Tom on Point: The Underpinning of Democracy
"Public education must be defended & renewed each generation. This is not about protecting
an institution for its own sake; the need for a strong system of public education remains
— assuming democracy still matters."
Wednesday, October 4, 2017
(published in the CDT in April 2017)
Every Pennsylvania high school student should graduate with the skills to be successful in the modern world. I expect we would all agree on that. But what would this actually look like, and how would it be different from what many, if not most, of our schools are doing now?
Fortunately, this wheel doesn’t need to be invented. Some years ago, I heard a conference speaker discuss the simple way his organization addressed the issue: they asked business leaders and university administrators, “what important skills do your first-year employees/students lack when they show up at your door?” Here is the collective response: the ability to think critically, communicate clearly, collaborate with others, and be creative problem-solvers (what the Partnership for 21st-Century Skills calls the ‘4 Cs’).
So why isn’t every school doing this intentionally and consistently? These concepts aren’t new to educators. One problem is that much of the public – and probably most of our policy-makers – is stuck with a mental vision of education based on when they went to school, often decades ago. (You know, with the desks all in neat rows.) As a result, we continue to implement so-called education ‘reforms’ – such as the PSSAs and the high school Keystone exams – that might have made sense in the middle of the last century when the United States was still an industrial economy.
Let’s begin with the obvious. For example, you can’t understand American history without knowing some facts; the basic chronology of events, for example. So it is still important to learn a certain amount of ‘stuff’. But you really don’t need to memorize the date of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act (which I did, in 3rd grade!) or the names of the fifty state capitols.
1. If you really need to know, you can look it up on your phone; no trip to the library required.
2. To the extent that the ‘memorize and regurgitate’ model still exists (and it does - it’s called “teaching to the test”) it consumes time and energy that could be spent on something more important.
3. It truly misses the point! History, for example, isn’t really about ‘what’ happened, the true value is in understanding why it happened.
4. This is the surest way to make any subject boring. (A truly indefensible disservice to our students.) And perhaps most importantly:
5. That system was designed to sort students into winners and losers, something we can no longer afford to do.
I think it’s fair to say that model no longer works. But as obsolete as it is now, this ‘sorting’ model actually worked pretty well as late as the 1970s. If you were fortunate enough to attend a middle-class suburban high school - where it was expected that you would go to college - there’s a good chance that you went on to have a successful professional career. But even if you didn’t go to college (and the vast majority of students of that era didn’t) all you needed in order to have a middle-class life forty years ago was the ability to read, write, do some basic arithmetic, and follow instructions. And our educational system was pretty good at that.
There is another aspect of this obsolete model that we ought to consider. Are you curious about how it came to be that every student is required to pass a ‘Keystone’ exam in Biology in order to graduate high school? Why Biology? Why not a broad understanding of scientific principles (which might actually be useful)? Well, a group of elite university presidents collectively decided that in order to gain admission to college, a student must first complete a minimum number of ‘Carnegie’ credits, including three in the sciences: Biology, Chemistry and Physics. And thus we have the Biology Keystone exam! – as well as the basic structure of nearly every high school curriculum in the country.
But did I mention that this decision was made in 1906? In 1906, America was still largely an agrarian society; relatively few students graduated from high school, and only the sons of the elite went to college. And so, a one-size-fits-all system built on memorization; that doesn’t ask students ‘what’s important to them?’; that doesn’t even ask ‘what does every student really need to know?’ perpetuates itself.
One thing on which policy-makers do seem to agree is the value of career and technical education for those students who are not ‘college-bound’. In other words, let’s allow students to spend the four years of high school focused on developing the skills and expertise that they see as useful and important to their future. But why aren’t we encouraging every student to do that? Instead of spending tens of thousands of dollars of your parents’ money ‘figuring out who you are and what you want to do’ – which was the model when I went to college, when you could still afford to do that – why not help students begin to find a sense of direction and purpose while they are still in high school?
So what’s the way forward? First, let’s stop doing the obsolete and counter-productive, beginning with the time and effort that we waste on standardized testing. Then let’s be deliberate about doing what we need to do, and build the development of critical-thinking into everything that happens in school. Let’s make sure that our students know how to communicate beyond reading, and writing the five-paragraph essay: every student should know how to speak in public and engage an audience. (The arts will be more important than ever.) Every student should have opportunities to collaborate with others on projects that are meaningful to them – and be able to relate to, and work with, people with experiences different from their own. (Because that’s the world they’ll be living in.) Every student should come to school thinking, “what problem do I want to solve today?” Or, perhaps, “what do I want to create”? And “what do I need to learn in order to do that”?
