Fighting the Common Core

My educator hackles have been up these past few months as I hear increasingly vocal and frankly hysteric opposition to the Common Core State Standards, so masochist that I am, I decided to immerse myself in the rhetoric to try to understand what’s at its root.

The purpose of this post is to share with my readers an outstanding article by Jennifer Finney Boylan in the New York Times in which she makes some very astute observations about our nation and the folks who live here. Here’s a sample:

“We don’t ever want to educate South Carolina children like they educate California children,” said Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina, presumably because doing so would result in children in the Palmetto State riding longboards and listening to the Grateful Dead.

Please give a read to Ms. Boylan’s A Common Core for All of Us.

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How do teachers think about the Achievement Gap?

educational inequality balanceThis title wrecked my morning, specifically around selecting the first word. There is no question teachers think about the Achievement Gap. I have not met a single teacher who has not given the entire issue a great deal of thought, so the question requires some form of relative pronoun, hence the use of “How?”

This is not a post about grammar, but about beliefs. I think.

This question is a genuine one, and I’m hoping for serious help in addressing it. I know a lot of teachers, and to a person they are admirable professionals who seem to be in our business for the right reasons. My confusion stems from the very different contexts in which they do their teaching, particularly in two districts I can’t help but contrast. I know teachers working in a district that has managed to close its achievement gap putting them among the top ten in California according to Ed Trust West, and doing this with a diverse student and parent population of varied ethnicities, broadly distributed parent education levels, and significant socioeconomic challenges. Simultaneously I know teachers working in a district which occupies the absolute basement of their regional achievement gap stats, within a much more privileged demographic community. None of these teachers, from both districts, actually talk much about it, and they are all professional people of good will.

The districts I’m contrasting have obviously addressed their respective achievement gaps differently, making very different program choices, and I am neither naïve nor ignorant as to how they operate on a system level leading to this outcome. It is also clear that instructional practices in the two districts are quite different, so there is a clear cause and effect thing happening. None of these strategies are terribly mysterious, having been well-described in publications such as this one that was released a full five years ago.

As tempting as it is to speculate about teachers’ internal processes, I will continue to scratch my head. This is clearly more complicated than mere denial or delusion. If a teacher winds up working in either of these districts, how does he or she process either reality? I think of sitting in a restaurant, having ordered a house salad because the guy at the next table did that and it sounded good. His salad comes out magnificent, gourmet greens garnished with fresh peppers, capers and sprouts, sliced parmesan and the best balsamic, and he’s offered fresh, aromatic ground pepper. The salad set before me is a quarter head of iceberg with a dob of mayo, no pepper. Do I notice? Am I curious about why this disparity exists? Do I wonder if my business is valued, or whether my neighbor has connections? How does my neighbor process this disparity?

Please help me here, readers. What is happening in the heads and hearts of the great human beings that do this difficult work that allows them to keep smiling in the face of naked inequity? How do you explain the silence?

Hero Teacher Burnout

 

superheroes

In her usual brilliant style, Bianca Hewes once again brings us deep insight into the kind of reform so desperately needed in education.

If you are an “agent of change” in your school site, you must read her latest post, Why I don’t want to be a hero teacher, and maybe you shouldn’t either.

And like so many things she writes, the article popped an educator boil in my own head, so I share with you my reply to her post:

For a short while I worked in emergency medical services, and while I never thought of myself as a “hero,” everyone in that line of work does heroic things on a daily basis. I emphasize “short while” here, as heroic work is indeed humanly unsustainable. I share Ms. Hannon’s evaluation of the hero teacher issue.

The kind of reform we need is not at the level the politicians in any western country have been willing to entertain, but it is one Asian countries have, and it’s why their systems are soundly kicking our collective education asses, both in delivering content and in technology. If they ever find PBL, we’re done for.

