Tuesday, December 27, 2016

College Not For All

       I'm going to start by saying that I went to college, my wife went to college, my siblings went to college, I want my children to go to college, and everyone I work with went to college.  I'm a big fan of "going to college".  College provides specialized knowledge in a specific field of study; often by people who are experts in that field.  There is a benefit to going to college, but since this post is about "not going to college", I'll just say that the benefits of college are well documented.

       So why am I (a lifelong educator) writing about not going to college?  Because public school desire to teach ALL students.  All students are welcome in our public schools.  We take all students.  We don't have some sort of litmus test that permits some students to enter our public schools and denies others t enter; we take everyone.  And in doing so, we have an obligation to teach all students.  This means that we teach the students who are college-bound as well as those that are not.  This leads to the dilemma of all public schools: Are we preparing students for college?  Are we preparing them for the world of work?  Or, Are we doing both?  (And if the answer is the latter, then How do we do that?)

       We know that all students won't go to college.  (source)  We also know that some will go to college and won't finish college. (sourceHere is a slideshow of 25 jobs that don't require a college degree--although nearly all (or actually all) of these jobs require some sort of education and/or training beyond high school.  So the question remains, How do prepare the college-bound students and the non-college-bound students at the same time?

       The simple answer is that this is a complex problem.  It is a problem that (in my opinion) requires multiple options and pathways for high school students.  It is a problem that does not lend itself to one-size-fits-all solutions.

       It is fair to say that all public schools recognize this need to prepare students for their lives beyond high school--whatever they may be.  But it is also fair to say that some requirements are aimed (more) at the college-bound students than at the non-college-bound students.

       My solution views these two subgroups of students as much more alike then different in terms of the skills and knowledge that they need for both college and work.  Clearly, reading and basic mathematics understanding is needed.  By "reading", I include understanding the context of what is being read; and I include reading and understanding non-fiction and technical manuals.  Our civilized world requires reading.  Medical reports, insurance papers, legal documents such as wills and mortgages all require a level of reading in which people can read and understand.  By "basic mathematics", I include understanding and calculating things such as sales tax and interest income.  People should be able to gain information from a chart, graph, or table of numbers.  People need to know what a percent means and what fractions mean.  Calculators can do the calculations, but people need to do the "understanding".  Beyond reading and mathematics, I believe that a good understanding of other typical high school subjects is needed to help people gain an understanding of the world and the people around them.  These include science, history, art, some computer skills, health, and knowing a foreign language--which is extremely common outside of the United States.

       Beyond these academics, I believe that the rules and regulations that take place in a high school and in the classroom should instill in our students a sense of right and wrong as well as a sense of how to exist as an adult in society.  When my daughter was in kindergarten, her teacher told us that everything they do has a purpose.  What may look like "fun" or "downtime" to the non-kindergarten-teacher observer, has a purpose.  Similarly, everything in high school should have a purpose.  Whether you are going to college or work, you need to be on time, you need to be polite, you need to listen.  You need to learn from others and you need to be able to work with others.  You need to know that sometimes you'll get some help to do things and sometimes you have to do things on your own.  You need to be responsible and you need to take on responsibilities.

       It seems to me that when employers complain about young people in the workplace, it isn't so much that they lack reading and mathematics skills--although I hear this as well.  It is more that they lack the ability to accept responsibilities, to understand written and verbal directions, and to follow through on important tasks.  These skills are needed for the college students also.

       College isn't for everyone.  But public schools and their graduation requirements and daily rules and regulations are for everyone.  Learning is a lifelong skill.  It doesn't stop on graduation day.  We want all students to succeed regardless of the path they take after college.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Do Our Brightest Students Get What They Need?

       Public schools are good at educating the average student.  We are good in the education of above average students.  We spend a lot of time, money, and energy on the education of below average students; and while this is a difficult population in terms of bringing them up to grade-level standards, we've made numerous improvements over the years to help these students.

