If A Pig Wore A Wig And Other Tales of School Reform

if a pig wore a wig

Bill Gates had an idea. He was passionate about it, absolutely sure he had a winner. His idea? America’s high schools were too big. 
When a multibillionaire gets an idea, just about everybody leans in to listen. And when that idea has to do with matters of important public policy and the billionaire is willing to back it up with hard cash, public officials tend to reach for the money with one hand and their marching orders with the other. Gates backed his small-schools initiative with enormous amounts of cash. So, without a great deal of thought, one school district after another signed on to the notion that large public high schools should be broken up and new, smaller schools should be created.

With that lede, former NY Times columnist, Bob Herbert details The Plot Against Public Education: How millionaires and billionaires are ruining our schools POLITICO Magazine October, 6, 2014.

Herbert catalogues the failed hit-or-miss reforms driven by corporate America’s assault on public education. Smaller schools, charters, on-line schools, and big testing have yet to deliver significant improvements in student performance. What they have produced is a “testing-industrial” complex that has turned schools into test factories that harness the labor of students to toil at the “bubble-test” assembly line producing dubious “achievement” data. While I’m sure that corporate leaders, venture capitalists and foundation experts are nice people, I doubt their primary goal is student achievement. Not with the big profits to be made servicing the “K-12 space” and privatizing public education.

The piece profiles a cast of well-placed educational “reformers” – Bill Gates, Ronald Packard (former Goldman Sachs banker), Michael Milken (disgraced junk-bond king), Larry Ellison (billionaire co-founder of Oracle), Rupert Murdoch (king of the News Corp media empire), and Cathleen Black (longtime media executive and short-lived NYC school chancellor). What they lack in educational expertise is more than offset by their wealth and political influence. Herbert closes

Those who are genuinely interested in improving the quality of education for all American youngsters are faced with two fundamental questions: First, how long can school systems continue to pursue market-based reforms that have failed year after demoralizing year to improve the education of the nation’s most disadvantaged children? And second, why should a small group of America’s richest individuals, families, and foundations be allowed to exercise such overwhelming—and often such toxic—influence over the ways in which public school students are taught?

Image credit:
Taken from Page 255 “Illustrated Poems and Songs for Young People. Edited by Mrs. Sale Barker”
(1885) The British Library Identifier: 000201665

Common Core Training: Five Essentials

plainfield workshop

Teachers are too savvy to fall for an empty promise that something is “common-core-aligned.”

I just returned from a full-day workshop for middle school social studies teachers at Plainfield CCSD 202 (IL). It was entitled “Think Like a Historian: Literacy and the Common Core.” 

Teachers everywhere are concerned about the impact of Common Core. But they won’t benefit from lecture-style PD that itemizes specific strands and standards of Common Core. Promoting curricular “checklists” doesn’t build capacity, it fosters either resistance or mindless compliance. Don’t talk about “close reading” – do it!

As Charlotte Danielson has written: “I think the common core rests on a view of teaching as complex decision making, as opposed to something more routine or drill-based. … So I see the common core as a fertile and rich opportunity for really important professional learning by teachers, because — I don’t know now how to say this nicely — well, not all teachers have been prepared to teach in this way. I see that as one of the enormous challenges facing the common core rollout.

Teachers need a demonstration what Common Core teaching actually looks like, how the essential elements of Common Core connect to what they are already doing and why students will need to master these skills to be successful lifelong learners.

Here’s five PD essentials to support teachers in transitioning to close reading and the Common Core followed by specific comments from the Plainfield teacher evaluations.

1. Make it real. Teachers are too savvy to fall for an empty promise that something is “common-core-aligned.” And remember you lose credibility if you “paper over” Common Core’s controversies.

  • Thanks for the opportunity to freely express our opinions.
  • It’s great to be able to discuss the frustration and then move forward to what’s best for kids.
  • I appreciate that you never “dodged” a tough question.

2. Start from where teachers are. Reinforce their existing practice and offer a feasible framework for Common Core “make-overs” to their current lessons.

  • I now think it’s possible to successfully teach close reading. The responsibility is mine to teach how to do so.
  • I feel affirmed. It was nice to hear that how I run my classroom is right on track with today’s workshop.
  • My confidence has increased. I have a real chance of making these things work.
  • Loved the close reading using images. I’ve done this for years and never had a name for it.
  • I have a lot of these pieces already in place, but now I know how to more neatly tie them together.

3. Teachers don’t want abstract theory. They want ideas they can use in the classroom. Model the strategies, don’t just talk about them.

  • Each piece of information was attached to examples, how-tos, and evidence of its value. I was shown what works, why it works, and how to use it in my classroom.
  • It’s so helpful to participate in the activities just as our student should.
  • “Practice what you preach.” We were part of our learning just as we expect students to be.
  • Your presentation hits all learning styles.
  • I’m stealing a lot of these activities.

4. Common Core relies on relinquishing responsibility for learning to the student. Teachers have to be encouraged to “be less helpful” as they shift to student-centered, constructivist approaches.

  • I need to remember that when it comes to student responses – there doesn’t need to be a “right answer.”
  • A great reminder / inspiration to be student centered and remember that kids will need to be invested and own their learning.
  • Summarize and comparing – students need to share what’s actually important to them – powerful!
  • I will focus more on peer and student reflection and revision.
  • I like the idea of students evaluating their own progress and realize that it’s an easy thing to do if we make the effort.

