Sunday, January 18, 2015

Thoughts on School Choice and the Fight to Preserve Public Schools

Is it time for school choice? Before those against vouchers and charters start throwing rotten tomatoes, let me explain. As most who've read this blog know, I am and have always been a staunch public school advocate. I do not believe that anything miraculous will happen if suddenly vouchers were available for every student, nor do I think that an increase of a thousandfold of the number of charter schools is suddenly going put us at the forefront in international PISA scores. Often those who push these choices do so for ideological reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with what's in the best interest of kids. So I am certainly not siding with free market fundamentalists who believe that market forces will suddenly catapult student achievement to first in the world. I simply don't see that happening. I also certainly do not side with those who think public education should be abolished and that the government has no business in it. Public education in this country has done wonders in providing opportunities and futures for kids. Still, what makes me ask the question, "Is it time for school choice?" has more to do with a public education system more interested in preserving itself than being introspective and asking why parents and their students want options in the first place.

Immediately, when public education begins to argue against charters or school choice, they begin crying about the loss of funding. From my perspective, this is entirely the wrong argument to make. It betrays a perspective that sees each student as an additional dollar sign to be added to a total, instead of a individual student to be taught and provided with educational opportunity. When districts begin using dollar amounts lost to defend against school vouchers or charter schools, they are demonstrating the wrong attitude. Instead, they should be asking why parents and students want to attend charter schools or want vouchers in the first place. Instead, they fight battles with the wrong ammunition, when they would be much better off being introspective and asking the tough questions about why their students are leaving or leave in the first place.

I suspect most parents just want the best schools they can get for their kids. They really don't care whether they are a charter school, private school or traditional public school; they want school to be a positive asset in their child's life. Public school districts, school leaders, and educators can work to provide those schools for parents, or they will continue to pressure politicians to give them options. I haven't the data, nor do I know even if it exists (maybe a reader out there can provide it), but I can't but wonder if there's a correlation between the proliferation of charter schools and school vouchers in places where public schools focus more intently on self-preservation rather than focusing on making themselves better. I realize many schools fight budget constraints, and poorly funded schools who are struggling can't compete. Still, when public schools lose their focus and spend more time on self-preservation than taking an honest look at themselves, schools couldn't possibly be focused on the primary mission of educating young minds.

What I have learned these past few years as a principal of a public school of choice, not charter, is this: many parents are seeking options, especially at the high school level. They want alternatives to the large, often impersonal, traditional high schools that most districts still operate. They are least interested in arguments about why charter schools are a bad idea because big schools will lose funding. They don't care about how efficient these large schools operate, and you can honestly throw all the test data you want to try to convince them of the effectiveness of that school. In the end, they want their child to be in a school that cares about them, that knows their child as individuals and not as test scores or a number. Finally, they want their child in a school where that child wants to be.

So, is it time for school choice? I think that question has been answered, at least here in North Carolina. Public schools districts had better stop fighting the battle of self-preservation, and start looking to see how they can re-form their schools into places that meet the needs of kids.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

No Such Thing as an 'Objective Test'

“Every act of measurement loses more information than it gains, closing the box irretrievable and forever on other potentials.” Margaret Wheatley, Leadership and the New Science

The problem with accountability and testing lies within a single assumption: “that which is the most important content to be learned can be reduced to a single test or be captured in a test question.” If life were a dance between a, b, c, or d, then standardized tests could capture the essence of learning, and we could be satisfied that a correct or incorrect answer on multiple-choice questions actually tell us whether substantial and important learning has taken place. Sadly though, nothing worth while or lasting can be reduced to that level of simplicity.

As Wheatley points out, when observations, in this case tests, are created, choices are made as to what is to be tested and what is to be ignored. That ‘subjective choice’ reflects all manner of value judgments and decisions regarding importance. Hence, the very ‘subjective nature’ of tests like those being administered is questionable. The observation choices made by those who write the very questions on tests reflect their own subjective choices regarding importance. That’s why no standardized tests are ultimately entirely objective. As Wheatley points out, “Every observation is preceded by a choice about what to observe.” The person who makes those choices are exercising their subjective opinion regarding that is worthwhile to learning and what is most important.

