Correcting the Teacher

As my daughter was enjoying her kindergarten year, I used to cringe whenever I spent time in her classroom.  She had a caring teacher, walls full of books and other learning materials, and a relatively small class.  So why my reaction?  Each time I was in the room, my eyes were drawn to a large handwritten sign that was the focal point of the wall.  And in the middle of that sign was a significant grammatical error.

So each visit to the K classroom, I wanted to take a red pen and mark up the wall.  The eduwife’s better judgment always won out.  I left the sign alone.  And I never said anything to the teacher, not wanting to embarrass her or create an issue where one doesn’t need to be.
We all make mistakes.  I make them quite frequently (particularly on this blog, where I never read or edit anything I throw up there).  But it begs the question.  What should a parent do when he or she sees a mistake in need of correcting?  Do you call your child’s teacher on it, or do you just let it go?
Over the weekend, a high school friend shared a note that had come home in her child’s class.  The (unedited) note reads:
“We are no longer completing book essays.  Instead, we are completing weekly reader responses.  This is handed out on Mondays and are not due to the following Monday.  I have required that three entries be completed by Friday as a way to monitor their time.  All directions are located on their response log!”
The note went home to all families in the class.  It came from an English teacher.  How many errors can you spot?
So what’s a parent to do?  Do you reach out to the teacher?  Do you keep quiet?  Do you go to the principal? 
Most parents seem to opt for silence.  I’ve heard from some who worry that if they raise the issue, the teacher will take it out on the child (and while I find this hard to believe, it has been known to happen).  But is that the right thing to do, nothing?
If parents are going to work with educators, and do so in a productive and positive way, we need to find a way to have such discussions.  Or we need to be prepared to live with the consequences.

Girls, Science, and Awesomeness

For decades, we have collectively wrung our hands about how to get women (as well as minorities and low-income students) interested in science and math.  In the late 1990s, when I was first starting to work in the education space, I remember the controversy over a new Barbie doll that proclaimed “math is hard,” a sentiment that many felt would set progress back another generation.

In 2008 and 2009, I was fortunate enough to help lead the Pennsylvania STEM Initiative.  More than a decade later, one of our major charges was how to better engage women (both K-12 and higher ed) in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics areas.  We were always looking for that one big idea that would completely change the way folks thought about STEM and STEM skills.  But it was never discovered.
And now that I am a father, I look at my daughter, a precocious first grader, and wonder what I can do to make sure she gets the math and science background that virtually all students will need to succeed once she graduates from college and prepares to take on the world. 
So I was particularly tickled to see a piece on Slate today that features a new commercial for a product from a company called GoldieBlox.  Typically, I don’t like to write about companies and their products.  But the commercial offered up by GoldieBlox requires me to break my own rules and sing the praises of this terrific piece of edu-marketing.
The goal is simple (I assume).  GoldieBlox is looking to sell a tinkertoy/connex-like product to parents of young girls.  But how the did it is far from simple.  GoldieBlox made engineering cool why empowering women.  Seeing the different pieces and how they work was fun to watch, even with the computer’s sound off.
But what really made my day was the soundtrack.  The company took The Beastie Boys’ “Girls” song (as a child of the 1980s, Eduflack was particularly proud of that) and rewrote it as a power anthem for girls’ ingenuity and the necessary breaking of the pink princess stereotypes.  
Check out the commercial.  You can find it here on YouTube.  And kudos to GoldieBlox for refusing to buy into the stereotypes and making a meaningful contribution on how to make STEM cool.

The Blame Game Continues

Too often, we look for easy answers and quick fixes to our problems.  And if we can’t find those answers, we look to quickly blame someone else for the problem.  We do this because change is hard, and it often requires admitting that the world is not one of lollipops and rainbows.

We see this on a daily basis in public education.  Even in the face of recent NAEP scores and high school dropout rates, many say our schools have never been stronger than they are today.  When confronted with questions about dropout factories and college remediation rates, the response is usually to blame poverty.  If only those kids weren’t poor, all would be well in the world.
Of course, one can point to true exemplars of excellence and improvement in low-income communities across the country.  Yes, poverty is a contributing factor.  A significant one.  But it is an obstacle that needs to be overcome, not a reason for inaction.
So it is disappointing when one sees the media buy into the blame game and offer an view that is so simplistic it is often nonsensical.  That is the case of a recent piece published by In These Times, an online pub with the tagline “With Liberty and Justice For All …”
A recent piece by David Sirota, Teachers Were Never the Problem: Poverty still lies at the root of the “U.S. education crisis,” the author advocates all of the urban legends floating around, and does so with vague claims of “the research shows.”
Want some examples?  Try these on for size:
“we know that American public school students from wealthy districts generate some of the best test scores in the world. This proves that the education system’s problems are not universal–the crisis is isolated primarily in the parts of the system that operate in high poverty areas.” 

