Sunday, December 28, 2008

Whatever it Takes Part I Focus on Paul Tough

I just finished Paul Tough's book Whatever it Takes.  The book is entirely focused on Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children's Zone, a non-profit organization in Harlem, New York that manages charter schools, pre-schools, after school programs, and parent education classes all in an effort to end generational poverty.  Instead of writing a long, rambling post about the book, I will instead do a series of shorter, more focused posts.  My large reading audience I think will prefer this blogging style.

For this first part of the review, I am going to simply write briefly about the author, Paul Tough.  I don't know anything about him except that he writes and edits for the New York Times Sunday Magazine and he seems to focus mostly on education.  From a purely stylistic standpoint, I loved reading an education book written by a skilled writer.  So many of our education tomes these days look at things from a rather simplistic lens and/or are poorly written.  Tough's book is both well-written and takes a complex view of the role schools play in defeating poverty.

One of Tough's previous NYT's pieces I want to briefly mention here was written two years ago and focused on the success of charter schools with inner city children across the country.  The stories of every single one of these schools inspires me as an educator.  As someone interested in education policy, the touting of these schools as "the answer" concerns me.  Student attrition at these high standards charter is high and the teaching staffs are mainly young, dedicated teachers willing to work long hours to deliver quality instruction.  What happens to kids in these schools that decide to not attend anymore?  What happens when teachers start to have families and begin to have issues with working 55-60 hours a week for a teacher's salary?  Whatever it Takes does not look at these issues but they have to be considered when reading the smaller picture, inspiration story.  More on Whatever it Takes in future posts.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Malcolm Gladwell on Teacher Preparation

I love reading the New Yorker.  My dad has given me a subscription to the magazine for as long as I can remember.  What I really appreciate about it is the incredible writing and the fact that I just read it, and I find myself reading whatever is in there.  The article could be centered on just about anything and I will probably read it.  One of the ways I make myself well rounded I guess.

So what am I supposed to do when the New Yorker has a piece about education?  What I usually do is I put off reading it.  I feel that I read a large amount of professional material.  I read books about leadership, teaching, subscribe to several magazines and journals, and in the past year I read about two dozen education blogs.  But when that education piece is in the New Yorker, I put off reading it.  The New Yorker is my fun read, or one of them, and sometimes the two should not mix.  Sadly, when I think about that for a second, that must mean fun and education should never mix.  Which is sad, really.  I don't think that, I promise.  And, just to prove my point, I will read education articles in the New Yorker from now on.

Malcolm Gladwell wrote an interesting article about choosing the right people for a job in the New Yorker recently.  He compared picking quality teachers and quality quarterbacks.  Leave it to Gladwell to think of such strange, yet very interesting comparison.  He goes at length to describe how the NFL has such a hard time picking good quarterbacks from college.  School systems, he says, have a quarterback problem.  They have a hard time knowing who is going to be a good teacher.

Studies are being completed that say that traditional teacher credentials do not make much of a difference with student achievement.  Bob Pianta, the dean of my education school at UVA, plays a big role in the article.  So, what are we to do?

I was not really trained before I entered teaching as a Teach for America teacher.  I learned on the job, mostly through a brutal and painful trial and error process and through the help of a school "master" teacher.  I became a good teacher and ended up staying in my placement school for five years.   During that time, I did not take one education course.  I know things are very different now with TFA, both with a much better preparation program and they are required to pursue Master's degrees.  My leadership preparation program at the University of Virginia was unique as well.  I was a full-time intern assistant principal while I took classes on the weekends.  I learned much about being an administrator both through the internship and then through taking a series of classes with the same cohort of people.  It was probably the most useful educational experience of my career.  The program does not exist anymore however.  Not enough people are willing to take the financial hit to go to school full time (even for a year) and so many alternative routes to administration exist as well.

After getting the master's in education administration, I have been pursuing a doctorate in education administration and supervision...for a long, long time.  Part-time doctoral work is a hard, long slog.  The long, hard slog has led me to question what the point of the work is.  Will it help me be a better leader?  Will completing an original work of education research help the students and teachers in my school?  These questions pop up more lately as more and more education leaders seem to eschew the doctorate for just going out and being an education entrepreneur.  Arne Duncan does not have one.  The founders of KIPP do not either.

