Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Education, teaching, trends, and resolutions

As I write this, it is past noon in the Chicagoland area on New Year's Eve Day. It is already January 1, 2015 half a world away.

The time of trend analysis and resolutions has begun, or will when the bleary-eyed and more clear-eyed and can think more clearly about how they resolve to live 2015.

I've been following what others purport are the trends to watch but also what some believe are the considerations of 2014 that will directly and indirectly inform the direction of some of those trends. Let's begin with a look back at a few things reported in Education Week about the teaching profession.

 First we have the chart that suggests why teachers are leaving the profession: too little prep time and a teaching load that's too heavy are the two primary reasons, according to the research done by Richard Ingersoll. According to Ingersoll, the issue is about teacher retention. And that, quite frankly, shouldn't come as any surprise to any administrator.

Comparatively we have the chart that exhibits how hard teachers are working. In the Education Week article, this chart is listed as Chart #8. This chart claims to be "teaching hours," which could mean time spent only in the classroom but could also include prep time. It's really hard to say without thumbing through the entire OECD report and examining other charts and reading the information about the data actually reported and collected. So take this chart with those very extensive caveats. Having said that, however, those of us who know, are, or were teachers and at any level (including higher education) know that a 40-hour work week in education is a myth. Most teachers, unionized or otherwise, work more than 40 hours a week, whether for grading, their own learning, prep, or just taking care of administrivia.

I juxtapose these two charts because my anecdotal research and experience tells me that time that teachers try to allocate for prep gets sucked up by administrivia or other ill-planned or badly executed attempts for PLNs, grade level meetings, or just "other duties as assigned." For some the actual teaching load is to great, but for many the teaching load is compounded by "other duties as assigned" or whatever phrase might be used to camouflage the expectations.

We also know the majority of teachers want to learn, want to learn from and with each other and/or those who have been brought in to coach and mentor them. The majority of teachers want to improve their craft, but they also want time and opportunity to reflect on their teaching, to get feedback on their teaching, and to develop a plan to improve with the kind of support, feedback, and coaching that will offer them a reasonable chance to succeed.

As we look back at the trends and issues of 2014, we should take a peek ahead at what might be influencing education in 2015. These three trends are as good a place as any to start. There has been a tremendous amount of conversation regarding competency-based learning (CBE), and not just for higher education. I see this popping up in K-12, too. My concern is that people blather a bit about CBE without having any understanding of what it is or could be, or its implications. It's worth considering some of the drivers listed in this article and discussing their viability and potential implications, thoughtfully and purposefully.

Towards the end of 2014, there were more conversations about "informal learning" which has morphed for some to "social learning," which is fed, in my opinion, by the resurgence of constructivism as seen in personalized learning, which is influenced by blended and flipped learning, which was influenced by our continuing evolution of thinking about differentiation.

Mobile learning, or learning-on-the-go, continues a trend of just-in-time (JIT) learning and job-embedded professional development. An idea that continues to gain traction is combining CBE with developing learning and skills as students need them rather than teaching students a lot of stuff in the hopes they will store it up until they need it, and then be able to figure out what stuff they need for that situation. Is it reasonable? Practical? Efficacious over time? Good questions to which we can't and won't know the answers for a while which is also problematic as many of us no longer (or never did) have the patience to wait a realistic period of time for a realistic answer.

But if social learning, CBE, and mobile learning are going to be realities of 2015 (and beyond) learning, then we need to have thoughtful and purposeful conversations about how to implement changes sooner rather than later and to provide our teachers with the support, time, and coaching they need to try to keep up with the actual changes, not the possible changes, for which their students need to be prepared.

And that means, in my opinion, that changes are implemented in waves. What high school students will need to prepare for college or be better prepared for the work force most immediately is different from what middle school students will need to prepare for high school and then to be preparing for college some years out. All of that demands thoughtful and purposeful planning, and realistic resolutions for change.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Personalized learning, standardized tests: Stop "reforming"

This past August Ian Altman published a piece in The Washington Post. It was recently shared again on Facebook by my colleague Tom Whitford. I started to just share it, but realized I had a few other things I wanted to say about it.

In Seven things teachers are sick of hearing from school reformers, Altman calls out the likely well-meaning but generally misguided and misinformed individuals who may or may not intentionally challenge not only the professionalism of teachers, but their intelligence and their competence.

Most of our teachers are good teachers, even excellent teachers. We have a tendency in the US to paint everything with a broad brush, so if one school isn't doing well, the whole district is cause for alarm. If one district has failing grades, the entire state is convulsed with angst.

For the past couple of years, when occasion has permitted, I've asked educators to consider the number of initiatives in their schools and in their districts. I've suggested they do an audit of the initiatives launched over the past few years. One district I worked with did such an audit and was astonished to discover the number of school, district, and state initiatives launched and subsequently ignored or countermanded or contradicted by additional initiatives. They soon discovered that most teachers acknowledged the initiative, followed what they needed to in most cases, and just ignored the rest.

Many of us have been talking about the need for patience when any change of policy or practice is introduced. But far too many have unrealistic expectations for change in schools. A superintendent wants to see change by the end of a school year, no matter what. Her job or his legacy may depend upon it. If change doesn't seem to occur fast enough, additional changes are forthcoming and those only serve to slow down any progress or muddle it.

So when school reformers come knocking on the schoolhouse door with their so-called research and the push for data analysis to make good decisions about how to teach a child, the majority of teachers want to tell reformers to take a hike. Why? Because what most reformers don't realize is that the really good teachers and the best of our teachers do all kinds of "assessment" during every single hour of every single school day. They might not see every sign of every kid every time, but they work hard to get to know their kids. They spend long hours on their own finding new strategies or new activities that will help their kids learn. They recognize when they've designed a bad test question and adjust accordingly. They don't need no stinkin' data-driven decision-making nor standardized tests to know which kids are struggling. They don't need formal policies to figure out why most of their kids are struggling in particular areas. In fact, they really don't need the stranglehold of excessive policies and practices that mostly interfere with their ability to do their jobs, and they really don't need to hear about bloated and condescending research from individuals who have spent little time in actual classrooms doing actual teaching with actual kids.

I believe most school reformers mean well, but I wonder why in the world they seem to insist on the broad brush approach when so much about a school is individual. We laugh when we talk about principals who think their schools are unique, and yet, they're right to think their schools are unique. Sure, many grade level schools share the same kinds of problems because they have elementary, middle, or high school students. But the demographics are different; the personalities and the capabilities of their teachers are different; the backgrounds of their students and their students' families are different.

What is so fabulously contradictory and ironic about education is that we are currently riding the wave of personalized learning. Many of our reformers who were or are staunch supporters of standardized tests are also or have become passionate cheerleaders for personalized learning. Um, is it just me or does it seem odd that we would encourage students to pursue personalized learning and then expect them all to take the same exact exam?

In other words, once again, we have a weird confluence of policies and initiatives that confuse whatever it might be that reformers might have been trying to do.

Teachers have every right to be weary of so-called reformers, most of whom haven't been in a K-12 classroom since they were kids or since they went to their last parent-teacher conference, and neither of those count.

Every time I get to be in a school with a group of educators, I get to spend time with some outstanding teachers as well as some teachers who are probably pretty good at what they do in the classroom. I am always impressed with what teachers can do in spite of everything.

I'm not saying we don't need some changes in our schools, but, again, a broad brush approach to impose the same changes on all teachers in all schools is absurd.

People wail and wring their hands over standardized test scores even though many of our teachers, because of other stupid policies, have been forced to become proctors to prepare students to pass a test rather than actually teaching them. And we wonder why our kids aren't ready for college.

Monday, December 1, 2014

In defense of college

All universities have commencements: that ceremony of graduation during which, in due course, graduates are both celebrated and exhorted to go forth and do something useful, and not just so they can pay back all of those student loans.

Some universities have convocation ceremonies, literally a "calling together" ceremony, to mark the start of the new school year. It is a commencement in the sense that students are about to commence a new chapter in their lives.

The speeches at any of these events are rarely memorable, but several years ago I heard a provost speak at the beginning of the school year and reminded students that college is not a parenthetic in life. It's easy to think of college as a sort of bridge between high school and "real" life. But in Dr. Anderson's speech, she encouraged students to see their experiences in college as stepping stones through higher education, and to strive to recognize all of the disparate opportunities for learning they were about to encounter. Some of those stones are a bit wobbly, requiring a bit more concentration and balance, while others are more firmly set and make the learning or life-experience transaction less difficult.

The Washington Post piece "In defense of college" prompted the reminiscence of that speech and what many of my colleagues and I sought to inculcate in our students. College is not just about the curriculum and the courses; it's not just about grades and GPAs. College is more than study skills and exam-taking skills. It's even more than problem-solving and critical thinking skills. As Vivek Wadhwa notes, college "also teaches students how to interact and work with others, make compromises, deal with rejection and failure, and learn."

Students learn who they are and what they believe. They begin to figure out what's important to them, what they value most and where they won't compromise. They begin to discover qualities of themselves and they begin to make decisions about how to use their strengths and how to mitigate their weaknesses.

I don't want a discussion of the value of higher education to get sidetracked by the ridiculous amount of student debt; however, students too often don't learn how to manage their finances, and students and their families have no clear idea of the implications of their student loans. As a college professor who taught at a relatively expensive school, I'd often advise students to go to a local or community college for their general education requirements rather than starting to build a mountain of debt. The Admissions office wasn't always happy with me, but it made sense to recruit students who could and would stay rather than get them into school for their freshman year, load them up with debt, and then stand by helplessly as they're forced to drop out for financial reasons. In my opinion, that's just dumb and borders on unethical.

Anyway, I think it's possible for many people to be successful without going to college. But I agree with Mr. Wadhwa that there are opportunities at most universities that students simply will not be able to match if they do not go to college. Having said that, I think students need to be judicious when they start to research colleges and universities. I get being loyal and following the family legacy, but I also think that making a decision about a college is one of the first major decisions a student can make about deciding who they are and what they think they want to become. Perhaps not life-altering, but certainly an important stone as they navigate through their collegiate experience.