Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Call me Arne

This is a great link to the Talking Points Memo written by I think an anonymous Education Department staffer on Arne Duncan's first few days in office.  I never weighed in on the whole education secretary debates of a month or so ago.  I was very pleased to not see NYC chancellor Joe Klein not be named (just too many darn bad things written and said about him) and understood why Linda Darling Hammond was not picked (too academic, too much of an enemy to the TFA/self important education reform crowd).  The Duncan pick made sense.  There was too much written about him that said things like he was a good leader, he was able to both reform schools and work with the teachers' union in Chicago.  When those things are written about someone over and over, there has to be some truth in it.  He seems to mirror Obama's predilection/obsession with bipartisanship and bringing a sense of unity to to our divided political world.  Duncan's job though is bridging the divide between education reform camps within the Democratic party but needless to say it will be very interesting to see Obama/Duncan and all the rest try this way of doing things.

I just love the story of Arne eating in the cafeteria and walking around and introducing himself to staffers at the department.  It is what a good or natural leader does when new in a situation.  What is even more striking is that this seemed to have never occured under Paige and Spellings.  I good friend of mine who is a career state department employee said the same thing about Bush's higher ups.  They had absolutely no interest in developing relationships or trying to work with career government employees and treated many people around them as simply objects to lecture at and point fingers at etc. It is good to see that attitude gone for the next few years.  Good luck Arne.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Sir Ken Robinson speaks out (again)

Sir Ken Robinson has a great post on the Huffington Post website.  I only now Sir Ken from his TED speech on schooling and creativity that has found some fame on youtube (I was originally linked up to the speech but one of our Bright Stars teachers in our school).  The speech is funny, entertaining, and dead on.  The post is just plain dead on.  Again though, how does a high accountability system work with schools that are trying to also foster high levels of creativity.  Do the two coexist?  I know every school leader in the country is hopefully trying to figure that out, I know I am.  You can't help but listen to Sir Ken and be inspired by the possibility of it all but also confronted with the brutal reality that we often just muck it up in our attempt to improve things in large, whole scale fashion like NCLB.

By the way, on a personal note, I have always been a bit of an anglophile dating back to my semester in London in college and then bolstered over the years by a love of both ales from the British Isles and BBC spy and mystery dramas.  You just have to love the whole knighting thing, don't you.  How can we get the whole Sir/Dame thing over here?  

Quote from WhiteHouse.gov on NCLB

From the White House website, when you click on agenda and then education. "Obama and Biden believe teachers should not be forced to spend the academic year preparing students to fill in bubbles on standardized tests."

Is that what we are doing when we prepare students for the end of year tests in third, fourth, and fifth grades.  We are also teaching them reading and math, science and social studies.  When I look at the Virginia math test at any level, I want my students to pass it.  It is a pretty good multiple choice test.  I have more issues with the Virginia reading test, which goes beyond reading skills I feel and with a small part of the test assessing students on how well they use encyclopedias and other reference materials, which I would like to add, in this century students pretty much will never use.  

But with our school facing daunting pressure to meet AYP in both reading and math, how often are we just preparing students to master the material and how often are we teaching them to outsmart the test or practice filling in bubbles.  I would like to say we always focus on the former but when the pressure is on, we also want to make sure students know how to take a test.  That appears to be what Obama and Biden don't want but under this current system, when pressure is high, that kind of teaching does occur in any school in this country.  How do we have accountability for schools without multiple choice tests or having students practice filling in the bubbles?  I encourage you to check out the White house website and I will have to watch and see what Obama/Biden mean when they put quotes like the one above on their website.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

MIke Rose on the current state of education policy

Since I post to this blog somewhat infrequently, I end up having more blog posts in my head than are actually written on the screen.  I have been working up to actually writing a post about the "debate" about who will be the next Secretary of Education, then the naming of Arne Duncan to the post, and finally just about all of the education policy talking heads in the media lately discussing what needs to be done.  Well, in waiting to get my lazy butt in gear to write this post, Mike Rose, a far better thinker and writer than I, wrote it.  Check it out on his blog.  Wow!  It pretty much hit how I have been feeling lately.  I haven't even read any of his books during my career but I certainly will now.  I don't actually agree with everything on his blog, I actually support different aspects of NCLB, especially the focus on achievement of all groups of students. But all of the education policy mavens of late have been driving me a bit crazy.  I was having trouble putting it into words.  Mike Rose did it beautifully.  So few of these people have ever taught.  So few of these people have ever ran a school.  And they always know how it should be done.  The thing about his post that made me laugh with recognition was that he was reacting to the same NPR piece on education that made me crazy too as I was driving around one day doing errands.  Here is the story.  It is not actually a "Letter to the President" piece but just an update on education in Obama's administration.  For some reason, the story made me scream.  Mike Rose helped.  Enough said.

Friday, January 2, 2009

New Year's Resolutions Oh My!

I usually try to avoid making New Year's resolutions.  Like most people, they really don't work for me and since this blog has more of a professional focus I really don't want to list a bunch of things that I may or may not actually be able to follow through on.  And being on the school/acadademic calendar since I was five, I never really view January as the start of the year. 
Despite all of this,  here are few fun resolutions for my life as a principal.

1.  Finish my dissertation in the 2009 calendar year.  Ok, maybe not so fun but I really have to get this done.  I have been able to work on it some during winter break this year and it feels good to be doing that.  Finding the time once the school year gets going again will be tough but I will apprise you all of my adventures with time management.

2. Get the children's garden and hiking trail going at my school.  I should not describe these things as solely my responsibility because they certainly are not but I am a big fan of the good old great outdoors.  I have skimmed the book about Nature Deficit Disorder ( I am capitalizing it because I will pretend that we can really diagnose people with this illness) and kids need to be outdoor more, in the woods, planting stuff, etc.  We have made some headway on this already this school year and we hope to make more.

3.   For my next resolution, I am not sure how to describe it exactly.  For a professional development day earlier this school year, we had Steven Levy of Starting from Scratch and Expeditionary Learning fame speak to all of the elementary schools.  Anyway, I won't get into his presentation that much except for one thing.  He talked about how he sang every day with his class and how it built community.  With our implementation of Responsive Classroom this year, there is more community building type activities and in a few classrooms more singing.  We need to do more with singing because the kids seem to absolutely love it.  And I am not talking about music class, I am talking in homeroom morning meetings.   It brings me to a This I Believe link on NPR in which Brian Eno (awesome music producer) discusses his belief in communal singing.

4.  I need to bring technology more into my professional life and the lives of our students.  I will post more about this one later.

Those are all of my resolutions for right now.

Ok, one more.

More visuals in this blog!

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Education Speakers and Professional Development

One of my favorite education blogs is Dangerously Irrelevant by Scott McLeod.  He is a professor of Education Leadership at Iowa State University and just all around great questioner of the way we do things in education.  Please read the posts Beware Outside Consultants part I, II, and III.

I am not aware of the first person but have attended workshops by Ruby Payne and the DuFours and share many similar concerns with education speakers.  Ideas are oversimplified for audiences and made to seem easy.  We are always searching for silver bullets and wanting quick fixes to our problems.  And last but not least, it is rare for education professional development to use quality instructional techniques in these type sessions.  In these tight budgetary times, I hope systems spend less on outside speakers and consultants.  Thanks to Scott for starting to question these people "on the circuit".

More thoughts on Whatever it Takes by Paul Tough

Some more random thoughts on Whatever it Takes.  I was thinking of writing a multiple post sort of "book report" on this book with different themes but that is really not necessary.  Some highlights of the book though are the following.

Tough does a great job providing some background on James Heckman, a Nobel prize winning Chicago economist.  Heckman's work (some complicated stuff which I won't really try to pretend to know more about) says that a "skills gap" happens with children from impoverished backgrounds at a very young age.  Children who receive quality early child care either from home or pre-school show gains from that experience fare later in life.  

This work leads to Geoffrey Canada's idea of the conveyor belt.  Canada is interested in far more than schools.  He wants to do away with generational poverty in Harlem.  So he created Baby College, which is a weekly class for expecting parents in the neighborhood.  He also tries to start school for his students at the age of three, thus starting the "conveyor belt" to college at a very young age.  I absolutely am thrilled with this approach for several reasons.  Canada is definitely a no excuses kind of man and leader yet he acknowledges through his work that to have a better change at making a huge difference in children's lives you have to start at an incredibly early age.  I also like that he does not just put it all of this work on the backs of teachers but instead enlists the support of social workers, child development experts, etc.  This is a very powerful notion that I see in my own system in many different ways but not in a unified "conveyor belt" kind of system, probably because of different jurisdictions in a close geographic area.

The story of the middle school, the first school Canada and company created, is quite a story and in the end,  heartbreaking to say the least.  Part of what I liked about the book is the unvarnished nature to the story telling, especially about the middle school.  Long story short, the first principal was fired because she was not tough enough on discipline and focused enough on test scores.  A new principal was brought in and made some vast improvements with student discipline but test scores did not soar immediately and there was still quite a bit of struggle with the first group of students, at the end of the book, they were 8th graders.  Looking at the years of struggles they had with many of the 8th graders and lagging test scores, Canada and company decided to not continue their education by creating a 9th grade class, despite earlier promises to the contrary.  This was hard to stomach, and Tough is unrelenting in his description of the anger and sadness the students and parents felt.  Tough also does a great job describing how Canada's unrelenting focus on test scores was in part stoked by a board of investment bankers who were interested in bottom line type results.  In Canada's defense, he was forthcoming about what he did in closing out the education of the 8th graders that year, and it appeared to be one of those tough decisions all around.  It does take me back to my concern about many of these high standard charter schools: what do you do with tough kids?  Just wait for them to quit or close down the school because you don't want to deal with them anymore?  

When the Harlem Children's Zone is bandied about (deservedly so) as a potential policy model by Obama we should look at the good (Heckman, conveyor belt, etc) and the not so good (letting the tough kids go through "attrition").  A great book though, and I am an even bigger fan of early childhood education than I was before.  I want a three year old program at my school now!