When It Comes To Reopening Schools, There Is No One Answer

President Donald Trump and EdSec Betsy DeVos want brick-and-mortar schools open for business this fall. Teachers, their unions, parents, and many others want to keep them closed, with teaching happening virtually, until their are guarantees on health, safety, and vaccines.

If we know anything, it is that a one-size-fits-all approach to schools just doesn’t work. There are too many variables, too many issues, and too many reasons why we prefer to leave education decisions to states and localities.

On the latest episode of TrumpEd on the BAM! Radio Network, we explore for topic of reopening and why we shouldn’t look to the feds for all the answers. Give it a listen here.

A New, Old Approach to Teacher Prep

There is value to all educators demonstrating a broad range of writing skills, world literature knowledge, foreign language aptitude, elementary epistemology, and exposure to math, natural sciences, history and geography, and government and economics. This approach is critical to ensuring strong and nimble teachers, particularly if this background content is knitted together to provide a clear scope and sequence of the first two years of undergraduate courses for aspiring educators.

From dear ol’ Eduflack’s latest on Medium, looking at making a classically liberal education a foundation for teacher prep

Declaring Our Independence from Ineffective History Instruction

Two hundred and forty four years ago, our nation first celebrated its independence. Had July 4, 1776 happened in our current environment, we likely would have watched Paul Revere’s ride via a Facebook Live video. Thomas Jefferson would have offered up the Declaration of Independence through a YouTube post. And Alexander Hamilton would have issued a call to arms to his colonial brothers and sisters on TikTok.

What we see as history should adapt to the time and mediums in which it occurs and also in which it is taught.

While George Washington and John Adams delivered their State of the Union addresses orally to the U.S. Congress, Thomas Jefferson changed the protocol and simply submitted a written address. That tradition continued until Woodrow Wilson in 1915. Harry Truman’s 1947 SOTU was the first to be broadcast on television. Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 address was the first to be broadcast during prime time, and 1966 was the first opportunity for the opposition party to also be granted a prime time slot.

FDR was known for his fireside chats, bringing the radio to presidential history. JFK introduced the nation to televised press conferences. And Donald Trump will go down in history as our first “Twitter” president. All adapted to the mediums that were most popular with the people at the time.

Despite all of these changes in how U.S. presidents have told their stories, how we teach history has largely remained the same as it was when public education was optional and provided in little red school houses. American history is taught through dusty textbooks. We still spend the first semester teaching about the American Revolution, and teaching it primarily through the lens of the white, male landowner. The winter and early spring are a lesson in the Civil War, taught through that same lens. Then after state testing, classes do a quick run from Reconstruction through modern times.

So we should not be surprised when those lessons don’t stick with today’s learners. Last year, I led a national research effort that explored what the average American knew about American history. Using multiple-choice questions from the practice tests for the U.S. citizenship exam, we surveyed 41,000 people nationally. We found that fewer than four in 10 could pass the test (meaning getting at least 12 of 20 questions correct). Passage rates were even lower for women and for people of color. And for those under the age of 50, only one in four could demonstrate a basic understanding of historical facts.

Late last year, I followed that history test with a national poll of American high school students about their attitudes towards American history. The results were disappointing, but not surprising. The average high school student found the learning of American history both boring and irrelevant. Historical knowledge played little value in their plans for college or for life.

Of course, learning American history isn’t about passing a multiple-choice test or doing well during a trivia night. Recent events have demonstrated how important it is for all of us to know our history – no matter how complex, confusing, or ugly it may be – and to think like historians. It is about asking tough questions and analyzing even tougher responses. It’s about beginning to understand what figures and moments and movements in American history we aren’t learning in class and asking why not and exploring what else hasn’t been taught. It’s about learning to think critically and focus less on just what happened and more on why things happened and the impact it had.

It’s about teaching a different type of history in a different way.

That’s why I am proud to officially announce the launch of the Driving Force Institute, a startup non-profit organization committed to transforming the teaching and learning of American history. This important work is based on a few key principles. First, video is the most powerful medium for teaching history to young people today, particularly video that is modeled after the YouTube videos learners are watching in their leisure time. Second, it is about making history more interesting and provocative for today’s learners. And finally, it is focused on telling our full history, with a particular emphasis on those important historical figures and moments that have been neglected for too long in our public school classrooms.

To launch this important work, DFI has collaborated with XQ Schools and its Rethink Together Forum to explore some of these important historical questions. We begin the month looking at the significance of the year 1619. Each week in July, XQ will share new DFI videos on the forum, exploring a range of issues important to today’s discussions of civic engagement.

I’m also proud to formally unveil “Untold,” a project of DFI produced and distributed by Makematic in collaboration with the USC Center for Engagement-Driven Global Education. We will provide an open-source collection of short, compelling history videos and animations designed to start new conversations shining a light on the stories that don’t always make it into the classroom and questioning what we think we know about those that do.

As the son of an historian, I was raised to appreciate the importance of history and to constantly ask questions about what happened and why. As the father of a teenage son whose lack of interest in history can be tracked to how poorly it has been taught in the classroom, I’m committed to seeking solutions to make history more interesting and relevant to young people today. And as an education advocate and agitator, I’m committed to breaking the learning models that have failed too many students for too long.

“Complaining about a problem without proposing a solution is called whining,” Teddy Roosevelt once said. Our collective lack of American history knowledge is indeed a problem. Hopefully, the Driving Force Institute is a solution for improving the teaching and learning of history.

Tearing Down Statues, Remembering History

These voices called out curriculum experts who they believed limited the study of anyone who wasn’t a white male landowners to February — Black History Month — and to only use those 20 or so days of instruction to study the same stories of Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King, Jr. every year, ignoring the vast contributions that Black America has made to our nation, our history, our society, our community, and our nation. Ignoring the importance of weaving those stories into the context of the times they lived and happened, and not as stand-alone examples to check a box.

In essence, these young leaders were calling for a learning environment that moves beyond the basic names of generals and battles and the dates where they happened. They wanted an approach to American history that allowed them to ask why. An approach that explores understanding what happened, questions why society allowed it to happen, and probes what we can learn from it so it doesn’t happen again. They were urging educators to let them think like historians.

From Eduflack’s latest on Medium, Removing Statues Does Not Abdicate Us from Teaching History

Seeking School Certainty in Uncertain Times?

Most of us are getting tired of hearing the phrase “new normal” in reference to our lives the past three months. Slightly more frustrating – and unrealistic – may be hearing those who yearn for the time, be it next week or next month, when things return to the old “normal” and we go back to doing and behaving as we long had.

Last week, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy was asked about the state’s plans for reopening. At first, Murphy stated that his state departments of education and health were “wargaming” scenarios for reopening the public schools in the fall. He followed that remark the next day with the revelation that he intended to follow the guidelines offered by the New Jersey School Boards Association, Searching for a New Normal in New Jersey’s Public Schools.

For some, the NJSBA recommendations are a common-sense approach building on the CDC guidelines to address the needs of a state hit particularly hard by coronavirus. To others, it appeared an untenable future, one that drastically detours from how children actually behave in school buildings and from what would be possible in 2020-21 school classrooms.

In the interim, parents and educators and learners are growing more and more frustrated with how to navigate the virtual classroom in a meaningful way. Many of those parents – seeing the stresses and emotional toll the ongoing lockdown and school closures have had on their children – are desperate to have those yellow buses rolling and students sitting next to each other in desks, even if they are socially distanced.

That desperation, though, has been met largely with silence by school decisionmakers. School superintendents are speaking in relatively united voice that they can make no decisions about school plans and school calendars until they receive guidance from the state. The cycle is all too expected. Parents look to the schools for answers. The schools say they can’t act until the state gives them direction. The governor and state officials can’t act until they have received guidance from the state school boards association and the state teachers union. The school boards and the teachers unions can’t act until they have feedback from local school leaders. Rinse and repeat. Who will actually make a decision?

At a time when we need educators the most, leaders to innovate and ensure student learning and bring stability to the lives of young people in dire need of such, we are collectively waiting for direction from on high. We are waiting for permission to begin addressing our educational needs, rather than asking for forgiveness if some of our steps may need adjustment later on.

Case in point is the “letter” released over the Memorial Day holiday from David Aderhold, the superintendent of West-Windsor Plainsboro, NJ Public Schools (the school district I send my own children to), to Governor Murphy. In his missive, Dr. Aderhold, who also serves as the president of the Garden State Coalition of Schools and the New Jersey Network of Superintendents, posed 91 questions to Governor Murphy, questions that superintendents say they need answered before they can begin planning for the new school year that begins in three short months. And these are just “a list of 91 Questions to get us started.”

Yes, asking and documenting these questions is important to the strategic planning process. Some are global questions that many have been asking for months. “Who gets to determine the acceptable risk of foreseeable harm, illness, and potentially death in our public schools should we return from virtual instruction to in-person instruction?” “What will be the criteria and parameters to reopen schools?” And “What will be the budgetary impacts for school districts based upon the economic challenges realized due to the public health crisis?”

Some read like questions we should want our local communities to be answering, and don’t want a governor or a state legislature meddling in. “Will accommodations be made to allow families who wish to keep their children home in the fall? Will those children be allowed to participate in virtual instruction or will they be required to withdraw their children to be homeschooled by their parents?” “Will there be modifications to our school day?” “What are the contractual impacts to the myriad of possible scheduling solutions?” “What are the financial impacts in order to implement social distancing requirements?” “Will school districts continue to offer extended daycare programs (before school and after school programs)?” “How many staff members will be needed to accomplish this?”

Others are larger questions that reflect the future of teaching and learning in general, particularly when offered in a hybrid environment. “What will music classrooms look like in the Fall 2020?” “How do you socially distance physical education classes?” “What professional development needs will school districts have in order to assist their teacher’s enhancement of virtual instructional practices?” “How will we teach programs that require hands-on interactions in close proximity, such as Robotics, Woodworking, Culinary Arts, and Fashion Design?”

And other questions are those that public schools should have and should continue to be asking regularly, key questions that are essential to k-12 public education in the United States but that may be accentuated by the current situation. “How will school districts assess education gaps and remediate learning needs?” “How will the implementation of IEP’s for Special Education students be met in a virtual, hybrid, or partial day academic program? What is the state’s guidance for Extended School Year programs for students who receive Special Education services?” “How will we assess which students need academic support and remediation?” “How will school districts address the digital divide that still exists months into the pandemic?”

It is important for school leaders throughout New Jersey and across the United States to document all of these questions, while also adding to the list as situations evolve and as new issues arise. After all, part of successful leadership is anticipating what could happen, even if it means playing devil’s advocate and thinking through the absolute worst-case scenarios, including those that estimate that New Jersey public schools will need a supply of 900 million masks for the upcoming school year.

What we must avoid, though, is the perennial educational issue of perfect being the enemy of the good. Local leaders should not have to wait until they have comprehensive answers to each of these 91 questions (and their subparts) as well as new questions that arise in the coming weeks before they are allowed to begin substantial planning for the 2020-21 school year. In fact, superintendents and principals and teachers should have been empowered to begin long-term planning months ago, when we first locked the doors of our community public schools.

As a community, we also must accept that we will never have true certainty when it comes to this planning. We will need to weigh the risks of one action over another. We will need to realize that we will never receive complete assurance that not a single student or educator will get sick if only we devise the ideal plan. We need local leaders who, instead of waiting for permission before they start addressing these 90-plus questions, are prepared to apologize tomorrow for taking actions today. And we need state leaders who quickly empower those local leaders while guidance is being worked out at the state and regional levels, recognizing that decisions are needed today.

Now is the time to act. It is the time to help families and learners understand what the coming school year might look like. It is the time to help educators understand what their teaching environment may look like. It is time to help localities understand the financial and health realities of the school this fall. The answers might not be perfect, but in these uncertain times, the only thing we can be certain of is we need to be proactive, particularly when it comes to the future of our schools.

For the Next Gen of Teacher Candidates, Content Should be King

With many public school systems now entering week 10 of their new coronavirus normal, as community school buildings remain shuttered and millions of students try to learn through digital platforms, talk of “the return” to the good ol’ days is growing louder and louder.

Sure, some continue to declare their success in mastering virtual education, but far more are trying to prepare for what traditional school will look like in a traditional environment for the 2020-21 school year. Images of students wearing facemasks and distancing contraptions have already started to fill social media, as educators come to grips with months of lost instruction due to Covid-19, a virtual learning environment offered largely to tread instructional water instead of teaching new content. In response, some are calling for summer school for all to avoid the expected slide from the current to the next school year while others suggest the need to repeat the current grade.

Last week, Chiefs for Change – a group of reform-minded public school superintendents and school administrators – offered a thoughtful report on what school leaders should consider as they look toward the return of a school-building-based instructional year this fall. In The Return: How Should School Leaders Prepare for Reentry and Beyond?, the Chiefs explore a number of important – and controversial – topics, ranging from abandoning the agrarian school calendar (one that currently gives educators and learners summers off) to more “intently focusing on the social and emotional wellbeing and skills of students.”

More interestingly, Chiefs for Change called for school systems across the country to adopt staffing models that focused on educators with deep subject matter and instructional expertise. Yes, this spring’s virtual schooling experiment has demonstrated that the pedagogy and classroom management skills largely taught in colleges of education across the nation do not necessarily translate to teachers successfully managing a virtual classroom on an online platform. For every media story one sees of an elementary school classroom taught via Zoom, with a shared screen that looks like the Brady Bunch on steroids, there are dozens of untold stories of online platforms being used simply as electronic bulletin boards, where teachers simply post assignments for students to collect and complete, providing a thumbs up when any effort is demonstrated by the learner to complete them.

