Sunday, April 29, 2012

Behind Closed Doors

Two events which are instructive for great education policy hit the media in a big way in the last week.  The first was the debut of the infamous talking pineapple; the second was when New Jersey single dad Stu Chaifetz planted a recording device on his ten year old autistic son and captured a day’s worth of abusive and inappropriate behavior on the part of several of the adults in his son’s self contained autism classroom.
What did both of these events have in common?  They were the product of things that go on behind closed doors.  They are worst case scenarios, examples of what can happen when transparency is abandoned for long periods of time, and people run amok.
The irony of the talking pineapple is that these were the sort of divergent questions we want to have in our classroom bag of tricks.  Many questions in real life have no correct answer, and there is a useful place in education for introducing that incontrovertible fact to students.  That place, however, is most certainly not a bubble test, which measures convergent thinking.  
No, encouraging divergent thinking requires discussion, something that New York State teachers are forbidden with respect to this test.  Had there been some transparency around this test, had it been vetted by real teachers, if test items did not have to hide behind a veil of secrecy, somebody might have flagged this idiocy.  The silver lining here is that maybe the talking pineapple will increase public skepticism about high stakes testing.
Testing companies like secrecy because it allows them to recycle items, keeping costs down and profits up.  We are, however, in an era where tests can destroy people’s careers and hurt children.  Therefore good and fair public policy demands transparency.  We cannot use discredited instruments to hire and fire, to award “merit” pay, or close neighborhood schools.  The public interest here is at odds with the interests of for-profit  testing industry, and the quasi-public education policy apparatus which feeds off it.
The case of little Akian Chaifetz calls for a different type of transparency.  As I listened in horror to the aggrieved Dad, and to the excerpts of child abuse one thing became abundantly clear to me.  Nobody was supervising these people.  The door of that classroom was never being opened.  They were in private practice and they had absolutely no idea what they were doing.  The evidence points to this going on for years, so long that abusive, inappropriate adult behavior had become the cultural norm in that classroom.
In the 21st century, teaching is a team sport.  Had that classroom door been open, had some knowledgeable supervisor or colleague learned early on that these people were clueless, maybe they could have gotten some training, or maybe they could have been encouraged to find a different line of work.  This is not to excuse bad behavior; it is to point out the tragedy that a dad had to wire his kid to achieve the sort of transparency which millions of parents assume when they send their children to school in the morning.  This is why we have administrators and instructional coaches.  Ultimately this was an institutional failure.
Let these be cautionary tales for the education policy world.
On the one hand, the closed door meeting is a lubricant for decision making.  It allows you to get things done.  The messiness involved in transparency can be inefficient.  That conference room meeting can also leverage expertise, allowing policy experts to deploy their knowledge without having to bring novices up to speed.  People can say things in these meetings and make decisions in the relative safety of privacy which can be genuinely useful.
On the other hand, closed doors are inherently undemocratic and elitist.  They carry the assumption that the public is too stupid to participate in public policy.  They create echo chambers and encourage group think, which makes smart people stupid.  Faulty assumptions go unchallenged, and elaborate policy structures are built on sand.  Key stakeholders can be left out, leading to needless conflict when policy is rammed down the throats of those not invited to the table.
The world of education policy is a murky revolving-door world of government agencies, private contractors, foundations, academia and unions, among others.  Sometimes it rides off the rails, like Akian’s teachers, in Jonah Edelman meltdown moments and Wisconsin-style bolt-out-of-the-blue attacks. 
The question of the balance of transparency and closed doors is a divergent question, very much like those about our talking pineapple.  There is no absolute answer.  There is always a trade-off between the benefits of efficiency, and the capacity of transparency to preserve and promote the public good.  Given the choice, I would tend to err on the side of transparency.  You can always fall back on the truth.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Common Core and Monkey Training

