“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.

We Should #ThankAPrincipal … and Ensure Principals Have Prep They Need

It is National Principals Month. The good folks over at NAESP, NASSP, and AFSA have designated October the one month of the year when “we honor the hard work and dedication of America’s principals.” Over at www.principalsmonth.org, there is a virtual cornucopia of all things principal worth checking out.

Over at the Learning First Alliance, they have a blog post from Stephanie Hull, EVP and COO of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, on how we can truly celebrate principals by providing principal preparation programs that align with the needs of today’s schools and best position leaders for success. As Dr. Hull writes:

The research is equally clear, though, as to the importance of school principals. In fact, principals account for at least 25 percent of a school’s total impact on student achievement, according to research conducted by organizations such as ASCD and the Wallace Foundation. Principals create the necessary conditions for teachers to succeed—the individual support, the technology, the facilities, the interface with parents and policy leaders.

She then details the five key lessons the Woodrow Wilson Foundation has learned from its work to transform education leader preparation in states like Indiana, New Mexico, and Wisconsin. It’s well worth the read. Check it (and other many other interesting posts on the LFA blog) out.

Attacking #edreform and Progress, No Matter How Ridiculous

Throughout the years, I’ve heard a lot of ridiculous statements made in efforts to thwart education reform initiatives and to block efforts designed to provide all kids with access to a world-class public education.

I’ve heard legislators say it isn’t their problem because they represent districts without black and brown kids. I’ve heard the business community say we don’t want to give kids too many high-level skills, out of fear that they won’t be satisfied working in a blue-collar job for three or four decades. I’ve heard teachers tell parents to “sit down and shut up,” saying they had no business being part of discussion of education reform. And I’ve heard parents waxing eloquently about just going back to the “good ol’ days.” Yes, I’ve heard it all.

And I’ve also said my fair share of hyperbolic statements, of attacks on those who didn’t necessarily deserve to be attacked. Of making policy fights personal. All in the name of progress and improving our public schools.

But my jaw just about hit the floor when I saw an old adversary, former Connecticut State Sen. Don Williams, make the most outrageous of outrageous statements in defense of the status quo. A few years back, Williams retired from the Connecticut General Assembly, taking a job with the Connecticut Education Association. (I’ll be honest, during my years in Connecticut ed reform, I assumed that Williams was already working for the CEA, based on his education positions.)

Earlier this week, as a CEA spokesman, Williams was railing on all things reform. speaking on WNHH radio, and as reported by the New Haven Independent, he held nothing back. Williams attacked testing. He attacked the “corporatization” of our public schools. He attacked the cost of college. And he did all of it, trying to wrap himself in the flag and American and all that is good and holy in the United States. Nothing most of us haven’t heard before.

Then he dropped the following, “Computers create achievement gap.” Yes, the Honorable Don Williams attacked technology and computers in the schools, blaming them for the achievement gaps that have existed well before technology was ever introduced into a public school classroom.

Let’s go through the roster. When it comes to the achievement gap, charter schools are to blame. And private philanthropy. And testing. And Common Core. And poverty, please don’t forget poverty. And now computers are to blame as well.

Are we serious? Does the CEA, and by extension, the National Education Association, really believe that technology is to blame for the achievement gap? Do they agree, as Williams says, that when we “digitize our children” we make it impossible for them to become problem solvers? And does the NEA really believe that today’s urban schools are “drilling and spending time on test prep instead of enrichment?”

I get that we are all trying to score rhetorical points in a battle that should be about what is best for kids. But in a 21st century learning environment, can we honestly say technology is bad for classrooms, particularly for high-need classrooms?

Education technology is the great equalizer. It brings knowledge and resources into classrooms that otherwise would be without. It allows a diverse student body to learn in diverse ways. It ensures we aren’t deskilling and unplugging our 21st century kids. At its very heart, edtech is the answer to our achievement, opportunity, and resource gap problems we seek to solve, not the cause.

The time for blame games needs to come to an end. We have spent too much time, wasted too much breath, and spread too much electronic ink on the negative attack. All the fighting back and forth is doing absolutely nothing to help kids who need  safe, good schools. All the vitriol does zero to close those gaps we speak so much of, and does nothing more than letting just another generation of students fall through the cracks as the adults protect their own interests.

Senator Williams, I’ve seen the power of technology to transform high-need schools and to empower teachers to deliver world-class educations to all students. It’s sad that you and the CEA have now added technology and computers to the enemies list when it comes protecting public education.

What Does Math Mean to a Third Grader?

Over the weekend, we needed to turn the house upside down to find the edu-daughter’s math folder. Eventually, we found it. (If you can believe it, the edu-dog had decided to take it. We always knew Jack Russells were smart, but …)

After finding it, though, I was taken with what my daughter had written on the front of the folder. Completely unprompted. And I’ll admit, it is a phrase she’s never heard uttered in the edu-house. “Math is the study of the world.”

I was just so taken by it. Had to share it. No edu-political agenda here. I promise.

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Is Anyone Getting #CommonCore Right These Days?

Over at Politico this week, Kimberly Hefling has a terrific piece on how Common Core has “quietly won the war,” noting a thrust that seems to get lost in all of the heated rhetoric and vitriol about standards. That fact is that four out of every five school-aged kids in the United States, more than 40 million learners all together, are currently being instructed under a Common Core frame.

Granted, there is disagreement on what that means, with most Common Core haters focusing on their ire on those dreaded tests. And while they are connected along a continuum, we cannot forget that standards are not curriculum. They are not instructional materials. They are not professional development for educators. And no, standards themselves are not the tests.

Dear ol’ Eduflack has been trying to make that point since 2008, when it looked like we were jumping right from needed Common Core standards (which I remain a steadfast supporter of) directly to the assessment, without worrying about all that has to happen in the middle to get from a standard to an effective measure of whether the standard has been learned and can be demonstrated.