Perhaps most importantly, we should be equipping our students with the skills to be an effective and engaged citizens. (Fortunately, it’s the same set of skills!)
In order to do this, we will have to work to create and maintain school environments that are not just physically, but also emotionally safe, where making mistakes is just part of learning; where students feel connected to their teachers and to each other, and where everyone feels respected and has a sense of ownership in ‘their’ school.
This might not be the school that you or I attended, but it’s the school our students need.
Friday, May 20, 2016
On Thursday I was invited to attend the first ever State College PDS student inquiry conference, which was held at various elementary schools around the District. It is conceptually similar to the annual PDS intern conference, except that it is the students who are presenting the results of their research, based on their personal wonderings.
Here are a few of the ‘wonderings’ of Houserville’s fourth-graders:
· Why do some people believe in mythical beings such as Spiderman?
· Why do marshmallows swell up when they are heated?
· How do we know which religion is true?
· What happens when you breed an aggressive dog with a docile one? Why?
· What does space sound like?
· Why do we exist?
In some cases pursuing the answers to those questions will bring these students a deep understanding of the very concepts that we are trying to ‘teach’ them. Some of these questions could well fuel life-long passions.
A recent study noted that the number of questions that children ask peaks at about age three, and declines steadily from there. One of our PDS alums wondered why that might be, and asked her students. A couple of their responses:
· If I ask too many questions, I’m afraid I will look dumb.
· I’m too busy to ask questions.
It’s hard to imagine that there’s not a relationship between this and another recent study that measured ‘student engagement’ and found that it peaked in kindergarten and went steadily downhill from there. To state the obvious, that can’t be acceptable.
Other studies have discovered that emotion, far from being a distraction, is an essential component of human learning. (It has to mean something.) Yet another recent study has shown that we’re far more likely to remember something that we’ve learned if we think we’re going to need it in the future.
In the words of one 2nd-grader, “if you don’t care about it, why would you do it?”
What if a portion of school time was set aside to allow students to pursue the questions that are most important to them? (Think the Google model.) Not just the ‘gifted’ student, but every student. What would that do to student engagement?
At Easterly Parkway we heard from a class of second-graders whose wonderings lead to research, which lead to proposed actions. One of those actions was a well-written letter to the school board, suggesting that we install solar panels in our schools. As the students explained their research, some of the words that I heard used correctly were anecdotal, paraphrasing and life-experience. I am not making this up.
At the end of the day the teachers shared what they had observed over the course of the day: students brainstorming ways to change the world; students consistently ‘on task’; a sense of community – students asking questions of and supporting one another; students working on things they believe will impact others; the experiential scientific process.
Some of the things they found most inspiring: teachers taking risks, empowered students, conversations with colleagues, student-driven learning.
One of the teachers’ wonderings: How does the Inquiry process connect to what ‘has’ to be taught? My answer: in every way imaginable.
These educators are building something powerful that could have an impact far beyond the boundaries of the State College Area School District.
Thursday, May 19, 2016
According to the reporting of Penn Live, Republicans in the state legislature are threatening to hold hostage next year’s state budget - due this June 30th - due to the Governor’s veto of House Bill 805, the so-called teacher furlough reform bill. As if the budget doesn’t have enough problems already!
While I support giving school boards the option of furloughing professional staff for economic reasons, and while this legislation was marketed to appear reasonable (who doesn’t want to get rid of bad teachers?) this would have been terrible education policy and a disservice to students.
The key problem is that for the foreseeable future the authority to furlough teachers would have been tied to a deeply flawed evaluation system. A substantial portion of Pennsylvania's evaluation formula depends on standardized student test results that are neither statistically valid nor reliable, and which do a better job of measuring community wealth than student learning.
Let me repeat that: Pennsylvania's current teacher evaluation formula is currently tied to standardized student test results that are neither statistically valid nor reliable.
Furthermore, even the more 'valid' component of the evaluation system - principal observations - is still in its infancy. In many cases, evaluators have received only minimal training, and most still have very limited experience. Attaching 'high stakes' to these evaluations would have negated their potential value for improving overall teacher effectiveness. (Isn’t that the goal?)