What prepares a good teacher?  What prepares a good leader?  Life experiences, innate ability, quality mentoring, formal education programs?  The first three are probably the most important but are the hardest for bureaucracies to manage.  In the end, isn't that what it is all about anyway?

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Oxygen for teachers

After my first blog post two weeks ago, I have followed that up with zero posts until now.  I guess I am now in the category of "slow blogging".  For me, it could also be called lazy blogging, or too busy to blog blogging, or no one really reads my blog so why bother blogging.  I will stick with slow blogging for now though.  It has a much more refined ring to it.

Instead of a long post, I am planning to do a series of shorter posts this weekend.  I love this piece written on the Quick and the Ed blog called "Oxygen".  The Quick and the Ed is one of many edublogs that I subscribe to and it comes out of the Education Sector policy organization.  The Time cover story on Michelle Rhee stirred up the edublogsphere and this was a great response.  I think so often all of the education reform debates, whether at the federal and state level, or even at the little old level of my own district, forget the realities and day to day lives of teachers.  The job is harder than just about any job and we always seem to forget that.  I can't stand when education reformers feel that we can just fire our way out of problems.  True, incompetence needs to be dealt with at the school leadership level, but improving the working conditions for students and teachers should be our first priority.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Beginning of the Blog

Just read something from Wired magazine that said blogging is so 2004.  That about sums it up for me.  I am always a little bit behind.  Actually, I am pretty proud of the fact that I appear to be only four to five years behind technologically speaking.  That is pretty good for me.  I don't really know why I am starting this blog except that I have always enjoyed writing about being an elementary school principal.  There is one small problem with that though.  I don't have the time or fortitude to write an article or a book for publishing.  I am having a hard enough time writing my dissertation.  I do, though, have a lot of thoughts about my work.  I don't expect many to read this so it will serve as a kind of online reflective journal for me.  

There is an interesting yet fairly typical article about Michelle Rhee in the latest Time magazine. Chancellor Rhee was a year ahead of me in the Baltimore Teach for America group.  I never knew her but admire what she has done with the New Teacher Project and what she is doing with D.C. Public Schools.  I won't pretend to understand much about the situation of D.C. public schools or what I think needs to be done.  I instead will only comment on one of her quotes in the article.  It's not even a real quote but here it is from a moment visiting schools with the writer from Time: "In the hallway, she muttered about teachers who spend too much time cutting out elaborate bulletin-board decorations or chitchatting at "morning meetings" with their third-graders before the real work begins."  

Now, I have never been a big bulletin board person, as a teacher and principal.  The morning meetings comment hit much closer to home.  My school is in the first year of formal school improvement for not meeting AYP (my second year with the school).  We are in our first year of implementing Responsive Classroom which has gotten our school chitchatting in morning meetings before the real work begins.  We based our implementation on both the literature from and professional development from the Northeast Foundation and the work of Sara Rimm-Kaufmann at the University of Virginia.  It seemed obvious to us that the research showed Responsive Classroom that it helps improve climate in diverse schools.  So far, in our early implementation, it looks like it really is working in terms of less discipline referrals and improved climate, that second claim being completely anecdotal of course.  Also, in my research of Responsive Classroom, it looked like some D.C. schools implemented it years and probably a few superintendents ago.  I have no idea what the current state of implementation of it is now.

Where my concern lies is with the idea that the "real work" of schools is always academic and that it never has a social component.  Those who know me as an educator, either as a teacher or principal, can attest to the fact that I am not the most "touchy feely" person in the world.  I am idealistic or naive enough to feel that we can do both in a school, raise the test scores and achievement of our students but also grow and improve school community at the same time.  Radical and lasting change can sometimes occur in a school with a laser like focus on student achievement and effective instructional strategies but also through morning "chitchat" meetings with our students.  It is important for all people to feel like they belong.