Wrote this before the RTT convening in Boston.  This is where I was - I will write more on this subject  with respect to the convening in the future.
I teach elementary music.  I’ll be touched more tangentially by the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) than many teachers, but I do have wide experience thinking about and writing curriculum with reference to standards in both my endorsement areas, music and technology integration.  I don’t have to implement CCSS in my classroom at this point, but as an educator, I'm fascinated. 
The problem with grappling with the details of implementation is that it is important to be able to articulate the big picture, the broad principles which form the basis of the CCSS.  The big picture is helpful both to educators and administrators trying to get a purchase on how to begin the work of CCSS, and to parents and other stakeholders trying to understand the implications for students. 
Standards represent our aspirations for students, which then need to be interpreted through a rich matrix of curricula, increasingly fine grained plans for the delivery of instruction.  There many different types of curricula, such as the political curriculum, the district/building curriculum, the classroom curriculum, the shelf curriculum, the taught curriculum and the learned curriculum, all of which look very different.
I've come to the conclusion that the most important curriculum is the one that the teacher has internalized, enabling minute to minute decisions in work with actual students.  All of those other types just prepare the one that lives in the teacher's head.  In the heat of the moment we can't pull a binder off the shelf to make decisions; we need an internalized plan to guide appropriate instruction.
Hence the significance of the broad outline or principles.
·         The CCSS calls for fewer things taught in greater depth.
·         The CCSS puts greater emphasis on informational texts, which is a type of reading we use in real life.
·         CCSS calls for more persuasive writing and less personal narrative, again what we do in real life.
·         CCSS calls for an emphasis on higher order thinking skills, requiring new assessments that can actually capture them.
·         In math, CCSS calls for the ability to reason quantitatively, not just the ability to perform procedures.
·         CCSS aspires to have students be able to anticipate the next steps in their learning, and therefore be educational actors rather than passive recipients.
·         CCSS calls for higher order thinking skills (HOTS).
I'm interested in the potential applicability of broad principles of this sort in my discipline, music.  My Orff Schulwerk level III movement teacher Brian Burnett talks about how we make kids in into "trained monkeys" in music classes.  By the same token, math students who perform the steps of a procedure but can't ascertain whether their answer is within an order of magnitude of reality are also victims of monkey training.  I ask myself what a Common Core for music might look like.
I'm fond of giving carefully scaffolded composition/improvisation tasks to students as a means of assessment.  A couple of years ago I had a fourth grade class improvise pitches to the rhythm of a poem using their recorders.  The parameters I set were a Do pentatonic scale on G, using G as the home tone.  One of the students asked me if he could use an F.  I replied, "Convince me."  He proceeded to improvise a lovely piece in the Dorian mode, dutifully ending it on G, per the requirements of the assignment.  When he shared with the class, I asked him if there was a note that would be more suitable for the ending than G.  He paused and thought about it, listening inside his head, and replied "D".  I looked at him and said, "You understand the home tone."
Martin deployed judgment in his answer.  My only regret was that in the design of the task I had not provided easier avenues of deploying judgment - I guess we call that reflection.  In fact the other day I gave this same task to students again, but this time invited them to choose their own home tone from given pitch set, which most did quite effectively. 
Could this story be illustrative of how the broad principles of our Common Core aspirations could be appropriately deployed in non-tested subjects?  A rising sea lifting all boats....

Monday, April 23, 2012

A Real Teacher Appreciation Week

Teacher Appreciation Week is coming.  I suppose we’ll get some sort of luncheon.  Some parents will show up to take my recess duty, which I generally use to get caught up on some planning.  The media will report some lame accolades for teachers from various leaders, many of whom spend the rest of their time trying to make our lives worse.  Sometimes there’s a mug involved.  The whole thing generally blows over uneventfully.  It’s much more about the appreciators than the appreciatees.
Roberta F. [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
What would real teacher appreciation look like?
Teachers are professional education experts.  If one week a year, teachers could make that expertise known in tangible ways in the places that education policy is made, that would be real teacher appreciation.
Much policy discussion happens during school hours.  The state legislature, and the state board of education meet while we are teaching children.  Our state board of education makes momentous decisions with real impact on our work, things like adoption of Common Core State Standards and application for an NCLB waiver while we are busy actually doing the work.  The legislature decides on issues like Fair Share and pension reform – during business hours
Yes, we have our union, and we have our paid lobbyists, and there are former teachers who represent us in these forums, but it is not the same as flooding these rooms with professionals whose situated expertise is essential to the implementation of successful policy.
The other night a colleague was noting the irony of a local board member testifying at the state house on a policy matter of interest to our union, and impossibility of our being there to counteract that testimony. 
In my ideal world every teacher would have a paid floating Teacher Appreciation Week which they could use for leadership and advocacy at the local, state or national level.  It could be used for policy or political work, but must be used for the purpose of bringing the professional voice of teachers to the broad decision making process.
There are those that would characterize this idea as just another benefit.  But if one week of access, and the broad leadership development it could foster in the profession, makes the other 170+ student contact days more effective because of a combination of grounded policy and superior implementation, it seems to me to be a very small, but wise investment.
Driving leadership and policy work into after hours, when we are exhausted, when we are taking care of families and ourselves (and yes, planning and grading….) is a formula mass for detachment.  Empowering people means creating the time and space for meaningful democratic engagement.
Unless you don’t believe in democracy…..
Creating the conditions for democratic engagement by education professionals – that would be real teacher appreciation.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Innovation, Ideology and Compliance

