Posts filed under ‘ESEA-NCLB’

Subsidize PreK for Children at Risk

The kinds of practices seen with Early Intervention and PreK programs would probably be good for all children. That does not mean that the government needs to subsidize them for everyone. Good things already happen in most US homes. Save scarce government funding for the children for whom disability, language barriers, or poverty interfere with their early childhood development.

Pre-kindergarten is becoming a feature of elementary education out of necessity in pockets of need across the nation. In the meantime, it has long been a purchased service for many children whose parents choose to give their children a head start in education or to combine education with needed daycare services. The latter cases need not be subsidized by the US government. In fact, doing so would probably add to the achievement gap for children who are at risk.

Adequate nutrition, stimulating play activities, and listening to stories and music would seem to be a birth right for every child; likewise, a warm, safe bed for sleeping. For the fortunate, they are. However, the number of children who are at risk is growing in trying economic times. In addition, a disturbing number of children are demonstrating devastating disabilities that seem to have at least part of their foundation in the language acquisition process. Many continue to be challenged by attention disorders or specific learning issues. Early intervention with food, supportive play, and targeted therapies offer the greatest hope in the long run. Introduction of early education services that cannot happen at home are part of the solution as well.

Services to young children have enormous lifelong benefits, but they are very expensive. Also, the children with the greatest need are the most likely to fall through the cracks. Often their parents are overwhelmed in life and cannot advocate well for them. The delivery system for Early Intervention continues to need to develop in the direction of creating access through awareness for families in dire need. Similarly, PreK offers a lifeline that may be invisible to the most crucial beneficiaries.

Generalizing free public access to PreK programs would distract service providers from the necessary work of finding and enrolling the neediest children. Billions would be spent on children whose parents were savvy users of services, and populations for whom the program was initiated would continue to fall through the cracks. Government subsidies must be based on need. Our mission must be clear: eliminating the achievement gap for at-risk children by finding them early and serving them as often as needed until equal access to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness is theirs, too.

December 16, 2011 at 8:45 AM Leave a comment

Finding the Best Split for Neighborhood K-8 Schools

Early intervention programs have overloaded K-8 schools. But the model for educating children in neighborhood schools through puberty remains a fine idea. Movement to adjacent schools offering PreK-3 and Grades 4-8 seems like a better idea than going back to the old middle school concept.

The K-8 elementary school model created continuity for children as they evolved from concrete learners to more complex thinkers, keeping their core identities intact as they came of age as young adolescents. The milieu provided a wonderful blend of physical and intellectual growth within the context of a nurturing community of educators, families, and other supporters who knew each child well. However, early intervention programs have front-loaded elementary schools with crucial new programs for younger children who are at-risk for developmental and learning disabilities. The schools are straining under the burden of too many missions.

Some have advocated for a retreat to the middle school model for the upper grades. However, new information suggests that grade six may hold too great of a transition challenge for the children. Indeed, a study from Harvard University found that movement into middle school in grade six had a greater negative impact on student outcomes than the transition to high school in grade nine. The middle years clearly need special attention, but existing models no longer fit.

A win-win for elementary children could be a neighborhood-based solution that splits schools in fourth grade. The buildings could be physically adjacent and continue to share resources such as libraries, playgrounds, cafeterias, and athletic facilities. Still, the smaller learning communities could address the unique needs of divergent age groups. Communication across faculty groups would be facilitated, and the children could continue to benefit from interaction through programs such as mentoring between younger and older students.

A school for grades 4-8 would recognize the movement from basic skill building to applied learning that is most significant in grade four. In addition, it would shift the change in school to an age that is less complicated physically and emotionally. Children could solidify their identities based on emerging intellectual strengths prior to tackling the upheavals with the onset of puberty. By grade six, their introspection and social development could occur in a safer and more familiar place.

December 15, 2011 at 10:18 AM 2 comments

Securing the Floor to Raise the Ceiling

Sometimes both sides are right. Standardized tests do not confirm that students are doing their personal best work. Yet an inability to pass a grade level assessment does suggest that students have a deficiency in prerequisite skills for the next level. Can we agree to keep all students challenged and making progress…regardless of whether they are catching up or surging ahead?

When you bump your head on the ceiling, it’s the designer’s fault. When you bump your head on the floor, you may need to look in the mirror. It’s that way with student test scores, too. No one ever said that accountability testing was designed to limit how high achievement could get; rather, it was to ensure that no child was left behind because he or she was unprepared for the next level on the climb to the top.

Early intervention programs seek to catch developmental issues as soon as possible for young children. They pay off for a lifetime. So do basic reading and numeracy skills developed by grade three…and applied math and literacy skills by grade eight…and emerging abstract reasoning by grade ten. These are benchmarks that secure the floor for each age group.

