Excellent Teachers, Equitable Distribution, Real Results

Last week, the New York Times’ Eduardo Porter had an interesting commentary looking at whether educators are really the ones who should be tasked with fixing all that ails our society. In tackling the discussion of whether American students are really lagging or whether, when we adjust for all sorts of outside factors, they are doing just fine, Porter concludes by noting, “Teachers are paid poorly, compared to those working in other occupations. And the best of them are not deployed to the most challenging schools.”

That last point, one of how we get our best teachers in front of the classrooms and the kids who need them the most, is one of the most pressing issues facing public education today. Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Education requested a report from each of the state departments of education, explaining how they were addressing the equitable distribution of effective teachers. But those reports still doing get exemplary teachers where they are most needed.

In response to Porter’s piece, Stephanie Hull, EVP and COO of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, offered some valuable insights. On the pages of the NYT, Dr. Hull wrote:

Getting excellent teachers into all classrooms is a national imperative. To meet this challenge, we must also improve teacher education, producing more and better prepared teachers, especially in shortage areas like STEM and special education. This is the only way to ensure a strong pipeline of teachers who know how to meet the needs of all students.

In states like Georgia, Indiana and New Jersey, we are seeing how programs specifically intended to recruit, prepare and support exemplary teachers for high-need classrooms can have a positive effect on the community and on the student.

She knows of what she writes. The work she mentions in places like GA, IN, and NJ is exactly what she is doing through the Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellowship. And when you find a way to recruit, prepare, and support exemplary beginning educators to teach STEM in high-need schools, and you get those teachers to stay in those schools and classrooms well beyond their obligations, you must be doing something right.

Is Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellowship THE answer to the equity problem? Of course not. There is no one way to solve the issue or to improve access to great teachers for all kids. But programs like WWTF are definitely a part of the solution. It’s one of the reasons I’m so committed to helping that program, and others like it to succeed. Instead of just talking about what it can do or making promises of what is possible, programs like Teaching Fellowship are actually building pipelines of STEM teachers committed to careers in the schools that need them the most. How novel …

Breaking News: Principals Can, Do Make #CommonCore Work

In what Eduflack is sure is a huge surprise to many, the Common Core can actually be implemented effectively. And it can be done in schools, with strong principal leadership and respect for and involvement of teachers. This isn’t just an urban legend, we are actually seeing it.

Case in point, Florida’s West Port High School and the efforts of Jayne Ellspermann and the entire staff at the school. On our most recent edition of Common Core Radio over at BAM, the Learning First Alliance’s Cheryl Williams and I talk to Ellspermann about her experiences and what good implementation looks like in her school.

Give it a listen. You might be surprised to hear that Common Core implementation doesn’t have to be contentious or anti-teacher or the sixth horseman of the apocalypse. In fact, it can be a huge benefit for kids and educators alike.

“Determination and Savvy”

Shameless self-promotion alert. Over at Bulldog Reporter, they have a terrific article (at least the edu-mom and edu-daughter would say it is terrific) about my ongoing work at the Woodrow Wilson Foundation and Bulldog Reporter recently recognizing our communications efforts at Woodrow Wilson on the issue of teacher education.

To be honest, and many won’t believe this, but such write-ups make me uncomfortable (though i’ll admit, I don’t mind being seen as determined and savvy, certainly better than the alternative). It often doesn’t reflect the full team effort that goes into play, and it can too often make the story about the individual, and not the work itself. But I do like how they boiled down some of my blather to a few key lessons for those in the communications sector:

“First, the most successful messaging focuses on the positive and meaningful change,” he says. “Negativity and attacks may sell, but they have a short shelf life. Second, nothing is more powerful than personalizing the story and showing how scary change impacts the individual. Third, don’t be afraid to fail. Particularly when you are starting with a blank canvas, try it all, quickly jettison what isn’t working, and focus on what is most successful.”

When I say it, can I then add a “well said?”

“I’d Like to Give the World a Phone …”

Loyal readers of Eduflack know two things. First, I am passionate about education technology and its ability to transform the learning process for students. Second, I am a proud adoptive father, and never miss the opportunity to talk about (or write, as one can read in my book, Dadprovement) our family’s experiences bringing our children home from Guatemala.

For most who have no idea, last month Guatemala elected a new president, as elections were coming up and the previously elected president is currently sitting in a jail cell. I won’t go into the politics of the nation, the military, non-military rule that is prevalent, or any other such things. Let’s just say a new president was elected. His previous career was as an actor. And his famous role was playing a moron who gets elected president (yes, you can’t make this up).

Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales earned more than two-thirds of the vote in an October runoff. He now sits in the big chair in Guatemala City. And one of his first official actions was to make some new education policy.

As background, Guatemala is an incredibly poor country (so much so that citizens sneak into Mexico illegally to do the unwanted jobs there). Education is not compulsory. Far too many of the nation’s citizens receive no formal education, whether it be because of access or finances or cultural prioritization.

So how do we address this? One could start with strong early childhood education programs. There are countless other ways to begin, most of which cost money. So President Morales decided he would think outside the box?

His plan? Free cell phones for all students. He’d pay for it by letting all of the cellphone companies paint their logos on school walls, assuming they donate the phones to the kids in question.

To summarize. We have schools ill-equipped to integrate phones into classes that already have 60 or 70 students in them. We haven’t prepared teachers for how to make use of these phones. And we are sending little kids out into communities where their new piece of technology makes them prime targets for robbery. All under a belief that if you give a kid a phone, she will learn (or for the cynic, that a phone can replace actual teaching.)