And, by the way, we would also have inadvertently compounded the challenge of recruiting teachers in economically challenged districts. Why? Because part of the calculation of a teacher’s score is the overall school score. As a result, a teacher’s score is automatically lower if they teach in a struggling – i.e., poor – school. Which, in effect, reduces their job security. I am not making this up.
There have been some proposals for tweaking the evaluation formula. But as long as the legislature is dug in on using these test scores – which were designed for completely different purposes - changing the mixture of the "garbage" that goes into the formula won't improve the validity of the result: garbage-in is still garbage-out. Claims that the public wants to use standardized tests scores to evaluate teachers is a belief not based in reality. Increasingly, the public wants no such thing, and the more they learn about it, the less they like it.
Perhaps our legislators can't be expected to understand this. Few of them have had any direct experience with public education since they were last in school, in most cases, decades ago. And like most Americans, few have a good grasp of the statistical concepts of reliability and validity. Even fewer would understand the real-life dilemmas a principal faces when considering whether to rate a teacher 'unsatisfactory' - such as, will the replacement be an improvement?
This was another example of our legislature proposing a simplistic answer to a complex problem. The proposed legislation would have done nothing to improve teacher effectiveness. But ironically, there is actually a lot of potential in the relatively new Danielson observation model, particularly if it’s implemented in a climate of trust and greater peer-to-peer accountability. Just maybe we should give that a chance to work.
Tuesday, May 3, 2016
Plus, thoughts on block scheduling
Another session at last month’s PDS conference that I found particularly intriguing was the presentation on “Community Building through Mindfulness” by a ninth-grade English class intern.
What prompted Carissa’s inquiry was her concern about the level of stress that we know exists in our high school student population, evidenced in part by the disturbingly high percentage of our students who have entertained suicidal thoughts at one time or another.
Carissa’s research found that spending a few minutes at the beginning of each class on some simple yoga and mindfulness exercises reduced her students’ level of stress, and increased their ability to focus in class. Perhaps that is not surprising. (But it is useful, thank you!)
What, to me, was somewhat surprising was the degree to which this also created a greater sense of class cohesion and unity. The ability to develop a sense of community in the classroom will be an increasingly important attribute of the classroom of the future. (We make a point of this in elementary school – why not high school?)
What also struck me – at least in my view – is how much easier it is to implement this kind of innovation within the new 90-minute class block schedule.
Which lead me to further speculate: if we were designing our school structure from scratch, wouldn’t this be the logical thing to do? Who would design a system of 43-minute classes, at the end of which you jump up and run to the next class? We now know from decades of brain research that 1) we need time to process the information we just received, and 2) the brain needs time to switch gears to the next task.
Certainly, this is how adults learn. I’ve never been to an educational conference in which the sessions were not at least 75 minutes long, with at least a 15-minute break in between. No adult would stand for the traditional 45-minute class, 5-minute break that is found in the typical high school. Why would we subject our students to that?
Friday, April 29, 2016
At the invitation of PDE, I spent Thursday morning in Harrisburg as they kicked off the first of their “Stakeholder Sessions” that will help inform the Department as they develop the regulations for the implementation of the recently passed ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act).
This was not at all unlike the recent study groups formed by PSBA (one of which I co-chaired) for essentially the same purpose - with the hope that we could get out in front of the issue before the new regulations get set in stone.
Introductions and an overview were followed by a panel discussion on the opportunities and challenges provided by the new law. Some concerns were expressed about possibility that we might now forget about the ‘achievement gap’, which prompted me to jot down a question on the provided notecard.
Among the pile of cards that were submitted, mine was the one that was picked. My question: “We have known about the achievement gap for decades, long before No Child Left Behind. What are the proven strategies for reducing the achievement gap, and why aren’t we implementing them?” “Ooooooh,” murmured the crowd.
What prompted me to write the question is that education policy-makers have been trying to sell this nonsense for years. “At least NCLB told us that we had an achievement gap,” they say.
Bull. Anyone who was paying attention knew long before NCLB that we had an ‘achievement gap’. Yet schools were actually punished for failing to close the gap, which always struck me as deeply hypocritical, since no one at the U.S. Dept. of Ed, or PDE, had any suggestions for what to do about it!