Every child is born with gifts and challenges; it is our job as educators to provide the best possible platform for learning. This means multi-tasking as leaders. We do not receive our missions and instructions from regulators.  We must actively design our agendas for all children. School leaders who simply following a formula of priorities set for the lowest common denominator are missing the point and trying to blame the regulators. The whole reason for benchmarks is not to define an endpoint, it is to quickly measure achievement of a goal and move on.

We continue to try to build education on a shaky foundation for too many children. Let’s fix that and move on.

November 29, 2011 at 7:57 AM 1 comment

College Readiness is About Life Readiness

Many well-meaning observers challenge the goal of college readiness for all high school graduates. While it is valid that alternate paths deserve consideration, critical thinking is required for success in all walks of life.

College readiness is not just about higher education and career paths; it is about having the knowledge needed to understand one’s world well enough to negotiate one’s self interest successfully. Undereducated children are more prone to misread situations and act rationally using a primitive analytical model. Their decision trees are missing so many branches that they may be doomed to frustration and failure in many aspects of life as they miss opportunities or take poorly calculated risks. Failure to learn to think critically in school predisposes them to take the same approach as adults, seeing the world as chaotic and themselves subject to luck, popularity, or brute force. Instead of controlling their destinies in a world of possibilities, they tend to seek to control their inner circles in an ever-decreasing sphere of influence. Education is the key to breaking that failure cycle.

November 15, 2011 at 3:23 PM Leave a comment

If Not Now…When?

My mom came home from a PTA meeting and vowed never to go back. My high school principal had addressed the recent proposal that students must read at a 10th grade level in order to graduate from high school. It had never occurred to her that he had assembled the parents to reassure them that he would do whatever was necessary to fight this literacy movement. It was 1971, and urban educators were under siege. I write today, like my mother, in disbelief that in 2011 the same battle cry against baseline intellectual integrity could seem so logical to so many.

Over 40 years ago, I transferred to an inner city school as part of a court-ordered desegregation plan. I had been born during the year of the Brown Decision, and sixteen years later a local judge declared that it was time to do the right thing. A handful of my classmates and teachers went with me as I was bussed to a school that was, ironically, only half the distance of my home from my previous high school. Actually, I walked to school, quite literally crossing the train tracks to see first-hand what the policy of Separate but Equal education had failed to deliver.

Ten years ago, I returned to urban education on the other side of the desk, attending a boot-camp teacher training program for mid-career professionals. Crossing the threshold of a high school in the fall of 2001 felt eerily like entering the halls of that inner city high school to which I had been bussed when I was 16. I was in a different city and decades older, but little had changed in the outward appearance of urban education. The building was an aging classic, materials were scarce, and my classroom furnishings Spartan. There was talk of an achievement gap that seemed based in demographics. Benchmark exams loomed as graduation requirements, creating a crisis for students with poor math and literacy skills. Time had stood still for an underserved population.

Recalling the urban high school experience of my youth, or even the era of the late 60s and early 70s that formed its context, I am struck by the differences that we take for granted today. Many civil rights are secure [although serious evidence to the contrary has been demonstrated since this post was published in 2011].  There is girl power to spare, as long as talk does not turn to titles and salaries. Smoking is bad, recycling is good. And pacifists have learned to hate the war but love the warrior. Still, the double standard in education has persisted, and access to superior schooling remains in the hands of the elite. For minority populations with low incomes, the separateness seems greater than ever.

When No Child Left Behind was enacted, the commitment was made to ensure that children entering kindergarten that year could be guaranteed college readiness by graduation 12 years later in 2014. Short-sightedness distracted us from that goal. Schools quickly became caught up in the race to graduation for the high school students who were not ready to pass any test. Somehow, the legacy of NCLB was not realized as the youngsters in urban elementary schools fell further and further behind their peers elsewhere.

Many of my former classmates have grandchildren, or even great-grandchildren, who are being ripped off in their schools, educationally underserved. NCLB was an attempt to say ”This stops here.” We set a date and were supposed to have meant it. Our 2014 goal is no longer in reach, leaving us a painful question. How many more generations must wait before public education is a right, not a privilege, for everyone’s kids?

November 2, 2011 at 9:25 PM Leave a comment

Show Me the Reports

Step 1 in any merit-based compensation program is training around the definition of merit. A template for performance measures and evaluation thereof is shown to the people who will be subject to them. Then the forms are filled out and discussion ensues. At some later date, these criteria are used for actual merit pay. Trust comes from knowing the people and the tool. It is not the basis for signoff on a system to be designed later.

With all the talk about teacher effectiveness and compensation, there must be hundreds of teacher effectiveness reports out there, right? Of course, they are based on well-developed records of student outcomes…which don’t really exist yet either, do they? Please tell me I’m wrong. Show me the reports.

Children learn with outward results; however, they also internalize many things that will manifest themselves later. We will never know all that we have taught them, the good, the bad, or the rest. That is why we look at teacher effectiveness with an eye to process and outcomes. Accordingly, multiple measures have been tossed around with regard to teacher performance. Now it is time for the report designers to just put the templates out there and validate them.