As we say in the union: a supposal....
Let’s set aside for a moment the heated arguments about the course of federal education policy. Let’s give the United States Department of Education (ED) the benefit of the doubt, impute good intentions, and take at face value their claim that they are trying to use federal policy to change the conversation about teacher quality from sorting and firing, to elevating the profession and improving teaching practice.  We can always revert to the noisy argument, but stepping back to a quieter place for a moment may illuminate  avenues for better policy.
Race to the Top and NCLB waivers are among an alphabet soup of ED initiatives intended to spur change and innovation at a state level.  Certainly there is guidance from ED as to what that change might look like, and that is legitimately a subject for political debate.  Let’s consider the possibility that to some significant extent these programs are intended less to be prescriptive, and more to be platforms for innovation.
There is a dangerous assumption embedded in policy of this sort: that states have the same capacity for creativity and innovation as the people who created the policy in the first place.  There may be states where capacity exists, but in many places this policy ship is dashed on the twin rocks of ideology and compliance.
Ideology is expressed in astroturf teacher bashing, and in policy and legislation that assume that bad teachers and the unions that protect them are the problem.  This is the “fire your way to the top” approach, which has the added advantage allowing politicians to evade the tough task of raising the revenue necessary to create a great education system.  From the left it consists of a cynical view that everything ED does is astroturf in disguise.  Ideology offers its proponents relief from the necessity of thinking.
When it comes to trying to elevate the teaching profession to advance the cause of great student learning in our schools, ideology is a noisy, destructive distraction from that task.  Federal programs designed to encourage creativity and innovation cannot succeed in states where this type of toxic thinking predominates. 
There is a second, more insidious impediment to the success of current federal policy: a compliance mentality.  State and district level bureaucrats often live in a culture of compliance.  Rather than using a program as an opportunity to create something progressive, they ask “What is the minimum we have to do to get the money/waiver/whatever?”  This mentality collides with the intent of the people who created the Federal policy.  That policy is designed to disrupt and change the status quo.  Compliance is about maintaining a comfortable status quo for adults, regardless of the impact that has on the end goal of the educational enterprise: great student learning.
There are places that have managed to keep the ideologues tamped down while responding with some creativity to federal initiatives.  Massachusetts is one such place.  The Massachusetts Teachers Association took a proactive approach to the RTT requirement to incorporate student achievement data in the new teacher evaluation system.  The MTA plan, which the Association characterizes as a “Triangulated Standards-based Evaluation Framework,” uses student achievement as one data point among several. 
The universities and think tanks in Massachusetts have the ability to help by providing a theoretical framework to support the work in strategic partnerships with other stakeholders.  Few states boast such capacity - certainly not my state, Vermont.
There is a pathway for more effective Federal policy.  Presuming good intentions here, if it is the intent to promote innovation rather than ideology or compliance, ED has to consider ways of building capacity in places where it does not currently exist, ways of getting colleges and universities to step up to the plate, of helping unions get past a circle the wagons mentality, of reaching people of good will and helping them to understand the issues at hand, not just in states that are the recipients of federal largess, but everywhere.
People who are numbed by the noise of worthless ideology, or deadened by the dull drone of bureaucratic compliance, cannot be the engines of innovation, cannot be equals and partners in a program of educational improvement. 
How can we move past the ideological noise of both the right and the left, and emerge from the suffocation of compliance in order to create great public policy?  How can we learn to govern ourselves again?