In its recommendations, Chiefs for Change also pulls back a closely-held secret in teacher education. Many teachers are not expert in the content areas they teach. Those who teach U.S. history, for instance, often major in history education, not in American history. The same can be said about those who teach chemistry or biology, the majority of whom leave their teacher education programs with degrees in science education, not in the specific content area. One can even consider the typical elementary school educator, tasked with teaching reading and math and beginning science while equipped with a degree in elementary education that likely provided only some survey courses on a range of content areas, with an emphasis on needed physical classroom management skills.

For years now, reformers have preached about the need to dramatically transform pre-service teacher education. In the early days, the focus was on alternative certification programs and having teacher candidates avoid the “status quo” teachers colleges altogether. More recently, advocates have looked to alternative approaches to traditional teacher education models, with institutions like the Relay/Graduate School of Education becoming the aspirational model.

Decades of research into the most effective approaches to teacher education demonstrate the importance of both strong content knowledge and effective pedagogy. When groups like Chiefs for Change talk about content knowledge, they are essentially noting that novice teachers should be coming to the classroom with a broad and substantial liberal education, one that translates into strong content knowledge of classroom teachers, regardless of the academic subject they are licensed to teach.

A first glance, we may be looking for too much from undergraduate teacher education, expecting all aspiring educators to start as teachers of record with strong, research-based backgrounds in both the subject areas they teach and the most effective ways to teach and lead a classroom. Our new educational normal, though, has clearly demonstrated that the current emphasis on pedagogy and classroom management is woefully insufficient for the uncertain years ahead.

The coming generations of k-12 educators may be digital natives, but they are largely still being prepared in teachers colleges constructed for an analog world. Until their clinical experiences include virtual instruction, and until their preparation focuses on the importance of subject matter content and how to make it interesting, relevant, and understood by all in their classroom, our instructional struggles will continue.

We can do better. We should do better. Ed schools should be committed to preparing world-class educators. School districts should be focused on hiring teachers well prepared in both content and pedagogy, with the assessments to demonstrate their mastery of both. And we all should embrace efforts to ensure our kids’ teachers are truly the best in the world, with the preservice education, in-service supports, and high-quality instructional materials needed for learners to succeed today … and tomorrow.

 

(This piece also appears on Medium.)

Transforming Teacher Education

“We can’t expect an English teacher to teach without access to literature. We can’t expect a music teacher to teach without employing actual music. We can’t expect a history teacher to teach without a working knowledge of the past. It’s common sense that we provide teachers with the knowledge and tools needed to effectively teach. That means more than just the necessary novel sets or science labs. It also includes a comprehensive preparation program that begins when they first set foot on a college campus and continues until they have become a teacher of record.”

From dear ol’ Eduflack’s latest over at the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper, where I write on the need to overhaul teacher education as we look at our post-coronavirus school needs

Appreciating Teachers, Including My Mom

Teacher Appreciation Week has a bit of a different meaning for many of us this year. The past two months have recast k-12 education in ways few of us have planned for. Amid all of the news stories of parents who have grown past frustrated with this new era of virtual education and tales of teacher “parades” and six-feet apart visits with students who need them the most, there are some important lessons many are learning about what goes into effective teaching and what skills and knowledge teachers today (and tomorrow) need to properly adapt to anything that might be thrown in their way.

In addition to the policy implications, Teacher Appreciation Week also provides the opportunity to reflect on those k-12 educators who have had the greatest impact on me as a both a learner and a contributing member of the great American citizenry. For me, I find it incredibly difficult to single out one teacher worthy of thanks.  I think of Mr. Wolf, my second grade teacher and the first “boy teacher” I had.  Or Mr. Ertmer, who taught me both economics and world history and also got me to DC for the first time through Close Up.  Or Ms. Walker (now Mrs. Sowers), my AP English teacher and student government advisor who let me question whether or not Shakespeare was really worth all the hype.

I’m also a firm believer that parents are our first teacher, and they are often our most important.  So in honor of National Teacher Appreciation Day, I need to recognize Mrs. Riccards, my mother and a damned good high school English teacher in her own right.  I was never privileged to have my mom as a teacher (that would have been too grand a punishment for such a terrific woman).  But to this day, both in my personal and my professional lives, I reflect on the lessons she taught me and her experiences in the classroom.

