Improving High School, #HighSchool Graduation

Last month, the issues in DC Public Schools brought down its relatively new schools chancellor. This week, The Washington Post is reporting the graduation scandal now poses a clear and present danger for many DC students who have long thought that they would be graduating from high school this spring.

The District of Columbia isn’t the first school district to recognize its path to a high school diploma may indeed be broken. For decades now, we have heard of both dropout factories and those districts that responded by treating diplomas as nothing more than certificates of attendance, recognizing those who stuck with school for 12 or 13 years, 180 days or so each year.

In response, the Fordham Institute has focused its annual #Wonkathon on whether high school graduation requirements need to change to make the diploma more relevant. A number of smart people — including Peter Cunningham, Michael Petrilli, and Peter Greene — have already responded.

Of course, dear ol’ Eduflack couldn’t pass up the chance to suggest we need to a completely different frame for the high school school experience, once that emphasizes mastery of content and an ability to apply what is supposedly learned, rather than just rewarding students for “time served” in the classroom. As I write:

Today, we remain caught up on what is taught and how it is taught, not necessarily what is learned and how it is put to use. The student population today is nowhere close to being as homogenous as it was when the Carnegie Unit was adopted. In any given classroom, we have students of different backgrounds, different language abilities, different learning challenges, different preferred learning styles—different everything. A student adept at Algebra II shouldn’t need to sit through the class for 180 days because others don’t grasp the concepts. A student with a deep understanding of American history shouldn’t be asked to sit through the basics yet again because it is expected in ninth grade. Once a learner is able to demonstrate a mastery of the content and is able to apply that content in an appropriate manner, he or she should be able to move on to the next content area. Mastery-based high school allows us to prioritize the LEARNER in a way most high schools today simply do not.

I hope you will give all the entries a read. It is an important issue that warrants real discussion, disagreement, and action.

 

“Will the last teacher to leave West Virginia please turn out the lights?”

“Will the last teacher to leave West Virginia please turn out the lights?”

Nearly 30 years ago, one of my teachers held that very handwritten sign. She, along with my mother and dozens of other educators from my high school were picketing in Shenandoah Junction, West Virginia as part of a statewide teachers strike. The sign became iconic, running on the front page of newspapers across the state and the nation.

In 1990, those teachers were striking because of poor teacher benefits and worse pay. West Virginia was paying its public school educators less than 48 other states. The situation became so bad that unions in all 55 counties in the state organized a work stoppage. After two weeks, a true-blue legislature and a Democratic governor finally saw things the way those teachers wanted them to. Benefits were improved, and West Virginia committed to raising teacher salaries to the middle of the pack when it came to state averages.

Fast forward to 2018, and we are seeing the same scenario play out in a state that has largely become a microcosm for America. The state is gripped by opioids. The jobs of the old, industrial economy are drying up. West Virginia’s legislature is now shockingly red. The state is now led by a Republican governor (though one who was just elected as a Democrat in 2016). But again, West Virginia’s teachers are almost the lowest paid in the nation.

Currently, the minimum salary for a public school teacher in West Virginia is $26,000. To put more simply, if one accounts just for student days – overlooking required teacher work days, evenings, weekends, summers, and all of the other times teachers actually work – the minimum teacher salary is about $14 an hour. Or about what teachers in the Northern Panhandle would make in Pittsburgh or those in the Eastern Panhandle would make in the DC suburbs if they gave up teaching and became baristas at Starbuck’s.

During the 1990 strike, I was all too aware that teachers in my high school needed to hold second jobs in order to make ends meet. It was a frequent sight to see a teacher working as a bartender or waiter at a local restaurant or as a desk clerk at one of the nearby motels. During the strike, it would have been very easy for these teachers to turn to their second jobs, pick up additional hours, and ensure that they would make the rent or car payments that week. But they didn’t. Each and every day, they were out there on the picket lines. They were marching for their profession. And they were ensuring the entire community saw them.

That year, those teachers won because they had public support. Yes, the closure of schools is always an inconvenience for families in the community. But each day, parents and children brought the teachers water and soda and food. Neighbors honked their car horns in support. And even when the handful of teachers who refused to strike told students their records would be noted and student activities would be pulled if we failed to cross the picket line, not one student went into the schools during those weeks.

Fast forward to 2018, and we see a different story. The state legislature is now advancing a package for teachers that would boost teacher pay by about 4 percent over the next several years, far from the jump their fellow educators saw three decades ago. Public support for union strikes, even in strong union states like West Virginia, is not nearly as strong as it once was. And with the Supreme Court now considering the Janus case, labor unions and their memberships are likely to be weakened even more.

