Monday, January 26, 2009

Serious Stuff

I really want the education world to improve before my child enters it. And of course I hope the new administration (President Obama, I'm talking to you!) can miraculously fix things by then, not just for Stellan, but for all the children who really have been left behind academically and otherwise, despite what the DOE tries to tell me. But in case that process isn't complete quickly enough for your tastes or mine (in the next 3 and half years is my timetable), here's something I want to share with every parent out there who wants their own kid to get a great education, and wants it enough to do something about it.
One of my heroes in life works in the education field. She has an awesome job - she teaches students how to teach, teachers how to learn and administrators how to let the rest learn and teach. Last week she posted an amazing article on her blog. So I'm reprinting it here in case you might find it useful. I did. (Sorry for the repeat if you happen to be in the middle section of our Venn diagram of friendship.)

Tips from a Reformer

Or is it reformist? I have used several different explanations for what I do for a living and most of it includes the word "reform." My newest description includes the word "redesign" but then people think I mean the actual school building (which is sort of part of my job description since you have to plan for using the space correctly but doesn't get to the heart of what I do.) 

The more I do this work the more I know that it is essential to the development of our country and I want to encourage everyone to more grassroots movement of reform in their own city. Below are a list of questions that every parent should ask the principal of the school--perhaps even superintendent or school board. You might ask the teacher but frequently they are limited by school administration because they control the teacher's ability to be free in the classroom to do proper instruction.

Question #1: What are the learning outcomes for the school? 

Every high school has to have a set of learning outcomes in order to get accreditation for college--elementary schools SHOULD go through the accreditation process but many skip it. If the person cannot tell you what the learning outcomes are for the school, Houston, we have a problem. If they do have a list you should look for something aboutcritical thinking or problem solving, something about citizenship or being a part of the community, some schools use the term work ethicfor those things but that is really a different issue. Other key learning outcomes typically cover communication (oral or written or both) and some type of numeracy. Numeracy is a made up word but it refers to math literacy. Finally look for something that measures collaborationor group work. Many schools are now realizing that technology literacy is important for kids, but I would argue that our children already have tech literacy and we should be measuring their ability to use it appropriately in a classroom setting (ie, using it as a tool besides just using it to replace traditional assignments like online tests and some worksheets).

Question #2: How are the learning outcomes being measured?

People can say "oh we have 8 learning outcomes and they are about blah blah" but if it is a true learning outcome, it should be measured. If the teacher gradebooks all have categories of tests, quizzes, and homework, the only skills they are measuring are testing skills and work ethic. Think about it--do you want your child to be measured solely based on their ability to take a test? Or do you want them to also develop thinking skills, collaborative abilities, communication skills, etc.

Question #3: How is the school developing critical thinking and problem solving/how is creativity and innovation rewarded?

Anyone who is anyone knows that the US suffered in the 80s from low math and science scores internationally. What most people don't think about it is how America has managed to stay on top in innovation and creativity in spite of these test scores. We MUST have content literacy, don't get me wrong--but students have to be encouraged to create new products, come up with new ideas, etc. The time has passed in which people can graduate from high school and get a job as a robot in a factory. If kids are only regurgitating information, they are not encouraged to really bloom and be creative.

Question #4: How does the school use data to inform practices?

They will like this because everyone asks about the data--but they just ask what it IS. How many teachers are told to "raise test scores" without analyzing the current group of kids. Most teachers look at the year prior and try to address the low areas with NEW kids. This sounds psycho people, but it is exactly what happens in schools. So if I am a parent and my kids test scores are low, I do NOT care how the teacher addressed it last year or the group of kids that went through last year. I want to know how is my specific child increasing achievement and if they only measure the school has is test scores (proved by a lack of learning outcomes in other areas) then I need to know how they are using that to specialize an education for my chillins.

Question #5: How does the school support struggling teachers? 

If I am willing to perform an "experiment" in letting a first year teacher, or even worse, a student teacher, use my children to become a good teacher, I need to believe that a principal or other support coach is working with them on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. I want to see discussions around curriculum. If someone says "oh we have BTSA or some other new teacher support", I want to know what % of the time with that mentor is actually spent with curriculum. Most of the time is just dealing with classroom management strategies, or paper pushing. Classroom management (ie discipline) is important obviously, but if a new teacher can really get a handle on engaging and powerful teaching, at least a child who is trying can get access to the curriculum.

Question #6: What are some examples of "real world" scenarios in which my children are engaged?