Teachers need significant collaborative time, as in hours per day, and they need to work (during their work time, not at night, over weekends and during breaks) with colleagues continually on how learning happens in their classrooms. They need to vet their practice constantly, daily, not just during some ex situ summer institute where students are nowhere to be seen. They need time daily to build collegial trust, to observe each other, to comment, to practice, and repeat. They need the opportunity daily (have I used this word enough?) to be critical of themselves, and time to stay in touch with trends of change, both in their students and in their tools. They need to feel protected in a professional enviroment in which not only are they accountable for student learning outcomes, but also valued for the societally vital role they play every day.

Our current mode of packing as many students into a room as possible and packing as many instructional minutes into a day as can be shoehorned into a schedule and still give people a chance to eat is educationally insane. The pols who hold the strings to the money bags still think we’re educating line workers and field hands. Until they wake up and get a grip on what they’re asking us to do, we will continue to burn through our hero teachers and nothing will change.

THE 21st Century Skill: Ethical Learning

It seems I am on a Bianca Hewes roll here, but that is because the roll is hers.  I do believe that unless a teacher has project-based learning at the heart of his/her teaching, particularly in grades 5 through 12, there is a disservice being performed.

This six-minute video of Bianca, in what is undoubtedly an enviable educational setting, is well-worth your investment…

And teachers, take particular note of what she says about professional development, and who sets the course of teacher learning.

The glorious admission of bad teaching

Elsewhere on this blog I have admitted my fandom of Bianca Hewes, prolific PBL blogger and English teacher in SW Australia.

Yesterday, though, she outdid her usual literate self by describing her despair over having approached her job badly, deluding herself into thinking she was doing stellar work when in retrospect she evaluated her performance as just mediocre. Clearly Bianca brings great gifts to her students on her worst days, but this blog post goes significantly beyond her usual descriptions of best practices and explores how a teacher perceives his/her own practice.

What is the most professional and productive response to one’s realization that the experience you just required 30 or more young people to have was a first-class waste of time? We all recognize there are a number of choices, but which one leads to change so that we avoid repeating our own mediocrity?  Here are a few I recall from my own teaching days:

  • I blame the curriculum. “If this stuff were just more interesting it would engage the students more. I’m doing my best with the drudge I’m given to teach.” I taught science, so no excuse there.
  • I blame the kids. “If they could perceive the importance of this material, if they were mature enough, if their hormones would cooperate, if they knew how much I cared, if they’d had their breakfast, if they had learned what they should have last year (with that other teacher, of course).”
  • I blame the technology. OK, I concede this one. Current education funding and the limits on instructional material spending create technology nightmares. How does a teacher use Edmodo instructionally when the lab is antiquated, there are no devices in kids’ hands, ad nauseum. On the other hand, was it my failure to plan for inevitable tech challenges? Was I realistic and informed?
  • I blame myself. “I suck.” From here one can take a few different paths. Because the bell does ring and the road leads away from campus, it is tempting to leave one’s failure at school and spend free time investigating retirement options or investing in the hobby. Another path involves adding new tools to one’s repertoire, new arrows to the quiver, then energizing and blazing a new personal path to making it right for students.

When failure visits, whether due to habit or the day’s circumstance, “I suck” can represent an opportunity to change tools, to pull a different arrow and shoot at a new target.  Bianca’s post is a glittering example of a remorseful, healthy professional taking a fresh look after letting failure go public and stinky.

[Addendum: True to form and as predicted, Bianca self-diagnosed today and pulled a fresh arrow from her quiver, describing it in today’s post.]

Campus Party – Brazil!

Campus Party link

If you happen to be in São Paulo, Brazil, this weekend, don’t miss a most excellent annual event, Campus Party.

NOT free to the public (sorry if I mislead readers yesterday), this Woodstock/Burning Man-like event hosts the latest in tech innovation, but not just any tech.  This event is about education technology, science, culture, and interactive media for furthering the minds and hearts of Brazilians,
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Of Sasquatch and Schools

sasquatch in the woodsPretty universally, educators find themselves kvetching about parents who believe that because they went to school they are experts on education.  You know, like how dare they?  Why, after all the years of professional preparation, graduate degrees and credentials, not to mention the years of classroom experience, are we to suffer this presumption?

