Looking back, I’m not so  sure the world changed that much, or if the reality of it just came a little closer to my door, but a series of events led me to completing a graduate degree in Guidance and Counseling, and I got a job as a Guidance Counselor in prison, where not many students had been as fortunate as I had been in my educational journey, and where it was pretty clear that a number of factors played into the need to construct this new prison so near my community. OK, SO THIS IS REALLY WRONG

Working in a large state-run organization like the Department of Corrections means that whatever the political climate of the day is determines what educational programming is provided. In the 12 years I worked in that system, the pendulum swung back and forth a couple of times from a “lock-em up” mentality to a focus on “treatment and pre-release planning”.  I knew the needs of the population we were serving didn’t go away just because the political will was “3 hots and a cot”, and offenders would be released one day whether we provided them with more tools or not, and don’t we somewhat owe them the education that they missed the first time around?  THIS IS ALL SO VERY, VERY WRONG

My next educational stop was in the innovative (at that time) world of online learning, provided in partnership with school districts, for fully virtual schools, either charter schools or “regular public” schools.  I saw the needs that could be met, I was excited about the opportunities we could provide, I worked very hard at really developing the policies, tools, professional development, and training that was needed to truly make education accessible to students from any area of a state, any school district, who wanted an option that was different from their local school.  It was always done, at least by me, because students needed options.  Students were not as homogeneous in their backgrounds, in the way they learned, in their family composition or level of support as was the case just a few decades earlier. Add to all of this the fact that schools have become some of the most dangerous places to be, and not just in large urban areas.  More and more students are failing and being failed every year. What seemed so easy to me when I first became a teacher – presenting the curriculum and expecting students to learn the material is not easy at all.  When I was in college we focused on pedagogy, developing lesson plans, classroom discipline, academic subject matter, and “practice teaching”.  I can’t speak to the specific instructional methods that are covered in teacher education programs today, but I do know that recent teacher education graduates that I have interviewed for positions are not prepared for what they are facing now in schools, let along what will be coming 10 years down the road. We continue to fail to educate students every day of the year, while we  talk and argue about what makes good schools, what the rights of teachers are, whether we should use this math series or that math series, how changes in policy are communicated in large organizations, school consolidations, teacher lay-offs, revenue shortages, test scores, cuts, and on and on.

WHO IS TALKING ABOUT THE STUDENTS?  When are we going to JUST STOP the nonsense and have some straight conversation about what is really happening in society and in schools today…stop patting ourselves on the back for the “A” students long enough to see that the beloved “Bell” is starting to look more like a tumor, and the cancerous cells are multiplying as we speak.  The old beliefs do not hold true any more.  We need to actually stop talking about the adults long enough to focus on making sure students are learning.  Politics has no place in education, or in the treatment of people.  Some things are right, and others are just plain wrong, and choosing to focus only on what a small percentage of students are really feeling any success from (more of the same) is accepting that a greater and greater percentage of students are destined to continue to feel the kind of failure that only gives them one way out of school.

I intend to speak my mind here, and it is a mind that has been inside the system and outside of the system.  I can leave the classroom, but I can’t leave passion for students behind, so I am going to do what I can to share my ideas and identify strategies  to get past the reality that there are more practices within the current educational system that block student access to success than there are to promote it.  It truly is a miracle that any student learns anything at all, and that has got to start to change today.

June 19, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment