What’s Up in Holyoke? Privacy, Freedom of Speech, and Due Process under Fire

A teacher has been fired for speaking out against district administrators in Holyoke. Or at least the Commonwealth of Massachusetts thinks there is probable cause to investigate. His offense? Revealing that students’ names and test scores were being exposed on a data wall…then releasing the PowerPoint presentation in which teachers were directly instructed to include the students’ names. Opportunity, action, and intent on the part of the school district to violate the privacy of the children are in evidence.

Our children are our future. And our schools are on the front lines teaching those children about democracy, civil liberties, and citizenship. Unfortunately, in the Holyoke case, the teacher’s rights to freedom of speech and due process appear to have been flagrantly violated. In addition, the children’s rights to privacy have been encroached upon. Most details of their growth and development are protected from scrutiny in matters ranging from intellect to discipline until they reach legal adulthood at age 18.

Let’s start with the schools and their possession-with-intent-to-distribute of very personal data on children. In the era of Big Data, interpretation of the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) already has left parents, guardians, and children vulnerable to a couple of gaps in privacy guarantees. The first is the definition of directory information, which can be distributed without permission; the second is the waiver of prior consent for “…a contractor, consultant, volunteer or other party to whom the school has outsourced institutional services or functions.” In either event, FERPA has a bad nudge.

Parents get disclosure of policies or contractual arrangements with a brief window for them to prohibit access to their children’s data. It would be far better to offer parents a one-click opt IN if they wanted their children’s privacy rights to be violated, not requirement of an opt OUT action to keep data secure. Passive responses should protect the kids but, in reality, FERPA errs on the side of protecting access to the kids’ privileged information on behalf of public information requests or private consultants who mine data.

Holyoke school officials went the next step to provide the kids’ names and test scores expressly to subject them to intrusive offers of motivation and intervention in public and did so without prior notice. This action also left the students vulnerable to embarrassment or mockery regarding their achievement or lack thereof. When first exposed, the District issued a denial. When cornered, they retaliated against the whistle blower.

The Holyoke school teacher in good standing who led the protest against the inappropriate disclosure of students’ identities and test scores lost his job. Due process for teacher termination had been defined for tenured teachers; however, the teacher in question had not earned his access to those internal protections yet. He needed the Department of Labor Relations to intervene, which they have now done.

As for Freedom of Speech, that may remain in question within the Holyoke Public Schools for some time to come.

September 12, 2014 at 10:30 AM Leave a comment

Common Core Not So Hot of an Issue

The heated debate that is being waged over the Common Core is neither. Yes, it is July, which renders any environment a bit sultry…but the Common Core has slipped under the heading of safe binary disputes over pedagogy. These discussions are not a problem; the natural tension between standards and curriculum is a functional cornerstone of what should be a dynamic equilibrium in education. Feel free to jump in at any point. Just try not to ignore the real problems that should be at the top of the list.

I just read a cogent piece on literacy instruction and curriculum development by Kathleen Porter-Magee in the Education Gadfly; however, its inherent reason survived its goal of perpetuating the current obsession with the Common Core. The main objective seemed to be that some standards are good and others are bad, and that the bad ones are more likely to come from the Common Core. Standards that lead to manifestation within the context of a curriculum, as in the math example, are good. Standards that manifest in applied problem-solving are bad, as in the literacy example, because educators try to teach a generic skill before context.

Generic skills must become known as such before applied problem solving can happen across any curriculum. However, the skills themselves often need a context in order to be learned at the start. But then again…don’t forget style variations among students. Not everyone excels in linear thinking. Ms. Magee makes a number of fine points, but the Common Core is not essential to her argument. Instead, it does make for a strong case for a wider bandwidth in pedagogy. The students only win when the educators agree to disagree and accept more than one approach to learning at any given time.

Now, back to the Common Core…and the Gadfly’s Twitter summary that “this too shall pass.” The Common Core is a crucial element of our nation’s education system, but not because of its skills concentration. Rather it is the interstate portability of education that is at stake. The Common Core can and should be tweaked endlessly in a continuous quality improvement effort. Of greater importance, perhaps, is the notion that education as an institution can withstand any external forces of change.

Educators are resilient under conditions of siege, which is the way any change is perceived. And the industry can set up a failure with great reliability. The Common Core resistance suggests that, like No Child Left Behind, it was destined for failure from the start within this context. This is why neither can be left as an artifact of history. We are denying access to a high quality education to a large number of American children, and they are trapped in their geography. These changes must happen in spite of the resistance. The education community must learn a new skill, to rally around success with the same facility they exercise to create a failure.

July 24, 2014 at 8:27 AM Leave a comment

Data on Resource Allocation?

Aggregate expenditures in the US on the “instruction” portion of education are approaching $0.5 TRILLION, and that’s only about 60% of total spending. So how do we spend it across the curriculum? Dunno…there’s no uniform chart of accounts to analyze that. And the folks we trust to manage resource allocation for education are the same people who don’t seem bothered by this…they just know they always need more money.

Financial charts of accounts are boring. Especially once you have gone through them state by state without finding any unifying principle. In fact, in most states you cannot find a standard across local districts. We have no idea how we as a nation allocate our instructional resources by grade, subject, or program area. Nor do we have the ability to compare variations in spending against student outcomes with any real specificity.

If Lunch Lady Doris spends $25 on a birthday cake…we’ve got her. Alert the superintendent…the press is on the way, inquiring minds want to know. Yet no one seems concerned about the details when we spend hundreds of billions of dollars on instruction and almost half our students fall below grade level proficiency in math and literacy. One line item, which comprises 60% of spending, is the full report on instruction.

Money matters. And we need to know where it goes. Food, transportation, and buildings consume significant resources, and spending that money judiciously is important. But we put way too much emphasis on prevention of impropriety in the latter categories than we do actively intending spending for education in a rational model for student learning.

The student should be at the center of the story – weighted funding based on intensity of educational needs – with matching of corresponding expenditures in a case management model. Is anybody listening?

July 17, 2014 at 11:41 AM Leave a comment

Building a Concrete Bridge to Study Skills in 9th Grade

Today’s high schools are becoming more adept at inclusion of Students with Special Needs, and skills classes have become a great source of support for that effort. However, the transition to high school can be difficult for 9th graders, and they may not be ready to process generic skills for application across the curriculum. Sometimes they need concrete examples from specific classwork, homework, or test prep to give the concepts of study skills meaning before they can activate strategies independently.

There are good things happening in Special Education. Students with Special Needs are being educated alongside their peers in inclusive classrooms. Higher expectations have become a reality, along with genuine preparation for college. Heterogeneous classrooms often have general and special educators in a co-teaching environment, and students may also receive support through teaching assistants or paraprofessionals as well. Those who still need additional scaffolding also may attend skills-based classes with a curriculum aligned around student success.

By high school, the quick study cannot keep it all in his head. Last minute cramming for a quiz or test will not produce long-term memory for final exams. And the free association technique for writing will not autocorrect for audience and voice. Students must be taught how to read, write, and study across the curriculum. They must organize materials and time judiciously, and they must forego the usual distractions with intent. That done, the student can become more accomplished in the exciting, bewildering, and frightening world of emerging abstract thought. Facilitating this transition is not an easy task for the adults.

Teachers, counselors, and parents must be a team as they triangulate around the adolescent’s knowledge, maturity, and stamina as a student. Each must be prepared to provide guidance, stimulation, and structure that will support the young adult’s success. Most children will figure out many of these strategies and begin to activate them on their own. However, the full picture needs to be formalized like any other algorithm for life. This is especially true for Students with Special Needs who have found comfort in a concrete world, or those who struggle with focus or executive function.

Study skills classes are based around essential skills and habits of mind that can be explicitly taught. However, the student may not value these lessons unless there is a concrete link to results. Sometimes the special educator must sit and complete assignments alongside a student. Or scribe for a writer or test taker in an alternate site. Or wait for the good grades that document the results of diligence. School-wide, classroom-based, or personalized digital systems that provide quick feedback to the student will reinforce good work habits and support organization further.