Similarly, children take tests to show what they have learned, their ability to analyze and solve problems. Children also demonstrate their habits of learning, their creativity and industriousness, and their civic mindedness. All will contribute to a foundation for lifelong learning. Additional measures that document intellectual and psychosocial development track their successful growth toward adulthood as well as highlighting need for intervention. Schools have built databases that cover some of these elements, but the models are not robust enough to be fully instructive or actionable. Still, it is time to print them and share them.

Absent good data, the debate over student outcomes and teacher effectiveness is being held in moot court. It is time for demonstration projects to reveal themselves and share what they have got, warts and all. Be prepared for flak, but don’t be surprised if you get more than a bit of praise from real reformers. We all need something tangible to turn this discussion into a problem with a solution.

Prior posts…on teacher effectiveness…on basic student data…on psychosocial development

October 24, 2011 at 8:10 AM Leave a comment

Updating Decision Architecture for Student Success

The decision architecture for education was designed to support macro level management of Federal exigencies. Micro level decision support has been cobbled out haphazardly across the nation by educators without the strategic vision of economists, production planners, or profiteers. These are dirty words in education, but there are lessons from microeconomics that could guide the way we create decision architecture for local management of student outcomes.

The debate over the role of Federal and State governments led me to an analysis that, for the first time, gave me insight into why we keep our books the way we do in education. It also explained why we don’t seem to fund student learning. Now, there will always be questions about how firm a hand government should have in local operations. However, the real solution lies in teaching the States how to micromanage the learning process, and I mean that in a good way.

The Federal role in public education could be suggested to include…

  • Special grant funding and financial reporting standards
  • Common Core standards for interstate portability
  • National data standards
  • Management of “market” imperfections
    • Food and transportation for the poor
    • Disability benefits
    • Incubation of innovation

If data and reporting are indicators, we already have much of the accounting and decision architecture in place for these functions at the macro level. A continuing dialogue is needed, of course, especially in the following areas…

  • Rethinking financial standards that are student-centered
  • Common Core State Standards – revisions and adoption
  • Refinement of data needs for student outcomes and education effectiveness

In addition, today’s emerging global economy demands that the US take a stronger role in the education of its people to remain competitive. Now for the micro level…

At a local level, States and their school districts address the following exigencies…

  • Student populations and their learning needs and distributions
  • Matching of resources to students
  • Creating the milieu/incentives, for effective learning
  • Managing the quality assurance process

Trouble is…we have been try to do this while accounting for budgets for

  • general education,
  • special education,
  • food,
  • transportation, and
  • capital spending.

In a world where our mission should be maximizing student outcomes while minimizing costs, we have been managing the costs alone. And we have been linking the money to the Federal concerns, not the local students.

Financial accounting standards made business performance transparent nearly a century ago. Public services, such as PK-12 education, have similar needs for mission-driven budgets and performance measurement. In addition, existing regulatory accounting places undue control over resources in the hands of specialists who operate in a relative vacuum and, without whom, leaders cannot read or present their financials. Inefficiencies, myopic vision, and episodes of corruption are guaranteed until financial standards for schools support greater transparency.

October 12, 2011 at 8:38 AM 1 comment

Bait & Switch?

Or How to Gain New Standards without Losing Accountability

NCLB has our backs against the wall. An escape hatch is in sight with the Common Core and its related assessments. The urge to latch onto the new approach prematurely will not enhance its implementation. Nor will it benefit the children who are being excluded in strong schools or lost in the mayhem of chaotic schools.

One cannot adopt the current draft of Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and quickly swap out NCLB accountabilities. Any new set of standards must evolve over time to reflect the shared vision of a global village as large as the US. Beta testing of new assessments necessarily will trail the solidification of these standards against which to judge performance.   In the meantime, our children cannot wait. So, how do we achieve a national curriculum while keeping our promise to the children who have not been served?

Ironically, success with CCSS hinges on short-term extension of NCLB. There is a perception of urgency for adoption of the Common Core. One real reason for this collective unreality is the closing window on leaving children behind. As NCLB puts our backs against the wall, we can either work even harder to educate the children, or we can rally around the Common Core and NCLB waivers. True proponents and false prophets of the Common Core both are banking on the latter.

CCSS authors are legitimately pleased with their work. As realists, however, they also see the need for an orderly transition from NCLB to the Common Core and new measures of accountability. Undermining NCLB with waivers, however, falls short as an interim strategy. Once in place, waivers will allow a huge, collective sigh of relief. Let off the hook, educators will be back in their comfort zone, happily debating pedagogy and the details of standards and their corresponding assessments indefinitely. This loss of momentum will be devastating to another generation of children at risk.

High stakes tests for NCLB are real. Assessments related to the Common Core are analogous to vaporware. Adopting CCSS today has nothing to do with accountability to our students. Nor will the industry move quickly to encumber itself with new performance measures once freed from them.

September 19, 2011 at 10:16 AM Leave a comment

Making NCLB Happen

I oppose NCLB waivers on the grounds that they undermine the rights of children who may have been underestimated by the very advocates they depend on for their futures. However, this was not meant to promote antagonism between or toward educators or their regulators. Working together is the only way to go. Indeed, regulatory third parties could provide the mediator role between school leaders and teachers in the short-run even as they rush to reinvent themselves and eliminate the regulatory sources of the conflict.

My last post was a bit out of synch with my self-proclaimed no-fault education reform stance. In my haste to preserve high standards for all children, I suggested that it was okay, and perhaps even beneficial, for districts to “be embarrassed in public” and to have regulators “all over their butts” if they were leaving high-risk children behind.  In reality, a collaborative approach to this painful self-examination is crucial to any successful outcome.

Urban schools need help raising the bar and building a better education system. Many other schools need to reinvigorate their programs to ensure that they have maintained historically high standards and practice inclusive excellence. Even more schools are pretty good, but would benefit from continuous quality improvement. So how can we as a nation begin to diagnose clusters of problems and address them in a scalable fashion?

The big picture foretells of 80+% of schools failing, and some would imply that the Feds will be running our school systems very soon. Loud calls for a government pull out have presumed failure as a foregone conclusion and proposed a remedy that ultimately abandons equal protection and due process under the law for at-risk children. However, we need to break down the problem to see the less draconian reality behind the numbers.

For those who think we are just getting too picky about all this anti-discrimination business…

  • Schools with subgroup failures have no fear of government takeover. They simply have to prove that they are not engaging in discriminatory practices that harm individuals in a particular demographic or disability grouping. And the proof is in achievement of proficiency within any relevant subgroup. A waiver to avoid this obligation would be unconstitutional in and of itself.
  • Schools demonstrating a recent history of improvement yet leaving too many students “needing Improvement” simply need to accelerate growth, accepting advice from policy makers. If progress from within an organization is not adequate, the search for external guidance is merely prudent.

Professional development is needed beyond the urban setting to share insight into breaking failure cycles within high-risk populations. Many privileged communities fail to fully assimilate newcomers into their most successful programs. Students who do not fit in immediately find themselves reassigned to alternative programs, losing access to honors classes and advanced placement. Struggling students within this underclass are among the first to be declared incapable of achievement on tests; however, they are being underestimated daily. Test scores continue to be good predictors of achievement in post-secondary education, and it is unconscionable to rely on alternative pathways that do not foster equity in academic preparation.

For those with persistent AYP failure…

In extreme cases, regulators may be given an iron grip over a school, but this power can be used with reason.  To date, a turnover-based policy of redistributing people without systemic change has produced more failure complicated by growing cynicism. As the number of schools being managed grows, this practice could be parodied as a giant game of Whack-An-Educator as people associated with failing schools are shuffled about within any troubled district. There is no end game in sight here.

The blame game was not invented in response to NCLB, but its accountabilities have sent finger-pointing into hyper mode. There has been a landslide of support for school leaders in their search for scapegoats among their teachers, which has been a driving force behind punitive teacher evaluations.  A backlash of support for teachers has been developing as these witch hunts have spun out of control. It is beginning to feel like we need a reset button to reestablish sanity and pursuit of solutions within a collaborative school community. Yes, unions and districts working together.

To help districts improve performance under NCLB, federal and state education leaders need to use their bully pulpit to engender genuine growth within schools based on trust, collaboration, and a persistent, i.e., more than eight-year, belief in equity for all children.  More specifically, regulators have the opportunity to develop models of management that…

  • Bring an end to treading teachers and assist school leaders in seeing all of their staff members.
  • Restore a level playing field for all teachers and objective bases for evaluation.
  • Encourage general management growth for school and district leaders, especially motivation of the total staff – not just the most obvious champions and freeloaders.
  • Sponsor experiments with weighted average funding of students to get more resources directly to the schools.
  • Differentiate between the need for professional development for more inclusive strategies for populations with high risk or special needs and systemic reform for toxic organizations.

For long-term improvement in the ESEA, I have suggested Seven Keys to Education Reform. Ultimately, Federal legislation must reflect a rethinking of the decision architecture that drives the education industry. Many dysfunctional actions among educational institutions originate at the Federal level. As national and state policy-makers ask educators to realign their organizations with their missions, a good look in the mirror is in order.

August 16, 2011 at 9:58 AM Leave a comment

Leaving Children Behind

There are words for people who manage systems that leave out children of color, children of Hispanic heritage, or children with special needs. “Failing” is not the worst of them. Why should we be allowed to reject NCLB as a failed initiative when all it did was catch us in the act?