To claim that state standardized tests or any standardized tests are “subjective” masks this fact: these tests reflect the subjective judgment of those whose wrote and designed them. It is simply their opinion regarding what is valuable enough to be tested. Next time someone throws the term “objective measures” or “objective testing” at you, remember this. The quest for ultimate objectivity in testing is a fool’s errand.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

My #Whatif for Secretary of Education Arne Duncan

US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently posted this tweet on Twitter:


In response educators and parents everywhere are posting their own “Whatifs” using the hashtag, #whatif,” and attaching @arneduncan. Judging by the #whatif stream, I suspect many educators are expressing quite a bit of frustration regarding Duncan’s education policies. But I wanted to just take a moment and look at what’s problematic about Duncan’s tweet.

First of all, it clearly indicates that he is still in “silver-bullet” search mode. He thinks that out there somewhere are some magical measures that will magically transform schools from being “unsuccessful” to “successful.” Time and again, his entire career as a secretary of education has been one long search for the magic of school reform. What he has never uunderstood was that reform on a national scale can’t be imposed from his office. He should have taken those lessons from No Child Left Behind; instead, he’s imposed a much more severe “measure and punish” tactics that have elevated testing above everything else that matters in public education. Schools are struggling for a variety of reasons. Some of those reasons aren’t due to education policy; they’re due to economic policies that are leaving many in this country behind in income. When Duncan asks the question about identifying what made 5 best schools successful, he automatically assumes that what those schools did to make them successful will automatically apply to all schools. That is at the heart of his “silver-bullet” search, and that’s why there has been nothing out of this Department of Education that will survive once they vacate the premises. Duncan has only searched for quick-fixes without really helping school districts get down to the hard work of improving education.

Secondly, I suspect, Duncan identifies “successful” as those schools with the highest test scores. For the length of Duncan’s tenure, he and his department have repeatedly made it known that high test scores and value-added measures equal success, so why would we believe he would suggest anything different? The problem is that Duncan’s definition of success requires reducing teaching and learning to statistics, when everything we know about learning as educators tells us that tests only measure a miniscule portion of what students learn. Duncan’s Twitter question is actually a statement of his faith. We all know what his “identify” entails. It entails subjecting kids at all levels to tests and then using those tests to judge the quality of everything in a school. Once again, Duncan failed to see the lessons of No Child Left Behind.

Perhaps Duncan was attempting to truly rally educators with his Tweet, but unfortunately, this late in his tenure that’s not going to happen. There are too many educators who have absolutely no confidence in his ability to lead. Judging by all the #whatifs posted since Duncan’s, there are a great deal of educators angry about his education policy. His federal mandates, though he avoids calling them that, have forced states to do more testing than ever. Perhaps Duncan’s tweet should be:

“What if I have been wrong about all this testing? What if my measure and punish education culture I’ve created has actually harmed schools?"

I won’t wait to see this Tweet; however, because it will not happen. Duncan believes in everything he’s done. Why else would someone tour the country and spend so much time promoting what they’ve done? He has repeatedly made the mistake of thinking himself a salesman instead of an education leader.

The 21st Century Principal Blog Anniversary and 1 Millionth Page View

Today, The 21st Century Principal shares two milestones: its 1 millionth page view, and its 5 year anniversary. 

About five years ago, I started this blog with the intention of sharing my own thoughts, ideas, reading, and opinions regarding the public education issues of the day. I have purposefully tried to share my own ideas about technology, teaching, and education policy, and I think I was successful. Over the years, I also think its clear I have not hidden my views because they might be deemed off limits politically. Many times, I have received messages from people who hold different views than myself who want to remind that I "must be impartial" or somehow fair. Unfortunately, that is not my intention for this blog. I'll leave being fair and balanced to the cable news channels MSNBC and Fox News. Personally, I think educators do too much deferring on political topics for fear that they might upset someone else, or maybe even hinder their chances at getting a job in the future. We must question these ideas and policies, and my job as an educator is not to blindly accept everything that comes down from the US Department of Education, nor the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. If an idea or policy can't stand up to scrutiny or criticism, it should die a quiet death, no matter who supports it. 

