Posts filed under ‘Ageism in Education’

A Blogger’s Reflection

Five years ago, I started the SchoolsRetooled blog and began to gather my thoughts on the US PreK-12 Education Delivery System and, more specifically, urban education. Periodic stints back in the classroom have put the blog on hiatus, and it flagged quite a bit after a family tragedy a couple of years ago. But I stand by my initial vision for education reform, not as a call for competition but, rather, a renewal of the system itself to create the capacity to fully integrate 21st Century innovations and continue to evolve toward excellence.

In December 2011, near the end of my first year of blogging on SchoolsRetooled.com, I published Seven Keys to Education Reform. In this 10-page summary of my approach to system reform, I identified seven levers of change that could improve the system’s functioning by getting more information from data systems, taking a broader view of pedagogy, streamlining organizations around the mission of educating the children, and providing incentives for common ground among educators and between educators and the communities they serve. Beyond organizational dynamics, my thesis presumed an absence of fault on behalf of any of the participants in the education system and, in particular, an end to ageist scapegoating.

In the years since then, policy conflicts defined by political affiliation have shaped the conversations among educators, much to my dismay. My biggest disappointment has been the extent to which the goals of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) were allowed to slip away and the 2014 deadline passed unnoticed. The Obama Administration relaxed the accountabilities, pushing for the Common Core State Standards and advancement of teacher evaluations. Conservatives renewed their support for competition for public schools, choosing incubation of ideas in charter schools, often with private bankrolling.

By the time ESEA was renewed late in 2015 bipartisan support was achieved in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) with very little prescription for how this would be ensured. The clearest policy directive was the prohibition on any further Federal intervention in accountabilities that the legislation defined as states’ rights. The legislature was ruled by Republicans in both houses; the Obama activism in lieu of overdue ESEA renewal was over.

I continue to believe in system reform. The quiet period after the passage of ESSA allows me to reflect here on progress made with my own agenda as well as initiatives needed in the future.

On no-fault education reform

Education reform has evolved such that rhetoric is less about frenzied reactions to missed targets for student achievement on high-stakes tests and more about opportunities for concrete system improvements and real school transformations. However, the worst performing districts often remain trapped in blame-based failure cycles. They will not be able to get out of their own way until they become more inclusive in their solutions, recognizing their allies and working in concert rather than with antagonism and derision.

On a student-centered data system

Data systems have shown great strides within education, but they are not student-centered. ESSA authorizes a limited number of districts to experiment with student-centered accounting, but they focus only on the revenue stream, not really addressing matching of revenues to expenses at the student level. I continue to believe that we will not be able to manage student outcomes effectively until both sides of the equation are in synch. Once the money is at stake, school systems that are reluctant to embrace the challenge of student-centered accounting will realize its necessity. Data on student outcomes and teacher effectiveness will follow logically.

On broad-based pedagogy

Software is beginning to catch up with the structural changes in hardware and data. This bodes well for implementation of blended learning, which balances digital resources with tradition methods. In addition, personalized and competency-based learning can be realized with greater potential for educators and students to share management of the learning process.

Educators are accepting technology that combines attendance, assignment completion, and grading in databases that can also support student portfolio development. In addition, these same platforms support collaborative projects that can be pursued and documented on shared platforms. Textual content is available digitally, and learning is becoming an interactive, multi-media experience. Student support is routinely enhanced with multisensory digital options and close-reading strategies.

On alignment to mission and benchmarks

There have been many experiments in school transformation; however, reorganizing the actual schools has not been a priority yet. I believe this will happen organically as data systems provide better information on student outcomes.

On performance incentives for Special Education

New Special Education guidelines from Federal regulators have shifted emphasis toward student outcomes. This promising development should help to accelerate progress toward grade-level proficiency. I continue to recommend earlier student involvement as members of their education planning teams, but there has not been much movement in that direction. For now, younger students tend to be present more so if they have disciplinary hearings than for prospective planning sessions.

On school leadership and general management

A couple of years ago, the time seemed ripe for two trends to deepen. The first was the emergence of empowered parents demanding a voice in troubled schools. The second was the trend toward education schools entering joint ventures with their management school counterparts within major universities.

Threats of parent trigger interventions have given way to mayors and school district leaders joining to speak with one voice, a more politically savvy voice that recognizes the importance of community members proactively. The university-based collaborations have gotten caught up in concerns about educators finding a back door to access to highly competitive MBA programs. I suspect the long-term solution will be dual degree programs that require admission to graduate programs in both the business and education schools.

On portable pensions

The issues around underfunding of pension plans continue to dominate the conversation, and most actions are currently being focused around solvency. Unfortunately, the recommendations are more likely to be made by those who have mismanaged the programs historically. The pension beneficiaries have continued to be called out for reasons that baffle me – they are the only people who have given up their pay to the fund without fail through the whole fiasco – and ways to eliminate funding shortfalls that reduce obligations to the pensioners get more traction than ways for the government employers to pay back their missing contributions to their employees. This is particularly troublesome when government entities got holidays from making their contributions in lieu of Social Security, something that would never be allowed in the smallest of entrepreneurial businesses.

On financial incentives linking educators to performance

As I stated originally, validated educator effectiveness reports need to precede merit-based pay. There has been significant progress in teacher evaluations and leadership performance assessment. However, there is more work to be done, which necessitates postponing this objective for a while longer. The recent developments in technology cited above should offer greater options for multiple measures of educator performance, a key to getting beyond controversial value-added test scores as the proxy for overall effectiveness in schools.

On valuing people of all ages

The fervor has died down over targeting veteran teachers as the source of all evil in education, and the conversations around accountability for test scores alone have softened. That said, charters schools continue to be organized with an unwritten rule against hiring teachers beyond a fairly young age. Teach for America and other similar programs continue to be granted exemption from teacher prep rules, giving an edge to youth-oriented private organizations that funnel a revolving door of teachers into public systems. As these groups mature, they are demanding a greater role in leadership at the risk of stifling the voices of educators with a deeper commitment to schools and important insight into the issues.

January 22, 2016 at 12:44 PM Leave a comment

A Village of Leaders Trapped in Their Own Stories

The study of literary classics teaches us about characters – heroes, villains, and the rest – who are trapped in their respective stories. Paralyzed by karmic inertia, they often pursue flawed strategies in parallel, and the plot cannot be resolved without life-changing events that both unite and liberate them in a convergence of common causes and conflicts. Collateral damage is unavoidable, but children are rarely allowed to suffer tragic consequences in the end.

Accountability and blame are two sides of an unbalanced coin, or so it would seem in education. But accountability in a fair game could also be the catalyst for a much needed cultural change…inclusiveness among all teachers. Results-orientation is a good thing…something to strive for in a world of natural leaders who just happen to be teachers. And for that, traditional teachers, boot-camp “heroes” from the Land of No Excuses, and seasoned career changers need to merge their ranks and share talents with more mutual respect and less suspicion. Maybe then the lost children of failed schools would be saved.

I became a teacher through a mid-career transition program after 20 years in health care. As an ICU nurse, I learned quickly that failure was not an option to be taken lightly. Later, as an MBA working in the corporate world, being accountable for my personal, professional, and company goals was just business as usual. One agreed to a set of goals and met them. It wasn’t mercenary. The trickle-down theory of profit-sharing was just that – theoretical – to a young business analyst. But having a job and delivering results went hand-in-hand.

Similarly, the No Excuses teams of recruits have a common thread of achievement that links their mission-driven work. And many new teachers emerging from traditional teacher prep programs arrive in schools truly believing that they are their students’ only hope for success. Yet the schools were full of well-intentioned professional teachers before any of us joined their ranks. Why can’t we all get along?

Education has a long history of regulation, and a bureaucracy has grown around documenting rule-following behavior instead outcomes. Caught up in such distractions from the primary mission of educating the children, many career teachers are frustrated by newcomers who introduce an alternate agenda…like they invented it. And the cruelest irony is that each group seems to bank on gathering young, like-minded individuals who will all do it (fill in new leader’s name)’s way. “Watch me succeed and learn from me” is the battle cry. Great…another charismatic leader with a magic pill and a role modeling strategy for delivering change. And as the pendulum swings and time marches on…educators try every strategy from A to B.