Since the beginning of the No Child Left Behind initiative, schools across the country have made great strides to improve education. This is good news. We should be proud of those accomplishments. However, we cannot celebrate victory. The children who were at risk remain so, and our efforts have not been inclusive enough.  Our mission has not been accomplished.

The headlines keep emphasizing the large percentage of school systems that cannot make the grade under the increasingly stringent guidelines for NCLB. Educators try to deflect this reality by begging the question and claiming that any benchmark against which there is so much failure must, by definition, be a failure itself. They cite the pain “for the children” of being labeled failures and call for waivers to remove that designation.

Truth is…having a school be labeled a failure hurts the pride of the people who work there, those charged with success under NCLB. What hurts the children is living the life of less educated members of society. And all our requests for relief from NCLB translate into the right to abandon the hopes of those children without getting caught and being embarrassed in public.  

District leaders must examine their collective consciences and redouble their efforts with the struggling children. And having the regulators all over their butts while it happens is just the price one pays for betraying the trust of our most vulnerable kids.

August 12, 2011 at 9:50 AM 2 comments

Scientists and Other Critical Thinkers

Educators may not abdicate responsibility for STEM education. All the scientists in the world cannot do their jobs and teach the children in K-12 schools. But a relatively small cadre of volunteers can create a pipeline of promising young scientific thinkers from every demographic whom they would call their own.

Seems like all scientists are from Missouri, the Show-Me State. This need for evidence of student preparation is driving a two-pronged approach to STEM improvements in education. One is highly visible, but not scalable, mentoring by scientists for future scientists in extended day programs throughout public education. The other is a systematic development of capacity in math, science, technology, and engineering within every school. Neither will succeed without the other.

Scientists are the new elite across the globe. They are brilliant thinkers who make things that the rest of us take for granted. They go to elite schools, they have the power to change the world, and many have amassed incredible wealth. Yet, they jealously guard their gates. The barriers to entry in science go beyond academic challenge and achievement. The scientific community sometimes seems skeptical to the point of chauvinism when considering newcomers.

Educators need help opening doors for their students; they also need help integrating 21st century STEM innovations across the curriculum. Many students have limited access to the world of scientific discovery beyond electronic devices. All students need opportunities for exploration that fosters deep mechanical and intellectual engagement, crucial building blocks for higher order thinking. To remedy the situation, a number of successful after school programs have brought professionals from the scientific community to introduce real world problem solving opportunities for students. As partners, these corporate citizens share content knowledge and skills from applied math and science with support from teachers who offer pedagogical awareness and classroom management.

Students who develop analytical and critical thinking skills through their work with mentor scientists should see benefits in all areas of their schooling. However, this will not single-handedly save schools or close the achievement gap. What it should do is provide evidence that the children CAN achieve at a higher level and overcome barriers to access to higher education and careers. Armed with higher expectations and new allies from the field, the schools themselves are ultimately responsible for their own success and long-term survival.

(Addendum….The impetus for this blog entry was consideration of after-school programs that bring scientists in to work with the kids with a high degree of personalization and engagement. I think school leaders need to think about their intent…are they trying to get more critical thinking in general and improve test scores, or are they trying to connect students to the scientific community to stimulate interest in STEM careers. 
There is a lot of brain power and personal commitment going into after school programs. We have to be careful not to waste this window of opportunity with the scientific community. Many will burn out if they are teaching the basics to kids who are not receiving strong classroom instruction as well. Finding that potential star among the kids for whom a genuine mentoring relationship can happening is at least as important as getting a few more points on test scores…especially if we are going to keep the scientists engaged.)
 

 

August 5, 2011 at 12:19 PM Leave a comment

No Time for NCLB Lite

Twitter tells us that testing is bad for everyone. I disagree. I love the changes I have seen in my students as they have grown in knowledge and maturity while meeting the challenge of high stakes tests. Yes…urban students with special needs, many with English language fluency issues as well. They can do it. Oh, and, by the way, they are the very children we are not supposed to leave behind.

The digital v. analog paradigm shift is an artifact of history. However, as an analog person, I see a similar conflict between the process people and those with a results orientation. Educators tend to build processes, while education policy has moved in the direction of results. This may be no less intuitive than the shift to a digital world. Why does everyone seem so surprised that teachers might benefit from a lesson in translating their processes into results?

As process people, teachers design ways for students to engage in learning, constantly inventing and reinventing the path to knowledge. They can manage a classroom. They can direct instruction. But, they cannot control the student’s moment of knowing. As students struggle, educators tend to tighten any controls they can. Yet the student’s independent thought is essential to success in applied problem solving. This has become one of the classic conflicts in education.

In the current politicized climate, teachers must learn some new tricks…and apply them persuasively… while being observed by the hanging judge. This external control works no better for adults than it does for children. So how can we step back from this rhetoric without taking our eyes off the ultimate goal for our children? I will hypothesize that we can keep the tests, maintain the benchmarks for English language learners and students with special needs, and achieve the desired results. However, we must make partners of all educators, not sort them by individual results. And we must pay them collectively for results at least in the short run.

Twitter tells us that testing is bad for everyone. I disagree. I love the changes I have seen in my students as they have grown in knowledge and maturity while meeting the challenge of high stakes tests. Yes…urban students with special needs, many with English language fluency issues as well. They can do it. Oh, and, by the way, they are the very children we are not supposed to leave behind.

It is crunch time for NCLB; time for the sprint to the finish. Unfortunately, instead of working together to achieve our collective goal, we are engaging in vicious hunts for scapegoats and building hyperbolic arguments against testing. Suddenly, “the current testing environment” has been redefined as value-added testing in every subject at the beginning and end of every school year. That is not NCLB. However, this device has led many to question testing altogether, sadly removing accountability for the students who are most in need of the benefits of that accountability.

“Teaching to the test” has become the lowest common denominator among educators who have succeeded with achievement tests. It has been highlighted as an argument against testing…because it rewards bad instruction. I would suggest that schools where teaching to the test was needed to improve test scores must have had a pre-existing history of substandard instruction. In fact, teaching to the test may be a necessary evil during the transition to higher level instruction.

Educators with lowered expectations do not attempt to give all students access to the curriculum. As they teach to the test and the bar keeps rising, however, these same teachers are forced to broaden their students’ skill set. It begins with a core set of skills that are always tested. Then, critical thinking skills are deepened. New test content expands the breadth of topics that must be covered. Higher benchmark scores require students to be even bettered prepared. As more and more students achieve success, even skeptical educators find themselves getting closer and closer to teaching the full curriculum.

It has not been a pretty process, but 2014 was not set as a deadline for testing. It set the pace for all teachers to learn how to give all students access to a competitive curriculum. This goal must not be forgotten. It is time to set aside our differences and make it happen.

June 14, 2011 at 11:29 AM Leave a comment

Seven Keys to Education Reform (extended)

Seven Keys to Education Reform

  1. Build the data infrastructure for the next generation of education leadership, from formulas for government funding to data on student outcomes and teacher effectiveness. 
  2. Make teacher pensions portable.
  3. Place teachers and administrators in a shared incentive system linked to student achievement in their school.
  4. End pedagogy wars.
  5. Reinvent school leadership modeled on the general manager role and asset-based management.
  6. Open up the dialogue on Special Education to include the children prior to high school.
  7. Value people of all ages.

(1) Build the data infrastructure for the next generation of education leadership, from formulas for government funding to data on student outcomes and teacher effectiveness.

Regulation accounting thwarts good fiscal management within schools. Districts can only keep one set of books, and that is the set that gets them the most funding. It is nearly impossible to find a link between investments and outcomes for education. Regulators must work with educators to develop a common system of financial reporting that allows school districts to intend the outcomes that are to be rewarded. To avoid further funding of bureaucracies, a student-centered decentralized distribution of resources must be part of this plan.

Data on student outcomes must have more depth, be actionable, and document longitudinal progress. The current state of the art seems to focus on poor test results and allowing all constituents to weigh in on possible reasons. It’s still guess work masquerading as data-driven leadership. In addition, systems for feedback to students are cumbersome and incompatible.

Merit-based contracts for teachers cannot be drafted in the absence of data. Leaders must build a system around student outcome objectives and validate the data before asking teachers to accept it as a basis for their employment and compensation. This is NOT a chicken and egg conundrum.

(2) Make teacher pensions portable

A defined benefit retirement plan that optimizes benefits only for those past age 55 with 30 or more years of service creates a pension trap for experienced teachers who feel they cannot afford to change jobs. It also fuels high turnover among new teachers who experience mandatory payroll deductions but cannot envision staying long enough to ever reap the benefits. The net result is a dichotomy between career teachers who pursue the path of security and tenure and a highly mobile short-term workforce. Schools become myopic as they lose the sustained vitality of knowledge and experience from beyond their communities.

(3) Place teachers and administrators in a shared incentive system linked to student achievement in their school.

Paying teachers and administrators to work together to achieve a short list of goals for students is a logical first step toward a more robust system of merit pay. This action creates a reward for desired outcomes while limiting the focus to collective accomplishments. It celebrates interdependence, collegiality, and a results orientation, all of which are crucial to long-term success.

(4) End pedagogy wars.

Dogma can be the enemy of diverse learners. It is not news that children are smart and different. When lessons fit their styles, students internalize teaching methods and begin to activate strategies independently. Even the best techniques become stale over time as singular approaches to formal lessons. However, it is not that the strategy has become obsolete. Rather, it is the lack of creative alternatives being presented.

Pedagogical fads come, go, and come back again because each represents good instruction when presented to students for whom they are new or particularly well suited for style. Each generation of learners misses out on crucial strategies that are out of vogue. In addition, the pinball approach to pedagogy fosters cynicism and intensifies the new school/old school divisiveness among the faculty. Case in point, the current battle being waged over algorithms versus exploration wastes the energy needed to learn how to teach both well.

(5) Reinvent schools leadership modeled on the general manager role and asset-based management.

Instructional leaders must become general managers as they assume new responsibilities for decentralized budgets and education delivery systems that extend beyond the school walls. This new role will require enhanced managerial decision models for resource allocation as well as an expanded functional skill set.

In addition, it takes counterintuitive insight to sustain optimism in schools. Budget constraints limit decision-making to zero sum games. A culture of blame highlights the problems children bring to school from home or the lowest common denominator among educators. Historically, many teachers became administrators without benefit of transformative leadership training. Despite the best of intentions, a legacy of dysfunction remains.

The current mantra about getting rid of bad teachers plays directly into an age-old practice of making an example of someone each year to gain cooperation among staff. A remnant of this is a toxic culture in which an invisible hand within the learning community can deliver a failure with precision – a major barrier to innovation and collaboration. A naive leader can easily fall into the trap of addressing cultural change through opinion leaders who are the worst offenders behind the scenes.

Each member of the school community needs to have room to grow and excel. The children come first, but their best interests can be enhanced through programs that open doors for their parents and teachers as well. Gifted leaders raise the level of discourse without a heightened sense of competition, without winners and losers.

(6) Open up the dialogue on Special Education to include the children prior to high school.

Currently, we begin to train children to be their own advocates in the management of their learning disabilities as part of transition planning for the end of high school. By involving younger children in their diagnoses and education plans, we can draw on their insight and motivation to help them overcome obstacles and resolve some issues earlier. In addition, engaging children in very private exchanges safely preserves confidentiality while lifting the shroud of secrecy that has left many children unnecessarily sensitive and confused about the learning style issues that have the grown-ups so worried.

(7) Value people of all ages.

Older teachers and administrators have become acceptable scapegoats in education. For administrators, they represent a cost burden at budget time. Often their younger colleagues were warned in school about their alleged backward ways of teaching. Opportunists find that one of the easiest ways to connect with a challenging student is to take his side against an older adult in the building.

A system that values diversity and embraces its students as emerging leaders in their communities must be intolerant of any form of discrimination. Further, a system that marginalizes its most mature members then blames them for its ills gets distracted from diagnosing the real problems and developing viable solutions for the children.

March 24, 2011 at 10:41 AM 2 comments

The Wisconsin Debacle

Collective Bargaining? YES. Unlimited Benefits? Not likely.

The recent uproar in Wisconsin has demonstrated the kind of hyperbole that plagues the education debate. Public employees were stripped of their collective bargaining rights in a bizarre sequence of events led by the governor and ultra conservative legislators. The action, which targeted a seemingly conciliatory teachers’ union, attempted to set a precedent for legislative union busting. Fortunately, at least one judge has chosen to challenge the constitutionality of that action. However, the residue of the Wisconsin fiasco is a debate that failed to differentiate between the right to collective bargaining and the need for fiscal prudence in funding wages and benefits for employees.

Rising healthcare costs and under-funding of pension benefits for state and municipal employees will strain budgets in the best of times. Many factors have conspired to give us Social Insecurity where old-age benefits once seemed secure. Private companies have responded to similar constraints by asking their employees to share the burden of funding their health and retirement benefits, effectively choosing between wages and benefits in their total compensation. The collective bargaining process creates a structure that offers the benefit of a more democratic decision for employees along with the burden of proof and persuasion for the employer. This is not necessarily a problem.

 The governor and a significant percentage of the legislators in Wisconsin attempted a power play to avoid the bargaining process, citing the unions for an untenable position. This was not a valid argument. Further, the governor’s intent was clearly to abuse his new power in the immediate future – the kind of clear and present danger that has driven unionization of workforces historically.

While the fate of public employees in Wisconsin hangs in the balance, the rest of us may wish to consider more creative solutions to the finance issue. Regardless of the outcome in the courts on collective bargaining, the fiscal challenges will not go away. Among the issues to research are:

  • Salary structures that reward performance as well as tenure
  • Flexible compensation plans that allow choices between wages and benefits
  • Alternatives to union-managed defined benefit pension plans

 Finally, public employers are often the largest purchasers of healthcare benefits in any state. They need to continue to exert pressure as prudent buyers against price increases from healthcare providers. If the largest employers cannot influence prices, government institutions may wish to join their employees in a fight against a common foe, healthcare monopolies.

March 23, 2011 at 9:29 AM Leave a comment

No-Fault Education Policy

Better public schools are full of people with good intentions doing wonderful work. Exemplary models for educating children are being developed across the country, and each has instructional leadership at its core. They depend on excellent teachers. So why did I list the seven keys to education reform without a single entry about the best teachers? The short answer is that plenty of people are addressing the issue already. The slightly longer version turns on the difference between building a better educator and building a better education system.