I have also tried to share my encounters with technology as well. Quick reviews of new software or new tablet apps have been common, as well as the occasional review of new hardware and technological devices. Over the years, I have tried to make sure that I only reviewed technology that I myself have tried, and as far as I know, I mostly did that. I know of less than a handful of situations where I reviewed items that I myself did not specifically try. This was in spite of the countless offers, which I appreciate, from companies wanting me to review their product. It's just difficult for me to honestly write about something I have not tried.

In addition to technology review and tips, I have also tried to share my own reviews of books I have read. I am an avid reader. Though I have been unable to share every item I've read, I have shared reviews of those I felt might offer educator readers something of value.  I have also tried to share my own ideas about leadership and sometimes just plain being human in the clothing of an educator.

Though lately, there haven't been as many posts on the The 21st Century Principal Blog, I assure you there will be this year. My own education in a doctoral program has consumed much of the time I used to spend blogging.  Once again, thanks to everyone who has read this blog. I look forward to sharing more during the next school year. Happy New Year to everyone!

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Arne Duncan's Proposal to Use Test Scores to Measure Teacher-Prep Program Effectiveness

Public schools have suffered under Secretary Arne Duncan's Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind law waivers. Testing, not learning has become the focus. Schools have cut arts programs and non-tested subjects. Enormous amounts of time are spent during the school year getting students ready for the tests. And, since the Obama administration took office, there are many states like North Carolina that administer a record number of state tests, and the use those results as a part of teacher evaluations. It has been this President's education policy that has done more to elevate test scores to even higher levels than under No Child Left Behind. 

Now, Arne Duncan is once again trying to elevate test scores even higher: he wants to use test scores to evaluate the effectiveness of teacher programs too.

Under Arne Duncan's latest effort to hold somebody else accountable for education except himself and politicians, Duncan now wants to create a new, massive bureaucratic procedure to judge the "effectiveness" of teacher preparations programs around the country. This behemoth proposal would bizarrely twist test scores once more in the name of accountability. As I read through this proposed procedure, I simply grow more and more angry at a President and Secretary of Education who simply have no clue as to what their "test-them-if-they-breathe" education agenda has done to schools, students, teachers, classrooms, and the future of the education profession. If you read the fine print of this massive document, you can quickly read between the lines regarding what Arne Duncan is actually proposing.

  • Using test scores, most likely value-added measures, to determine the effectiveness of teacher preparation programs that receive federal funding.
  • The development of a massive pile of red tape and bureaucratic procedures to make sure teacher preparation programs comply to the dictates of the US Department of Education.
  • An enormous overreach of federal power and powergrab by the US Department of Education.
There was a time when I would have defended the existence of the US Department of Education. Now, I am slowly beginning to feel that perhaps the best thing for public schools is for this new Congress to simply dismantle it. Has there been a single good policy or idea that has come down through this department during the Obama Administration?

I think it's perhaps time to write some letters, send emails, and make some phone calls on Duncan's bizarre plan to use test scores in yet another high stakes manner. All US educators and pre-service educators need to take some time and let the President, Secretary Duncan, Congress, and the US Department of Education know their thoughts on this one.  Otherwise, like the Race to the Top, Duncan will claim he has heard only praise for this latest effort to bend the education world to tests.

If you would like to submit your own comment or opinion, you can do so at the address below. The deadline for submitting comments is February 2, 2015. Perhaps enough educators will submit comments that it will take the US Department of Education five years to read them. 

How Schools Can Break Through the Fog of Cloud Security

Guest Post by Rachel Burger

When a school administration company goes bankrupt, what happens to the student records?

It turns out that the answer is unclear, as many school districts that used ConnectEDU Inc. discovered this year. As many as 20 million student records were sold and are now unaccounted for across the country. Joel R. Reidenberg, a law professor at Fordham and Princeton universities, told Education Week, “This is a significant red flag for the treatment of student information by education technology companies.” Moving forward, what can schools do?

The past twelve months have been difficult for cloud security. Gazing back at Heartbleed and the Apple iCloud breach, experts are already saying that more cloud data failures will be “inevitable” in 2015.