It’s quite sad that, at a time when we all recognize that a strong education is key to success in the digital, information economy, we still have to fight to ensure that educators are paid like the high-stakes professionals that they are. It is sadder that we, as a nation, are now talking about bonuses to teachers who come into the classroom armed, but still can’t pay many of them a living wage. And it is even sadder when teachers need to technically break the law and engage in a statewide work stoppage to gain the respect and recognition that they well deserve.

As a child, I romanticized my grandfather and his Teamsters jacket. I imagined he received it as a reward for backing Jimmy Hoffa and his agenda to play rough with short-haul trucking companies. To me, the Teamsters were a true union’s union.

Then I watched my mom and many of my high school teachers walk the picket lines, putting their livelihoods on the line. I saw them walking for what they believed in. And I saw the community stand behind them. I saw that light. So did many others.

Today is school day number four of the 2018 West Virginia teachers strike, and the request asked 28 years ago may still be pertinent. WV Gov. Jim Justice and the legislature will see that light too, and show teachers across the state the respect they deserve.  Otherwise, they may indeed be turning off the lights for West Virginia’s students.

Investing in the Future of #TeacherEd

As a community, we spend so much time thinking and talking about what the schools, classrooms, and students of tomorrow may look like, but we often overlook an essential component to the equation. What will the teacher education of the future look like, the educator prep necessary to ensure we have the classroom leaders for such future K-12 environments.

For the past four years, dear ol’ Eduflack has been privileged to be part of the development of the Woodrow Wilson Academy of Teaching and Learning, and initiative of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and MIT to completely reinvent teacher preparation and education schools in general.

Last week, the good folks over at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative announced their significant support for the WW Academy and its efforts. Benjamin Herold over at Education Week referenced it as CZI investing in “personalized learning for the whole educator.” Caitlin Reilly noted that “teaching K-12 is brutally hard” and this was one of the ways CZI was “offering support.”

No matter how one cuts it, I’m incredibly honored to be a very small piece of the initiative and to have the support of innovators like those at CZI. Chan Zuckerberg joins with notables such as the Bezos Family Foundation, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Carnegie Corporation, Amgen Foundation, Simons Foundation, and Nellie Mae Education Foundation in believing in the WW Academy’s mission of transforming the preparation of the nation’s teachers and school leaders.

 

I say it far too often, but change is hard. Changing systems is even harder. These organizations, and the many other partners who have joined with the WW Foundation and MIT in this effort, see that as an opportunity, not an obstacle.

The future of teacher education is now!

 

From CAP, How to Leverage #ESSA to Elevate Teaching Profession

For much of the past year, the education community (yours truly included) has opined on how proposed federal budgets and actions coming from our nation’s capital pose a clear and present danger to teaching and teacher preparation. After all, when you essentially look to zero out all Title II moneys for teachers and their continued support, what is one supposed to think?

All hope may not be lost, though. The good folks at the Center for American Progress lifted the curtain on an important project in which it has been engaged. The first is a new interactive tool developed to spotlight specific efforts to elevate the teaching profession. On the site, users can click on a given state and choose a particular focus (compensation, career pathways, licensure, recruitment, retention, and the like) to see how individual states are innovating and meeting the specific needs of educators in its jurisdiction.

The second is a white paper that takes a deep dive into what specific states are doing to use ESSA and its Title II provisions to modernize and elevate the teaching profession. There, CAP explores hot-button issues such as recruitment and diversity, teacher prep and new teacher supports, licensure and certification, compensation and loan forgiveness, data support, and pipeline-spanning initiatives.

What’s particularly terrific about that issue brief is it spotlights the work in states that often don’t get the shout-outs when it comes to innovation and teacher supports, but are states that are really doing tremendous work. All serve as examples of what can be done and what should be done in an environment where we believe that change and innovation really isn’t possible, based on legislative restrictions.

Give both a gander. You won’t be disappointed.

Ed Tech is Not the Enemy!

Yes, there are a great many in the education community that look to attack and tear down just about everything that EdSec Betsy DeVos says. So when she starts off 2018 singing the praises of personalized learning, it should be no surprise that the resistance immediately lobbed charges of wanting to turn our schools over to the machines.

This tends to be a common misperception about personalized learning. We’ve bastardized the phase, wanting to believe it means simply plugging every child into a computer and letting the tech do the teaching. And while that might be how some personalized learning is indeed done today, it certainly isn’t what was intended and it certainly doesn’t represent the best of what personalized learning does and can offer, both to the learner and the educator.

At the same time, technology need not be the enemy to learning. Effective personalized instruction isn’t about putting the tablets in charge. At its heart, it is about providing educators with a tool that can be used to effectively reach some of their students. In the hands of a great teacher, technology can be empowering, not limiting. And yes, it can improve the learning process.