My personal style as a teacher of skills has been one of activism, especially with 9th graders. A year of bad choices and consequences made no sense to me with a child who was still unclear on his or her role in the process. I organized for a child who was scattered, perhaps hovered a bit more with a procrastinator, and got a confirmation email from other teachers on the team before I fully accepted that a 14 or 15-year-old had “nothing to do.” The last case, of course, offered the promise for that dream curriculum of study skills…the one that I hoped to enable for my colleagues who taught upper grades. In the meantime, I set goals with students and often worked as hard as they did to achieve those objectives. Because sometimes in Special Needs, the students have to work harder than others to get to the next level, and no child should not be alone in that effort.

July 15, 2014 at 9:13 AM Leave a comment

Fast Company Misses the Point

I’ll say it again…Our children, the details of their growth and development, their hopes and dreams, their emerging intellects and identities…are not for sale. They are not to be profiled, tracked, or manipulated for profit. And their privacy is not to blame for our “secrecy” problem in education.

As a fan of effective tech solutions, I read the Fast Company piece on Jim Shelton, “The Man Who Wants to Fix Education’s Secrecy Problem,” with more than a little curiosity. Unfortunately, the substance was missing. Essentially, Gregory Ferenstein cited the problem of teacher performance to be our reliance on intangibles – quite true – then proceeded to describe possible ways in which privacy loss on the part of children was justified by the insight gained into how they use technology in lieu of human instruction. The lack of connection between objectifying teacher performance (and I mean that in the best possible way) and improving instruction was a disappointment. Our human instructional model was barely essential to the conversation, merely introduced and forgotten.

As we pursue valid reports of teacher effectiveness, a digital solution would seem to be essential. An argument that Ferenstein could have suggested (but did not) was that we need to stop relying on pen and paper student portfolios if we are going to get beyond test scores, attendance records, and graduation rates as actionable measures of student outcomes. Unfortunately, the author suggests that the tools of the social network and advertising effectiveness serve as a valid proxy for research-based pedagogy. Instead of looking for a better, student-focused link between educators and their students…the Fast Company solution extols the virtue of institutionalizing a bridge between external marketers and the children. And he presumes the leap from archaic fuzzy impressions to hyperbolic micro-analysis without stopping on any logical middle ground – a common mistake among advisers who offer no more than the veneer of a grandiose scheme.

I am pleased to learn of Mr. Shelton’s background in technology and hope that his ideas include rebuilding a student-centered education database…one that integrates finance, student outcomes, and teacher effectiveness. And I hope to see real tools for interactive instruction – not double-clicks and distractions – as well as opportunities to explore ideas while building computer-aided models or speeding up the process of studying and building memories. However, we can hack our way beyond the insular nature of education in good conscience without exposing the children to unscrupulous vendors. Their data must always be held sacred.

July 5, 2014 at 10:53 AM Leave a comment

Springboards or Bungee Cords?

Recruitment and retention of young people of color as teachers in urban public schools began as a goal, but recently got elevated to the level of a crisis. But might we benefit from trading our periscopes for something offering a broader view? Consider the possibility that there is no shortage of well-educated young people of color…and only question whether they should be held back from the same career opportunities as, say, your average Teach for America alum?

Children of color benefit from role models with whom they can identify, and who could be better than a great teacher from a familiar community? Unfortunately, public school recruiters have sounded the alarm that they are having trouble attracting and retaining a permanent workforce from that community. Solutions are being sought in incentives that give students who otherwise could not afford college a chance for funding in exchange for a promise of giving back as a teacher after graduation. But our goals for diversity among teachers should not be confused with the objective of giving urban scholars arising from poverty access to higher education and equitable income potential.

People generally do want to give back to their communities. But they have a right to choose when and how. And a student does not need to focus his or her attention on role models who plan a lifetime in the classroom. Teaching is one of many great professions. Children can find inspiration in role models from every walk of life, living well and pursuing their dreams. Let’s not turn our springboards for success into bungee cords that snap young college grads back home too fast. They may wish to return for a few years of service in the community while sorting out their plans for the future, or they might be drawn home in another phase of life with a wealth of real world experience. But their career trajectories should not be altered by design.

Any program intended to level the playing field for students from disadvantaged communities should do just that…give each student the chance to pursue higher education and choose a career path with as much freedom as a student who was born in a more affluent world. In the meantime, every effort should continue to be made to transform urban schools into centers of academic excellence that also would be great places to work.