The key word here is applied curriculum. Who cares if they can add and subtract negative numbers if that math has no purpose? All I am asking is that the teacher say something like "when you only have ten dollars, how can you possible subtract 16 dollars?" and then have them come up with stuff like "well your mom could loan you 6 dollars and then you would have -6, right? Then if you borrowed 10 the next time it would be -10 plus -6. If you get 20 from grandma, then you have 4. Etc." If the kids are learning math for the sake of math, the only thing they learn is how to take a test. Same goes for all subject areas. If they are learning about the history of the state but don't apply any lessons to current events, es no bueno. Ideally the teacher creates a problem or scenario and the kids are asked to solve it in a project or problem based environment, but I know schools are light years behind that. 

Question #7: How is my child being taught to work with other students?

This is especially important if your child is one of the top students in the class. Collaboration is consistently the number one skill employers demand of their employees yet state that very few people are prepared to come to the table and work well with others. Kids who are super smart learn that they do better on their own (due to the perceived stupidity of others) and begin to develop a sense that isolated geniuses are better on their own. If the school encourages (forces) kids to consistently work with other kids, the children see much earlier on their role as a person who can either push others to succeed (ie become their future bosses) or work alone and not recognize that everyone has contributions in this world (picture your sweet little kid 10 years from now working with some idiota and deciding immediately that the person has nothing to offer. When that idiota gets promoted due to nepotism or some other unique circumstance (like it turns out the person is actually a whiz with programming, etc.) what is your kiddo's future? Now flip-flop the situation and pretend like your child helped push the person to be better and always provided support no matter how tough it was? The idiota gets promoted (or better yet, your child gets promoted because the boss noticed how well he helped created harmony in the company) and then who is better off now? So many parents worry that group work will "drag my kid down" and we continue to see people entering the work force ill-prepared to collaborate. 

Question #8: What can I do to help support the school as we move forward to make these changes? 

It takes a village, duh. And if you want your child to get this kind of education, you have to fight for it, against the winds of your community often times. If you doubt what I am saying, read The World is Flat. Read Hot, Flat, and Crowded. Read any studies by the US Dept of Labor for the last 20 years. Check out the Partnership for 21st Century Skills and tell me that this stuff is not important. Don't worry about risks, your smarty smart pants kids will get educated since the number one correlating factor to literacy is parent education level (and according to Freakanomics the sheer number of books in your home). Nothing that the school does is going to mess up your kid if you are actively working at home to read and think with them so don't be afraid to push them. In case you didn't know, only 25% of Americans have a BA or higher, so if you are one of them, your kids are likely in the top 25% of the nation in achievement (probably reflected in their test scores). What will we do if America does not prepare our kids? No doomsday, just further sinking of our european travel opportunities, that is it.

You can thank me later.
Great article! And I do thank you.


Jess said...

Heya thanks, I like reading things from folks who know what they are talking about and who are slightly more eloquent than myself. As educators ourselves, Ral and I see a lot of the same problems in schools, but you would be amazed what a) parent involvement and b)an amazingly dedicated teacher, can do to change the education of a child. My two bits of advice are to make sure that your child's teacher is in fact dedicated and that he/she has the freedom within administrative dictates to really educate (there are a lot of schools/districts who focus on the numbers and will NOT let teachers do their real job). Be careful, I think that I'm about to get altitude sickness from my soapbox.

CarterConnection said...


Love yer soul

Hermana Gurr

Anonymous said...

Coming at this as a University Professional, this sort of reform talk is...interesting. At our University our leadership is dominated by people with advanced degrees in education who spend little to no time in a class room - and often never at the University level. They have asked us to adopt this elementary school approach of designing outcomes and such. So, we spent 40 to 60 hours at the start of the semester for each member of the 6 member committee designing outcomes and measuring devices which were then passed on to professors who had to redesign their courses, even if they have been VERY successful teachers for decades. Finally, one professor will be booted out of the classroom and research for a summer to crunch all of the numbers and then get us geared up for the next year. No learning outcome will create a student that comes in willing to engage with the work. All the learning outcomes and gimmicks in the world don't take Ipods out of ears or keep students from texting. By several measurable standards (when a rebel prof in our Dept who hates assessments like this measured surveys of job attainment, grades, graduation rate), our students performed BETTER in the 1960s with old fashioned chalk and talk lectures than they are now with measurable learning outcomes designed for small breakout groups and community involvement projects.

What the reform(er/ist) mentions sounds great - and I think probably does work well at an elementary school level and probably even middle school. But by high school we need to see a broadening of the student into artistic creative routes (art, music, shop, etc) as well as academic creative routes (the old fashioned term paper, etc). The measurable outcomes model with objective measurements is not lending itself to the student who can create outside of the rubric, as it were, and we have fewer of those outside thinkers than we used to.