Monday, April 16, 2012

Collaboration: Just a Fancy Word for Working Together

Mapping State Proficiency Standards Onto the NAEP Scales: Variation and Change in State Standards for Reading and Mathematics, 2005–2009
I remember seeing Jesse Jackson on TV many years ago.   He said something about language which has always stuck with me, “Don’t say ‘prevaricate’ when what you mean is ‘lie’.”  What he was getting at is the virtue of simplicity and directness in the choice of words.
The word collaborate has been all the rage in education, whether we are designing “collaboration time” among teachers at a school, or achieving “labor-management collaboration” between boards, unions and administrators.  It’s easy to lose track, when using a fancy term like collaboration, of the human dimension of collaboration, in all its simplicity and directness: people working together towards a common goal.
In education, there is only one goal that matters: great student learning.  All other subsidiary goals must be paths to that single thing.  Without that, you can collaborate all you want, but the result will be vestigial.  Probably not a good use of anybody’s time.
In my experience there are two paths to labor-management collaboration, meaning leaders working together to advance student learning, 
The first is charismatic individuals.  There are extraordinary people out there who “get it” and can draw others into a home cooked approach to working together that works tolerably well.  But there are three disadvantages to relying on charismatic leadership:
1.       There aren’t enough charismatic leaders
2.       Charismatic leaders retire
3.       Charismatic leaders can block the development of other leaders
The second approach is to create collaborative structures and techniques within which normal people can operate.  The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service is in the business of promoting this body of knowledge.  Techniques include Interest Based Bargaining (IBB), labor-management committees, contract language which permits flexibility at the site level, and salary benchmarking.
I’ll use IBB for a moment, because it is probably the best known (if most misunderstood) technique.  IBB is not a panacea.  Rather, it provides a civil platform upon which other types of work can occur.  It is virtually impossible to advance the cause of student learning when, as one of our veteran WCEA negotiators put it, “The two sides are shouting at each other through their spokespersons.”
Luckily IBB has a well articulated body of theory and practice, which makes it accessible to those of us who are mere mortals.  People can learn to do this – it’s not a matter of talent.
The danger of this sort of structure is that it will ossify into something ritualistic, that people will value the process itself more than overall end goal of the enterprise.  But, providing this detour can be avoided with a little “big picture” thinking (something that seems to annoy a lot of folks when pulling weeds) having a structure for ongoing conversations about local policy and progressive education reform creates sustainability.
Of course the ideal would be to have both the charismatic leadership and sustainability of structures to support meaningful reform.  But if I had to choose, I’d choose sustainability.  This isn’t a sprint; it’s a marathon.  And there is an essential human dimension to the work which is not captured by a term like collaboration.  Let’s remember, as flawed human beings, the advantage of structures that support us in working together.

Monday, April 9, 2012

My Garden Sprouts

How often does a book on education achieve both literary and visual artistry?  How often would you expect any book on education to be both practical and inspiring?  Had you asked me these questions a couple of weeks ago, I would answered seldom to the second question and never to the first.  Both questions together?  Impossible.  Then I encountered My Garden Sprouts by Sharla Steever, illustrated by Diana Magnuson.
My Garden Sprouts is an annotated journal for elementary classroom teachers.  Its 127 illustrated pages are filled with space for a teacher to make notes about his/her unfolding practice over a three year period.   Each journal page begins with wise and insightful prompts.  The quality of these prompts grows from Sheever’s deep experience as a mentor and teacher leader at her school.  Magnuson’s illustrations are gorgeous; her self-professed Allegorical Realism is the perfect foil to Steever’s use of metaphor.  They are  understated, supporting, but never overshadowing the professional intent of the book.
A 2011 Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow for the US Department of Education and a National Board Certified Teacher, Steever is a master teacher form South Dakota who teaches fourth grade.  Her video Tokata: Moving Forward in Indian Education, illustrating her profound knowledge of Native American education issues, was previously reviewed here on Education Worker Magnuson is a gifted illustrator from Michigan with a large portfiolio of illustrated children’s books
Steever is also an accomplished gardener.  She uses gardening as a literary metaphor for teaching.  The culture of individual vegetables and flowers illustrates the character of students and situations one encounters in school.   Pumpkins “take up a lot of space.”   With regard to pumpkin students, Sheever invites us to consider how we can build their boundary awareness.  Onions “are socially repellant” – how can we peel back the layers, getting past the hunger, poverty or abuse to hold these students to “compassionate high standards”?  At every step Steever challenges even jaded veterans to consider students in novel ways, and with humor and wit asks us to reconceive our classrooms and the way we see our students.
This journal should become a modern classic for the induction and mentoring of new elementary teachers.  I could see it being a graduation gift for new teachers, or a gift to new hires, especially in rural places.  I could see it being a standard text for Peer Assistance and Review programs, directed both to the new teachers and struggling veterans typically served by these programs.
As I read, however, it became clear to me that this journal is for anyone at any level of experience who simply wants to ramp it up to the next level in their practice.  Compassionate, wise and eminently practical – how often does that happen in an education book? 

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Responsibilty, Autonomy, and Reform - NEA Style