The fly in the ointment is the idea that a universally adopted narrow agenda is a long-term solution. A novel approach in the classroom may yield a boost in performance for some, but it will grow stale and miss the mark for many. To reach all students, a broad range of learning strategies must be cultivated, and teachers need to be able to have the discretion to respond to students for whom the latest thing in education is not a good fit. Innovation is crucial, but it does not guarantee obsolescence of that which came before it.

And veteran teachers need to have their voices heard at least as well as any other group. True leadership fosters mutual respect among staff members, and professional development must be robust enough to keep all teachers vitally engaged in their mission over the course of a lengthy career.

A legacy of grudgingly tolerating teachers for the last 15-20 years of their employment is the self-fulfilling prophecy of the occasional bit of dead wood within the ranks of veteran teachers. In my first couple of years of teaching, I bought into the folklore of new heroes and old villains. But the closer I looked at many of the older teachers walking ghostlike, unseen by their younger colleagues, the more evident it became that their spirits had not died of natural causes. They were the victims of not-so-benign neglect, the designated scapegoats who were vital to the formula for a blame-based failure cycle.

School transformation has become a disruptive process that is driven by a presumption of guilt among some of the teachers. Individuals have been faulted for a bad system’s outcomes with little benefit to the children. Further, accountability testing itself is being targeted as an evil force as well. A truly bleak picture is emerging of eliminating accountability tests and turning out the spotlight on achievement so that the children will be allowed to fail without so much evidence…Mission not accomplished.

In an alternate ending to the story, breaking the failure cycle could mean transforming the people – students and staff – through a better system…not just new schools designed around closed systems of elite players who fit into a tight mold and forgetting the rest. Broad-based pedagogy and inclusiveness of all teachers and students would be essential to the ultimate plan for success. And accountability for student outcomes would be founded in a commitment to a minimum standard for literacy and mathematical reasoning as the base from which all students would pursue their goals as lifelong learners. For that, conversations will have to be moved beyond identifying individual culprits who can be excluded.

February 17, 2015 at 2:42 PM Leave a comment

Hamstringing as Just Desserts?

I want to hit the reset button in education, the one that creates a new set point based on objectivity, reason, equity, and excellence. Not to worry…not going to go all Ayn Rand on anybody. And I am not a crazed privatizer looking for subsidies for my friends with kids in private schools. Or an elitist who is trying to develop a pipeline of charter school alums who will give the next generation at my golf club greater diversity without challenging the real status quo. I just want fellow educators to get real about results without feeling they have betrayed their souls. No wonder fate dealt me an ironic blow.

Anyone who tells you not to be afraid to fall on your butt…has never had hamstring surgery. Yea, it’s supposed to be a metaphor, and one that has just become inextricably mixed with another of my favorites. I’m always saying, “Educators are hamstrung by…” For example,

  • Financials that do not align with the mission of education.
  • Traditions that are based on trust, loyalty, and caring…values that have an uneasy place in the new paradigm.
  • Charitable motives that have always been exempt from metrics.
  • Binary arguments that allow people to choose sides but not consider all the possibilities.
  • Bunker mentality if feeling isolated with the children in a classroom.
  • Excuses predicated on the exodus of “good children” to alternative schools as a current event, not a forty-year flight of all who could manage to get away choosing to flee bad systems
  • And so on…

My thesis has always been that good information, streamlined processes, rational incentive systems, and measurable results will yield better performance across the education system. An infrastructure cannot teach, but, if done right, it can have an enabling effect to sustain good teachers and a surprisingly beneficial impact on culture.

Slouching of late – no sitting upright for a month – I have been trying to re-envision an education system that is more than just out of reach of my crutches. And I found myself hamstrung by how complicated trust, loyalty, and caring have become in the face of faulty data and misguided good intentions on behalf of the children.