Over at BAM! Radio Network, I explore the topic, praising personalized learning and asking us to cut ed tech a break when it comes to the classroom. Give it a listen.

And for those who say personalized learning is just a tool of the technology companies and doesn’t actually work, give a look over to special education programs and IEPs. An IEP is just personalized learning in a different wrapper, folks.

What We Have Here Is a Failure in Parent Communication

Last week, when announcing his incoming secretary of education, new New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy noted his intentions to “stop using PARCC tests.” The statement was hardly controversial. Across the Garden State, parents have spent the past three years voicing frustrations with the student assessment, reading from the talking points of Common Core and testing opponents.

So when the then governor-elect joined with parent advocates and the teachers unions in calling for the state to “create new, more effective and less class time-intrusive means for measuring student assessment,” it was no surprise that social media lit up in celebration.

Outside of Princeton, in my little Mayberry RFD, parents rejoiced. For days, Facebook has lit up with messages of parents bidding the state test adieu. They celebrated the end of PARCC. They applauded that their kids wouldn’t have to take the weeks-long tests this winter. They cheered going back to the good ol’ days. They thanked the incoming governor for finally taking action. And in doing so, their premature jubilation reveals our failures to adequately engage parents in the policy process and communicate with them on important issues.

So dear ol’ Eduflack spent the weekend being the proverbial skunk at the garden party. Pointing out that the governor’s works have to be translated into legislative action by the New Jersey state legislature. Noting that New Jersey must still administer annual assessments on almost all of its K-12 students, and that PARCC has to be replaced with something else. Highlighting that if the state doesn’t use PARCC or Smarter Balanced, then it would need to pay to develop a similar test that would have to be approved by the federal government. And making clear that, even if such actions were taken this spring, it would be years before our kids would be free from PARCC assessments in the classroom.

Yes, parents across the state and throughout the country are well intended. Yes, they are paying enough attention to the issues that they are able to share anti-testing talking points like the length of tests, the use of technology, and the absence of early childhood experts in test development. But we are doing a great disservice when we only share part of the process – and part of the solution – with families.

One can’t throw a rock in education policy discussions without hitting someone speaking of the importance of family involvement and parental voice in the discussion. Just as we like to declare the Simpson-eque, “what about the children?” in such discussion, so too do we ask where the parents are in the debate.

But too many are selective in how they want that parent voice present. We don’t want them involved in curricular discussions because that is the purview of the educators. We don’t want them to have too much power with regard to school choice, for that should be a decision of policymakers. We don’t want them involved in teacher evaluation, for they are unaware of the challenges and nuances of what happens in a school and classroom.

So we largely welcome parents twice a year to short parent-teacher conferences, we applaud when they show up for PTA meetings and school concerts, and we hope we won’t need to see them otherwise for disciplinary actions. We certainly don’t want them showing up on the school doorstep with their concerns regarding what is happening behind those doors.

Years ago, I was fortunate to collaborate with a group of tremendous researchers, scientists, educators, and parents on the book, Why Kids Can’t Read: Continuing to Challenge the Status Quo in Education. The book was designed to serve as a primer for parents to get involved in improving reading instruction in their kids’ classrooms. By focusing on what the research tells us, what is working in schools, what other parents have dealt with, and what tools can make a successful parent advocate, Why Kids Can’t Read was written to empower parents in their quest for a world-class education for their kids, for all kids.

In writing it, and since in dealing with my own struggles as a special education parent, it is clear we largely don’t want empowered parents in the schools. If we look back through history, there are only a handful of moments where education policy truly changed because of the power of parents. Instead, we prefer to keep parents at arm’s length, giving only the illusion of involvement.

If we are serious about parents as partners in the learning process, we need to figure out how to truly educate them on it. It is insufficient to equip them solely with the talking points found on social media, and then expect them to be active partners in improvement. Better, stronger educational opportunities for our children can only come when parents are better educated on the processes and policies themselves.

Otherwise, parents are simply the proverbial dog chasing the squirrel, reacting to the latest buzzwords and urban legends shared on social media with the same buzzwords and urban legends they heard the week or month before. And that’s no way to improve teaching and learning for our children.

Let’s Resolve to Improve Edu-Communications in 2018

Speaking at the University of Baltimore’s commencement last month, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos reflected that, “we will do well to first listen, study, ponder, then speak genuinely to engage those with whom we disagree.” She continued, “voices that are quiet at first, grow in strength while those who rush to shout are humbled.”

The start of a new year is often viewed a a time to reset and to offer resolutions that result in improvement. Yes, we can spend our time ranting about what was — or was not done — under the first year of DeVos’ leadership at the U.S. Department of Education, but instead we should take this time to reflect on how we can improve public education. We should use this opportunity to highlight the big ideas that we can speak genuinely about, the ideas that, while they may face fierce disagreement, are ideas that could have real impact.