My mother joined the teaching profession as a mid-career.  When my youngest sister hit school age, my mom went back to school to get her teaching certificate.  She student taught at an Indian school in New Mexico. She went on to teach 10thgrade English at urban, rural, and suburban schools in New Mexico, West Virginia, Massachusetts, and Washington, DC. My mother taught in traditional public schools, charter schools, and independent schools.

She walked the picket lines in West Virginia for two weeks, striking with every NEA teacher across the state for better pay and working conditions (they succeeded).  She was a tough teacher, always pushing her students and demanding hard work.  While many would try, no one could get her to compromise her standards, not even for star athletes, relentless parents, or administrators who didn’t want the hassle.  As a result, her students learned and achieved.  She probably had the greatest impact on all of the “basic” students she taught over the years, kids that many people had given up on, but she wouldn’t.  She pushed them, and they responded.  They learned the five-paragraph essay.  They learned American literature.  And they learned responsibility and to set high expectations for themselves.

And me?  My mom was the first to point out I have a tendency to write in the passive voice.  At an early age, she made clear she and my father would never pay for grades.  “You don’t earn them for me, they are for you,” she would say.  She has always been proud of me, encouraging and pushing me.  But she is also quick to tell me when I am being too hard on teachers, when my expectations of school improvement are out of line, or when my position didn’t align with what a classroom teacher experiences.

So in honor of National Teacher Appreciation Week (and this weekend’s Mother’s Day), I offer a big thank you to a truly terrific teacher, Mrs. Riccards (or Ma, or Grandma at this point).  Know you are both loved and appreciated by generations of students who are better off for having crossed your path (no matter how tough you may have been in that classroom).

As I reflect on those teachers, including my parents, that have had the most lasting of impacts on me, I can now see some key attributes that made them enormously successful as educators. They all received rigorous, comprehensive educations that provided them with a broad higher education experience that prepared them for any challenge in the classroom. They all believed in a collaborative approach, working closely with families, with community leaders, and even with higher education to strengthen and improve the teaching and learning process. And they were all firm believes in “lifelong learning,” recognizing that their pursuit of both content knowledge and pedagogy did not end once they earned their masters degrees in achieved tenure. They all knew one learns across a lifetime, not for a finite period, and they passed that lesson on to all those learners they encountered.

Decades of research have shown that the single-most important factor in school success is an effective teacher. One of the reasons I do what I now do – focusing on how to improve educator preparation to ensure more effective teachers and more engaged learners – is because I had some of those effective teachers, those best in the world teachers. They made a real difference for me, and I believe that ever learner – regardless of race, family income, or zip code – should have similarly life-changing teachers in their lives.

Those life-changing educators are the ones that every parent overseeing virtual home school today is trying to challenge. And they are teachers we should remember each and every day.

(This post also appeared on Medium.)

 

Evaluating Teachers? During Lockdown?

With most schools closed for coronavirus, so many of us are longing for a return to normal. While none of us know what the post-covid new normal may be, we expect it will include many of our tried-and-true activities and behaviors.

So we shouldn’t be surprised that some school districts are still looking at how to conduct traditional teacher evaluations, even when there is nothing traditional about school today. No, we shouldn’t be surprised, but we should be appalled.

Over on the BAM! Radio Network, we discuss what a bad idea teacher evaluations a la lockdown are, and how we really need to direct our attentions elsewhere. Give it a listen!

Watch Out History Ed, The Video Revolution is Coming

Over on Medium, dear ol’ Eduflack opines on how our current emergency virtual eduction provides the perfect opportunity to use multimedia — particularly video – to engage students through their computer screens. But even in topics like history, content areas tailor made for interesting and relevant video content, we are falling short on what we provide educators and what we pass along to students.

It doesn’t have to be this way. As I write:

It is insufficient to think we can simply take a Ken Burns video or a documentary from the History Channel, chop it up, and then use the pieces as meaningful content to connect with today’s learners. To ensure that young people embrace American history, we need to commit to create and distribute online content that focuses on: 1) what is relevant and interesting to the student; 2) what is attractive to learners who will vary widely in both interest in history and knowledge of history; and 3) what is adaptable based on changes in learner preferences.

In calling for the adoption of “three legs” to the American history instruction stool, I also note:

Whether our public schools “go back to normal” this fall or whether periods of virtual education become the new normal for k-12 in the United States, we need videos that capture the attentions and interests of today’s students, offering content that often isn’t found in dusty history textbooks. We need content that teachers can successfully use in a virtual environment and that students will want to access in their free time, using a changing learning environment to provide fun, engaging, and proactive content intended to improve both the teaching and learning of American history.

Please give the full piece a read here. It’ll be worth it.