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.)

 

 

Is All Golden in #EdReform? Hardly. 

Just as we seek from schools, teachers, and students, we need quantifiable goals and clear metrics for measuring their achievement. Ed reform needs to hold itself accountable, even if that means admitting to setbacks, losses, or achieving bupkis. It means focusing on what is needed—even messy issues such as instruction—not just on cut-and-dry operational issues.

From Eduflack’s latest for the Fordham Institute’s, Flypaper, questioning whether the past year can truly be labeled a success for the education reform movement 

One Fish, Two Fish, Trump Fish?

For educators these days, there is much to drive the inner activist. From DACA to CHIP, from proposed federal budget cuts to policy roll backs, there is much happening in DC that affects teachers and students in classrooms throughout the United States. 

All of which makes it far more frustrating that some educators choose to draw their battle lines because the First Lady dared visit a local school and read The Cat in the Hat. Frustrating, but true. 

Over at the BAM! Radio Network, we take a deep dive into the topic, hoping that bring some Lorax-like wisdom into a fight lacking it. Give it a listen. 

It’s Time To Do Something, Anything, EdSec DeVos!

We are now six months into the Trump Administration, and when it comes to education policy, we must finally ask, what is the strategy, folks?

Just last week, we saw former governor, former U.S. Education Secretary, and current Senate HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander call out the DeVos Administration for failing to understand what ESSA says about state decisionmaking.

We saw the head of the Department’s Civil Rights office state that most Title IX complaints are the result of the woman regretting a night of alcohol and a subsequent breakup with the accused.

And we witnessed supposedly sympathetic Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives pass a federal education budget without the needed funding for the EdSec’s signature school choice effort.

While the Administration continues to struggle to find individuals to take top education positions, the “successes” from the past six months include stripping billions in Title II teacher support dollars from the budget, and freezing action to absolve students from paying back loans to attend failed proprietary colleges.

One may not agree, ideologically, with the Trump/DeVos Administration, but we should all want to see it success when it comes to improving teaching and learning across the United States. And as we complete the first eighth of President Donald Trump’s first term in office, we all should wonder what the plan is here.

Despite what some may want to believe, the concerns facing public education in America are both wide and deep. We struggle to find qualified teachers for our high-need schools, particularly in areas like STEM, ELL, and sped. And we do so as the teaching profession itself has been stripped of the respect it had long enjoyed and deserves.

We fail to see the problem with continuing to pursue a homogenous approach to K-12 education at a time when our population of learners couldn’t be more diverse. And we do it by resisting the incoming wave of personalized learning and differentiated instruction. 

We ignore where we really stand when it comes to student performance, making excuses for the United States placing 38th out of 71 in PISA math and 24th in PISA science. And we do it while criticizing learning assessment itself, rather than focusing on a new generation of better, more effective tests.

The DeVos administration came into power without owing anything to those individuals, organizations, and interests beholden to the status quo and the way things have always been done. There is no benefit to defending flat test scores as other nations experience significant rises. There is no gain in ensuring the protection and support of dropout factories. There is no win in ensuring another generation of short-term educators without the knowledge, skills, and support to succeed in the classroom.

It is now past time for DeVos and her skeleton crew to take real action, be it with the power of the checkbook or the strength of the bully pulpit. What could this action look like?

  • A whistle-stop tour to discuss the true value of school choice, particularly in those communities that don’t already enjoy a robust charter sector. This could be particularly appealing to the special education community, giving it a deep dive on what Florida’s McKay vouchers have meant to sped families in the Sunshine State.
  • A collaboration of the Education, Labor, and Commerce Departments, supported by corporate partners, to make a major investment in career and technical education, with an emphasis on the STEM skills and jobs that will be needed for a strong economy 20 years from now. This can even include the apprenticeship push announced by the President earlier this year.
  • A reinvestment in early childhood education, building on the family leave and support efforts of First Daughter Ivanka Trump. This could include finally having the Federal government recognize that early childhood education is the purview of the U.S. Department of Education, and not Health and Human Services.
  • A refocus on teacher quality, offering even stronger executive action on teacher prep provisions than the recently revoked Obama language. Through a “return on investment” lens, this could include returning Title II dollars for efforts that raise the quality and results of teaching, looking at the outcomes of the teaching profession, not just the inputs.

Six months in, and federal education policy is still stuck in neutral. And based on the state of public education in the United States, neutral means that millions of kids are losing ground. Losing ground when it comes to reading proficiency. Losing ground when it comes to 21st century skills. Losing ground when it comes to required remediation.

It is past time to roll up the sleeves, seize the rostrum, and get it done. If this Administration is seeking to shake up the status quo, if this Administration is serious about breaking from the failed policies of the past, and if this Administration believes that traditional public schools are indeed failing, then do something about it. You are now steering the ship. Take us somewhere. Anywhere.

 

Will DeVos Have Mastery Rule Roost?

“Now, by jettisoning the debate on proficiency versus growth for a more productive discussion of mastery, [Betsy DeVos] is making clear that what a student learns and is able to do with those lessons is the key factor. DeVos has laid down a rhetorical marker that the top-down, one-test-fits-all model may indeed be a thing of the past.”