For schools, cloud security breaches pose a particularly dangerous situation.

In the United States, student personal information is taken seriously. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA) requires that schools must have a student or legal guardian’s consent before disclosing their data, including enrollment status, billing information, and education records.

Even before publishing a directory with student telephone numbers and addresses, the school must inform parents and students that such a guide exists and give these stakeholders a “reasonable amount of time” to opt out. This law applies to “educational agencies and institutions that receive funding from the U.S. Department of Education.”

This federal law has serious consequences if student data is released without the student’s consent, including the potential for a university to lose federal funding.

Aside from FERPA, a major security breach could violate the Fair Credit Reporting Act, PARCC, the USA PATRIOT Act, the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act, among dozens of other laws.

With all this in mind, schools are in a bind. Cloud-based school management software tends to be cheaper than locally-stored systems. And with schools struggling to optimize their budgets in the wake of aggressive cuts to education funding, many feel stuck. They don’t want to jeopardize their students’ secure information, but they can’t afford large, one-time software purchases (which average $4,000).

Luckily, there are some best practices to follow when opting for a cloud system.

Make sure your server is running the latest software patches and that your firmware is updated. Ask your IT administrator to set a static DNS server IP address and to disable DHCP. Make sure that all administrators have a unique login and password—that’s different from the default provided by the software. Use a secure encrypted connection like SSL or TLS. Never forget to password protect all of your devices—and make sure your passwords are strong and regularly changed.

But that is all basic cloud security protocol. When it comes to school privacy and all the security and financial risks that come with doing business over the cloud, school administrators should know the right questions to ask when considering school administration software.

According to Capterra’s IT professionals and Azreen Latiff of QuickSchools.com, school IT departments should ask their potential vendor:
  • Can you tell me about the baseline technology?
  • Do you have any enterprise customers?
  • How is our privacy safeguarded?
  • What data is encrypted?
  • What kind of encryption do you use?
  • Can you install a local instance on a school server? What about a district (as it applies)?
  • How can our school use your software to communicate with parents and guardians?
  • Who owns the data?
  • Who is authorized to view or change student data?
  • Can you provide us with references?
Naturally, your school or district might have a lower or higher risk tolerance than the next, or might be able to spend a little more on security, but every school administration software option should be compliant with local and federal laws. After so many schools suffered through major data breaches this past year, school administrators are experiencing a painful wakeup call.

As for education technology companies going bankrupt like ConnectEDU Inc., that’s not out of the question.  Joel R. Reidenberg explains, “Many ed-tech companies today are small startups, collecting lots of data. Many of them are not going to succeed. What's the protection when these companies go bankrupt?” Laws are already moving into place to protect student data, like California’s Student Online Personal Information Protection Act, but legislators have a long way to go to create meaningful policy.

School administrators need to avoid the dark clouds ahead. They should contact their current school administration software vendor and ask the abovementioned questions to make sure that, on the school’s side, their students’ information is safe. If their student’s data isn’t encrypted, if there isn’t a good way for the school to communicate with parents and guardians, and if the software doesn’t have a solid background in providing excellent service and security to other customers, it may be time to choose another option.


This post was contributed by Rachel Burger who writes for Capterra SchoolAdministration Blog.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Mac Pages Users Can Use Endnote Software for In-Text Citiations and Bibliography Generation

As an educator in a higher education doctoral programs, Endnote has become my choice for managing my bibliography, citations, and reference libraries for my graduate work. It is powerful software, even if the price tag seems a bit steep (there is student pricing however). Some of my favorite features include:

  • Being able to search online databases through the software and its auto-complete reference feature.
  • Customizable research file storage that I can make work for me.
  • Auto-Bibliography and in-text citation feature that works with my word processing software.
  • Ability to share and connect with others conducting similar research.

I have found its ability to work with Microsoft Word with in-text citations and bibliography generation to be mostly flawless. The only drawback, I also like to use Pages on my Mac, but I did not know that Endnote offered a plug-in for that word-processing software. It turns out, there is a plug in, and you can get it here. For more information about Endnote, check out their web site here.