Then something happened. In the midst of the series of inept moves that have characterized my awkward adjustment to disability, I wanted something, and I just got up and walked over to get it. I froze at the threshold of the dining room, and my husband looked up from a conference call in his make-shift office with a what-the… look on his face. No crutches. Now what? I quickly shuffled back to get them.

The thing is…I could walk, but a million tiny new cells are supposed to be a rest so they can reinvent my hamstring attachment to its new anchor in my ilium. And soft tissue needs a long time to heal. I hoped that I hadn’t busted a suture.

I guess the point to all this is that we have a lot of soft tissue damage among educators. The blame game has taken a sorry toll in every corner, and we cannot move forward into the next phase of education reform without the scaffolding of healers. Leaders whose vision can transcend all the damages and reconnect with the core values in the system, beginning with good information derived from validated data. Such is the process of change that endures.

NCLB is not the culprit, but a lot of damage has been done in its name. We cannot ever accept inequity in something as basic as elementary and secondary education. Aggressive yearly progress targets are not a bad idea when lives are slipping away. Hope for more and more children dwindles as we dawdle. And highly qualified educators must form the backbone of any education system.

Our progress has stalled in recent years. NCLB waivers have removed the urgency for change. Skirmishes that focus on standards, pedagogy, and assessments have become smoke screens for maintenance of the status quo. And forays into regulation of teacher prep and performance evaluations have distracted us from creating the more robust data set that is student-centered and truly actionable.

The people-bashing approach to education reform has institutionalized age discrimination, which has proven irresistibly to politicians. It kills two birds with one stone – giving a time-ravaged face to the culprit and a reprieve to themselves for pilfering pension funds to balance budgets…often money that was mandated for employers who made no contributions to Social Security.

This is all so wrong on so many levels. But I still believe we can get it right…just need a little help getting off my butt.

January 9, 2015 at 9:31 AM Leave a comment

TFA Alums for Leadership – the Rest of the Story

Comment in agreement with John Thompson and posted here inAlexander Russo’s mention of “TFA Teachers Deserve Better than TFA Alums Are Providing.”

Thank you for raising the issue of the new education leadership by TFA alums. I was certified initially through an alternative program for teacher prep, surviving the trial by fire and staying on for several years. In the first 2-3 years, I drank the Koolaid and accepted that veteran teachers accounted for most of the problems in elementary and secondary education. However, I also had an MBA and studied organizational behavior. As I grew more secure as a teacher, I began to evaluate the claims against reality. What became apparent was that there was deadwood in the system, but it did not die a natural death. The system treads teachers, cycling through a series of new heroes and failing to sustain mature staff. Veterans are trapped in a closed pension system as they become the acceptable scapegoats for naive leaders. A more robust leadership model beyond instructional role modeling (by the new kids in town) is desperately needed.

September 8, 2012 at 7:46 AM Leave a comment

Age Discrimination Is Not Just Illegal – It is Wrong

In America, it is illegal to discriminate against employees on the basis of race, gender, religion,… or AGE! However, the last attribute is the one I have found missing most often from explicit lists in anti-discrimination policies of public school districts. And the rhetoric in the field suggests that this omission is not accidental.  

I’ve had it. The excerpt below came from a New York Magazine article about a principal in an elite public school in the Bronx, but it could have arisen just about anywhere in education…

“She devised a two-part strategy: Those new teachers who couldn’t or wouldn’t teach her way would not get tenure; the older, set-in-their-ways teachers would retire sooner or later, making room for young ones she could train herself (Reidy generally hires new, unmolded teachers, not experienced teachers who have earned tenure elsewhere). *

Not only does it espouse a pedagogical one-way street, it also embodies the age bias that has become an accepted part of the landscape.

As an industry, we have become complacent about laying the blame for problems in education on people who, upon reaching a fairly early middle age, have failed to die…or at least go away quietly. A system of tenure combined with a pension trap may engender stagnation on the job for some; however, the presumption of ineffectiveness based on a demographic attribute is prejudicial and, frankly, ignorant. Further, an incentive system that fails to facilitate frequent self-assessment, goal-setting, and review over the entire course of a career is the real culprit, to the extent that teachers are complicit in disappointing results.