“we know that many of the high-performing public schools in America’s wealthy locales are unionized. We also know that one of the best school systems in the world—Finland’s—is fully unionized. These facts prove that teachers’ unions are not the root cause of the education problem, either.”

All of this leads to an obvious conclusion: If America was serious about fixing the troubled parts of its education system, then we would be having a fundamentally different conversation.  

We wouldn’t be talking about budget austerity—we would be talking about raising public revenues to fund special tutoring, child care, basic health programs and other so-called wrap-around services at low-income schools.”

Get the point?  No, the problems in accountability and student performance and college/career readiness are not isolated in high-poverty areas.  That thinking is part of the problem.  It makes achievement an us-versus-them scenario, one where far too many people think this is just an issue of black and brown kids living in crime-ridden cities.  Instead, the problem is everywhere, even in white suburbs.
Anyone serious about improving our schools is not saying the unions are the root cause of the problem.  Instead, the argument is that unions often stand in the way of reforms and proposed improvements, choosing to protect the system as it is.  And yes, most of our highest performing schools are unionized.  But most of our lowest performing schools, particularly those in those urban centers focused on in point one, are also unionized.
And the obvious conclusion?  Most would agree that we need to focus on how to fund tutoring and interventions and health and wrap arounds.  Yes, all are important to overall learning environment and the community as a whole.  But austerity is also an issue.  We have never spent more per pupil on public education than we do today.  And some of our lowest-performing schools reside in communities with some of the highest per-pupil expenditures in the nation.  This shouldn’t be just an either or.  Instead, we should be looking at ways to expand how we support our kids, but do so by making sure that our education dollars are well spent and are having the impact on students and student learning that we all seek.
It isn’t enough to just say “social science research over the last few decades has shown” to make a general point about a topic where there is plenty of high-quality research to prove the opposite side.  And it certainly isn’t enough to offer up crass generalizations just to knock them down with questionable “social science research.”
I’m growing tired of this soapbox, folks.  We need to engage in more responsible dialogues about our public schools and where we need to take them.  Let’s stop playing to the lowest common denominator and have some real conversations where we all give a little to get further.  Please?

Vitriol on Both Sides

Last week, the good folks over at Politico Education Pro wrote an interesting piece on the discourse in the current public education debates.  Written under the header, Name-calling turns nasty in education world, the article by Stephanie Simon rehashed some of the name calling we’ve seen in the name of education and education reform recently.

There is no question that the rhetoric has gotten extremely ugly.  Simon highlights just a few examples, and even those examples don’t truly illustrate the level of vitriol out there, particularly when there are specific legislative fights or policy changes in process.
The issue, though, is not whether there is harsh rhetoric flying around the education corral these days.  We all know there is.  The issue is whether we accept the reality and acknowledge when things get out of hand.
As the former CEO of an education reform group, I’ll be the first to say there were things I said in the heat of the moment that I now wish I hadn’t.  The passion of the fight does that to one.  And while I am enormously proud of what we accomplished, and knew that the rhetoric I used was necessary in the moment, in reflection I wish I had chosen different words or framed things a little differently.  Doing so would have made the implementation of those reforms easier, pitching a larger tent, and would have reduced some of the extreme tension at the time.
But not everyone seems to see the issue through the same lens.  In response to the article, I engaged in a Twitter debate with one who has dogged me for years now.  His take of the article was completely different than mine.  He read the piece as an indictment of reformers and the reform movement for saying things that were completely inappropriate and offensive to educators.
When I pointed out that both sides were to blame, and both were guilty of the practice, his response was almost laughable.  Again, it was the reformers fault.  Those doing the work of angels were just speaking facts and truths. 
So I asked if he even read the article.  The parts about Diane Ravitch and her hateful words toward Parent Revolution (just one example the author could have used about Ravitch).  Or the truly hateful speech that came out of the mouth of Florida teacher Ceresta Smith that was directed specifically at Michelle Rhee.
His response?  They had to say those things.  It was the only way to respond to the reformers because they wouldn’t accept the facts and the realities.
And this is the great disconnect in the current education communications landscape.  There is no dialogue.  There is no discussion.  Instead, we are engaged in mutually assured destruction.  In an effort to control the headlines, get the blog posts, and gain the Klout scores, we say outrageous things in an effort to gain attention.  We try to position ourselves as the “smartest person in the room,” the only person with the facts and figures and data to win the argument.  We refuse to listen, and just think at the next retort or the next attack.
At the end of the day, those engaged on both sides of the education reform struggle, the “corporate reformers” and the “defenders of the status quo” agree on far more than they disagree.  So instead of the name calling and the mutually assured destruction, is there any hope for collaboration and some real, meaningful progress?  
Anyone?  Anyone?