The first three panelists responded to my question by mumbling something along the lines of “it’s complicated”, and then the last panelist said some interesting things, mentioning three issues: 1) Equity (noting that Pennsylvania has the least equitable public education funding mechanism in the country.) 2) School climate, and 3) the Cultural Competency of Teachers.
That got my attention, since it’s pretty close to what I might have said. In addition, I saw the last two items as central to any strategy for reducing the achievement gap in State College. (And yes, we have one.)
Then on to the breakout session on “assessment.” After having everyone in the room briefly describe their ideal of what good assessment should look like – and we were all pretty much in agreement - the facilitator asked for ideas. I pointed out that we had just heard that “computer adaptive tests” aligned to state standards were now permissible under ESSA; that many of us (including State College) were already using these tests to provide useful, immediate information to teachers, and that we could take that data, aggregate it and dis-aggregate it as need be, send it to PDE, and we would be done with it!
We could fulfill the requirements of ESSA without doing anything we weren’t already doing! And we could toss the ridiculously inappropriate, expensive, useless and time-consuming PSSA exams in the trash.
The idea that the possibility of actually eliminating the dreaded PSSAs was within our grasp seemed to go over the head of most people in the room. Partly, I think, it was too-good-to-be-true, and partly people were stuck on the idea that they had to ask permission from PDE: “Tell us if we’re allowed to do this.” But there were a few who seemed to get it, and I hope they carry the torch through the summer meetings.
My work done there,J, I slid into the tail end of the “accountability” breakout group. I was there just long enough to support someone who was pointing out that our primary ‘accountability’ is to the people in our community. (Who else is there?) Then another person sitting nearby asked whether there were tools available to accurately measure ‘school climate’. Apparently, there had been a lot of concern expressed that school climate – now an approved measure of accountability under ESSA – was not concrete enough to measure accurately.
This gave me the opportunity, as a member of the National School Climate Council, to inform the group that yes, good tools had been developed for measuring school climate. (Examples: the level of student engagement, the degree to which teachers feel respected, whether parents feel connected, etc..) The issue of whether it is appropriate to incorporate school climate as a component of ‘accountability’ was left to another day.
Thursday, April 28, 2016
For me, one of the highlights of being a school board member is the opportunity to attend the annual Professional Development School (PDS) conference each April.
The PDS is a nationally-honored collaboration between the State College Area school district and Penn State’s College of Education. The College provides us with full-year (August-June) teacher-interns to learn and work alongside our classroom teacher/mentors. It’s a wonderful model for the development of new teachers, and it deserves to be replicated nationwide.
Part of each intern’s year-long assignment is a research project based on a personal ‘wondering’: I wonder what would be the result if, as a teacher, I tried this or did that? The conference is the opportunity to talk about that research –the quality of which is often as good as you might hear at a state or national conference. (By the way, this is a great model for ongoing teacher professional development.)
One session that I attended, “Examining Racial Consciousness through Literature Selections” struck me as having the potential to impact the entire State College school community. Amy’s idea was simple: in her advanced English 11 class, she replaced one of the standard texts from the so-called “canon” (which, as you know, was written primarily by dead white guys) with “a raisin in the sun”.
The impact on her students, as reflected in their end-of-unit reflections, was eye-opening. Here are a couple of their comments: “As a middle class, privileged, white child growing up in a suburban town, I have a very narrow view of life outside of my own, save from stories I have been told.” And, “I'm not really affected by a lot of issues, because I am a ... white male in a stable home in a nice community...”
And this, from an African-American student: "... most minorities who move to State College will eventually have to figure out how to (assimilate into) the white culture… Otherwise, he or she will be an outcast."
The students also began to reexamine their historical assumptions; challenging, for example, the idea that racism had ended in the northern states long before the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.
Amy’s students came to these insights almost entirely on their own, through their conversations with one another. This strikes me as exactly the conversations our students need to have, and we need to provide them with the space for those conversations to occur. Apparently, minor tweaks to the District’s approach to curriculum could make a real difference in helping our students better understand themselves and the world they live in.
I have not done justice to Amy’s presentation, but here is a conclusion of hers that I think is worth noting: “I want to teach African American Literature as a part of an inclusive classroom canon, not as a separate course.” I couldn’t agree more.