From dear ol’ Eduflack’s latest for The 74 Million, Beyond Growth and Proficiency Lies Mastery: DeVos and the Crowning of Competence as King 

Can You Teach a Superpower?

Last week, dear ol’ Eduflack wrote about the incredible learning experiences the Edu-family is getting from kickboxing. so this week, I’d like to turn the rostrum over to one of my Tiger Schulmann sisters, Amy Vondrak. 

Dr. Vondrak is a professor of English, an instigator of Utopia, and a TSMMA Yellow Belt (which means she outranks me and has physically kicked my butt on the mat.) Dr. Vondrak has captured a powerful perspective to the experience that just has to be shared whole cloth. So here goes …

 

A few nights ago at Tiger Schulmann’s Princeton, Sensei gave the advanced kickboxing class a scolding. About half the class had been late, which earned us quite a dressing down. The core message of his admonishment was the importance of self-discipline. In fact, the core of almost every one of Sensei’s talks is self-discipline. Now, even though (as he has often told us), “Sensei” means “born before,” I often feel just a bit odd about being the recipient of the wisdom of a man 20 years my junior. But actually, Sensei is right about a lot of things, and discipline is one of them.

During his scolding, I thought about my students, as I often do at martial arts. I’ve taught developmental composition at a community college for 13 years. Sensei teaches martial arts much like I teach writing: he takes complex series of moves and “scaffolds” them, taking them a step at a time. Learning a double-leg take down to side mount to triangle choke takes weeks as we work through each of the component parts of each move. And Sensei often tells us that if we don’t show up to class, on time and consistently, we are not likely to get any better at martial arts. I tell my students the same thing, but most of the time, they don’t listen.

I love my students. They have big dreams and so much potential. By and large, they are smart people who have been failed by an archaic educational system. But much of that potential gets lost because of the one thing they don’t have: self-discipline. They face huge challenges in life. They have jobs and kids and no money and crazy lives, so there are plenty of good reasons why it’s not so easy for them to get their work done and their butts in class. I’m not saying my students are lazy. Self-discipline is not a character trait, it’s a skill, one that they lack just as they lack writing skills. So they fail. Those of you who follow higher ed know that college students fail in great numbers. Then they feel even less able to take their place in the world, they feel even less powerful than they did when they walked into my class. That is not my mission as a teacher. My job is to show them their strength.

Along with Eduflack, I fought in the 42nd Challenge of Champions. I chose to fight up a division, literally fighting above my belt, and spent the late winter and spring trying to get mentally and physically prepared. The physical part was easier than the mental. It’s easier to face burpees than fears. But I did it: I got on the mat and I fought, as did many of my TSMMA Princeton teammates. Now, I’ve been going to the CoC as either a parent or spouse of a competitor for years, and this was my second time competing. Our family is very familiar with the emotional intensity of that day. But for some reason, this CoC showed me something I had not fully seen before: the way in which fighting lets us win our life battles. Of course, I know that martial arts is way more than a workout. Of course I’d been vaguely aware that for all of us on the mat, it’s not just about getting in shape. But this CoC gave me a glimpse into just how much we are fighting our demons, and winning. We may not be superheroes, but fighting makes us feel like when life starts shooting, we’ve got metal bracelets, a cool shield, and some amazing powers. In reality, our amazing superpower is self-discipline.

It is not easy to drag your tired self out to kickboxing on a Thursday night knowing that someone better than you is likely going to punch you in the face – sure, they’ll do it with respect and camraderie, but whatever, they’re still punching you in the face. And at the end of a few rounds of that, those burpees are waiting. But we do it. Again, and again, and again. Why? Discipline. And that discipline gives us tremendous power. We are less afraid of our demons and we are more powerful in our fight against them because our spines are stiffened with strong discipline. Bring it on bad guys, we got this.

My focus as a teacher has long been on content: how to read and write. Of course, I’ve tried for a long time to figure out how to teach grit, or growth mindset, or whatever trendy term is hot this week. But as many of the critics of those buzzwords will say, how do you teach grit? “Grit” always seems to be found in heroic stories of grand characters who beat enormous odds. In contrast, self-discipline is small and boring. Self-discipline is the accumulation of many daily acts, most of which may seem unimportant in the individual, but are massively important in the aggregate. But self-discipline is a skill which can be taught, which can be broken down into its component parts and taught a step at a time with lots of practice. So this summer I am cooking up a semester-long self-discipline project to roll out in the fall.

As a community college teacher, I’m not just trying to help students become better writers. Community college can be transformative, and it’s my job to help students feel empowered to change their lives. What I saw at the CoC was ordinary people fighting their demons with daily discipline, winning, and growing stronger because of it. This is what I want to share with my students as well – be disciplined, not just for your grade, but because your discipline will make you stronger than the world that tries every day to cut you down. Do your work. Fight for your grades. Fight for your degree. Because your fight, your discipline, gives you superpowers.


Dr. Amy Vondrak (r) with Megan Barndt.