I was invited by Larry Ferlazzo to comment on his Ed Week blog Classroom Q&A on “Transforming Teaching” along with Dennis Van Roekel and Renee Moore. Here are my remarks; I urge folks to read the original.
In "Transforming Teaching," the NEA recognized one incontrovertible fact: you cannot coerce reform. There is reform done to teachers (we've seen a lot of that lately), reform done by teachers (think NBPTS, CTQ or TURN), and reform done with teachers. "Transforming Teaching" calls for the latter: deep organic reform rising from within the profession with meaningful and realistic cooperation from other stakeholders.
Good reform is ultimately about changing teaching practice in order to achieve better student learning. Without the full force and participation of the teaching profession this simply cannot be done.
A couple of settlements ago, our school board demanded and got a 7.5 minimum hour day. Administration immediately designated that the time before and after school as "collaboration time" and created uniform start and end times at all schools. In my school there was widespread resentment over what one teacher called "forced collaboration." People watched the clock. The minimum became the maximum. The scheme backfired, producing far less collaboration than might have occurred by creating a great climate where people want to stay and collaborate because they love their jobs.
This story illustrates principles of human psychology and group dynamics. Multiply that by three million, the size of the teaching profession in the United States. You can't do it to us, as satisfying as that might seem at times; you have to do it with us.
The NEA recognized the psychology of the teaching profession by forming the Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching, a group of master teachers charged, among other things, to tell NEA a few things it did not want to hear. What emerged is a picture of systemic reform by and for teachers to elevate teaching into a true profession.
"Transforming Teaching" calls for real reform by demanding the conditions that create great teachers: professional responsibility and collaborative autonomy. Notice that I said responsibility. Much has been made lately of that fact that there is no word in the Finnish language for accountability in the sense that we use it in American education. If we aspire to the level of the best performing systems we need to embrace an essential principle that drives these systems: collective responsibility.
Yes, "Transforming Teaching" makes demands on other stakeholders: on the unions and their professional staffs, on the US Department of Education, on legislatures, and on school districts. But read the document closely - given professional responsibility, we teachers are far harder on ourselves than any outside entity. Why? Because we work for and with kids and our lives are better when their lives are better. Teachers live reform and are the ones who must ultimately create it.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Women in Education

My friend and colleague Gamal Sherif teaches at the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, PA.  We are both Teaching Ambassador Fellows for the US Department of Education (Gamal this year and me last year), and members of the Teacher Leader Network Forum, part of the Center for Teaching Quality.  We are both also union activists - I'm NEA and Gamal is AFT.  What I love about our friendship is the differences: I’m a rural elementary teacher and Gamal is an urban high school teacher, yet across these differences we share so much.  Gamal’s asked me to share his latest blog post and I urge people to follow his excellent blog ProgressEd.  In December I cross-posted his piece Teacher Professionalism and Leadership

Part I:
Thanks to Meredith Bagjier, a colleague at ED who compiled a synopsis on the role of women in education. One interesting set of statistics:
  • 2011 study indicates that 24% of [K-12] superintendents are women
  • Improvement from 1992, when only 13% of superintendents were female
  • Discrepancy remains: 75% of US school teachers are female
Part II:
It's no wonder that men are telling teachers what to do in the classroom because the graffiti in the male bathroom stalls on Wall Street has all of the answers.

America casts its burdened gaze on the "virginity tests" in Afghanistan or Egypt, but turns a blind eye to the state-sponsored rape of women via transvaginal probes in Texas. No, she did not ask for it.

Part III:
The level of misogyny is incredible. I saw a commercial the other day that advertised rugged men in the woods, drinking a rugged man's beverage. As if women couldn't be rugged, or nature was a domain to be conquered my manly men.

Check out Amy Morgenstern's video:

BecomingPlant from Amy Morgenstern on Vimeo.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Education Worker Endorses Rick Santorum!

Breaking News April 1, 2012
According to his website, Rick Santorum believes that
·         Education is the responsibility of the consumer, the parent.
I agree wholeheartedly!  Were I able to afford them I would consume as many educations as I could fit in the trunk of my 1998 Toyota Corolla - and I'd buy a few for my wife and kids!  Goes great with ketchup and PBR.
·         Parents and citizenry should hold schools accountable and have educational options for their children.
I absolutely agree.  I mean, why can't schools get truants to achieve at the same level as students who attend every day?  If my kid had anger management issues because of the violence and alcoholism in my home I would be furious if they restricted his behavior just because it disrupts class.  I should be allowed to take my hard earned tax dollars and put him in the local alternative school so he can sing little songs and doodle all day!
·         Reforms at the local level should be focused on expanding consumer choice in public, private, and personalized education, and personalizing to the needs of individual students rather than governments or unions. 
Speaking as a government worker and certified union boss I can tell you just how greedy they are.  I mean ten or twelve times a year I spend my Saturdays plotting with my fellow union bosses to ruin the lives of children and the union actually feeds me lunch!  How greedy is that?  And sometimes they feed me when I go to an evening meeting.  And not just sandwiches - I get a cookie and a soft drink too!
What's worse, sometimes we get a choice of sandwiches.  Why should we union bosses get to choose our sandwiches when parents don't even get to choose which lies their children are taught?
Vote for Rick Santorum in 2012!