Like all good myths, including mermaids, Sasquatch, leprechauns and fairies, this one also fails to die because it has deep roots in illusion and history.

In the year 1800, our culture was agrarian.  90% of the population was involved in farming, growing our food, thus 90% (and probably more) of the kids grew up on farms worked by very tired parents and older children.  Before the organization of schooling, children learned from their parents – mostly moms – and the learning goals were to serve the task of farming and furthering the solidarity of the farming community, and in cities the goal was to succeed in some delimited trade, but still based on elementary reading and calculating skills.  As schools became organized in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the role of teacher shifted to mostly young unmarried women (powerless and predictable entities) who could be counted upon to instill these values in the hearts and minds of farm children.

kids in front of one room schoolhouseThe illusion here was that children were being taught by surrogate parents, in loco parentis, by the “controllable” teacher in the one-room schoolhouse overseen by the “educated class,” the local (male) mayor or preacher.  The reality was these farm kids were being taught by energetic adolescent and single young women who not only taught the 3-Rs, but also imparted a vision unique to the American frontier, one of achievement, great energy, and self-determination.  By the 1870s, Susan B. Anthony was fighting to bring to 19th Amendment to the US Constitution, and young women across the country were changing the face of the nation, their 41-year struggle ending finally in 1920.

Illusions aside, the fact remains these farmer parents paid these young teachers to teach their children as they themselves would be teaching them.  School was exclusively an authorized extension of parenting.  While the reality was undoubtedly much greater than this, the core parental assumption was that education was bounded by parental life experience.  Only.  This worldview is one we share with our parents and their parents’ parents, and it is only the “educator class” by means of professional inculcation and experience, which has learned that education is much more than a simple academic cloning of our students’ parents.

Today, a parent’s life experience includes his and her own personal experience with schooling.  They are to be forgiven for thinking schooling is still exclusively an extension of parenting.  All myths are etched into our psyches by the greater culture, for better or worse.  In our case, knowing the task at hand is much more complex than that, it is most certainly for the worse.  While parents head for work in highly networked, creative, tech-infused environments, when doing their best to represent their children’s welfare they find themselves uttering words like “Pencil and paper worked great for me when I was in school, so they’re good enough for my child.”  Pencil and paper, when polls suggest 84% of American workers need to use their computers at work. These parental attitudes toward schooling reflects perception grounded solely in myth, obviously having no relationship whatsoever to their daily workaday experience.  Today’s workplace is all about change and facile evolution of skillsets, quite different from an earlier core mandate of stability and social compliance.

While teachers today still participate in the parenting function simply because they are tasked with controlling the days of increasing numbers of young people, the days of bringing children to adulthood capable of living their parents’ lives is today considered failure in most educators’ eyes.  Our task now is to prepare children for a future in which we cannot describe the professions for which they are preparing.  This is crazy talk, right?

Maybe, but it’s a form of craziness our students have fully embraced, and they are not waiting around for our school systems to catch up.  The greater culture, the modern equivalent of the adolescent school teacher with a revolutionary heart, is feeding our students a vision of the future that is quite unlike anything the traditional school system is prepared to provide.

Out of simple self-preservation we adults who run our schools (and send our children to them) need to clear the dust of years from our eyes and see the future through the eyes of our students.   It has been some years since ed technologists formulated the task before us through the ISTE NETS standards, but the response from society has been a collective yawn.  Meanwhile, the kids are rocketing past us and finding alternatives to fifty-year-old pedagogy.  If the Pew Internet & American Life Project is indicative of anything at all, it is that students are finding learning and meaning in their digital world despite the educational system’s best efforts to suppress it to keep things comfortable.

Let’s pause and think about what we really mean when we say we “educate the future.”  Are we really?