The New NAEP Scores Are Here! The New NAEP Scores Are Here!

Yes, it is that time of year again.  This morning, EdSec Arne Duncan officially released the reading and math scores for “The Nation’s Report Card.”  The results?  Recent trends continue.  Overall scores continue to tick up.  Reading scores for fourth graders continue to frustrate.

The good folks over at Education Writers Association are aggregating coverage on NAEP over at Ed Media Commons.  Check out EWA’s initial analysis, along with its roundup of coverage here
What does it all mean?  The highlights and analysis and opining will continue to pour in during the coming days.  But a few immediate points come to mind:
* The overall rise in student performance over the past 20 years signals that efforts to focus on accountability, student achievement, and teacher quality are having real, positive impact.  Sure, we aren’t seeing huge jumps in scores, but the trends are clear.  We are improving.
* We are largely seeing improvement across the board.  Unfortunately, that means we aren’t getting closer to closing the achievement gaps.  While African-American and Hispanic/Latino scores are getting better, so are the scores of white students.  On the whole, it is terrific to see all students learn and improve.  But we still have to figure out how we address the shortcomings historically disadvantaged students have faced in the classroom.
* Fourth grade reading scores continue to trouble.  These scores were flat.  We are now six or so years from when we pulled the plug on Reading First.  Like it or not, our investment in scientifically based reading instruction had impact.  We saw it in previous fourth grade scores, and we are seeing it in older kids who benefitted from the emphasis on SBRR.  Now we are fourth graders who aren’t benefitting from what is proven effective, and it can be seen.
* We need to spend more time and effort focusing on proficiency, and not just the gains themselves (yes, ironic based on the first three bullets here).  True, it is great seeing the steady rise in overall scores.  But we spent far too little time focusing on the reality that only 42 percent of our fourth graders are proficient in math, and an even lower 35 percent are proficient in reading.  And despite what some want to believe, we don’t make it up in the later grades.  Only 36 percent of eighth graders are proficient in both core subjects.
In a nation that has set a collective goal to have every child college and career ready by 2020, nearly two thirds of our eighth graders aren’t yet doing eighth-grade level reading and math.  That is a reality that affects everyone, regardless of race, family income, or zip code.  And it is a reality that demands far more attention than it receives.

Communicating in a Crisis

One of the hats Eduflack has worn over the years has been that of crisis communications counselor.  There is nothing more potentially devastating to a well-meaning organization than when a crisis (or a potential crisis) strikes.  How one handles those challenges can have implications far beyond the here and now.

When the communications sector discusses crisis strategies, though, the education space is typically overlooked.  Instead, it is sexier to focus on big corporations or technology or political crises.  But that won’t be the case next week at the National Press Club.
Next Tuesday, November 12, dear ol’ Eduflack will be part of a panel discussion at the esteemed Press Club.  When a Crisis Goes Viral: How Social Media Has Become Inseparable from Crisis Communications will offer a range of views from social media experts such as Leslie Aun (VP of communications at Venture Philanthropy Partners and former VP at Susan G. Komen for the Cure), Wendy Harmon (director of information management and situational awareness at American Red Cross), Jan Lane (director of federal government services at Deloitte Consulting), and following up the rear, yours truly with a couple of edutales to spin.  The session will be moderated by Jane O’Brien of the BBC.
It should be a fun time to discuss crisis situations spun out of control because of feeding frenzies on social media platforms.  If nothing else, you can hear me wax nostalgically about having to defend bomb-planting dolphins from a grassroots uprising led by a young Bill O’Reilly (yes, a true, and interesting, story).
If you are in the nation’s capital next week and want a great way to be entertained and to learn a little something something in the afternoon, register for When a Crisis Goes Viral.  Entertainment guaranteed.
 

Urban Schools, Disengaged Parents

In recent years, parents have come front and center in the debate regarding what is right (or wrong, depending on your perspective) in our public schools.  As education reformers have focused on educator evaluations and teacher effectiveness, teachers in reform-targeted communities have often turned around to point the finger at parents, citing disengaged and uninvolved parents as a leading contributor to failing schools and achievement gaps.

So why do we have low parental engagement in many urban public schools?  And what can we do to improve parental involvement in schools and with kids who need it the most?
That is the question that the good folks over at BAM Radio have asked this week.  The segment, available here, is hosted by Rae Pica and features Patricia Ackerman, Peter McDermott, Marilyn Rhames, and yours truly.  An interesting topic definitely worth the listen.
(Eduflack is a proud commentator to BAM Radio and its programs.  It is always interesting to do a deep dive into an important issue, particularly when it includes both classroom educators and researchers.)