5. The critical competencies of Common Core asks students to operate at higher levels thinking. They’ll need to analyze, evaluate, share and debate their ideas with others. Those activities should form the basis of the training.

  • I now understand more about Bloom’s Taxonomy than I did in college.
  • Getting students to think at higher levels is not as difficult as I thought it was.
  • I need to stop starting every lesson at the low end of Blooms. Want to start some at the top.

Why Do Teachers Ask Questions They Know the Answers To?

The Future will not be multiple choice
The Future will not be multiple choice

A while back I posed 13 Subversive Questions for the Classroom. Here’s the first five:

  1. If a question has a correct answer, is it worth asking?
  2. If something is “Googleable” why would we spend precious class time teaching it?
  3. When we ask students to summarize, do we actually want to know what’s important to them?
  4. What do you suppose students think they are supposed to be doing when we ask them to analyze?
  5. Do you ever ask your students questions you don’t know the answer to? Why not?

Here’s a TEDxCreativeCoast video – The Future Will Not Be Multiple Choice – that answers those questions and showcases the power of a PBL / design-based approach to learning. Turn curricula into design challenges, classrooms into workshops and teach students to think like designers.

While you watch it, try to think of a meaningful career that looks like filling out a worksheet.

14 Provocative Questions for the Faculty

 

It’s back to school time. Get ready for that opening day faculty meeting where you sit and listen, while wishing you could be getting some actual work done in your classroom. Here’s some questions you might ask at the meeting to generate more meaningful back to school discussion.

Can students learn to be innovative in a school driven by the routine of test prep?

Every summer you get to reinvent yourself as a teacher. I’ve used the time to brainstorm a few disruptive questions I would pose to subvert the status quo in school. This post is directed to teachers and administrators thinking about their school at the program level. Its companion post, 13 Subversive Questions for the Classroom, offers reflective questions for teachers to consider when thinking about their approach to instruction.

  1. When’s the last time we talked about who’s learning, who’s not, and what we are doing about it?
  2. How much of what is taught in our school is only useful for passing state tests?
  3. With new and cheaper technologies giving students greater control of their information landscape, when will our school become totally irrelevant to students and fully isolated from their personal learning environments?
  4. Do we dumb down instruction for the “low achievers” in the belief that they cannot handle higher order thinking?
  5. Are the “honors” students critical thinkers, or just willing to memorize what we give them?
  6. Are teachers’ informal social media connections more valuable to them than our district-mandated PLC’s?
  7. Which is the better driver’s test – the written DMV exam or the road test? What does that tell us about state assessments?
  8. If we accept the notion that the careers of the future have not been invented yet, how do we justify the rigidity of our 19th century, departmentalized curriculum?
  9. When do students actually get to work on that “life-long learner” goal in our school mission statement?
  10. What would happen if faculty meetings and staff development had to use the strategies being advocated for the classroom?
  11. When we host a parents’ event, do we use the instructional strategies we promote for the classroom or simply lecture at them?
  12. Is our school program thoughtfully designed to give students increasing responsibility for their learning?
  13. What meaningful career looks like filling out a worksheet?
  14. Can students learn to be innovative in a school driven by the routine of test prep?

Comment below to add a question you’d like to see posed at the opening day faculty meeting.

Image credit: Banksy – subversive street artist.

13 Subversive Questions for the Classroom

At the end of my recent keynote on the power of reflection at TechitU, I closed by saying something to the effect “… as a teacher you get to reinvent yourselves every year … if you want to change the status quo at school, know that everything is conspiring against you … testing, parent expectations, curriculum mandates, etc … so perhaps you’ll need to be a bit subversive.”

If state testing went away tomorrow, would we actually teach differently?

Since I made that “subversive” comment, I’ve been thinking about reflective questions that would challenge the status quo in school. My list was getting rather long, so I decided to split it into two posts. This post focuses on reflective questions for teachers to consider when thinking about their approach to instruction. Its companion post, 14 Provocative Questions for the Faculty poses disruptive questions for teachers and administrators thinking about reforming their school at the program level.

  1. If a question has a correct answer, is it worth asking?
  2. If something is “Googleable” why would we spend precious class time teaching it?
  3. When we ask students to summarize, do we actually want to know what’s important to them?
  4. What do you suppose students think they are supposed to be doing when we ask them to analyze?
  5. Do you ever ask your students questions you don’t know the answer to? Why not?
  6. Think about all those things we teach kids claiming “you’ll need to know this someday.” With the exception of teaching it, when’s the last time you needed to know any of that stuff?
  7. Do your students need more information, or skills in how to critically evaluate the information that surrounds them?
  8. How much of what’s really important in life, is taught in a classroom?
  9. Why do we usually teach all the boring facts first and save the interesting stuff for later?
  10. When we cover material, what is it that we think we have accomplished?
  11. Is being told something the same as learning it?
  12. What would content area teaching look like if it were taught the way an art teacher teaches art?
  13. If state testing went away tomorrow, would we actually teach differently?

Add your subversive questions in the comment section below!

“Subversive” inspired by “Teaching As a Subversive Activity” by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner. You should read it.

“13” is a cool number and people love reading blog posts that are enumerated lists.

Image credit: Banksy subversive street artist.

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