July 1, 2014 at 11:44 AM Leave a comment

Organizing the Faculty around the Children on a Broader Pedagogical Base

A 21st century plan …unbundled products, individualized education strategies, and liberated teaching styles to facilitate a brilliant collaboration among practitioners that develops their differences in a medley of learning experiences for their students.

Broad-based pedagogy could be seen as an amalgam of elements from all the canned systems, one that cherry-picks the best of what each has to offer while declining the confinement of the packaged deal. It begins with the picture of the educated child at each developmental level, defines competencies that underlie that stage as well as the knowledge, analysis, and judgment that are within his or her grasp. A wider variety of learning opportunities are designed to reach every student. That child’s ability to think and reason, the problems that can be solved, and the maturity implicit in one’s behavior…all are evidence that the process in on track.

Children bring unique styles, predispositions, and time lines to class. In combination, the possibilities are endless. Fortunately, technology can enable pedagogy with a similar breadth of dimensions for personalized learning strategies. But the human factor cannot be eliminated. There is no complete tech solution nor is there one teacher who can address the needs of all their students all of the time. Try as we might, we cannot make a call to Central Casting and order up the latest model teacher equipped with the latest fads in pedagogy. Been there, done that. Instead, a team of teachers must triangulate around knowledge, stamina for learning, and maturity in their students using any tool available.

Learning how to teach all the children, beginning with a paradoxical look in the mirror…

At a recent author event, I heard a neuro-psychologist, among other things, challenging his peers to reflect on the biases they brought to their patient care. Every consultation that arose from a defined point of view, regardless of their foundations as cognitive therapists or psychoanalysts, for example, threatened to derail the process of unraveling the patient’s problems. Commitment within the discipline to draw consistent conclusions was the flaw in the process. Skepticism toward one’s preconceptions was necessary for actually hearing one’s patients.

I could see analogies within schools of pedagogical thought as well as a partial solution in self-awareness on the part of the practitioner. Just as neuro-psychologists must open their practices to input from other disciplines, educators must seek a dynamic equilibrium among divergent pedagogies and teaching styles for a diverse population of students. It creates the demand for team teaching…without the inherent group think that often accompanies it.

For a teacher who loves a subject, the urge to move the child to think like oneself is compelling. ”If you could see what I see, you would be able to do so much more,” begets a quest that is mired in teacher-centric thought regardless of the number of things a child experiences hands-on. Sometimes a child just wants to get procedural knowledge and move on. Wallowing in the building of every cog in the machinery of analysis will never engage them. But they can marvel at the beauty and efficiency of the smoothly functioning algorithm. Conversely, memorizing words and equations sets up cognitive conflict for a child who is driven internally to prove theorems. The procedure begs to be challenged, the exceptions rooted out.

Dispensing with the normative language around style…

Historically, directors of instruction have often become married to pedagogical approaches like serial monogamists, finding early adopters of a learning system, then letting professional development be driven toward co-opting the rest of the faculty until all have capitulated…by which point the strategy has achieved obsolescence. The process is exhausting and breeds failed teachers, those without the resilience to let others repeatedly reinvent them without their permission.

Added to the conundrum is the simple fact that teachers do not necessarily enjoy teaching outside of their own comfort zones. Yes, teachers who remain in the profession for the long haul need to be prepared to grow and stay ahead of the curve. And they need a combination of options for horizontal and vertical mobility to learn from new challenges and broaden their experiential knowledge. But preferred contexts for their work may persist. This does not have to be a problem.

We may well be finding ourselves in the zone for brilliant collaboration among educators…one that matches complementary skills among teachers to better reach the children. Evidence is emerging that we have been neglecting memory, for example; we definitely have struggled over deep versus broad knowledge; and we may have spiraled our way out of our students’ bandwidths at times. And we have discarded education practices that had become cumbersome rituals when we have apps to revitalize the essence of their lessons. Our collective memory for pedagogy, coupled with modern tools of the trade, should prove to be a potent force.

June 26, 2014 at 9:02 PM Leave a comment

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