Over at Common Core Radio this month, we are fortunate to speak with one of those education leaders who understands that point and did just incredible work to make it a reality in his state. Kentucky was one of the earliest adopters of Common Core. And today it stands as one of the best examples of how we can get Common Core implementation right.

In this episode, Cheryl Scott Williams, the executive director of the Learning First Alliance, and I speak with Terry Holliday, the recently retired education commissioner for the Commonwealth of Kentucky. In this segment, we explore why Common Core is working in Kentucky, and what others can learn from it.

For those looking for the shortcut, the secret is educator involvement. Teachers involved in unpacking the standards to relate it to the actual teaching in the classroom. Teachers involved in identifying needed PD. And teachers actually part of the process to construct a state assessment that works for schools, for teachers, and for the students themselves.

Yes, we can get Common Core right. And we need to get it right. Commissioner Holliday provides some needed common sense and practical experience to help us all see how to get there.  Give it a listen.

For #SmartParents, It’s About Getting Smart

I’ll admit it. I get into far too many Twitter fights where someone asks me what right I have being involved in education policy or even talking education and classroom instruction, having never been a teacher myself. Sure, I can offer the resume, detailing two decades of experience in education policy and education research. I can cite my tenure as a school board chairman, school volunteer, and advocate. But more often than not, my immediate response is, “I’m a parent.”

During my time in the education trenches, I have seen too many parents who seem to abdicate responsibility for educating their children. The common line is that it is the school, and more important, the teacher, who is responsible for instruction. That what happens behind the schoolhouse doors or between the hours of 8 am and 3 pm is the responsibility of the educator, and not the parent. But we all know that just isn’t true.

The most successful of schools are those where educators and parents work in partnership. It isn’t the adversarial relationship, where parents come in when there is a perceived problem with the teacher or the student. It isn’t the absentee relationships, where parents don’t come in at all. And it isn’t the “Facebook” relationship, where parents pretend they are active parts of the school community to impress their friends, but in reality could never find their way from the office to their child’s classroom without a guide.

No, the success comes from parents and teachers working together. It comes from parents being smarter about how school work, what is expected of teachers, what is expected of students, and how parents can support all of the above. It is about parents understanding what teaching and learning really means. And yes, it is about a keen understanding of assessment and how good tests should be used (and how to determine when a lousy or unnecessary test is presenting itself).

I’m proud of my role as a parent. One of the reasons I wrote my book, Dadprovement, was to issue a call to arms to have fathers more involved in their children’s lives. That means more than just putting down the iPhone during the weekend soccer game or asking “so how was your day, sport?” on one of the few evenings when the family is actually having dinner together. Real involvement means knowing your kids’ interests and friends and teachers and classroom lessons and general progress in the learning process.

Earlier this year, I was part of an important project from Getting Smart called #SmartParents. It was developed, with the support of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, to provide both guidance and personal stories from parents to parents about how we can be more active and positively involved in our kids’ learning process. The final product of that effort is a new book, Smart Parents: Parenting for Powerful Learning.

I am incredibly honored to be a contributing author to this book, offering an essay based on my SXSWEdu talk earlier this year on parental engagement. But I’m even more excited by the total product and the inspiration, the guidance, the support, and the sense that we are not alone that it provides to parents, all parents of school-aged children. It serves as a true unifier for those parents who understand the power of public education, for those who know how important a positive experience in the classroom and with the teacher is, and who are committed to being a part of that learning process.

As I recently said about Smart Parents:

There is nothing more powerful than an engaged, informed parent. Smart Parents: Parenting for Powerful Learning provides all families – regardless of race, socioeconomic status, or zip code — the tools and resources they need to be effective advocates and inspiring teachers for their kids. Successful learners need smart parents supporting and encouraging them.

Check out the book. You won’t be disappointed. And I guarantee you will see your own family in at least one of the stories told. If you don’t, I’ll personally buy the book back from you.

Happy reading!

History Can Be Fun and Games

While we may look to the history books to see the chronicling of the past, we don’t have to limit how we teach history (or civics or social studies, or any subject, for that matter) to those same books. New technologies, new instructional approaches, and even the embrace of the old role-playing styles, have opened up new doors when it comes to how we teach — and learn — history.

Over at Medium this week, I write on how history instruction can be transformed through a gaming approach to teaching. USA Today reporter Greg Toppo has literally written the book on the topic, with his The Game Believes In You telling some incredible stories of how educators are using games to better reach their students.

In my piece, I look at some of the specific efforts to use gaming to bring social studies instruction alive, everything from iCivics to the teacher-focused simulations at Ted Kennedy Institute to the new Woodrow Wilson HistoryQuest Fellowship program.

As I write:

Simply put, we cannot expect 21st-century students to truly learn from history — and civics and social studies in general — in the same way and through the same approaches that may have worked for Santayana, Winston Churchill, and others concerned about repeating history. The methods of old, those with experienced educators lecturing in front of a class of students all sitting at desks in straight rows, is quickly becoming a thing of the past. If the students of tomorrow are to truly “learn from history,” they require instructional approaches that better reflect their own interests, learning styles, and experiences.

And as I conclude:

And that is the role gaming now plays in my kids’ classroom. I want a teacher who has been part of the HistoryQuest program to make social studies come alive for my kids in a way a paper-and-ink textbook simply can’t. I want a music teacher that is channeling my son’s love of Minecraft to help him appreciate his grandfather’s love of opera. And I want an educator who can use the simulations of the Kennedy Institute to help my daughter better understand what I did all those years when I worked on Capitol Hill.

Give the piece a read. Think of it like a game …