       This leaves the most limited students and the very brightest students.  For the purposes of this post, I'm defining the very limited as the academically weakest two to three percent of our student population and the very brightest as our top 1% in terms of academic ability.  We have laws and programs and policies to help the most limited of our students.  They may not receive a high school diploma, but we help them to learn as much as possible during their school years so that they can have a full, happy, and satisfying life.  We help them to go as far as they can in terms of skills and abilities.  But when it comes to our very brightest students, I'm not sure that we can say the same.

        Once again, I'm not talking about the typical advanced students in our public schools.  We have programs and/or courses for them that are different from the typical "on-grade-level" programs.  And we do a good job with these typical above-average students.  I'm talking about our most advanced students.  These are the students who don't just stand out in their class, they stand out in their school.  They represent the 1 out of 100 (or more) that excel far beyond the typical advanced students.

       I am a mathematics supervisor.  Mathematics is the one subject that often gets the most attention when the topic of our very brightest students arises.  Parents and policy-makers alike strive to identify these students and endeavor to find a way that best meets their needs.  However all too often our attempts to do this lead to an inadequate solution known as "Acceleration".  Acceleration (in this arena) usually means that these very bright students get the same mathematics content and the same mathematics instruction as everyone else; they just get it at an earlier age and/or they just go through this same content at a faster pace than other students.

       The problem with this solution is that it does not recognize the true abilities of these students, and it does not encourage these students to think harder or reason more.  It doesn't challenge these students to grow and to further develop their strong academic skills.  Instead, this solution only pushes these students to go faster.  Sadly, this solution is often praised by parents and policymakers because our society views "faster" as "better".  We see everything as a competition and those that go faster and jump higher and earn more credits and produce higher grade-point-averages are viewed as the "winners".

       The real danger of inappropriate acceleration for our brightest students is that we place this "speed" over our prime objective of education; which is to actually learn.  Students lose the chance to develop a deep understanding of the content that they master.  They lose the chance to do what they are most able to do which is to question conclusions, discover new solutions, and to create and develop new ideas.  Strategic acceleration could accomplish these goals if the instruction is appropriately geared toward the needs of our brightest students.

       In practice, our public schools struggle with the top 1% because there are so few of them.   We don't have enough of them to make a "class"; sometimes there may not even be one in every grade.  They are spread out throughout a school district.  So we have to figure out a way to provide instruction that meets their needs while still attending to all of our other students.  This is a challenge--and (perhaps) is part of the reason that mere acceleration is so often employed as the "solution".  We also struggle to understand the best way to help teachers to provide this ideal instruction for these students.  So much of public education is geared toward helping our average and weak students; and less attention is geared toward our brightest students.

       The National Association of Gifted Children is a respected organization that addresses the needs of our brightest students and provides resources to help school districts to tackle this problem of providing for these students.  We need to do more and we need to do it in a smarter and more responsible way.


Sunday, December 11, 2016

Is It Possible to Help Students Too Much?

       How much is too much?

       Can you care too much?  Can you love too much?  Can you help too much?  When it comes to students and learning, sometimes teachers and parents help too much.

       Their hearts in the right place, but goals are short sighted.  Teachers and parents help too much when they tell students the answers in an effort for them to complete the classwork or the homework.  They seek the short-term goal of compliance with an assignment.  But they don't see the longer-term goal of helping students to learn how to learn.

       Educators have an expression for the results of too much help.  We call it, "Learned Helplessness".  It's when students learn to purposefully not try too hard because they know that a parent or a teacher or someone will eventually give them the answer or do the work for them.

       Since most students (and some adults) don't see or understand the benefits of learning, they believe that school is only a series of assignments that they have to complete because they are told to do so; or because they get a grade for completing it.  Therefore, they don't see the need to try hard and fail sometimes and learn from these failings and try again.  "Learning" isn't their goal; compliance is their goal.  Therefore they only seek to complete the worksheet, or answer the questions, or write the paper; because they only seek to get the grade.  And if the student can find someone else to do this--and the students basically gets the same reward (the same grade) either way--then the easy route is to let someone else do it.

       Of course teachers and parents want their students (and children) to succeed, so sometimes they provide this help in an effort to help them to get success.  But there is a terrible downside to too much help.  When the parent isn't there and the too-much-helping teacher isn't there, the child (maybe now a young adult) isn't able to solve problems on their own.  Since there was always someone there to do the hard stuff, the young adult is now either helpless or forced to learn how to learn new things at point in life when mistakes are more costly.  One area where this is often seen is the first year of college.  Students who haven't learned how to struggle to learn something new and expect someone else to do all of the hard stuff for them, fail and drop out of college.

       School is about learning; and it's about learning how to learn.  We aren't helping our kids by doing the work for them.  As teachers and as parents, we have to try to worry less about "the grade" and much, much more about the learning.  There is no benefit to children who graduate from high school but aren't able to think for themselves and make decisions by themselves and solve their own problems.

       Yes, you can help too much.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Teaching to the Test Is Not a Bad Practice Anymore

       Education has this phrase:

Teaching to the Test

In the past, this phrase was a derogatory phrase that meant (at the extreme) the only thing we do during class time is to prepare students to take a test.  This implied that we never taught additional topics that weren't on the test, and that we never taught at a higher rigor level than what was required on the test.  The other (more broad) implication was even worse; We didn't concern ourselves with whether or not students actually learned anything, our only concern was that they got a high score on a test.

       This sort of Teaching to the Test probably did occur at many public schools, but I would hope that teachers (and schools) never lost their desire to encourage learning over mere test grades.  Indeed, teaching at a higher rigor level than was required on a test would serve the dual purpose of (1) helping students gain a higher level of conceptual understanding, as well as (2) helping students to score well on a test.  So we had incentives to go beyond the content that appeared on a test.  

       Today we see teaching to the test much differently.  First of all, we are now seeing standardized tests that require much more than merely a single-word, or single-number answer.  Today's test require students to demonstrate a high level of understanding.  This means that the days of memorizing formulas or (even worse) memorizing shortcuts and tricks are over.  Student who are only able to follow procedures and answer low-level questions will not earn high marks on today's tests.  Secondly, I feel that there is a renewed interest in teaching students how to engage and reason and think and argue and prove.  These are the skills that lead to a better conceptual understand over and above the old get-the-right-answer sort of teaching that took place in the past.  In this world, Teaching to the Test is the same thing as simple "Good Teaching".

       I know that the issue of standardized testing has become as controversial and divisive as the abortion issue to some people.  I found a great article on the Pros and Cons of Standardized Testing that may provide additional information to those folks that only see one side of this issue.  Regardless of your views, all people want their children to do well in school and (I hope) "doing well" means learning and not getting-good-grades for most people.  The primary objective for our public schools is certainly learning.  If students aren't learning, than there's no point in coming to school.  

       Today I am seeing a resurgence in helping teachers to explore classroom strategies that help students to learn concepts so well that they can teach them to other students.  Gone are the days of rote memorization. That sort of teaching isn't good enough if we want to prepare our students for the world of work and further learning in their futures.  Teaching to the Test is good if it helps our students to be better problem solvers.  

       Teaching to the Test is just good teaching.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Changing Math Attitudes

       I'm borrowing the title of a Facebook group to use as the title for this post.  The group called Changing Math Attitudes is composed of math teachers and other educators and (I suppose) other folks that seek to share experiences and expertise in the effort of helping students (and adults) to see mathematics as something beautiful, sensible, and doable by everyone.

       The first step in improving abilities in anything is to believe that you can do it.  We want students to understand that mathematics is not a secret code to which only a privileged few have access.  There is no "math brain".  Everyone can understand mathematics and it will take a group effort by many people in many circumstances to effectively change the view of mathematics that so many people hold.  This is the view that says "I'm not good at math."  (And so many people freely say this out loud when they would never say that they can't read or that they are bad at Science or History.

       I especially enjoy reading the posts from this group because they are generally politically agnostic.  It isn't a group that is pushing a political agenda one way or the other.  And this makes sense too because the "I'm bad at math." attitude is not coming from one group of people who members of any single political persuasion.  All sorts of people hold this view and so we are talking to all people when we say that we want to change attitudes about mathematics.

       Any math teacher will tell you that most of the students in their classes that struggle to understand the math would do so much better if they held the view that effort would lead to success; if they believed that getting the wrong answer doesn't mean that you are "dumb" but instead means that you've had a learning experience that can lead to better understanding.  If students can escape the Fixed Mindset that says "No amount of effort will lead to success.", then we know that we can help them to get to a point of better understanding.

       Attitude is everything.  Attitude determines the effort that students will put forth.  Attitude allows for a second try and a third try and a fourth try; or attitude gives permission to not try at all.  Attitude is the force that is stronger than caring adults.  Attitude shapes our views and ultimately shapes our destiny.  When our attitude tells us to give it a try, we are on our way to a world of opportunities.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Thank You For the People That Helped Me Along the Way

       Now in my 29th year of education, I'm so thankful for the people who have helped me to improve and to grow into the educator I've become so far.

  • Thank you to my colleagues who have taught me through the experiences that they have been willing to share.
  • Thank you to my students who have smiled with me and frowned with me; questioned me and responded to my questions.
  • Thank you to the parents who have worked with me and worked against me.  I've adjusted my actions with every contact I've ever made with a parent.  And (I hope) I've become a better parent to my own children through these interactions as well.
  • Thank you to my superiors that have guided along the way.  Some were strong leaders and some were less strong.  I appreciate your efforts and continue to appreciate the difficult job you have had and continue to have.
  • Thank you to those who have complimented me for my efforts.  Sometimes I deserved it and sometimes I didn't.  Compliments are never necessary or required; so I particularly appreciate it when people have gone out of their way to do so; be it in person, via a written note, or via email or a phone call.
  • Thank you to the people who have disagreed with me; sometimes kindly and sometimes with great anger.  You made me think about my decisions and you helped me to be well prepared for future decisions.  You'll never know how long I've thought about these exchanges; long after they ended.
  • Thank you for my family who are not educators.  It is so very helpful for me to hear the thoughts and ideas of non-educators.  You've been influenced by your experiences and the people you are surrounded by; and your opinions help me to think about my opinions.
  • Thank you to the speakers I've heard at venues great and small.  Your willingness to share your expertise is a valuable part of the learning process for me as an educator.
  • Thank you to my Twitter educator contacts that I have come to know via the miracle of the computer who live all over the world.  It's amazing how a few words can lead me to an hour of research on a topic.
  • Thank you to the dedicated professionals and to the folks that have been counting down the days until retirement for the past ten years.  Every voice is valuable; every point of view is a piece to the puzzle.  Every idea helps to shape my thinking.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

A Few Laughs is Always a Good Thing

       Ok.  I'm constantly seeing posters in teachers classrooms that make me laugh.  So here's my post from the lighter side of education--filled with cute, funny, maybe inspirational posters and sayings that keep me grounded and remind me that education is (of course) important, but it's OK to laugh and chuckle and even laugh at myself from time to time.
       What are your favorite education posters?  What makes you laugh?  What do you want your students to see in your classroom (when--perhaps--they should be listening to you)?

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

(When the World Can Seem Scary,) School is a Place to Feel Safe


       Sometimes the world can be a scary place for children.

       Teachers understand that their students come from a multitude of home experiences.  While many students come from safe, loving, supportive homes; an increasing amount of our students come from households that are stressful, intimidating, and maybe even dangerous.  Single-parent households have risen from 16% in 1980 to 26% in 2014.  Five percent of households have no parent.  (source)  Child abuse (including child sexual abuse) unfortunately continues to plague our nation with 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 5 boys being sexually abused before they turn 18 years old.  16 million adults and nearly 700,000 children (12 - 17 years old) have Alcohol Use Disorder.  3400 children are killed or injured in 2015 due to a gun crime.

       When our students walk into our schools, we want them to know that school is a safe place.  We will do everything we can to keep you safe.  School safety is at the top of every principal's list and every teacher's list (after Learning) when it comes to our public schools.  Regardless of your home situation, school is a place for students to feel safe.  This is important because every needs someone to talk to when they are anxious or worried or scared.  When their world is uncertain and the TV and internet is filled with violence and horror and sometimes hate, students of all ages need a place to feel safe.
       Safety is a source of pride for educators.  Protecting students and giving them the tools to make good decisions is our goal.  We strive to be a place of solace; a place with people you can talk to; a place with people who will help you no matter what problems you may have.

       We welcome students everyday.  

       We protect students everyday.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Always Looking Toward the Future

       School is about learning.

       Although we "do" a lot of things in school: sitting, listening, following rules, writing, reading, playing sports, eating lunch, seeing our friends, joining clubs; the primary goal of school is learning.  If we're not learning, we're wasting time and we're losing an opportunity.  If we're not learning, we're planting the seeds of lifelong struggles to support ourselves and our families; we're risking our dreams.

       This is why schools are always looking toward the future.  Elementary teachers are preparing their students to be successful in middle school.  Middle school teachers are preparing their students to be successful in high school.  And high school teachers are preparing their students to be successful in college or in a career.  There is always a "next step"; another mountain to climb; another goal to achieve.  Schools understand this and teachers understand this.

       Pre-K to grade 12 contain a lot of "steps".

  • 14 years of school
  • 2,520 school days
  • 16,380 hours of school
  • homework, classwork, books, notes, pencils, laptops, studying
Just as children physically grow a little bit each day, they should also learn a little bit each day.  In the end, the actual ability to learn will be their most valuable asset.  In the end, we want all of our students to continually look toward their future.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

High School Students are Learning Much More Today

       High school students are learning much more today than they did in past generations.  So often we hear about students who are not succeeding--and we certainly have too many students who struggle to succeed in our high schools.  But compared to past generations, our schools have done a good job at increasing student achievement.  Here's my short list of some of these accomplishments:

  • Course taking in high school for math and science has been rising from 1990 to 2009 according to the Condition of Education from the National Center for Educational Statistics.
    • 76% of HS students took Algebra 2 in 2009 compared to only 54% in 1990.
    • 70% of HS students took Chemistry in 2009 compared to only 49% in 1990.
    • taking Physics and Calculus have also increased dramatically in this timeframe.
  • People in the Millennial generation (born from 1981 to 1996) have a higher percentage of earning college degrees than people in the Baby Boomer generation (born from 1946 to 1964).
    • For men this number went up from 17% to 21%.
    • For women this number went up from 14% to 27%.
  • Math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) have increased for 9 year-olds from 1973 to 2012.  The same is true for 13-year-olds.  
  • Reading scores on the NAEP have increased for 9-year-olds from 1971 to 2012.
       I was at a conference recently in which the speaker said that the average poor student today is two-and-a-half years ahead (in terms of learning) than poor students from a generation ago.  I can't find the source for this statistic, but if it is true then it tells me that making this sort of comparison can help us to gauge increases in student achievement.

       We always hear stories about failing schools and failing students and failing this and that.  Of course we can do better; and we are always going to have students that struggle academically.  But by raising the bar again and again over time, we have pushed students to learn more and more.  The world has changed and our schools need to change if we are really meant to prepare our students for this new world.  I think it helps to take a step back from the constant negative stories about education and take some time to think about the improvements that have been made.

       We are always improving and this improvement must come while simultaneously moving forward.  

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Math Problems with Lots of Paths from A to B: Open Middle

Directions:  Fill in the boxes using the whole numbers 1 through 6 to make the largest (or smallest) possible number. Use each digit at most once.

       Who ever said that there is only one way to get the answer in a math problem?  

       OK...(unfortunately) lots of people say this.  But, guess what, the best math questions don't have just one way to be solved.  Because the best math problems don't have the simplistic goal of merely following the steps you are told to follow and getting an answer.  The best math problems have much broader goals: Thinking, Reasoning, Problem Solving, Perseverance

       I've recently been introduced to a great source of these math problems called Open Middle.  Open Middle math problems start the same and end the same (with one particular correct answer), but they have an "open middle"; there are many ways to approach and to ultimately solve the problem.  The above problem is a sample of an Open Middle problem.  

       Open Middle has math problems for grades Kindergarten to high school mathematics.  They are great for getting students to use recently learned math in novel ways.  And when students have a chance to talk about the way they went about solving the problem, they gain an ever stronger grasp of the mathematics by hearing from their peers--a strategy known as Number Talks.  

       Students learn that it is OK to think about solutions differently.  One student may have a very complicated solution that makes sense to her.  Another may have a clever solution that no one ever thought of--not even the teacher!  Learning from each other is a great way to experience math and to understand that math is vibrant and alive with many possibilities.

       Students may think of Open Middle problems as puzzles, but listen to the math vocabulary that they use when the work on their solutions.  Students who are bored with the typical math class are excited to spend lots of time working on Open Middle problems because they are relatively easy to start.  Every attempt at an Open Middle problem helps students to learn what to do and (perhaps) what not to do.  They don't view wrong answers as failures but instead as a closer step toward the final answer.

Directions: Using the whole numbers 1 through 9 no more than once, create 3 equivalent fractions.

Students, Teachers, and Parents: Working Together to Improve Education

       Education, as with most things in life, works best when everyone works together.

       Of course, parents and students and teachers don't always agree about what's best for education.  So I've devised a plan for systemic improvement:

Concentrate solely on the school that your children attend.

      You see, we view education in the entire United States differently than we view education in the schools our children attend.  For years Gallop has polled parents about their views of education; and for years they have received essentially the same results:

  1. We are not happy with the state of schools in the United States.
  2. We are happy with the state of the school in our community.

       It happened again this year.  In 2016, only 43% of those polled said that they are Completely Satisfied or Very Satisfied with quality of education in the United States.  Of these same people (same poll; same year), 76% said that they are Completely Satisfied or Very Satisfied with quality of education that their children are receiving.

       So here's my plan:  

Let's just do everything we can do improve the school(s) our children attend.

       The U.S. is too big.  17,000 school districts. 100,000 schools.  50,000,000 students.  Who can even comprehend the immensity of such a huge system???

       If we all just concentrate our energies on the schools in our community, we have a much better chance of seeing real improvement.  Better teachers, better students, better learning.  It can be done if we all do our part for our own schools.  And when the community disagrees on something, let's listen to each other and compromise on a solution that is best for our students and best for our community.  Every wins when we work together.

       (And isn't "working together" a lesson that we want all of our children to learn?)

Sunday, October 30, 2016

When Students are Thinking, Students are Learning

       I was recently introduced to a fantastic list of 100 questions that teachers can ask in mathematics class that will encourage students to think and reason and share their thoughts with each other.  A portion of these 100 questions are in the graphics in this post.  The rest can be found here.

       The questions are separated into categories that help students to:
  1. Work together to make sense of mathematics.
  2. Rely more on themselves to determine if something is mathematically correct.
  3. To reason mathematically.
  4. Evaluate their own processes and engage in productive peer interaction.
  5. Gain a better understanding with problem comprehension.
  6. Learn to conjecture, invent, and solve problems.
  7. Learn to connect mathematics, its ideas, and its applications.
  8. Persevere.
  9. Focus on the mathematics from activities.
       Every parent that has ever received the unimaginative response of "Fine." to the question, "How was school today." understands the frustration of trying encourage a dialogue with young people who are either unable or unwilling to do so.  Teachers face this dilemma every day.  Except, for teachers, their are tasked with making sure that the students are actually learning the content that they are teaching.  Teachers don't have the luxury of dismissing an uninformed, mono-syllabic response.  Hence teachers do their best to use strategies that will encourage students to share their thinking.  These questions help teachers to achieve this goal.

       Here is a sampling of some of these great, discourse-encouraging questions:

How would you explain _________ to someone who missed class today?

How did you reach that conclusion?

Can you think of a case where that wouldn't work?

Could you reword that in simpler terms?

How is your solution method the same as or different from (student)'s method?

How does this relate to ____________ ?