Age bias hurts everyone and should offend everyone, not become a policy initiative. From a legal point of view, the statement cited above offers prima facie evidence of discrimination. In addition, it bolsters a naive approach to leadership that ignores the combined values of diversity and authentic staff development in the vitality of any organization. Preference for young employees overlooks the value added by age and experience. It deprives younger staff of natural mentors. It eliminates institutional memory. And it has no end game for employees. Being young-at-heart has no value – one simply must not get old.

Finally, if age bias is not effectively remedied by the leadership in education, school districts will get exactly what they deserve…an age discrimination case in the courts which forever protects every charlatan who happens to be an older adult along with all those dedicated teachers of a certain age who continue to devote their lives to the education of children despite the insidious prejudice they face every day. And it should, because they all deserve equal protection under the law and the full benefits of the American constitution.

*Source: http://nymag.com/news/features/bronx-high-school-of-science-2011-12/index2.html

December 29, 2011 at 12:19 PM Leave a comment

Treading Teachers

Luring the next generation of heroes into the teaching profession has become the perennial solution to every ill in education…because, of course, blame for every problem in education has been laid on the teachers. So, whatever happened to all those good teachers who have been hired over the years?

The ritual is played out annually. In the limelight, new heroes arrive with great expectations, anxious to be inducted into their new profession. Rising stars step up to pseudo-leadership positions, the new role models for veteran teachers in need of reinvention. The unwilling, the usual suspects, gird their loins and place their union reps on speed dial. Administrators extend their welcome, endorse their favorites through praise, and send the occasional stern glance. In the background, the majority of staff watches the show.

Yes, there are millions of teachers who love what they do for a living and do it with quiet dignity behind the scenes. For many of them, the best they can hope for is to be taken for granted, to be left alone to perform their duties out of the spotlight. They could be the true leaders, the natural mentors, and the knowledge bank for pedagogy and student support. Yet they often seem to have become the forgotten partners for administration.

Public education is a profession with a very flat pyramidal structure. This structure has been successfully employed in higher education and many high tech industries. It has been heralded as the model for innovation and independence. However, it presumes a strong potential for individual achievement as well as a preference for stability and lower professional risk once tenure has been attained.

Absent the great successes in a field of innovation or the prestige of a university professorship, elementary and secondary education offers limited extrinsic professional value. Nowhere is this more evident than in the urban setting. Challenges far outweigh the recognition or rewards, and the flat pyramid offers little opportunity for promotion. Instead, the culture has developed a cycle of churning those who offer early signs of leadership through a short-lived rising star/falling star phenomenon.

Each batch of fresh recruits brings the potential for new solutions to the achievement gap in urban education. Promising rookies quickly catch the eye of administration. As they grow into their jobs in the classroom, many begin to be groomed for leadership. They offer access to the latest innovations from education schools. Dedication bordering on masochism underlies their choice of the urban setting. They are eager to please and cannot say, “No.” And they do not know yet that tying up all the loose ends for a department or project does not constitute management training. A star is born.

Eventually, a few begin to climb the leadership ladder. Many leave the field, exhausted, disillusioned with education, or drawn to other opportunities. Some remain and join the corps of career teachers. This last group finds itself walking a fine line as they re-assimilate with rank and file teachers, many of whom have grudgingly tolerated their stardom. No time to look back. The next class of new teachers has arrived. New heroes are offering the best lesson plans and latest technology. Pedagogy has shifted; what was old is new again. But only the newer kids are allowed to own it.

Above it all, school leaders tread through the cycle, not actually affecting much change in student outcomes. Accountability calls for action, and action means calls for new teachers. “Send me a new batch…the last ones seem to be broken…Where, oh where, can we find good teachers?

Meanwhile, an invisible army of teachers carries on, driven by their independence, a desire to share in the joy of discovery, and the knowledge that they are not really alone in spirit. Still, it is going to be a long 30 years. There must be a better answer.

June 21, 2011 at 4:25 PM 1 comment