Education policy is about the entire system of public education. A sustainable system must be robust enough to serve its mission while being inclusive of the general population of students and teachers. It cannot break down in the absence of a hand-picked collection of education’s finest participants.

Further, the current system did not break down because of its incumbents. It has collapsed under the weight of data limitations, institutional myopia, bureaucratization, and a mismatch between mission and incentives. It has become abundantly clear that a bad system can drive good people to do bad things. What we need is a good system that makes it easier for all people to do better things.

February 23, 2011 at 12:52 PM 2 comments

Seven Keys to Education Reform

My reflection on posts to date led to the revised list of seven keys to education reform…

  1. Build the data infrastructure for the next generation of education leadership, from formulas for government funding to data on student outcomes and teacher effectiveness.
  2. Make teacher pensions portable.
  3. Place teachers and administrators in a shared bonus pool linked to student achievement in their school.
  4. Develop and share best practices – all of them, not just the fashionable lessons du jour.
  5. Reinvent school leadership modeled on the general manager role and asset-based management.
  6. Open up the dialogue on Special Education to include the children prior to high school.
  7. Value people of all ages.

This supersedes my earlier Four-Point Plan to Support Education Reform.

February 20, 2011 at 12:12 PM 2 comments

Education Reform Plan

A Four-Point Plan to Support Education Reform

The problems in education seem insurmountable; however the path to solutions would be easier to pave with four key strategies to overcome obstacles.

(1) Build the data infrastructure for the next generation of education leadership, from formulas for government funding to data on student outcomes and teacher effectiveness.

Regulatory accounting thwarts good fiscal management within schools. Districts can only keep one set of books, and that is the set that gets them the most funding. It is nearly impossible to find a link between investments and outcomes for education. Regulators must work with educators to develop a common system of financial reporting that allows school districts to intend the outcomes that are to be rewarded.

Data on student outcomes must have more depth and be actionable. The current state of the art seems to focus on poor test results and allowing all constituents to weigh in on possible reasons. It’s still guess work masquerading as data-driven leadership. In addition, systems for feedback to students are cumbersome and incompatible.

Merit-based contracts for teachers cannot be drafted in the absence of data. Leaders must build a system around student outcome objectives and validate the data before asking teachers to accept it as a basis for their employment and compensation. This is NOT a chicken and egg conundrum.

(2) Develop and share best practices – all of them, not just the fashionable lessons du jour.

Dogma can be the enemy of diverse learners. It is not news that children are smart and different. When lessons fit their styles, students internalize teaching methods and begin to activate strategies independently. Even the best techniques become stale over time as singular approaches to formal lessons. However, it is not that the strategy has become obsolete. Rather, it is the lack of creative alternatives being presented.

Pedagogical fads come, go, and come back again because each represents good instruction when presented to students for whom they are new or particularly well suited for style. Each generation of learners misses out on crucial strategies that are out of vogue. In addition, the pinball approach to pedagogy fosters cynicism and intensifies the new school/old school divisiveness among the faculty. Case in point, the current battle being waged over algorithms versus exploration wastes the energy needed to learn how to teach both well.

(3) Reinvent schools leadership driven by strength and possibilities.

It takes counterintuitive insight to sustain optimism in schools. Budget constraints limit decision-making to zero sum games. A culture of blame highlights the problems children bring to school from home or the lowest common denominator among educators. Historically, many teachers became administrators without benefit of transformative leadership training. Despite the best of intentions, a legacy of dysfunction remains.

The current mantra about getting rid of bad teachers plays directly into an age-old practice of making an example of someone each year to gain cooperation among staff. A remnant of this is a toxic culture in which an invisible hand within the learning community can deliver a failure with precision – a major barrier to innovation and collaboration. A naive leader can easily fall into the trap of addressing cultural change through opinion leaders who are the worst offenders behind the scenes.

Each member of the school community needs to have room to grow and excel. The children come first, but their best interests can be enhanced through programs that open doors for their parents and teachers as well. Gifted leaders raise the level of discourse without a heightened sense of competition, without winners and losers.

(4) Value people of all ages.

Older teachers and administrators have become acceptable scapegoats in education. For administrators, they represent a cost burden at budget time. Often their younger colleagues were warned in school about their alleged backward ways of teaching. Opportunists find that one of the easiest ways to connect with a challenging student is to take his side against an older adult in the building.

 A system that values diversity and embraces its students as emerging leaders in our constitutional democracy must be intolerant of any form of discrimination. Further, a system that marginalizes its most mature members then blames them for its ills gets distracted from diagnosing the real problems and developing viable solutions for the children.

February 9, 2011 at 9:29 AM Leave a comment

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