Don’t worry, teachers, President Morales has a plan for you too. While attending public school isn’t required, the Morales administration is convinced that attendance and teacher absenteeism is a big issue. So future plans include tagging teachers with GPS trackers to ensure they are showing up for their jobs.

This is why so many people think policymaking should be left in the hands of real professionals.

On the phones, I don’t doubt Morales’ sincerity in thinking if he can get kids tech, it will improve their learning. But delivering the hardware is the last step in a solid edtech plan, not the first thing out of the shoot. And as you are asking teachers to change their instructional practice, insulting them by demanding they be tracked doesn’t seem to be the wisest of strategies.

And yes, I realize some will suggest this is just another example of how the anti-teacher, corporatization of public education model of reform in the United States is being exported around the globe. Before you do, let’s not. I don’t think American education reformers are setting their sights on the Guatemalan education market. Heck, even the cellphone companies that may be painting their logos on school walls soon are largely local (it isn’t Verizon and AT&T you see much down there).

But it does speak to the danger of reform for reform’s sake. If one truly wants to improve education in a country like Guatemala, is it more valuable to have books or cell phones? Is there more benefit to content-based professional development of teacher GPS tracking? And is it more valuable to think through plans rather than announce the first thing that pops into your head when asked about education?

No matter how well meaning, we can’t close achievement and opportunity gaps by simply providing a child a cell phone that they may not have a month into the term.

Learning from Our Heroes, Accepting Their Flaws

Are we expecting too much from our heroes? As communities look to remove statues and strip names from buildings, perhaps we need to take a step back and really use these experiences as learning experiences. As I write for Medium this week, as part of my Ashoka Foundation Changemaker Education work:

If we truly want to teach empathy, we need to embrace flawed heroes. We need our kids to know that many of our Founding Fathers were both great leaders and slave owners. We need them to know that two of the greatest ballplayers to ever lace up their cleats — Shoeless Joe Jackson and Pete Rose — will never be in the Hall of Fame because they broke the rules of the game. They need to know that modern-day presidents can be great world leaders, yet have personal moral deficiencies.

Before we call for another statue to be removed or holiday to be renamed or history to be rewritten, we must remember that mankind was built on a history of sin, fallibility, and missteps. Instead of wiping it from the history annals, perhaps we should use it as a teaching experience, an opportunity to show our children that even the most imperfect of people can do great things. After all, isn’t that the role of a true hero, to inspire us and instill a belief that we, too, can accomplish the impossible?

What Congressman Paul Ryan Can Teach Us About Modern Fathering

It is truly disappointing how some folks in the political sphere reacted to U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan’s public concerns for what serving as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives would do to the work/life balance he seeks and his relationship with his family.

Over at Medium, I write on the importance of Ryan’s public statements, and how every father can and should learn from this important topic. From my electronic pen:

America’s fathers must stop making excuses for why we can’t be a larger part of our children’s lives and we must stop punting responsibility for our families to the women in our lives. We must spotlight those men, like Paul Ryan, who ask the right questions and make the right choices, seeking the right balance, and trying to do what is right for them and for those that truly love them.

The role of a father in the 21st century cannot be understated and cannot be dismissed. As we demand more from our schools and our communities and our kids, it will fall to fathers to be a key part of any meaningful progress.

Sometimes, Halloween Is Just About the Costumes and Candy

As a kid, my parents encouraged us to make our own Halloween costumes, and rarely would allow the store-bought plastic ones. The only store costume I ever had was a Darth Vader costume. Otherwise, I was a race car driver and a wizard and all sorts of things. My favorite was probably the year I was an old-school radio, wearing a huge box decorated with wood-grained shelf paper. It made for a long evening, but it was worth it.

I remember the Halloween parades at elementary and middle school. I also remember the one year we were all forbidden from trick or treating because of the Tylenol scare. And I remember the year my own kids had their Halloween delayed a week because of the damage from Hurricane Sandy.

I get that the world is growing more and more politically correct. I get that schools are having to make tough decisions about what can and should be part of the instructional day. I get that candy and sugary parties are no longer welcome in our schools. And I realize that Halloween doesn’t rank up there on the school priority list these days. So I can understand, as the New Haven Register reports, that some schools are looking to do away entirely with celebrating Halloween and having those beloved costume parades of my childhood.

But to ban because it discriminates against low-income students? To ban because of fear of nut allergies? Or to ban because a secular holiday has “religious overtones?” Seriously?

Perhaps my favorite, or most disheartening, quote from the New Haven Register story is that one school district in Washington State did away with Halloween celebrations “because children dressed in costumes might often real witches.”

The spokeswoman from Puyallup, Washington even went so far as to say, “Witches with pointy noses and things like that are not respective symbols of the Wiccan religion and so we want to be respectful of that.”

How can we lament our kids losing their childhoods because we are so focused on testing and student achievement in the schools, while at the same time stripping kids of the joys of something as simple as Halloween, fearing it may be offensive to the Wiccan religion? Would it be acceptable to dress as Glenda the Good Witch, rather than the Wicked Witch?

Eduflack can look at Halloween costumes and see priest costumes and Pope costumes and even “sexy nun” costumes, and not feel that my Catholic religion is threatened. While I may wonder why someone would want to dress as a sexy nun, doing so isn’t an affront to my religion. It is Halloween.

We need to let kids be kids. On October 31st, the Eduflack household will be handing out full-sized candy bars to any kid who shows up at our door in costume. Extra treats go to those have a particularly creative, homemade costume. The day before, I will be at the edu-daughter’s elementary school to see their costume parade. And I will do it with a smile on my face, and a few fun-sized Snickers in my pocket.

Yes, sometimes Halloween is really just about the costumes and the candy. It doesn’t have to be more than that.