       These questions help students to understand that mathematics is not just a bunch of rules that lead to a single number answer.  We want students who are able to understand the reasoning behind the rules.  We want students to think and reason and discuss and struggle and fail and try again.  We want students to have strategies for finding solutions beyond just asking the teacher.  We want students to learn from each other, to recall past lessons, and to know how to check their own work.

       These questions are a great resource to our teachers.  When students are thinking, students are learning.

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Time Has Come to Question Everything We Do in Education

Why is the school day six-and-a-half hours?

Why is the school year from September to June?

Why do have to use Carnegie Units in high school?

Why are grades so important?

Why does every class have to have a textbook?

Why do I have to use a pencil in math class?

Why does high school start so early in the day?

Why do schools compare themselves to each other?

Why do I have to memorize things that are easily found online?

Why does the teacher do most of the talking in class?

Why do we rank students in high school?

Why do we brag about high grades and not about high learning?

Why do have student desks and chairs?

Why do all of the chairs face in the same direction?

Why is there 14 years of schooling from Pre-K to high school graduation?


       Cars change; buildings change; clothes change; planes change: people change; the world changes.  Why don't schools change?  


Friday, October 21, 2016

The Struggle for Change in Our Schools

       This sign hung at the Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts this week during the annual MassCUE conference.  "MassCUE" stands for the Massachusetts Computer Using Educators.  The conference was also sponsored by the M.A.S.S. (that is, the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents).  The sign begs the question, Why is it that schools (education) is not changing if everything around the schools are changing?  I think I know the answer...

       The sign reminds us that the world is changing.  Indeed it is.  The changes that have occurred in the world have been driven by market forces such as efficiencies in manufacturing.  They have been driven by technology such as computers and cell phones and the capacity of these technologies (and others) to accomplish tasks much faster and easier.  The sign says the workforce is changing.  One big factor is the lower demand for low-skill jobs.  Less workers are needed to do a job that took more workers a few decades ago.  This (again) is largely due to the creation of machines and equipment that have been built to do jobs faster and better than human workers ever could.

       The sign says that technology is changing.  Few would need any strong justification to argue this point.  Computer chips are constantly being made to be smaller and faster.  (Although this scenario may come to an end soon.)  Computers are smaller and more powerful.  And the applications of this great processing speed appear to be endless.  Finally, the sign suggests that students are changing.  Different clothes, different music, and (once again) technology available at every turn.  Of course, these "different" students are also living in this "different" world; so of course since they are living a different experience than their parents, it makes sense that students of today are different from students of 20 or 40 years ago.

       So why are we surrounded by change and yet we are stuck with relatively little change in our schools?  By "little change", I mean high school classes of about 30 students with one teacher doing most of the talking.  Course requirements nearly the same for all students, even though we have students with different needs and different abilities.  The school day has basically the same start and stop time as 50 years ago.  The school year is basically the same as 50 years ago.  (And not because of farming needs 100 years ago.)  I would argue that the changes to the world, the workforce, technology, and students occurred as a sort of evolution.  No one person or group of people orchestrated these changes.  They happened as a natural phenomenon of humans living on earth and trying to better their situation.  As a species, we are always looking for ways to improve our life and our surroundings.  So we develop better tables and better chairs and better cars and better watches and so on.  Each generation is a little better than the one before it for all of these things.  But a change in schools requires that we conscientiously do something.

       School change requires a community that wants the schools to change.  Someone has to propose the change (or changes).  Someone has to agree.  Then someone has to convince the school board.  And so on and so on.  In the end, while educators may see the need for change in our schools (and not all educators see this change), non-educators often don't see the need for this change.  The common expression is, "This is the way school was when I was a kid.  It was good enough for me, so it will be good enough for you."  The general public is weary of major changes.  Change is disruptive and unsettling.  It is uncomfortable.  People (as a group) don't generally want things to change.  They may accept changes that are forced upon them (such as a new cable company because the old one merged with the new one), but when given the choice it seems that most would vote against change.  This is why (in my opinion) schools are so slow to change.