So instead about mocking the threat of bears or wringing hands over the perceived belief that we continue to privatize and profiteer from public education, let’s put forward some educational resolutions in 2018.

Let us resolve to recognize that learning — and learners — are not homogeneous. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to student learning and achievement. All students come to the classroom with varied skills, knowledge, perspectives, and life experiences. They enter the learning process at different points with different abilities and challenges. Because of this, teaching and learning must be personalized. In 2018, we need to seek out far more ways to ensure that learning is matching the needs of the student, and that teachers are empowered to tailor their teaching to meet the needs of the classroom. To do this, and in recognizing it all can’t be done via technology, we must ensure that all teachers are provided the pre-service and in-service education to deliver such differentiated instruction.

Let us also resolve that the learning environment itself is no long homogeneous. The days of the little red schoolhouse are over. Learning today is a 24-7 environment. Just as we must ensure that our traditional schools are properly resourced and supported, so too must we acknowledge the need to support out-of-school-time learning. Be it in a museum, a community center, a place of worship, or an online environment, what happens outside of school is just as important to the academic development of today’s learner as what happens in the traditional classroom.

Let us resolve to transform pre-service teacher education to meet the needs and opportunities of the classrooms of tomorrow. With each passing year, we ask more and more of our teachers. We look to them to educate, guide, assess, and support. We place greater and greater emphasis on the outcomes of their practice. That means ensuring pathways to preparation that emphasize what they will experience in the classroom, that focus on outcomes and demonstrating that they can apply all that they are taught, and that give them every opportunity to succeed as a teacher from day one. We can’t shortchange teacher education, nor can we expect that the preparation pathways of decades past will still meet the needs of classrooms in 2018.

Let us resolve that school choice is not the magic elixir that will solve all that ails k-12 education. Yes, options are important for families. But we cannot overlook that the vast majority of school-aged kids today attend traditional public schools and will continue to attend them. Our attentions and resources – both financial and human – should be directed proportionally, based on where kids are today.

Let us resolve that a college degree in the liberal arts is not the solution for every child. Yes, postsecondary education is a non-negotiable today. But that education can be found at community colleges. It can be discovered in career and technical education programs. It can be found in STEM and computer science. College is just as much about equipping learners with career skills and opportunities as it is helping them become lifelong learners. We mustn’t let our focus linger on the latter, to the detriment of the former.

And most importantly, in the words of Secretary DeVos, we must resolve to engage those with whom we disagree. As we look to 2018, there are many big ideas on which we can and should be focused. Building the schools and classrooms of tomorrow. Personalizing learning for all, based on both learner interests and needs, and doing so beyond just the computer screen. Expanding our worldview of assessment beyond the summative. Strengthening our educational systems to best serve special education and ELL students. Enhancing career/technical education and STEM offerings to keep up with the ever-changing reality of our digital, Information Age. Real investment in these areas only happens when we are able to break down the walls, and engage in tough yet meaningful dialogues on what our schools, our educators, and our learners need to succeed in the future.

Such dialogue on these essential issues is required if we are to look to the bigger, bolder, dream issues that education can face. How do we empower educators to design the right learning opportunities for all those they are teaching? How do we effectively use assisted and augmented reality offerings to improve the learning process? How do we demonstrate that learning is about mastery and doing, and not just about ticking off items on a prescribed checklist? How do we bring educators and parents together as partners in the learning process? How do we enlighten all those in the process to see the value in high-quality assessments? How do we embrace the notion that standards — whether for teachers or learners — are intended to be floors and not ceilings?

When it comes to education, the new year is one chock full of both challenges and opportunities. Yes, we can muddle through another year, making some incremental gains or slippages, based on the perspective. Or we can acknowledge that we, as a community, agree on far more than we disagree with. Even the most hardened status quoer and the most indignant reformer can and should agree on 75 percent of all that faces education today. It is in that remaining 25 percent that we have our most robust discussions and disagreements.

In that 25 percent, we must heed the advice of the EdSec and speak genuinely and engage on those important topics. No, we won’t agree. We probably shouldn’t agree. But we if disagree in a respectful and thoughtful manner, and continue to have those dialogues over the areas of disagreement, we can move toward a better teachers, better learners, and a stronger educational tapestry for virtually all.

It may seem awfully simplistic, but our big idea for education in 2018 should be improved communication. Our resolutions for the new year should focus on how we improve the substance and depth of our conversations. And our engagements should reflect active listening, where we actually hear those we may disagree with, rather than think about what our next dazzling talking point should be. If we are serious about improving education, the simplicity of communication may be our most effective tool.

(A version of this post appeared on LinkedIn Pulse.)