       As an educator, it is frustrating because I sometimes wonder if we are preparing our students for anything more than higher-level coursework.  Are they learning the skills they need to succeed in the workforce of the 21st century?  Are they able to cope with the world that they will inherit?  Is a high GPA enough?  How do we help the public to embrace the sort of change that will benefit their children?

       Can we allow our schools to change?

Monday, October 17, 2016

High School Graduation Rates Continue to Rise

       In the 2014 - 2015 school year, the high school graduation rate rose to 83.2% according to the National Center for Education Statistics.  This is modern day, national success story.  Twenty years ago, the national high school graduation rate was only 71% and it only rose a couple of percentage points from the 1998 - 1999 school year to the 2005 - 2006 school year (to 73%).  In the past ten years this important statistic has risen ten percentage points.  This is an amazing accomplishment!

       Our educational system is big.  17,000 school districts; 100,000 schools; 50 million students; and 3 million teachers.  This accomplishment isn't due to the effort of just a couple of school districts; or even just a couple of states.  This incredible increase says that we as a country have made it a priority to do everything we can to see to it that students graduate.  We understand that the world that our students will inherit requires an educated mind if we want these future adults to succeed.  We have heard this message and we believe it and we have taken steps in every school to make this happen.

       Even among our nation's poor students the high school graduation rate has risen to 76.1% -- which is a higher percentage than the graduation rate of the whole population of students in 1999.  Imagine the better life that will exist for these students in their future -- all because their parents and teachers and schools wouldn't allow them to drop out.

       So often we hear only bad news about our public schools.  We only hear about students who don't succeed and schools that don't have certain programs and teachers that don't have the tools they need.  We should celebrate the great successes we've had (such as the highest graduation rate ever) because they tell us that we are headed in the right direction.  They tell us that our efforts have paid off.  They tell us that we have achieved great success.  In the entire history of American Education we have never had a graduation rate this high.  This is something that all of us can be proud of because all of us have had a hand in helping this to happen.

       So thank a teacher, keep pushing your child to do well in school, and recognize that our nation's schools are working hard everyday to improve the lives of our students; your children.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Schooling Isn't a Game to be Won

       Americans love competition.

       We follow sports teams.  We compare our Olympic medal count with those from other countries.  We brag about having faster cars and the newest cell phone, and the whitest teeth.  At times (it seems) everything is a competition; that we are always trying to surpass what our neighbors have or can do.

       This sense of competition (unfortunately) extends into our schools as well.  Our students want to know who got the highest test grade, who takes the most Advanced Placement courses; who got the best report card grades.  We are constantly comparing ourselves to each other.

       When it comes to schooling, I have a statement for our students (and their parents):

       School isn't a soccer game, it isn't the Olympics, and it isn't a Reality Show to be won.  School is about learning.  Some students will excel in some areas, some might excel in all areas (or appear to excel on all areas), and most will probably be average.  The goal for all of these students is to learn.

       The danger of the "competition" aspect of schooling is when students strive for high grades or correct answers by means that don't require a lot of learning.  Some students are good at "playing school"; they do what they need to do to get good grades (such as turning in homework and classwork on time and participating in class), but avoid actual studying and real learning.  They do this because of a misguided notion that the goal of school is getting good grades.  When student compete for "grades", they can miss the most important purpose of schooling which is learning.  In a classroom, this means that they are afraid to try new things or to offer suggestions or ideas for fear of being wrong (and perhaps labeled as "less smart").  This isn't what we want in our schools.

       Learning is a lifelong skill.  School cannot be a place where students merely learn how to do what they are told to do.  School has to be a place where the skill of learning is learned and understood.  A place where students learn how to problem solve and how to ask the right questions and how to access resources that they need.  Students shouldn't have to worry about doing better than other students.  They should only be concerned about learning.

       Let's make our schools a competition-free zone.  After all, there are plenty of other areas in a student's life where they can compete.  School should be one of them.

Public Schools and Choice

       Is it true that public school kids and their public school parents don't have choices?  I'm sure that I will expose my igno...

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